The (Extra)ordinary Activism of Isabel de Giberne Sieveking

By Miranda Wojciechowski

Miranda Wojciechowski is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at Indiana University. She recently curated an online exhibition on Isabel de Giberne Sieveking, a project which began as part of Professor Christoph Irmscher’s course on “The Modern Archive,” taught at the Lilly Library in the Spring of 2017.

Isabel de Giberne Sieveking shines out as a fascinating figure buried beneath the remaining manuscript materials of her son, Lancelot Sieveking, a BBC radio announcer during WWII. Isabel emerges as a patchwork of compelling, and at times paradoxical, identities: a militant suffragette in a rural English village, a fervent public speaker and columnist for women’s rights and education, a historical biographer, an author and critic of literary fiction, an extensive traveler of English countryside and European continent alike, a rebellious but sweet Victorian child, an active correspondent devoted to female friendships, a Catholic wife, mother, and, at the very least, an object of passionate lesbian desire.

Like many archival recoveries, Isabel’s simultaneously vibrant presence amongst her rich collection of writings and her gaping absence in histories recorded elsewhere defies true recovery. Her obituary, and the occasional interview, in her local newspaper, The Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer, gives us the brief outline of what comprises a historically lost life. She was born in 1857 to George and Maria Giberne and died in May 1936 after an apparently long and painful illness. As for the nearly seventy decades in between, she was to be remembered at once as a paradigm of devoutly religious motherhood and as an anti-marriage suffragette with a “casual attitude towards fire.”

Photograph of Isabel Giberne, age 5.
A devious looking Isabel Giberne. Around five years of age, the young Isabel is posed with hands demurely clasped in a domestic scene fringed with lace, while a martial toy drum lies to the side at her feet.

These paradoxical accounts of Isabel’s intertwined personal and political selves present a history of major social transformation beyond the coherently declared ideologies of their representative leaders and organizers. The archival reader, piecing together a lifetime of private and public writings, begins to construct a portrait of the political as an amalgam of ordinary lives of questions and contradictions lived out in their criticism and activism.

Isabel’s privately affectionate marriage and her strident anti-marriage crusading provide one such generative ambivalence. In 1891, a 33-year-old Isabel married the 25-year-old merchant, Edward Sieveking. While very little record of their relationship or even of Edward himself exists, the one letter in the collection penned by Isabel herself (and addressed to “dear Ted”) reveals a tender, albeit restrained, affection between the two.

Many more letters document her passionate friendships and relationships with women, including a series of romantic declarations from the nanny of her children, Gwendoline Edwards. Several such letters offer anecdotes about other women’s marital problems and raise broader questions about these issues through which it’s easy to hear early echoes of suffragette solutions. On July 3, 1902, for example, Gwendoline writes of a mutual acquaintances’ blunders:

[Miss Mole] told me a lot about Mrs. Goodwin- how the marriage had wrecked her happiness- and how she was fighting to get back to Miss Mole. . .Why do people rush into these things and regret it afterwards- I suppose Mrs. G thought like so many more, that it would be so much more than it is- Miss Mole told me too that she had refused several men because she had nothing like the love she had for Miss Bevis to offer to any of them.

From this bit of gossip regarding Mrs. Goodwin’s failed relationship with her new husband and her interrupted fulfilling one with Miss Mole, Gwendoline forms a simple questioning of a conventional given. Why sacrifice an intimate and fulfilling connection to an expected institution? This question comes up repeatedly in her other letters, as her family, unknowingly, urges her to give up her love for Isabel (and the freedom of her single state) for the financial and social security of a passionless marriage.

Connecting these personal questions to the lives of others, Gwendoline here performs the initial work of the suffragette movement on the ground in her private letters. She ruminates on the havoc wrecked by carefully cultivated female ignorance of martial realities and the equally carefully cultivated lack of companionship between the sexes nearly a decade before her correspondent and confidant, Isabel, attempts to resolve these issues in her political writings. In her article “The Celibate Englishwoman,” published in the July 12, 1913 issue of the suffragette magazine The Awakener, Isabel argues that marriage cannot satisfy women’s needs for close companionship. Converting commonplace issues in women’s lives to critical examination and proposed solutions, Isabel asserts that proper education was beginning to substitute women’s retrospective regrets with their informed and self-fulfilling choices, an “ignorance taken advantage of…innocence abused” with an “illimitable power” and the “practically boundless. . . horizons” of a “life [that]. . .can fulfill all [their] aspirations.”

