Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Looking Back

Rockwell Kent. Plattsburgh State Art Museum. Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton. Copyright 1930, R.R. Connelley & Sons, Inc and the Plattsburgh College Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

Well, as I write this, Manifold Greatness is coming down, making way in the Folger’s Great Hall for the next exhibition. I’m in Columbus, but I can imagine the Bibles and books being carefully carried back down to their usual resting places in the Folger vaults. The couriers are sealing up loan items to transport them back to their homes at the Library of Congress, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Graceland (Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc.), the Bodleian Library, Lambeth Palace, and elsewhere. The Hamlin Family Bible will find its way back to me. The ever-resourceful Caryn Lazzuri will no doubt find a storage space for the antique radio she scrounged up for the exhibition, and the pulpit and pew we borrowed from the Lutheran Church of the Reformation will be returned.

It’s been a remarkable experience planning, making, mounting, and writing and talking about Manifold Greatness. Thinking back on how much it involved is almost dizzying. And I’ve learned so much. I remember coming (online) upon the John Alden Bible at Pilgrim Hall, for instance, and how exciting it was to think that this might have been the first King James Bible in America. We almost got a Bible owned by Bob Marley, a photo of which we did use on the traveling panel exhibition. That loan, like some others, didn’t work out, but Elvis’s King James Bible was a fine addition. It was fun to see this loan, and Manifold Greatness, advertised at Graceland, which I visited in November. We borrowed Bibles and other books from around the world; the Library of Congress and the Bodleian were especially generous. Steve Galbraith, Caryn, and I sat down with Mark Dimunation, the Library of Congress’s Chief of Rare Books and Special Collections, and he showed us some gems: the Massachusett Bible of John Eliot, the first Bible printed in America, and Robert Aitken’s “Revolutionary” Bible, America’s first homegrown KJV. We made a pitch for the KJV Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on, but it had been traveling too much and needed a rest from exhibitions. A happy alternative was the George Washington Family Bible, which we found at the George Washington National Masonic Memorial, across the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia.

John Bois’ manuscript notes of the proceedings. Courtesy of Corpus Cristi College, University of Oxford.

Especially momentous was the loan of the “Big Three,” the only surviving manuscripts from the KJV process itself. Manifold Greatness brought these together for the first time; they’re normally at the Bodleian Library, Corpus Christi (Oxford), and Lambeth Palace (London). They met first in Oxford’s exhibition and then travelled to the Folger, their first visit to America as well. I was fascinated, as visitors were, by the Bishops’ Bible with the inscriptions of one of the KJV translators, deleting a word here, adding one there, noting changes in the margin. I gave at least half a dozen tours of the exhibition, and it was a treat to be able to read aloud from this document, showing how the specific language of this most influential of books actually came into being.

My memories stay with me, but I’ll miss the physical experience of the exhibition. I loved the contrast between  the massive and luxurious Bishops’ Bible of Queen Elizabeth I and the tiny, spare Bible brought to sea by Justinian Isham. The case of Literary Influences (also viewable as an interactive timeline on the exhibition website) was another favorite. I hadn’t realized until they were all in place what a radical bunch of biblical writers we’d assembled: John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, Herman Melville, Allan Ginsberg. You could practically hear their rebellious roaring through the glass! Finally, being able to walk from the case with the fragile little leaves from Tyndale’s 1530 Pentateuch across to the 1968 photo of Earthrise, listening on cellphone to the Apollo 8 astronauts reading Genesis from outer space—that was an amazing leap across the centuries. Manifold Greatness indeed.

Hannibal Hamlin, associate professor of English at The Ohio State University, was co-curator of the Manifold Greatness exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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