Literary Places: The Morgan Library & Museum in New York City

My mom, who lives in Manhattan, has the best life. She’s out and about five nights out of seven (conservative estimate), partaking of all the city has to offer. Lucky for me, she’s generous with her time and recommendations. She’ll phone me up and say, “There’s a fascinating [insert event] about [insert (obscure) topic] at [insert institution]. Would you like to join me?”

This familiar scenario took a turn for the thrilling on Sunday, when she phoned me up to say, “Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is on display at The Morgan Library. Would you like to go see it with me?” After I spluttered unintelligibly from sheer euphoria and confusion (how did I not know this?!), we made our plans. And yes, as a matter of fact, she will use this event to remind me that I should always, always listen to my mother. She’s not wrong.

The Manuscript (capital M!) is on display through January 10 in Pierpont Morgan’s library, a room of wall-to-wall books. Gorgeous, beautiful, old books. It’s basically heaven, for readers. Here is a close up of what surrounds you in the library:

Now times that by a lot (and more)

This is the display I spent the most time in front of: the A Christmas Carol manuscript. You can read exactly what this page says at the Morgan Library’s website. Meanwhile, Dickens wrote the novel in 1843 over the course of six weeks. Six. Weeks. To write a book that has come to define Christmas for over 150 years.

Cue the choir of angels

The placard under the book explains that his edits introduced more active verbs and pruned unnecessary words. I feel so vindicated, as “use active verbs” is my personal writing (and teaching writing) mantra. I also think it’s worth noting that, yes, readers and critics, Dickens did actually prune his prose, those 25-line sentences notwithstanding.

Next is a tidbit I found quite interesting: a letter from Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray to his friend Jane Brookfield, in which he describes seeing “the great Dickens with his wife, his children, [and] his Miss Hogarth all looking abominably coarse, vulgar, and happy and bound to Bonchurch.” Well then.

Letter from Thackery
Understandably, Brookfield crossed out the offending passages after his death.

Other treasures on display include this lovely book of nursery rhymes that featured an illustration for Little Jack Horner.

So lovely!
So lovely!

This illustration of a fight sequence in Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers also enchants:

Alexander Dumas

Here is a Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 Captains Courageous, about a spoiled American teenager who falls from a luxury liner and ends up on a Gloucester schooner (the plot description makes me smile with my eyes):


Kipling apparently took a “method writing” approach. According to the placard, his friend James Conland, a physician and former fisherman, helped him haul coal, dine with sailors, and gut cod so Kipling could get a feel for the work.

And here is a Christmas wish from poet Robert Burns!

Robert Burns

Besides seeing the original manuscript of the book I’ve probably read more times than any other, my favorite moment was standing at the entrance to this vault:


After waiting in line, I stepped up to the door and a bountiful wave of old book smell washed over me. And yet, I resisted the impulse to vault myself over the barrier and hug all the books. Well done, me!

If you get a chance, The Morgan Library (225 Madison Avenue) is a magical literary space. Browse the exhibits, marvel at these priceless relics of human creativity, and definitely bring a book of your own, whether to read or write in – there’s a lovely spot for to read, reflect, and drink coffee.

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