"Votes for Women" handout.
“Votes for Women: Why Women Want the Vote” 1909 handout.

Through the mingling of journals, letters exchanged between friends and lovers, and suffragette tracts, the Sieveking collection intricately illustrates how ideas about gender played out in the everyday Victorian and Edwardian life and how the mundane routines and relationships of these daily lives impacted the platforms of early feminist movements. At the same time, reflections on Isabel’s “Life of Service” (The Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer) within the collections illuminate the individual life as a site on which seamless narratives of socio-political movements break down. Isabel’s correspondence, from which her own voice remains largely absent, radically builds an archive of communal experiences from personal exchanges. Similarly, Isabel Sieveking’s activist writings challenge narratives of progressive movements as centralized in urban London. The work of Emmeline Pankhurst in Royal Albert’s Hall multiplies into that of participants of public meetings in Hollington, Ore Village, Mount Pleasant, and St. Leonard’s, a sprawling network rather than a single point of origin. Indeed, the work of this unknown individual illuminates the widespread existence of rural radicals, as well as national and international communities held together by a complex web of yearning questions, grievances, desires, and political investments.

The papers of Isabel de Giberne Sieveking can be requested through the Lilly Library Request System.

In Memoriam, William R. Cagle

All of us at the Lilly Library were saddened to learn of the passing of William R. Cagle, former Lilly Librarian, who died in Paris last week at the age of 83.  Bill worked at the Library from 1967 until his retirement in 1997, and so many of the significant books, manuscripts, and collections that are now such important parts of the Lilly Library are here because of Bill’s efforts.

William R. Cagle in his office at the Lilly Library.
William R. Cagle in his office at the Lilly Library.

William Cagle was born in Hollywood, California in 1933. After studies at UCLA and Oxford, and military service in the U.S. Army, he began his library career at the Huntington Library in 1960 as Assistant to the Librarian.  In 1962, he accepted the position of Librarian for English at Indiana University, and in 1967, he moved to the Lilly Library as Assistant Lilly Librarian, where he worked closely with Lilly Librarian David A. Randall, the first to serve in that position.  In 1975, following Randall’s death, Bill became Acting Librarian, and in 1977, he was named Lilly Librarian, a post that he held until his retirement in November 1997.

Bill was, above all, a bookman, and he excelled in his collection-building activities.  He greatly augmented many of the Library’s already strong collecting areas, including British, American, and French literature; American history; and voyages and travels, and he pioneered a number of new collecting subjects for the Library, including film and popular culture; cookbooks; miniature books; and modern fine bindings.  Many of the Library’s most popular and frequently-used collections, including manuscripts of Sylvia Plath, Nadine Gordimer, Ezra Pound, Orson Welles, and John Ford; the Elisabeth Ball Collection of Historical Children’s Materials; and the Gernon Collection of Historical Cookbooks, were among his many major acquisitions.

Bill also instituted a systematic standing order system for first editions of newly-published British and American literary works, which he initiated when he first arrived at the Library in 1967.  After a half-century of this broad and deep collecting activity, the Lilly Library now holds an outstanding collection of modern literature, which we are continuing to build.  Bill was also responsible for securing funds to establish fellowships for visiting scholars to make use of the Lilly Library collections, and the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowships and the Mendel Fellowships are now awarded annually to help scholars with their research in the Library’s collections.

Following Bill’s retirement in 1997, he and his wife, Terry, moved to Maine, where they lived for several years, before moving to Paris, where Bill had served in the Army in the 1950s.  Bill had long been a Francophile, and he and Terry fully enjoyed the cultural pleasures that Paris offered.  Throughout his retirement, Bill continued to be a devoted reader of booksellers’ catalogues, and his perceptive and timely recommendations helped us to fill a number of significant gaps in the Library’s holdings.

