Meet Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, Curator of The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature

 Jori Klein

Photo: Jori Klein

A biographer charting the publication of Nabokov's Lolita, a feminist scholar peering into the psyche of Virginia Woolf, or a historian who is parsing Jack Kerouac's hardscrabble life for a book on the Beats will all end up in the hushed reading room of the Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. Each researcher's journey might begin with a lengthy conversation with Isaac Gewirtz, curator of "the Berg" since 2000. Professorial in demeanor, Gewirtz pauses and collects his thoughts, before describing the direction of the division's growth.

"Historically there's been a shift in collections such as the Berg from acquiring individual manuscripts and printed books to the archival collections of writers, which gives us more research value for every dollar spent, which is especially important in a competitive market," he explains. "The trend in academia for the past two generations has been to look at the totality of an author's life-journals, diaries, letters, and juvenilia-to better understand the intentions behind the work."

Curating exhibitions, Gewirtz will tell you, is akin to a second job. The most important of Gewirtz's many duties is to facilitate access to the Berg's materials and to build the collection from its core strengths outward. The collection was established by the physician brothers Henry and Albert Berg, and was donated by Albert in his brother's memory to The New York Public Library in 1940. The original collection comprised the high spots of English and American literature in some 3,500 printed books; the Bergs' own favorite authors were Dickens, Thackeray, and Sir Walter Scott.

Nearly 70 years later, the collection includes some 35,000 printed items and 2,000 linear feet of manuscripts and archives covering 500 years of English and American literature. Its treasures include the manuscript of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, two of the 12 known copies of Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane, Keats's last letter to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne, and the manuscript of Nabokov's translation of Lolita into Russian. At auction or through dealers and individual collectors, Gewirtz has acquired the archives of Beat writer William S. Burroughs, novelist Paul Auster, and the screenwriter Terry Southern, among others, and the little-known paintings of Jack Kerouac, as well as numerous individual items, such as Yeats's essay "The Tragic Theater" and Oscar Wilde's treatise "The Soul of Man Under Socialism."

"The most rewarding part of the job is seeing researchers find what they need," says Gewirtz - but the task is not as straightforward as it seems. It requires thinking about collections as a researcher might and overseeing cataloging and the creation of finding aids, a roadmap to the organization of archival materials. Gewirtz's, and his staff's, own knowledge of the collections can save a researcher hours of time, not to mention make intriguing conversation. In addition to the nearly 1,000 visitors who come into the Berg every year, there are literally thousands more whose questions come in by telephone, letter, or e-mail. Hundreds of requests for permission to quote or reproduce materials must be dealt with case by case. Gewirtz gives presentations on the Berg's holdings to classes of undergraduate and graduate students and to groups of notables, such as, for instance, the recently visiting Association of International Bibliophiles.

Gewirtz completed the Master of Library Service program at Columbia University in 1984, while working in the Rare Book and Jewish divisions of The New York Public Library - and then took a ten-year absence from the Library. During that decade, he served as Curator of Special Collections at Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library and Director of Special Collections at Manhattan's St. Mark's Library of the General Theological Seminary. Since returning to NYPL, Gewirtz has curated Victorians, Moderns, and Beats; Passion's Discipline: A History of the Sonnet in the British Isles and America; and "I Am with You": Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, 1855-2005 - exhibitions that illuminated Berg holdings. He earned his Ph.D. in Renaissance History at Columbia University in 2003.

"At the conclusion of my service in the Berg, I hope that I will have honored the intentions of Albert Berg by acquiring significant collections of books and manuscripts, and by managing the Berg's transition from a pre-electronic to an electronic environment." As for the Berg's influence on Gewirtz, "The collection has made me a reader who is far more open to and engaged by a greater variety of literary expression than when I arrived here."

January 2008