The Magic of Marginalia

Feb 13, 2018

The University of Virginia’s main library is preparing for a major renovation, and while the work is going on many books will be stored in a new location.  A few will be digitized or sent to special collections, and the older ones have been checked for surprising contents. Sandy Hausman has that story.

Will Ferguson, Matt Boehler, I-Jen Fang, Kristen Wojcik and Garrick Zoeter rehearse for a performance of Victory Hall's Marginalia.

Andrew Stauffer is a professor of English at UVA and an expert on 19th century American literature, so he’s spent many years paging through books published in the 1800’s. Some were donated to the university by the original owners who left traces of their own lives inside.

“Recording deaths of children, sometimes inserting things like locks or hair or pressed flowers, handwritten letters from the 19th century that are in those books and just have sat there on the shelves ever since,” he says.

There are fashionable antebellum clothes for paper dolls, drawings and marginalia --  intriguing notes written in the margins.

“Here we have a confederate soldier sketching the disposition of troops around the river at Camp Curtis at Land’s End," Stauffer says, studying a book now on display at the Small Special Collections Library.  "This is in 1862, so this book was actually carried by a soldier.  This is a brother remembering his brother who drowned at Tybee Island in 1881.  This was his textbook when he was at the University of Virginia, and so he’s written a kind of memorial to his brother on the end leaf there.”

At the time those things were written and drawn, books were treasures.  There were no movies, television or radio. “This is also the century in which literacy rose," Stauffer explains.  "The middle class kind of became a class of readers, and so this is the great age of the book.  Books were it!”

Reluctant to let these works go without further inspection, Stauffer organized a project he called Book Traces.

“In a copy of Shakespeare a reader had traced her hand," he recalls.  "It felt like that hand was reaching out from the past in a way, and so that tracing, I think, cemented the name for me.”

With a grant of $250,000 and dozens of student volunteers, the project went through a hundred thousand books, cataloging what they found, creating a blog and a website.  But that’s not the end of the story. 

Brenda Paterson, who helped found Charlottesville’s Victory Hall Opera, heard about Book Traces and was inspired.

“Anyone who’s ever opened a book and had a photo fall out or a recipe from your grandmother knows that feeling of these kind of messages in a bottle," she says. "These things that might have been sitting there, dormant for decades, suddenly falling into the hands they were meant to fall into, and there’s a magic to that.  For whatever reason, music helps us feel that magic really profoundly.”

She suggested that the company commission and perform a song cycle.

“It was a Beethoven’s idea and then many people after that to link several songs together thematically and musically, and so therefore it’s called cycle,” says singer and composer Matt Boehler.  He wrote a modern 45-minute cycle for Victory Hall.

“This piece has everything to do with the past and how it resonates with our present," he explains. "Most of this was during the Civil War, so these things were being experienced at a time of great tribulation, much like where we are right now.”

There was, he says, a lot of material to review. “The process was in some ways like seeing a thousand shards of beautifully colored stained glass on the floor and having to make a mosaic out of it.”

And it was a powerful experience going through what UVA found in its 19th century books.

“People lived and loved and experienced every human emotion just as we do now, and what is so interesting is to look at these very, very intimate materials.  I mean you feel voyeuristic looking into these private areas of these people’s lives that they left in these books.”

Despite the scope and diversity of Book Traces, Brenda Paterson says Boehler’s modern composition works.

“Music and especially opera and song can uniquely express different states of consciousness, can play with time, can play with place, memory, inner thoughts, outer expressions.  All of these things can happen simultaneously.  Anyone who’s ever heard a Mozart opera and heard an ensemble in which four different characters are singing about four different things, but somehow you can understand them all at once.” 

Victory Hall will perform Marginalia Sunday at 8 in the McGregor Reading Room of UVA’s main library – a place some call the Harry Potter Room.

“It seems like voices could come out of the books themselves,” Boehler says.

There’s limited seating and the show is sold out, but you can get on a waiting list by writing to contact@victoryhallopera.org.

And here are a couple of excerpts from the new song cycle Marginalia.