During Bill’s time at the Library, one of his great pleasures was the writing of the Annual Report of the Lilly Librarian, in which he recounted his most interesting acquisitions of the previous year.  Bill had an excellent eye for books, and he was always looking for the exceptional or special copy of any book that he wished to add to the Library’s collections. A selection of Bill’s most important acquisitions was described in A Splendid Gathering: Twenty-two Years of Collecting at the Lilly Library, 1975-1997 (Bloomington, Indiana: The Lilly Library, 1997), the exhibition assembled at the Library in honor of his retirement (this catalogue may be viewed online).

The use of the word “Splendid” in the title of A Splendid Gathering highlights Bill’s loftiest word of praise for a special book.  A particularly interesting book might be described by Bill in his Annual Report as a “splendid copy,” and an especially remarkable book might merit two instances of “splendid,” used to describe different aspects of the book. Only once, to the best of my knowledge, did Bill go beyond that, when, in the Annual Report for July 1987-June 1988, he described an especially notable recent acquisition.  I’ll let Bill speak for himself:

“It is always a pleasure to find a book someone has particularly asked for but rarely does it happen with quite such spectacular success as in the case of fine arts professor Louis Hawes’s request for Baron Zurlauben’s Tableaux topographiques, pittoresques, physiques, politiques, moraux, litteraries de la Suisse (Paris 1780-1786).  Professor Hawes mentioned, in the spring of 1987, that a facsimile of Zurlauben’s famous work on Swiss topography had been published and asked if the Lilly Library would purchase a copy.  We said we would prefer to look for a copy of the original.  That, he said, would be difficult and expensive, but if we could find one it would be his once-in-a-lifetime request.  Good fortune was with us, and a copy far exceeding our expectations was found in a Paris bookstore that summer.

The Tableaux topographiques was published in five large folio volumes and contains 400 engravings after drawings by the best French artists of the time.  The artists were sent to Switzerland especially to execute works for this project.  The copy acquired for the Lilly, with 278 of the engravings in unlettered proof state, belonged to Mary Boydell, niece of the celebrated London engraver and print seller John Boydell, and was bound for her in full red morocco by Deróme. It passed from Mary Boydell to the library of William Beckford and was in the Hamilton Palace sale of Beckford’s books (Sotheby catalogue, June 1882, item 668). It’s a splendid provenance for a splendid copy of a splendid work. Mr. Lilly would have approved.”

I think that Mr. Lilly would have approved of all of Bill Cagle’s acquisitions for the library that bears his family’s name, and he also would have greatly admired the passion, energy, and commitment that Bill brought to his duties as Lilly Librarian.  Bill was a splendid librarian and collection builder, and he will be greatly missed by all of us here at the Lilly Library.

Joel Silver

Director

Lilly Library, Indiana University

The Worst Maritime Disaster in U.S. History

April 27, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the explosion and subsequent sinking of the steamboat Sultana. Death toll estimates range from 1,700 to 1,800 people, making the wreck of the Sultana one of the worst shipwrecks in American history. The number of lives lost far exceeds the death toll from the sinking of the Titanic, which killed 1,512 people; yet, few have even heard of the Sultana shipwreck.

The passengers aboard the Sultana were former Union soldiers freshly released from Confederate prison camps. The Civil War had ended just 18 days earlier, and these men–weak, malnourished, and suffering from various ailments–were desperate to get back to their families. Steamboat companies were offered $5.00 per soldier and $10.00 per officer for each man transported back to the North. As a result, many companies were eager to load their ships beyond capacity in order to make maximum profit. The Sultana had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers, but there were over 2,500 men on board at the time of the wreck.

News coverage of the shipwreck is difficult to find. It occurred at a time when the country was deep in mourning over the loss of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s assassination was still splashed across the front pages of newspapers, along with the progression of his funeral train from Washington D. C. to Springfield, Illinois and coverage of the capture and shooting of John Wilkes Booth. It seemed that the country could handle no more tragedy, and thus, the Sultana shipwreck slipped silently by, nearly unnoticed.

