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A Special Collections exhibition titled "The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations" was on view from May 1996 through March 1997, and has been reconstituted as this online exhibit...

Paradise Lost

In what ways have such classic works as the Bible and the plays of William Shakespeare been presented to a loyal readership over the centuries? How have the works of the ancient Greeks and Romans been transmitted through the millennia, and why do they continue to hold such potency and relevance? How has the vivid imagery of Dante's Divine Comedy been depicted and interpreted from the middle ages to the present? Would Milton's Paradise Lost have entered the canon of western literature without the untiring promotional efforts of its principal publisher? Why do works such as Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin continue to hold secure positions as American literary classics? Would James Joyce's Ulysses have remained an obscure modernist novel without the censorship issues that surrounded it?

These are some of the questions addressed by a major exhibition entitled "The Classic Text: Traditions and Interpretations," that was on view in the Fourth Floor Exhibition Gallery of the Golda Meir Library from May 1996 through March 1997. This exhibit was redesigned as a Web exhibit in 1997.

The exhibition of over 130 books, manuscripts, and prints, drawn principally from the library's Special Collections, is concerned less with the literary merits of the great standard classics, than it is with the text as cultural icon, offering insight into the question of what becomes a classic most, and why. The establishment of the Great Books Program at UWM is the most recent affirmation that certain works in the western tradition have moved far beyond their original literary intent, becoming symbols of cultural identification and reliquaries of the collective western consciousness. The exhibition examines some of the high spots of the western literary canon. It explores the foundations of their iconographic standing, demonstrating how they arrive at this status through a variety of means, and not always on the basis of their literary worth. The exhibition gives special focus to how printers, publishers, editors, illustrators, and translators have used the icon of the classic text as a venue for their own agendas.

Represented in the exhibit are ancient texts, from the Bible to the works of Greek and Roman writers, such as Homer, Aristophanes, Virgil, and Ovid; the work of medieval and early renaissance authors, such as St. Augustine, Dante, and Chaucer; titles from the early modern period such as the works of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queen, and John Milton's Paradise Lost; and works from later modern authors, including James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, and James Joyce's Ulysses.

City of God

Examples of materials on display include Aldus Manutius's 1502 production of Ovid's Metamorphoses, featuring Aldus's innovative and newly-introduced italic typeface; a 1516 polyglot psalter that includes the first biographical sketch of Christopher Columbus and an account of his discoveries; rare copies of the second (1632) and fourth (1645) folio editions of the works of William Shakespeare; the first illustrated edition of Milton's Paradise Lost (1688), as well as the sumptuous 1937 Golden Cockerel Press edition with original wood engravings by Mary Groom; the Limited Editions Club production of Aristophanes's Lysistrata with original etchings by Pablo Picasso (1934); the first printing of James Joyce's Ulysses in "The Little Review" (1918), along with original letters from Joyce, Ezra Pound, and Sylvia Beach from the UWM Archives' records of The Little Review, and the 1935 Limited Editions Club production of Ulysses with original copperplate etchings by Henri Matisse, one of only 250 copies signed by both the author and the artist. Also featured in the exhibition is the beautifully rubricated 1473 edition of St. Augustine's De civitate dei (City of God), printed by Gutenberg's successor Peter Schoeffer. This copy was placed on loan from Whitefish Bay Public Library at the Golda Meir Library's Special Collections until 1999 to provide an appropriate environment for preservation, and to ensure secure access to the volume by students and scholars. It was acquired by Marquette University, Milwaukee, in March 1999.

"The Classic Text" is the work of many hands. Under the curatorial direction of Special Collections Librarian Max Yela, the exhibition was researched and prepared by Special Collections interns: Christopher Barth (classical literature, St. Augustine, Dante, Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton), a graduate student in the Department of History and the School of Library and Information Science, and Sarah McDaniel (the Bible, Cooper, Stowe, Hawthorne, and Joyce), a graduate student in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature and the School of Library and Information Science. The section on William Shakespeare was prepared by Dr. Virginia Haas of UWM's Department of English and Comparative Literature, and Senior Editor for the New Variorum Shakespeare project based at the Golda Meir Library.


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©2001 University of Wisconsin--Milwaukee -- All Rights Reserved.
Prepared by Christopher Barth, Virginia Haas, and Sarah McDaniel

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