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An old, mysterious letter gets Stanford students off their computers and into archival research

The students have little or no formal scholarly experience with old texts. "These kids like handling books. You start there," said English Professor Stephen Orgel.

L.A. Cicero Professor Stephen Orgel opens the magnificently illustrated Boydell Shakespeare 'elephant folio,' from the Stanford Libraries's collection while, from left, senior Meredith Colton, and graduate students Luke Barnhart and Jessica Beckman, at right, look on

Professor Stephen Orgel opens the magnificently illustrated Boydell Shakespeare 'elephant folio,' from the Stanford Libraries's collection while, from left, senior Meredith Colton, and graduate students Luke Barnhart and Jessica Beckman, at right, look on.

The letter in the student's hand was written in haste, long ago in England. Words are scratched out and scribbled over, and despite the courteous salutation and closing, the writer's sense of panic spills across the centuries.

Rioters had reached Hampstead Heath, and Shakespeare scholar George Steevens, the writer of the letter, had a renowned library to protect.

During the weeklong Gordon Riots of June 1780, about 285 people were shot dead, with another 200 wounded. The cause of the calamity: Lord George Gordon had inflamed the mob with fears of Popery after Parliament passed legislation to ease the discrimination against Catholics.

Steevens' letter eventually fell into the figurative hands of the Stanford University Libraries, and is now the focus of a course, History of the Book, with English Professor Stephen Orgel, a Shakespeare and Renaissance scholar. Every other year, about a dozen undergraduate and graduate students take an uncommon course in which one item of ephemera from the Stanford Libraries' Department of Special Collections is studied, annotated, supported with essays and eventually published in a work that contributes genuine scholarship to the world.

The letter wasn't the class's first choice for study. The students were initially drawn to British broadsides from the Napoleonic era, teeming with anti-French propaganda. But senior Victoria Hurst persuaded them to take another path.

"Letters are important to me – as a child I wrote letters, and I always wrote letters to my grandparents. This letter had a huge political significance," said Hurst. She won over the class.

L.A. CiceroGeorge Steevens' 1559 edition of Homer's Iliad, in Greek, from the Stanford Libraries.

George Steevens' 1559 edition of Homer's Iliad, in Greek, from the Stanford Libraries.

Steevens was a good choice for another reason: Like Steevens, Orgel is a leading Shakespeare scholar, the author of Imagining Shakespeare and The Authentic Shakespeare. It was a chance to study with a maestro.

Earlier classes had published a 47-page book studying a letter of Sophia Hawthorne, the wife of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Another class project, Jim Crow Visits the Queen, studies two early Victorian broadsheet ballads in which the eponymous character attends the coronation and wedding of Queen Victoria.

Another, The Quarters of William Stayley, discusses the display of the drawn-and-quartered body of a Catholic who was executed in 1678. The Masses said for him were seen as an abuse of the king's mercy, so the body was disinterred and displayed, with Stayley's head on London Bridge.

This year, students pored over Steevens' letter. "The rioters have made out a list of all the houses here which are inhabited by Catholics, and have even settled the business so far as to have determined which they will burn first," Steevens wrote. "One of these (though at present occupied by a Protestant family) fronts the back gate of my garden."

In the letter, Steevens apologized for his haste – he was writing "in a room full of people who pretend to bring intelligence of still further threats." But whom was he writing to? Was the letter even sent? We may never know.

L.A. CiceroStudent produce works of original scholarship in book form.  These two are from earlier 'History of the Book' classes.

Student produce works of original scholarship in book form. These two are from earlier 'History of the Book' classes.

We do know his library survived, for the Stanford Libraries has the catalog of its sale, issued a few months after Steevens' death in 1800. The 1,943 lots, listed on 125 pages, sold for a total £2,740 15s.

After that, Steevens' library was dispersed further through dealers, deaths and estate sales – and two of its books finally ended up at the Stanford Libraries. Steevens' copies of Homer's Iliad (1559) and Odyssey (1567) in Greek – tiny, elegant 3-by-5-inch books – bear his signature and an ink-stamp of his name.

"Computer technology is much more ephemeral than these," Orgel said.

Each week, John Mustain, curator of rare books at the libraries, presents the class a cart of delectable treats – Ben Jonson's Works (1616), Hartmann Schedel's The Nuremberg Chronicle (1493), 16th-century illustrated volumes of Chaucer, the gruesome Foxe's Book of Martyrs.

Orgel explains the origins of page numbering. And who knew how the first book indexes were organized? Early cookbooks and quasi-plagiarized versions of Shakespeare uncover a world before "the text" became inviolable and copyrighted.

The students have little or no formal scholarly experience. "These kids like handling books. You start there," said Orgel. "I do think it's important to get kids off the computer and handling books." He wants students to get accustomed to handling archival materials as they study the Steevens letter and the world it came from.

The students quickly learn that every copy of a book is essentially unique – with marginalia, marks of ownership, watermarks and scribbling to test a pen (early books were, at their most basic, volumes of available paper).

One of the students' first tasks is decoding the 18th-century cursive of the letter – not as easy as one might think for a generation that grew up on texting. "I have to be totally honest. It was hard for me to decipher all of the words," said senior Meredith Colton. "I'm not used to reading cursive at all – I think it's a dying form of reading for my generation."

The students make scholarly choices. Do you retain the original punctuation in transcription? "Some of you put in apostrophes – we're not correcting Steevens' grammar," Orgel noted sharply.

Orgel is tough, but he's hardly nostalgic for an earlier era. "When I need a piece of information, I Google it," he said. "I wouldn't go back." Is Google a distraction? Sure, he said, but so was the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The students reap the benefits of his tutelage: "I think one of the biggest takeaways is realizing how different things were back then. It sounds obvious, but it shows in the way they published, what they read, what interested them," Hurst said. "It appeals to a totally different type of sensibility."

In the future, she wondered, will people look at our Facebook pages, our tweets, our bestseller lists and wonder, "What were they thinking? Why did they find that so appealing?"

"I've always taken for granted the form of the book – it's the text, the page," said Colton. "But there's more to books than I ever considered before. It's always been an evolving form, and always will be. That's very timely to remember in our era, when we tend to have an apocalyptic sense of the book."

Cynthia Haven is director of communications for the English Department and its Creative Writing Program.

Media Contact

Stephen Orgel, English: (650) 723-4597, orgel@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu