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Hidden literary gems

MU’s Special Collections offers buried treasures

August 4, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST

MU’s Head of Special Collections and archivist Michael Holland unsheathes a 14th century Bible from its protective case to display the book’s elaborate Gaelic pen work. “Objects are just objects if they don’t inspire people,” Holland says. He fondly recalls when a freshman visited the collection several years ago and asked to see Galileo’s Dialog on microfilm. Holland rendered the student awestruck when he retrieved a 500-year-old copy of the book. The young woman sat in the reading room for almost an hour and paged through the text.

From ancient manuscripts to rare Brontë writings and comic strips by MU alums, the library’s collection encompasses a wide breadth of treasures to explore.

The oldest tome

Tucked away on the fourth floor of Ellis Library is a treasure that is almost 900 years old: Priscianus’ De Constructione. A German monk transcribed Priscianus’ fifth century original version in 1150 A.D. MU purchased the book in 1967. Holland is enthusiastic about the collection’s oldest book, though he admits its subject matter — Latin grammar — is “deadly dull.”

Holland excitedly points out the book’s intricate details with a gloved finger. Paragraphs did not exist when the book was written, so a letter decorated with red ink denotes the beginning of each new idea, and a larger red letter indicates the beginning of a chapter. Instead of italics, words in another language all appear in red ink. And don’t even bother looking for page numbers: They hadn’t been invented yet, either.

The book’s calligraphy is so precise it looks more like a computer-generated font than handwriting. A monk created straight rows to write on with a pizza cutter-esque device called a pricker that created a guide for the scribe. Margins were made by pressing indentations onto the pages. Holland estimates the entire process of transcribing a book like De Constructione would take a monk approximately five to eight months.

Encyclopedia botanical

For those who would rather page through a picture book than pore over a difficult-to-read text, the collection offers physician Leonhart Fuchs’ 1542 illustrated book of plants titled De Historia Stirpium. The book includes sketches of more than 100 plants that had never been recorded before that time, including pumpkin and maize. Fuchs compiled information about the plants from the works of Greek scientists Dioscorides, Pliny and Galen. At the time, little was known about plants from the Americas, so no text accompanies their illustrations.

MU’s copy, which was donated by Friends of the Library in 1963, is especially rare because it is one of only 50 copies that feature illustrations that were hand-colored under Fuchs’ direction. Only a few of these copies exist today. Holland’s favorite detail of the book, besides the book’s depiction of a pumpkin, is a drawing of Fuchs with a disproportionately large head — which Holland says might be a symbol of his supposed intelligence. Not completely arrogant, Fuchs did thank the book’s illustrators and even included drawings of the artists’ (normal-sized) profiles.

Small wonder

Special Collections is also home to a tiny early manuscript by Charlotte Brontë, author of Jane Eyre. The manuscript includes two stories, “The Secret” and “Lily Hart,” which were written by Brontë in 1833 when she was 17. Measuring only 41/2 inches long and 3 inches wide, the text contains an amazing 19,000 words. Historians speculate that the Brontës (sisters Anne and Emily were also writers) wrote in such small script in order to hide their writings from their aunt and father, both of whom were very religious.

One of Bronte’s childhood friends once observed, “[Brontë] wished [her writing] to look as much like print as possible.”

After Brontë’s death in 1855, her husband, Arthur Nicholls, gained possession of the manuscripts. Forty years later, Nicholls sold the manuscripts to collector Clement Shorter who later published them in a book about the Brontës. In 1915, Shorter turned the manuscripts over to a book dealer, and their whereabouts were unknown until 1973 when they were found in the belongings of Evelyn Wadsworth Symington, wife of Missouri Senator Stuart Symington. Two years later, Symington and his son, Rep. James W. Symington, donated the rare manuscripts to MU.

These small wonders from a big literary force can also be digitally viewed on the Special Collections Web site at

From the cave to the page

V.T. Hamlin, creator of the comic strip Alley Oop, attended MU in 1920, albeit for only one semester. Being a college drop-out didn’t hurt Hamlin’s career, though. In 1930, Hamlin came up with the idea for the caveman comic, which he originally called Oop the Mighty. Hamlin wasn’t satisfied with his drawing, and he destroyed it.

In 1931, he revamped the caveman and his dinosaur pal, and Alley Oop was born. Hamlin worked on Alley Oop until 1973, when his assistant David Graue took over. The popular prehistoric character still graces newspapers every Sunday.

Hamlin’s daughter Theodora Dewalt donated the collection to MU in December 1990. Hamlin died three years later. Through a donation by Hamlin’s family, Special Collections is home to the Alley Oop comics from 1932 to 1997. In addition to the 126 original cartoons (some of them sketches Hamlin did while still in high school), there are 436 personal and professional photographs of Hamlin along with his correspondence.

The V.T. Hamlin collection of comics is just part of MU’s comic art collection. The comic art collection began in 1989 with a donation of 257 underground comics from MU library staff member Alan Jones. It also features works by Beetle Bailey creator Mort Walker (an MU alum) and Boots and Her Buddies creator Edgar E. Martin. In total, the collection houses more than 2,000 comic books.

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