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Cholera and Crassness with Penn Manuscript Collective

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Cholera and Crassness with Penn Manuscript Collective

By Nicole Flibbert.

To quote Forrest Gump, when working with manuscripts, “you never know what you’re gonna get.”

At a Penn Manuscript Collective meeting this spring, the group crowded around the projected image of a manuscript. The curling, yellowed paper was written on in a spiked, elegant hand, and in every blank corner, the author had drawn doodles of skeletons—playing croquet, kissing, even sleeping with their feet propped up around a tent. We were studying a newsletter written in 1866 by an English doctor named George Vernon Coleman. It was described as a “cholera camp” newsletter, and although I hadn’t had the time to look at it much before the meeting, I had assumed it would be a tragic depiction of life during a cholera outbreak in India.

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But as we read through the document, taking turns reading each line, I discovered this was no ordinary cholera camp newsletter. Sure, the doctor wrote about sickness and death at the camp. But he also wrote this:

There are 25 children here who give [me] no end of trouble; the eldest a girl is 12 1/12 years, she is not prepossessing, has square shoulders & nasty splay feet & sore eyes; the all the children have sore eyes, the youngest is [an infant] aged 3/12 years, it’s a slobbering little beast with a big head.

In between burial reports, Dr. Coleman informs us that the funeral priest “looks like a blaggard” and complains of the camp’s men, who “lie in their beds all day” and “[drink] beer all day.” He apparently hated a man named Dr. Lindsay, who “at dinner puts his fork into his eye & nose before finding his mouth.” We were laughing the entire session. This brash attitude towards death was not something I had expected from a venerable, 150-year-old document from Penn’s special collections from the Kislak Center. But manuscripts are great reminders that people are and have always been unpredictable and wonderfully strange.

In transcription, the art of reading the written word, every detail matters. At Manuscript Collective meetings, we have argued over whether a tiny mark is a period or a comma, whether the squiggle at the end of a word is really an extra “e,” and whether a slight change in handwriting indicates italics. The goal is to represent the original manuscript with as much exactness as possible. And since the dissemination of materials is easier than ever, transcriptions have taken an increasingly prominent position in scholarship. The Collective’s goal is not only to teach students about manuscripts, but to produce transcriptions that can be shared with others.

During our transcription of the cholera camp papers, the difficult script—Coleman would make doctors everywhere proud—often gave us pause. Thankfully, we had material-texts professor Peter Stallybrass and English grad student Alex Devine to help us. When a word was indecipherable to us, one of them could almost always figure it out. Along the way, they taught us some tricks of the trade: use context and repetition; a word that is unreadable in one place may show up later in a friendlier form; and the more pairs of eyes, the better. I like to think of transcription as an insanely fun logic puzzle, one that rewards practice, patience, and cooperation. Often a line that is impossible to one person can be read in an instant by another. That is why group transcriptions, like those organized by the Collective, are so valuable.

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    • Left to right: Sophia Lee, Samantha DeStefano, Nicole Flibbert, and Nathan May.

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    • Left to right: Nathan May, Nicole Flibbert, Samantha DeStefano, and Sophia Lee.

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The jolly atmosphere of that meeting brought out my favorite aspect of working with manuscripts: their ability to defy expectations, to reach across time and inspire. Manuscripts are an affirmation of the infinite creativity of people, past and present. Every new manuscript is a window into a different person’s unique voice. It is the rediscovery of a piece of history previously shrouded from us—history that has an inherent value—and of literature yet to be appreciated. What we find has the chance to change our understanding of history, of a culture, or the world. There are probably thousands of works in Penn’s Kislak Center that remain unexplored. The Manuscript Collective would like to explore (and eventually transcribe) as many of them as possible.

But as important as transcriptions are, the Manuscript Collective’s mission is also to connect text to manuscript, to place every writer within a tangible context, and to remind us that writing so often depends on the format and material of its presentation. In the idea-driven field of English, it is sometimes easy to lose the connection to the real people who wrote the texts we read, people who sometimes ran out of ink, made mistakes, crossed things out, and drew doodles in the margins. Reading a person’s account of a cholera outbreak in his own hand, an account that could have been written yesterday if we didn’t know better, helps us appreciate this history in a new way.

The Penn Manuscript Collective is continuing in the fall with some ambitious goals. Its founder, John Baranik, is returning from his year abroad at Oxford as a senior; I will be a junior. We hope to spread awareness about the group to increase membership, and to spark interest in both individual and collective transcriptions among members. This summer, a few members have individual transcriptions in the works. We will also have a fabulous manuscript-themed tee shirt for sale in the fall, designed by Anne Dutlinger.

Penn grants its students access to rare materials that in other schools might be restricted from them. The Collective aims to take advantage of these wonderful materials and provide students a space where they can learn to use them to their full potential—hopefully with some fun discoveries in the process!


Nicole Flibbert is a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying English with a concentration in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. She loves classical music, creative writing, and her dog.

Edited by Kenna O'Rourke.

Penn Manuscript Collective group photos by Alexander Atienza.