By: Amy Chen, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow
From September through January 2015, Wade Hall’s Library: The Poetry of History is on display in the Pearce Foyer of the Gorgas Library. Curated by Amy H. Chen and designed by Muzel Chen, the technologist of the Alabama Digital Humanities Center, this exhibition explores the books collected by Wade Hall, a major donor to the University Libraries and the Division of Special Collections.
Wade Hall’s library allows researchers to see the full flowering of American writing through nearly 17,300 titles that date from 1779 through the 1990s. These books encompass a wide range of genres, including poetry, prose, travel narratives, religious tracts, abolitionist material, government documents, and cookbooks.
His holdings in the field of Southern literature alone include books by antebellum and reconstruction-era humorists, Kentucky authors, writers he took as subjects for his literary criticism, and poets he met and published as a result of his time editing the Kentucky Review.Notably, authors who never received critical attention sit on shelves beside many of the field’s most canonical names.
Wade Hall’s library is not significant only for the many types of texts it contains; it also is consequential for its ability to represent the history of print culture. Hall gathered a few Confederate imprints alongside a much larger number of volumes published in the North during the Civil War. Furthermore, he compiled extensive holdings in publishers’ bindings and pulps. Publishers’ bindings are cloth-bound books without duct jackets that were popular with middle-class readers from the middle of the nineteenth through the first few decades of the twentieth century. Working-class readers during the middle of the twentieth century primarily chose to read pulps, books that were made with low-quality paper. Hall’s large number of publishers’ bindings and pulps show that Hall invested his resources into portraying the preferences of lower and middle-class Americans.
For this reason, the books Hall found interesting were not necessarily those belonging to important and wealthy people, but rather copies of texts that were read, treasured, and widely circulated.