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Thompson Library celebrates American literature collection with exhibition

"From Author to Reader: Charvat at 50" is on display in the Thompson Library. Credit: Courtesy of Katie Senge

“From Author to Reader: Charvat at 50” is on display in the Thompson Library. Credit: Courtesy of Katie Senge

The Thompson Library Gallery will open its doors to a new exhibit Wednesday that, in turn, will open doors for research and utilization of Special Collections to the Ohio State community.

“From Author to Reader: Charvat at 50,” celebrates the 50th anniversary of the naming of the William J. Charvat Collection of American Literature.

Charvat was considered one of the most renowned critics of American literature in his time. He came on as an English professor at OSU in 1944. In 1961, the literature collection was started under his direction and in 1966, after his death, it was named in his honor.

The exhibit curators are Jolie Braun, assistant professor and curator of American Literature; Jen Schnabel, an assistant English professor and librarian at Thompson;  and Dr. Eric Johnson, associate professor and curator of the OSU Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. The portion of the literature collection from 1901-1925 are rivaled only by the Library of Congress, according to the university libraries website.

“If you want to do American fiction and get a really good sense of the broad scope and broad sweep of American literature and, predominantly American fiction, you’ve got us and the Library of Congress, and we’re probably your best go-to places for printed, published material,” Johnson said.

Charvat was particularly interested in the process behind the production of literature, and the exhibit is based on the life cycle of the book.

“All of these archival collections are great because they let you get into the author’s head and see that process,” Johnson said. “ It doesn’t matter how good your critical edition that you might be reading for class is that explains things, you cannot see that process at work the same way you can through archival stuff.”

The authors featured in the exhibit include Raymond Carver, James Ellroy, Herman Melville, Paul Powers and William S. Burroughs.

Burroughs is most commonly associated with beat culture of the 1950s and ‘60s. Later in his career, he started doing work with the cut-up technique, where he would take his own writing and other people’s writing, cut it up and rework it.

“He has three novels he wrote using cut-ups. One of them, you can see the final product, is called ‘Nova Express.’” Braun said.  “And then we framed three non-consecutive pages from his draft, and you can actually see the little blocks of text and it’s a really visceral way of getting to experience what that process is.”

In the exhibit, visitors can use iPads to create their own cutups.

Also included in the exhibit is Paul Powers, who wrote novels and short stories for pulp fiction magazines, inexpensive fiction magazines with often sensational storylines that were popular in the early to mid-1900s.

“This was what people were reading. Forget Ernest Hemingway, forget F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of these huge names, they were very successful but for every reader they had, there were a dozen readers for the pulp fiction magazines, ” Johnson said. “So what America truly was reading was Paul Powers, just no one knows that.”

Sometimes pulp writers were given an image and told to write a story based on the image. The exhibit includes some posters of these images and invites visitors to come up with title ideas for them.

Braun and Johnson said they hope that the exhibit can act as an invitation for students to explore and make use of Special Collections.

“What’s on display is not even the tip of the iceberg,” Johnson said. “It’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg of what we have in this collection, so if people are interested in anything, there’s so much more to see.”

One comment

  1. William Charvat was a remarkable man, a dedicated scholar and a wonderful father. Well all miss him.

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