The Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature continues to grow
The Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Manuscripts, Images, and Ephemera has been digitized.
The collecting life and the academic life began at the same time for Dr. Joel Myerson.
“When I joined the USC faculty in 1971, the (Henry David) Thoreau section of the library was an empty space on the shelves between (Southern writers William Gilmore) Simms and (Henry) Timrod, and there was no rare book room to speak of,” said Myerson, Carolina Distinguished Professor of American Literature, Emeritus. “I do biographical and bibliographical work. Having books by the writers I study is critical to doing my scholarship, so I bought the books I needed.”
In 2003, Myerson donated those books and other valuable items to the University Libraries to create the Joel Myerson Collection of Nineteenth-Century American Literature. The collection is housed in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. In 2013, Myerson added items to the collection, including manuscripts and 19th-century photographs called cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite.
The highlight of the manuscript collection is the roughly 80 letters written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is more than any library possesses except Harvard University. The letters, spanning from 1824 through 1877, include one from Charleston, S.C., in 1827 in which Emerson complains of “men & women who have no particular pretentions to a religious character any farther than a decided hostility to Unitarianism, as ‘the Yankee religion,’”; one of 1848 to Thomas Carlyle about their meeting in London; and the manuscript of his poem “To Eva,” written to his first wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson. There are also manuscripts by Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father; Margaret Fuller; Nathaniel Hawthorne; and Walt Whitman. Together, they bring the Myerson Collection to more than 200 manuscripts and 10,000 printed volumes.
“I’ve always collected cabinets and cartes-de-visites, which were photographs used like business cards,” Myerson said. “The Myerson Collection has more than 50 of these original images of Emerson, which is more than any other library, including Harvard. Having images of these writers can determine the way we read a text. For example with Emerson, an early photo suggests a handsome young man and the vigor of his text. If you use an image of him as an old man, you get something that a student of today might not want to read.”
Other items include five caricatures by Christopher Pearse Cranch based on lines in Emerson’s writings, including Emerson as a “transparent eyeball,” a famous image of Transcendentalism; a number of posters announcing Emerson’s lectures; and the programs for Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s college commencements, listing their roles in the exercises.
To anyone considering the collecting life, Myerson’s advice is, “Find your subject, focus on it, and decide the depth of the collection you wish to assemble. Figure out if you can afford it, and if your spouse will allow you to do it. Then, buy everything! It’s an impossible task, and you'll always have the fun of looking."
Photos: Top right, Dr. Joel Myerson stands in front of a bust of Ralph Waldo Emerson by noted sculptor Daniel Chester French, part of the Myerson Collection, on display in the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections' Barrow Room in Hollings Library. From the Myerson Collection, above left, Ralph Waldo Emerson on a carte-de-visite from the mid-1850s; above right, C.P. Cranch's drawing of Emerson's "transparent eyeball" from his book Nature.