Houghton Library, Harvard’s principal rare book and special collections library and one of the world’s premier research institutions, marks its 75th anniversary this year. Celebrations, held throughout 2017, include a collaboration with the Harvard Film Archive on a series of seven screenings, five this spring and two in the fall. Since Houghton opened in 1942, the library’s holdings have been the basis for countless significant projects, from academia to Hollywood—a fact that is hardly surprising, given the range and depth of the library’s world-renowned collections. What may surprise some is the library’s close ties with popular culture. The Houghton at 75 screening series features films inspired by the library’s collections—from the “semi-final draft” manuscript of Billy Budd (one item in the library’s incomparable Melville collection), to Emily Dickinson’s hand-sewn “fascicles” of her poetry manuscripts, to various drafts of The Miracle Worker, for both the stage and film versions, in the William Gibson archive.
A Houghton curator will introduce each film, describing the specific holdings on which the film is based, as well as to set the larger literary, political or historical context.Film and collection descriptions by David Pendleton and Dennis Marnon.
Houghton Library is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a year-long series of events, including exhibitions, film screenings, and open houses. For more information, visit houghton75.org.
Special thanks: Ed Arentz, Roy Andreotti, Bianca Costello—Music Box Films; Sol Papadopoulos—Hurricane Films.
Directed by Arthur Penn. With Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Victor Jory
US 1962, 35mm, b/w, 106 min
William Gibson’s teleplay The Miracle Worker,based on the early education of Helen Keller under the tutorship of Anne Sullivan, originally aired on February 7, 1957. Arthur Penn directed both the broadcast and its Broadway version. Gibson himself adapted the play for the movie version, bringing renewed acclaim to himself and Penn. The film beautifully captures the tenderness and terror that united Keller and Sullivan, played with great sensitivity and power by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.
The Harvard Theatre Collection, a department of Houghton Library, acquired in 2013 the William Gibson archive, which documents the full career of this American playwright and fiction writer (1914-2008). This archive contains heavily revised typescripts from every step of the play’s evolution from telescript to stage script to movie screenplay. Included in The Miracle Worker folders are a two-page typescript of Helen Keller’s notes and corrections to the play and a letter (1957) from Keller to Gibson, thanking him for his work. Print courtesy Park Circus.
Directed by Terence Davies. With Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle, Keith Carradine
Belgium/US 2016, DCP, color, 126 min
Continuing his ongoing series of films about women confronting the constricted place allowed them in the 19th and early 20th centuries (after The House of Mirth and Sunset Song), Terence Davies presents his most unconventional protagonist yet in this biopic of Emily Dickinson, which spans her life from adolescence to death. Davies, always attuned to the rich inner lives of solitary figures, presents Dickinson without any veneer of charm or pity but rather as an artist of striking originality and indomitable strength.
In May 1950, Gilbert Montague, Harvard Class of 1901, gave to Houghton Library, in memory of his wife, the Emily Dickinson Collection of papers and artifacts that had been passed down through the poet’s immediate family. The collection includes autographed poems, letters, family papers, and the family library. A special room on the second floor of the library is furnished with family portraits, Emily Dickinson’s square piano, other Dickinson homestead furniture, and the chair and desk from her bedroom, where Dickinson (1830-86) wrote her poetry. Print courtesy Music Box Films.
See the desk where Dickinson wrote her poems before watching A Quiet Passion. The Emily Dickinson Room at Houghton Library will be open to the public for a special pre-movie viewing from 5.45pm to 6:45pm. Learn about Houghton Library’s Dickinson Collection from Heather Cole, Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts. The library is located across the street from the Harvard Film Archive.
Directed by Jane Campion. With Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw, Paul Schneider
UK/Australia/France 2009, 35mm, color, 119 min. English and French with English subtitles
The yearning spirit of the English Romantic poets infuses this biopic of John Keats, which focuses on his love affair with Fanny Brawne. Jane Campion has given repeated proof of her ability to bring the 19th century to the screen without resorting to cliché, and the soulful exchanges between Keats and Brawne—he gives her passion, she gives him depth—are audaciously felt.