Front cover of Harper's Weekly from May 20, 1865.
Front cover of Harper’s Weekly from May 20, 1865.

However, it was mentioned in a few periodicals. The May 20, 1865 edition of Harper’s Weekly opens with more coverage of Lincoln’s assassination and funeral on the front page, and much of the content within is dedicated to various aspects of the assassination. Finally, 10 pages in, there is an illustration of the Sultana shipwreck. The illustration is interspersed amongst other illustrations, which depict things like Lincoln’s Springfield home, more coverage of his funeral, and of another burning ship in New Orleans. There is no text to go along with the illustration of the Sultana, only a grim picture of a ship engulfed in flames surrounded by hundreds of bodies grasping for safety but finding their hands empty as the icy waters of the Mississippi pulled them down.

Illustration of the Sultana Shipwreck from Harper's Weekly.
Illustration of the Sultana Shipwreck from Harper’s Weekly.

A short article on the wreck was published in the May 6, 1865 Daily Morning Chronicle out of Washington, D. C., 9 days after the wreck occurred. It opens with the assumption that most readers had already encountered reports of the tragic incident elsewhere. The snippet blamed the crash on a “torpedo which, shaped like a lump of coal, was thrown into the furnace with the fuel, and immediately exploded.” However, the real cause of the explosion was a faulty repair to one of the boilers. The repairman explained to the captain that it would be unwise to continue traveling upriver with a damaged boiler, but the captain ignored his warning and pushed north. When the damaged boiler could no longer withstand the pressure of moving against the strong current of the flooded Mississippi, it exploded, taking the other two boilers with it.

The Daily Chronicle. May 6, 1865.
The Daily Chronicle. May 6, 1865.
"The Sultana Disaster." From The Daily Chronicle, May 6, 1865.
“The Sultana Disaster.” From The Daily Chronicle, May 6, 1865.

 

 

 

 

 

When the boilers exploded, men were flung from the decks, and many drowned in the icy waters of the flooded river. Others died from the explosion or in the subsequent fire that consumed the ship. Of the 2,500 men on board, only 25 survived, and those that did, owed their lives to the compassion of members of a nearby town, Marion, Arkansas, which had been part of the Confederacy during the war. The Fogelman family and others put together log rafts and paddled out to rescue the remaining 25 men from the burning decks of the Sultana, and former Confederate soldiers pulled men from the frigid water onto the banks. Although the Sultana shipwreck was a horrific incident, the effort of Confederates to rescue Union soldiers from the wreck was the beginning of the reunification of the United States.

For more information, check out this NPR story: The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives.

Erika L. Jenns

Graduate Student in English & Library Science

 

The Little Prince: A New York Story

The Lilly Library was very pleased to be asked to contribute material to the current exhibition on display at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, The Little Prince: A New York Story, the first exhibition to explore in depth the creative choices made by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry while writing the manuscript during two years he and his wife spent in New York City at the height of the Second World War. Curated by Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts, the exhibition explores the origins of the story as well as features many of the original art works, including watercolors and drawings made by Saint- Exupéry for the book.

From the its extensive Welles manuscript collections, the Lilly Library contributed Orson Welles’s typescript, with autograph revisions, of a screen play for a film version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, ca. 1943. According to Barbara Leaming in Orson Welles: A Biography, following the tumultuous productions of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles discovered the work while searching for his “third film that, unlike its two predecessors, would interest a mass audience.” She quotes Welles as remarking that “what I wanted to do with The Little Prince, was a very small amount of animation. It was only the trick effects of getting from planet to planet.” Walt Disney and his crack team of animators were the obvious collaborators of choice. While introductions and a lunch meeting were arranged between Welles and Walt Disney, Welles later reported to Leaming that after arranging to be called from the initial meeting at the Disney Studios, Walt Disney exploded in the hallway outside of the room, “there is not room on this lot for two geniuses,” and the project came to an end.

