Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
When museum workers catalogue objects, assessing damage is of vital importance: how has an object been scratched, dented, stained, and cracked over decades of use, and what can we do to ensure it will be preserved for future generations? Damage often reveals important events in an object’s life, as in the case of the Complete Works of Charles Dickens, on view in the Boys’ Bedroom of the Eudora Welty House.
These soot- and mud-stained volumes, with burnt covers and cracked spines, first belonged to Welty’s mother, Chestina. Chestina’s parents once begged her to get a haircut, as they feared that “long thick hair…would sap a child’s strength.” Chestina refused until her father offered to purchase the Dickens set. As Welty later wrote in One Writer’s Beginnings, Chestina “sank like a hedonist into novels…she read Dickens with a spirit like she would have eloped with him.” Chestina grew so fond of the books that she read them underneath her bed by candlelight.
After her marriage to Christian Welty, the couple’s rental house on North Street in Jackson caught fire. As Welty recounted, Chestina would not allow her prized possession to burn: “Mama broke loose from all hands and ran back, on crutches too, into the burning house to rescue her set of Dickens which she flung, all twenty-four volumes, from the window before she jumped out after them, all for Daddy to catch.”
Thanks to Chestina’s determination and daring, Eudora Welty grew up inspired by works like Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, a literary legacy passed from mother to daughter. Welty wondered if she would ever have the courage to enter a burning house, and save her favorite childhood series, called Our Wonder World. Uncertain of her own daring, Welty admitted that “the only comfort was to think that I could ask my mother to do it for me.”
What favorite books would you save from a fire?