Of the 126 poetry manuscripts that survive in John Keats’ hand, ninety-one are part of the Keats Collection at Houghton Library. Of the 251 letters by Keats (1795-1821) that are known, eighty-six in his hand are held by Harvard, along with another twenty-four letters in contemporary transcripts of now-lost originals, making the library’s Keats Collection the single largest repository for the poet’s letters. Among the original letters in the collection are thirteen to Fanny Brawne, written in 1819 and 1820, their content being in large part the basis for Bright Star. Most of these letters come from two donors: the poet Amy Lowell, who bequeathed her famous Keats collection to Harvard in 1925, and Arthur Houghton, Harvard Class of 1929, who gave Harvard his spectacular Keats holdings, as well as the special room and the library that now house them. Also in the collection is a contemporary transcript, made by a close friend, of Keats’ sonnet written for Fanny Brawne, which begins “Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art.” Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Gaze upon the Keats life mask before watching Bright Star. The Keats Room at Houghton Library will be open to the public for a special pre-movie viewing from 5.45pm to 6:45pm. Learn about Houghton Library’s Keats Collection from Leslie Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts. The library is located across the street from the Harvard Film Archive.
Directed by Peter Ustinov. With Terence Stamp, Peter Ustinov, Robert Ryan
US 1962, 35mm, b/w, 123 min
Actor Peter Ustinov directed, produced, starred in, and adapted from a Broadway play this version of Herman Melville's tale of treachery in the eighteenth-century British navy. Using a great deal of dialogue from the book, Ustinov maintains the ambiguity at the heart of Melville’s allegory about the constant tension between justice and the law, particularly under military pressure. Like many films directed by actors, Billy Budd owes a great deal of its impact to its performances. The angelic Billy is played by a blond Terence Stamp in his film debut, while Ustinov himself is man o’ war Captain Vere, forced to try the naïve Billy for the accidental murder of evil master-at-arms Claggart, played with staggering authority by Robert Ryan, who had long coveted the role.
Herman Melville (b. 1819) worked on the composition of Billy Budd from 1886 until his death in 1891. The manuscript was preserved in the family for decades (in a tin breadbox, according to family tradition) until it was edited for publication in 1924 in the Constable edition of The Works of Herman Melville. Written in obscurity, considered unfinished by his widow, and left unpublished for thirty-three years, Billy Budd is now regarded as a masterpiece and holds a place second only to Moby-Dick in the Melville canon. The manuscript, along with other Melville literary papers, publishing agreements, letters, journals and family papers, was placed on deposit at Harvard in the early 1930s by Melville’s granddaughter and literary executrix, Eleanor Melville Metcalf, and then given by her in 1937. In 1942, the year Houghton Library opened, Mrs. Metcalf made an additional gift of more than 100 books from Melville’s library, inscribed copies of his own works, corrected proof-sheets of several works, and presentation copies of the works of other authors. The Melville collection at Houghton Library is the richest and most varied resource for the study of this American author.
Directed by Edward Zwick. With Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes
US 1989, 35mm, color, 122 min
At the crest of the Boston Common, facing the State House, is a monument to the Civil War’s 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first US Army unit composed entirely of African American troops, and its (white) commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Glory tells the inspiring and intensely moving story of the formation of this unit and its combat record. While the film never fully escapes the trap of the “white savior narrative,” it also affords screen time to an extraordinary ensemble of African American actors.
Houghton Library holds the principal collection of letters (more than 200) written by Shaw, Harvard Class of 1860, to his strongly abolitionist family during his Civil War service. Shaw was appointed in March 1863 colonel of the 54th regiment of Massachusetts infantry, the first African-American unit from a Northern state to serve in the war. Shaw and more than half his regiment died in the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, July 18, 1863. Presented in 1975 by descendants of Shaw’s sister, Ellen, the collection has been a primary resource for several recent biographies of Shaw. The letters drew interest from around the world after the appearance of Glory, which includes a full-screen credit to Houghton Library.