Early spring of 1969 was a time in America fraught with anxiety. Richard Nixon recently had been inaugurated as President of the United States as the Vietnam War bled into another decade. It had been almost exactly one year since Martin Luther King was assassinated. It felt a bit like history was off the rails.
And then a novel appeared which gave new meaning to the idea of history becoming unhinged, while also giving an additional twist to William Faulkner’s declaration that the past is not past.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five was published in the early spring of 1969, almost exactly fifty years ago. The New York Times reviewer declared Vonnegut’s sixth novel “an extraordinary success. It is a book we need to read, and to reread.” The American Scholar compared the author to George Orwell. And Washington and Lee’s own Tom Wolfe would go on to say, “I guess he’s the closest thing we had to a Voltaire.” Appreciations commemorating the 50th anniversary of this masterpiece are beginning to appear now in early 2019, including an extraordinarily thoughtful essay in the New York Times by Kevin Powers.
Kurt Vonnegut came to Washington and Lee University in 2003, speaking in Lee Chapel on Tuesday 4 February. As far as we can tell, the only account in the Ring Tum Phi was a captioned photograph on the first page of the 10 February 2003 issue, with the great man at a table in the Southern Inn. The photo appears beneath the cryptic headline “Don’t Use Semicolons.” A more contemplative account was contributed by then-University Photographer Patrick Hinely (’73) to the Alumni Magazine.
It is not always true that public presentations at W&L by eminent visitors are preserved for future appreciation, but we got lucky with Vonnegut’s 2003 talk. Several of our librarians found a DVD recording in a box in Special Collections and others worked to “translate” that video into an Internet-friendly format. Thus, it is thanks to Tom Camden, Seth McCormick, and Paula Kiser that we are able to present video of Kurt Vonnegut at W&L in 2003. So it goes.
Many of this week’s articles on the death of renowned writer Tom Wolfe take note of the fact that he attended Washington and Lee University, graduating in 1951. (Although it does not mention his education, a personal favorite is a reminiscence by a “retired astronaut“.)
We in the University Library can offer some evidence of Mr. Wolfe’s senior year. The 1951 Calyx, the “Annual Publication of the Students of Washington and Lee University,” contains numerous examples of the young Mr. Wolfe’s achievements as a student, including his service as sports editor of the Southern Collegian, his fraternity membership (Phi Kappa Sigma), and his official senior photo (below), with an annotation listing more of his accomplishments.
He can be seen in his baseball attire (although misidentified as “Wolf” in the caption), perhaps offering an early glimpse of an interest in white clothing.
Speaking of baseball, the Ring Tum Phi‘s May 22 issue announces the upcoming game between the faculty and the varsity, with Mr. Wolfe pitching against some of his professors:
The above examples are taken from the W&L Digital Archive, which offers online access to many items from the University Library’s Special Collections. Here are links to the online items excerpted above: The 1951 Calyx and the May 22, 1951 Ring Tum Phi. (You should opt to view/open the PDF file on the left side of the page.)
Perhaps needless to say, the University Library has an extensive collection of books written by Tom Wolfe.
Fifty years ago this week one of the most famous “government documents” in modern times was published.
On 29 February 1968 the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, forever known as the Kerner Commission (for its chairman, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois), released its report on the causes of racial and economic unrest in the United States, reaching the chilling conclusion that “Our Nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The report was initially released as a free Federal Government publication and actually was reprinted commercially as a paperback and became a national best-seller, eventually out-selling the Warren Commission report on the assassination of President John Kennedy.
The W&L University Library has a printed copy of the Commission’s original release (along with a volume of supporting studies), as well as the commercially-published version. It also is available without-charge and in its entirety in Google Books.
In 2018 many news sources, such as National Public Radio, are noting the 50th anniversary of the report and calling attention to the release of a new study which seeks to update the Kerner Commission’s work for our times. The library has ordered a printed copy of this new book, Healing Our Divided Society.
[from Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders]
Finding a copy of the works of Cicero, even in Latin, is not the challenge or achievement it once might have been. Even venerable, “rare” copies are more accessible than ever. For example, large sets may be available free-of-charge online, such as the HathiTrust’s digitized copies (from Harvard University) of a set published in the 1740’s.
But sometimes particular volumes’ history make them more “rare” than others. Tom Camden, Head of Special Collections in Washington and Lee’s University Library, recently discovered the unique history of some volumes over 250 years old which makes them even more “Rare by Association.”
A new article in the Washington and Lee University website written by Tom Camden, the University Library’s Head of Special Collections and Archives, opens with these tantalizing words:
- Four years ago, one of my first-year work-study students dropped by my office to ask if he could look at the Martin Luther pieces housed in the Special Collections vault. He had found them listed in the library catalog.
Of course, I encouraged him to pull the items for viewing, with one caveat: He had to show them to me first, since I had not seen them and was not aware that Washington and Lee owned early Martin Luther items. What we discovered was nothing short of sensational.
Appearing the day before the 500th anniversary of Luther’s “95 Theses” earlier this week, Professor Camden’s Prelude to Reformation tells the fascinating story of W&L’s acquisition of four Luther works from the 16th century, an account in which the intellectual curiosity and generosity of recent graduate Joshua Duemler (’17) are justly recognized.
More information about the University Library’s Special Collections is available @ http://library.wlu.edu/specialcollections/