littleprince

The Little Prince: A New York Story at the Morgan Library & Museum
http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/exhibition.asp?id=90

Exhibition review, The New York Times, January 23, 2014
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/arts/design/the-morgan-explores-the-origins-of-the-little-prince.html?_r=0

Cherry Williams

Join us today at the Ross Lockridge, Jr., Raintree County celebration

Dust jacket of the novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
Dust jacket of the novel Raintree County by Ross Lockridge, Jr.
Please join us today for a film screening and reception celebrating the centennial of Bloomington author Ross Lockridge, Jr., and his iconic novel, Raintree County. At 2:30 PM a film screening will take place at the IU Cinema, followed by a 5:30 PM reception at the Lilly Library where you can view the related exhibition and pick up a copy of Lockridge’s biography, Shade of the Raintree, by his son Larry Lockridge. All events are free and open to the public.

Read more about the events and the exhibition in the IU News Room:
http://news.indiana.edu/releases/iu/2014/04/raintree-county-celebration.shtml

Learn more about Ross Lockridge, Jr., at Indiana Public Media:

The World Of A Novel: Ross Lockridge Jr.’s Raintree County
http://indianapublicmedia.org/arts/world-ross-lockridge-jrs-raintree-county/

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t: Vanishing Puzzles at the Lilly

Alex Bellos is a mathematics and science writer for The Guardian. Mr. Bellos has written a number of books on mathematics such as such as Alex's Adventures in Numberland (U.S. title Here's Looking at Euclid), and more recently Alex Through the Looking-Glass (U.S. title The Grapes of Math). He also edited a book about the Golden Ratio, The Golden Meaning, which features 55 graphic designers illustrating the mathematical concept. Mr. Bellos has also served as a South American correspondent for The Guardian, and has written about Brazilian soccer and was a ghostwriter on Pele's autobiography.

Mr. Bellos currently writes for The Guardian at his blog Alex's Adventures in Numberland. Recently he posted an article on vanishing puzzles which features images of puzzles from the Jerry Slocum Mechanical Puzzle Collection.

The blog post can be found at
http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/gallery/2014/apr/01/vanishing-leprechaun-disappearing-dwarf-puzzles-pictures

leprechauns

eggs

Mr. Bellos also wrote an additional post in which he writes about the geometrical concept behind the puzzle, which can be found at
http://www.theguardian.com/science/alexs-adventures-in-numberland/2014/apr/01/empire-state-building-images-geometrical-illusion-vanishing-leprechaun

Andrew Rhoda
Curator of Puzzles

Mediaevalia at the Lilly 2014

detail of Ricketts 162

Please join us in welcoming this year’s Mediaevalia speaker, Dr. Erik Kwakkel, Associate Professor in medieval manuscript studies at Leiden University, The Netherlands, and principal investigator of the research project ‘Turning Over a New Leaf: Manuscript Innovation in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance’. Among his publications are articles and book chapters on a variety of manuscript-related topics, as well as monographs and edited volumes on Carthusian book production (2002), medieval Bible culture (2007), change and development in the medieval book (2012), medieval authorship (2012), and Insular book culture (2013). Dr. Kwakkel was the 2014 E.A. Lowe Lecturer in Paleography at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Dr. Kwakkel will be presenting two programs:

Kissing the Neighbor: How Medieval Letterforms Help to Tell Time
When: Thursday, March 27, 2014 5:00-7:00 PM
Where: Lilly Library Lincoln Room
What: Lecture and reception. All are welcome.

“Age is not important, unless you are a cheese.” Historians know this expression not to be true: the age of a piece of writing matters a great deal. The key to determining when a given medieval manuscript was written is to assess the age of its script. The handwriting of scribes developed continuously, meaning that their products can be placed in time if the right reference points are available. This paper deals with such reference points: it shows that developing letterforms provide evidence for dating the book in which they appear; and how we may retrieve this information. The main focus will be on what is arguably the most dramatic development in medieval handwriting: the shift from Caroline to Gothic script. During the century and half of this transformation, in an age known as The Long Twelfth Century, scribes across Europe began to search for new ways of executing letters. Neighboring letters began to ‘kiss’ and ‘bite’ each other, while the ‘i’ became dotted and the ‘t’ crossed. The lecture ultimately demonstrates it is possible to gauge the date of a manuscript in an objective manner: it shows how letterforms help to tell time.

