Information Flux in the 21st Century

16th Century Chapbook: Object of 21st Century Search

FaustYesterday, I stopped at my local library branch to see if there were any movies on the shelves I wanted to borrow. The movie “Cabin in the Sky” caught my eye. This is a movie from the early 1940s based on a play from the same era; both had all black casts. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Lena Horne were movie cast members. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli. I was intrigued. I took it home, and began my research on movie, subject, and more. Google, Wikipedia, NYPL’s online catalog and databases served me well, up to a point.

“Cabin in the Sky” led back to Faust. From there I wanted to know about the first published version of the legend. It was a chapbook, I discovered, printed by Johann Spies in Frankfurt in 1587. Oh sure, Dr. Faustus had some interesting characteristics: scholar, seeker of knowledge about many things, including alchemy and necromancy, and the list goes on. And, then there’s that pact he makes with a disciple of Satan, a cool fella named Mephistophiles (sp?) depicted in various forms in different versions. Those tidbits didn’t impress. There was little challenge in finding information about the subject. No, I wanted the object. I wanted to see the actual chapbook. How big or small was it? How many pages? Were there woodcuts? What did the type look like? What was the paper like? Watermarks?

I got as far as excerpts about the chapbook in the book, “The Sin of Knowledge” by Theodore Ziolkowski, courtesy of a Google Books full text search. But, the meaty section following “But none of these earlier compilations were published. It was not until 1587 that…” was missing. Below the page number, 52, was a pale blue banner with text on it that read “Pages 53-54 are not part of this book preview.” The same book had other excerpts that teased. A caption below a big blank space states “Fig. 4. Title page of Faust chapbook. Frankfurt am Main, 1594. Courtesy of The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. (The illustration is identical with that of the first illustrated Faust chap book: Strassburg, 1588).” That was frustrating. A search on Worldcat was frustrating for the lack of results on the Chapbook itself. Beinecke did not appear on my search result list. Sad to see that treasures of this kind are not catalogued. These objects may be too fragile to be displayed briefly, or even to be adequately exhibited, but we should at least know where they exist.

Happily, I will continue my research about this elusive object. I found out I can see the book I mentioned above at the NYPL’ s main branch on 42nd street. I can also shell out $49.95 to own the book in order to see the image of the title page of the chapbook. But, other than a visit to the Beinecke Library, where I could be, at the very least, in close proximity to the object, I don’t think any more research I could do about the object as subject, will completely satisfy. Now, I’ll go watch “Cabin in the Sky.”

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July 26, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,

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