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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ribald Reading

UMB Grad Students at the Boston Public Library Exhibit Hall (Photo
Harry Brett)
UMB Grad Students at the Boston Public Library Exhibit Hall (Photo

Women birthing rabbits. Guides to pick-pocketing another person’s sword. And don’t forget the Boston Public Library’s many documented ghost sightings in London and the English countryside.

These scandalous tales are only a handful of the many compiled by collaborators UMass Boston and the Boston Public Library in an exhibit called Crooks, Rogues & Maids Less Than Virtuous: Books in the Streets of 18th Century London. The exhibit was created when UMass Boston English Professor Cheryl Nixon and the Boston Public Library’s Earle Havens got together to have the English Department’s graduate students study the library’s collection of rare books. The idea sprung from a graduate course taught by Nixon called “Books, Manuscripts and Libraries.”

“I knew they had this great Trent-Dafoe collection with a lot of Daniel Dafoe material here, so I thought ‘we will work with that,'” Nixon said. “What happened with the course was that all the students got very, very interested in what I like to think of as the trashy literature.”

Included in some of the “trashy literature” is an account of an 18th century woman named Mary Toft who gained notoriety for supposedly giving birth to rabbits. Many documents were written at the time exploring Toft’s claim, several of which are on display at the library’s exhibit. Books like A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits examined the incredible process that she reportedly endured, and how people at the time were fascinated by the incident. People went so far as to hold vigils outside her window, surgeons spent time examining her claims and even the King’s surgeon went so far as to investigate her labor one day. He approved the claims as being authentic. Of course the whole incident turned out to be a hoax, but still proved significant.

“This is the beginning of that type of pop culture around celebrity, fame and money,” Nixon said. “How are you going to get famous without something like TV? So you do it through all of these pamphlets. It’s like today we all know who Paris Hilton is, even if we haven’t read all of her stuff or seen all of her scandalous video, we kind of know who she is.”

Stories as absurd as these interested Nixon and her graduate students because their initial concentration was about the beginnings of the novel. Nixon sees the development of novels in the Boston Public Library and its Trent-Dafoe collection, where modern literature sprang from the tall-tales of London’s streets and the imagination of Daniel Dafoe.

“This is the type of stuff that is really fun and scandalous and is the bubbling stew of where the novel comes out of,” Nixon said. “It is that blurring of fact and fiction, the finding of interesting characters and telling their stories, and letting their stories start to become longer and longer and longer. All the people who were writing this trashy stuff, all they did was lengthen it out a bit, add some characters, and voila, you have the novel.”

The exhibit, on display through May 1 on the third floor of the Boston Public Library, means many things to the awareness of the fan of the English word, but to a great supporter of the novel such as Nixon, it means the beginning of new relationship between UMass Boston and the Boston Public Library.

“It makes sense that we work together, and really this is the first major collaboration between the two,” Nixon said. “We’re both great public institutions, we’re both all about education and learning in Boston, so it makes sense for our two institutions to collaborate.”

The collaboration between UMass Boston and the Boston Public Library is a first time cooperative for the two, and with any help it could be the beginning of many new projects.

“I’m just hoping this is the beginning of more ways that students can do projects here,” Nixon said. “We may even do some internships here, and maybe get some more exhibits.”