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What do Jack and the Beanstalk, John Milton, and Charles Darwin have in common?

photo of jenna lay reviewing books with students in class

Counted among the many classes Special Collections hosted this year were three English seminars encompassing a series of diverse themes: Early Modern English Literature, banned books, and fairy tales. In addition to being offered by the same Lehigh department, these classes shared a common bond. Each one took advantage of the wealth of resources available in Special Collections, and the opportunity to introduce students to primary source materials.

In March, Professor Jenna Lay brought her graduate seminar, English 441, Early Modern Literature, to examine early editions of the texts they had been reading in class. These young scholars were able to better understand the history of reading, as marks of early ownership and readers were evident in many of the texts they consulted. In addition to the primary authors assigned to the class, including selected works of Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, and Dryden, students also had the opportunity to consult other works from the period which helped to contextualize their readings. An edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia vniversalis (Basle: Henricus Petri, 1545), which includes maps of the globe, Europe, England, the New World, and Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum orbis terrarum (Antwerp: 1571) helped students to understand the world as it was known during the time the literary greats lived. First printed in 1570 and considered to be the first modern atlas, Ortelius’ atlas went through dozens of editions in multiple languages. Incorporated into this class were the opulent hand-colored 1606 edition in English, and the 1624 edition.

Students in this graduate seminar continued their journey through Special Collections with a look at additional travel books and atlases, including Richard Eden’s The history of trauayle in the West and East Indies (London: R. Jugge, 1577) and Richard Hakluyt’s The principall navigations, voiages and discoveries of the English nation, made by sea or ouer land, to the most remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth at any time within the compasse of these 1500 yeeres (London: G. Bishop and R. Newberie, 1589), which is credited with stimulating interest in travel and travel narratives during the period. Perhaps of greatest interest to the class was Lehigh’s copy of Peter Heylyn’s Cosmographie (London: Henry Seile, 1652), which includes a list of imaginary places (p. 195), including many discussed in this seminar.

Also in March, Jennifer Hyest, a graduate student and instructor in the English Department, brought her undergraduate students in English 197, “Reading Banned Books”, to learn about Special Collections through a close examination of early editions of the “banned books” they were to read in class this semester. Included were books that have been labeled at some point in time as obscene, or blasphemous. Students considered the controversy that surrounded each title, and looked carefully at Special Collections to determine whether these original editions shed any light on their original reception. Students were asked the following: Are books dangerous? Is reading a radical act? Students were introduced to Special Collections as they studied titles considered to be controversial at times, including James Joyce’s Ulysses; Jack London’s The Call of the Wild; Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man; Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaugand Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, among others.

Finally, in early April, students in Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno’s fairy tales seminar were introduced to Special Collections with a look at illustrated editions of some classic tales. Fairy tales, most closely associated with children’s literature, are often illustrated by well-known artists and illustrators whose work brings these classic tales to life. In this class, which had an emphasis on visual culture, students reviewed Limited Editions Club versions of Jack and the Beanstalk and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, among others.

In all cases, students benefited from the experience of handling special editions of familiar works, and working with texts centuries old. It is our hope that these visits inspire them to pursue research projects for either formal classes or simply personal enrichment in Special Collections. If you would like to schedule a class visit to Special Collections or simply get to know us and our collections, please contact either Lois F. Black, Curator of Special Collections, or Ilhan Citak, Archives and Special Collections Librarian at inspc@lehigh.edu.