Several years ago, I was visiting my parents for Christmas in my hometown in Maine. My family has lived in this small rural town since the early 19th century. One day, my father mentioned that he had to pay a visit to a local library where he was helping several volunteers with upkeep. I had vague memories of this small library one town over, as my great grandmother had lived in the few rooms attached to it, and she had sometimes taken care of my brother and me there when we were very little. I offered to come along with my father, and my husband also tagged along.
When we arrived, I had a surge of memories of the time I had spent in this space as a child. I remembered the wooden cabinet, built into the wall of the parlor, where my grandmother kept cream pitchers she collected. Some were tiny, some large, some shaped like cows, or birds, or delicately decorated with roses, or emblazoned with the names of various states, and they all had fascinated me. Then we stepped into the library itself, and I was amazed. I hadn’t remembered that this was a substantial space, full of shelf after shelf of books. My father explained that this library had been created by one of our distant relatives, a minister who brought many of these books when he moved from Philadelphia in the late 18th century. His descendants had continued to amass a personal library, much of which was later donated to the town and moved into this space, which had originally been a woodshed.
As I wandered among the shelves, I started randomly pulling out volumes, and I was in for another surprise. Many of the books were stunningly beautiful. The incongruity between the plainness of the bare-bones wooden room and the luxurious covers of many of these books was uncanny. My husband and I came back with our camera the next day and began taking photos of some of the most elegant covers. In all, we took more than 150 photos, and for years, I wondered what to do with this repository. Then, after being selected as the new Chair of the English Department, I noticed that there were a number of blank walls in the English Department. In consultation with Dr. Radcliffe, who was acting Chair, as well as Susan Burns and Sharon Rose-Davis, who are staff of the English department, I gradually selected a group of images to convert into posters. Here are the ones we ultimately chose:
It became clear as I worked on this project that though the book collection in the library was a treasure trove, it did not do justice to the range of literature we teach in the English Department. There were few female authors and no African American authors or other authors of color to be found there. I began to research other avenues for locating interesting book covers, and in the process, I learned about the designers of book and magazine covers during the Harlem Renaissance, including Aaron Douglas. He produced many of the images for the magazine, The Crisis, which published many of the Harlem Renaissance’s renowned writers. Douglas seems to have inspired Mexico’s Miguel Covarrubias, who made the image for Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues you’ll see hanging in the Graduate Lounge. Online research, a visit to a great used bookstore in Bucks County, and the generosity of my colleague Joseph Lennon, who lent me his copy of Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s Nobel lecture, Crediting Poetry, rounded out the collection of books that are represented on the walls of the English Department.