Why Study the Medieval Book?
When: Friday, March 28, 2014 9:00AM—12:00 Noon
Where: The Lilly Library Slocum Room
What: Hands-on workshop for graduate students and faculty

**Enrollment is limited to 16 participants and pre-registration is required. Please contact Cherry Williams, Curator of Manuscript, The Lilly Library for information and to register: chedwill@indiana.edu

This workshop focuses on the medieval manuscript as a physical object. It aims to show faculty and students how its features matter for studies that are not primarily interested in the material book itself. It queries how someone working in the disciplines of English, History or Religious Studies, etc. may benefit from a manuscript beyond merely the text it holds on its pages. The workshop will present ‘real-world’ case studies to show how even someone with a basic understanding of the medieval book may benefit from its physical features. At the end of the session participants will be able to answer the query posed in the workshop’s title.

Original Manuscript Scroll of On the Road Returns to the Lilly Library, February 3-22

The Naked Lunch

The writing of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is the stuff of American literary legend. Kerouac claimed to have written it in three weeks, at such white heat that he taped 12-foot-long stripes of paper together and ran them through a typewriter in a sort of scroll so that he wouldn’t have to pause to feed new sheets into the machine. While this pace is probably exaggerated, the original manuscript of the novel was and remains in scroll format, 119 feet 8 inches long by 9 inches wide. In 2001, it was purchased by Jim Irsay, team owner of the Indianapolis Colts. Since then, the scroll has had a special relationship with the Lilly Library, as the Lilly’s Conservator, Jim Canary, has assisted Irsay in its preservation and in handling it as it toured.

The scroll was on display at the Lilly Library in 2003 as part of a travelling exhibition which took it all around the country and abroad. The Lilly is proud to host the scroll once more, on special loan from Jim Irsay. The scroll appears in conjunction with the Lilly’s exhibition on Beat writer William S. Burroughs in celebration of Burroughs’ 100th birthday. The scroll is unrolled to display the section about “Old Bull Lee,” the character inspired by Burroughs. A digital display of the full scroll – from the first line to the last ragged edges which were eaten by a dog, including all of the fascinating textual variations from the published version – will also be available to view.

A Conversation with Will Shortz

Will Shortz IU'74, NPR's puzzlemaster and the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times.
Will Shortz IU’74, NPR’s puzzlemaster and the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times.

On December 13, 2013, the crossword puzzle celebrated its 100th birthday, and eyes around the world turned towards IU alumnus Will Shortz for his wisdom on the subject. Will has been immersed in the world of puzzles since he created his first around age eight or nine. Since then, he has honed his knowledge through his individualized major in enigmatology at IU, the only such degree granted in the world; through years of puzzle collecting; and through his work as a professional puzzler: the editor of Games Magazine, NPR’s puzzlemaster, and the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times.

Will took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with Becky Wood, Director of Communications at the IU Libraries, to talk about his puzzle collection, his passion for table tennis, and what continues to puzzle him.

Becoming a Collector

Will Shortz bought his first antique puzzle book at a hospital sale in Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he grew up. Although he devoured the copy of Hirschberg’s Can You Solve It, Will didn’t think of himself as a book collector until his third year of law school at the University of Virginia. The school sponsors an annual essay competition about collecting rare books with prizes in a number of categories, including most interesting collection. Convinced that his puzzle book collection was a certain winner, Will wrote his essay, created a bibliography of his puzzle library, and though he did’t win that competition, ever since then he has considered himself a rare book collector.

Will describes his collection as huge—he has over 25,000 puzzle books and magazines dating back to 1533; eclectic—he collects anything related to puzzles that is in print including books, magazines, newspaper articles; and ephemeral—advertising trade cards, postcards, tickets, newspaper articles, things that are one-of-a kind and normally thrown away.

