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Research at Boston University

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BodyofPoems

By Cassandra Nelson
Paper Trails

From music, to poetry, to ancient African manuscripts, Boston University researchers are interested in the ways in which today’s audiences engage historical texts. They are driven by a passion for discovery, as well as for clarification, so that contemporary readers and musicians can enjoy great works as their authors intended. When it comes to manuscripts that have been lost, misinterpreted, or undeciphered, these three faculty demonstrate that there’s plenty of work to be done—if you know where to look.

Hidden in the pages of books, the suitcases of exiles, or in a barn: These are just a few of the places where the manuscripts of Federico García Lorca ended up in the years after his 1936 assassination, at a time when the Spanish Civil War raged and it was dangerous to be found in possession of works by a leftist poet. It wasn’t until decades later—after the death of Francisco Franco, Spain’s totalitarian head of state from 1939 to 1975, and the restoration of democracy—that they made their way into the hands of scholars.

“The construction of Lorca’s complete works in the 1970s and 1980s mirrors Spain’s coming to grips with its own past during that time,” says Professor of Spanish Christopher Maurer, who recently authored a book with Andrew Anderson on Lorca’s time in New York and Cuba from 1929 to 1930, forthcoming in April from Galaxia Gutenberg (Barcelona). “It was an important part of the national reconciliation, with real symbolic value—a gathering in of his writings and a bringing home.”

One manuscript, only recently discovered by Maurer, took a longer time and a more circuitous route than most. “One night I was plunking at the computer and scouring different archives for Lorca materials, and I saw this manuscript at the Library of Congress,” he recalls. “I thought, this can’t be.”

A trip to Washington, D.C., confirmed that the manuscript was indeed Lorca’s, and allowed Maurer to unravel “the whole fascinating little mystery” of how a handwritten first draft of “Office and Denunciation”—one of the central poems of Lorca’s collection Poet in New York—had changed hands multiple times and traveled thousands of miles to end up “hidden in plain sight” among the papers of musicologist Hans Moldenhauer.

The manuscript is revealing on several levels, says Maurer. The most dramatic departure in terms of content comes near the end of the poem, in a line Lorca struck through: “I offer myself to be devoured by Spanish peasants” as an “example to Spanish children.” In the published version, this line becomes, “I offer myself as food for the cows wrung dry when their bellowing fills the valley where the Hudson gets drunk on oil.” There can be no doubt that Lorca rejected the earlier, more violent, and obviously sacrificial image, says Maurer. “He crossed that out, very clearly. But in light of all that happened between 1930 and August 1936, and his subsequent reputation in Spain as a martyred poet, it’s really powerful to see him writing that.”

A crease in the center of the manuscript shows how the poet folded his papers and carried them in his breast pocket, so that he could easily correct them or read them to friends. Such moments, in which Lorca is visible as both a poet and a person, are among the most rewarding for Maurer as a scholar. “The intersection of the manuscript with the life,” he says, “where they come together, that’s where I like to begin my studies.”

In his course, Lives, Letters, and Archives, Maurer is kindling a fascination with archives in a new generation. The course involves both a hands-on archival project making use of special collections at BU and Harvard, and an exploration of related ethical issues ranging from privacy, ownership, and gender to human rights, a controversial but essential aspect of archives in countries that have inherited terrifyingly detailed records from former, oppressive regimes.

Maurer isn’t discouraged by the fact that other Lorca manuscripts remain undiscovered and that some will likely never be found. “Ultimately, all archives are collections of fragments,” he says. “That’s another thing I love about them. Manuscripts are an image of our own frail, fragmented nature. Every life is a fragment. And yet we have to go forward. We have to reason out from the fragment to the whole. Ex ungue leonem: we have to infer a lion from a claw.”

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