One of the many gems of his collection is the only existing copy of the first crossword puzzle ever published. It was the Sunday before Christmas, December 13, 1913, and the New York World “Fun” Sunday supplement editor Arthur Wynne wanted something to liven up his newspaper’s games section. The grid Wynne created was diamond-shaped and appears simple compared to many of today’s crosswords. After one hundred years, Will’s copy of that puzzle, carefully stored in an archival sleeve, still retains its original colors and conveys the rich and interesting history of the genre whose genesis it marks.

Immersed in the History of Puzzles

Will’s interest in the history of puzzles has deep roots. Between his junior and senior years at IU, he received a research grant to study the history of puzzles at the Library of Congress where he spent most of his time in the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. On that visit, Will discovered the National Puzzlers’ League (NPL) and its magazines, The Enigma and before that The Eastern Enigma, the discovery of which marked an important moment in his life. Whereas puzzles are usually a solitary activity, the League connected puzzlers with one another, and for Will, bringing people together has always been a primary goal. He has belonged to the NPL since 1972, has served as program director of the NPL’s national convention since 1976, and remains deeply involved in national and international tournaments and activities that transform puzzling into a competitive social occasion.

Will wrote his thesis on the history of American word puzzles before 1860. He combed through material at the Wells Library as he conducted research, uncovering a microfilm copy of Puritan minister Samuel Danforth’s 1647 almanac, among the earliest surviving examples of the American almanac form. Along with Reverend Danforth’s musings on astronomy and religion, every month of the year he included a puzzle, specifically, a versified riddle. Puzzles held such a grip on people that even in a religious colony in the 17th century, people were creating and solving them.

Will spent weeks in the newspaper room in the basement of the Wells Library looking for puzzle columns in the bound volumes. As he puts it, “IU has a great collection of microfilm and microfiche of all the early publications, so when I was studying the history of puzzles, I literally looked through every newspaper and magazine I thought might contain puzzles. I found a lot of great information on the history of puzzles through months of work at the IU Libraries.”

Shortz at the Table

For many people, solving puzzles—and crosswords in particular—is a relaxing, refreshing activity. Because puzzles are a job for Will, he turns to another activity to recharge: table tennis. Although he was a tennis champion in college, Will says that the two sports are quite different in terms of their physicality as well as the game behind the game. In both you need to figure out your opponent, playing on your strengths and their weaknesses, but Will compares table tennis to puzzles since both are what he terms “brain games.”

Will traces his history with table tennis back to Crawfordsville where his family had a ping-pong table in their rec room. He played as a kid, won some trophies in high school, and continued playing up until his early 30s. The breakthrough moment in terms of his return to the table came in 2001 when his best friend found a table tennis club in Westchester County, where Will currently lives. The club offered table tennis two nights a week so Will played two nights a week, but that wasn’t enough. He convinced the club to offer a third night, so he was up to three nights a week. When that club closed, he found two community centers willing to offer two nights of table tennis each every week, so he was up to four nights a week. As Will puts it, “Things progressed,” and now he owns his own table tennis center. It’s the largest in the country, hosts international table tennis players, and Will gets to play table tennis every single day.

What Puzzles Will Shortz?

In addition to serving as program director of the NPL’s convention, Will is also the organization’s historian. Founded in 1883, the NPL is the oldest puzzlers’ organization in the world, and it has weathered highs and lows, including almost dying out in the late 1960s for lack of interest. Around that time, an old puzzler offered for sale a complete set of The Enigma, the magazine of the NPL, to anyone who was interested, agreeing to donate a certain portion of the price to support the NPL. Soon thereafter evidence of the sale appeared in The Enigma, but the buyer was not named and remains unknown. Who bought that complete set, and where have the seventeen earliest issues of The Enigma gone? That is what puzzles Will Shortz.

Do you know where those seventeen issues are?

Shortz in the News

Interview with Mo Rocca on CBS This Morning

ABC News/Yahoo News interview with Will about crosswords and table tennis

Shortz in the Chicago Sun Times Daily Sizzle