Revolutionary War letters handwritten by President George Washington and unpublished poetry by Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner are among the rare and fragile documents being scrutinized at the University of Mississippi with the use of a pioneering digital imaging technology.
Both the Kate Skipwith Papers and the Wynn-Faulkner Collection contain damaged, faded manuscripts that are being made legible once again with the use of the portable, high-power, multispectral digital imaging laboratory being developed by Gregory Heyworth, UM associate professor of English. Roger Easton Jr., professor of imaging science at the Rochester Institute of Technology; and William Christens-Barry, chief executive and technical officer of Equipoise Imaging LLC; are assisting Heyworth’s research efforts.
“We are imaging two very important, fascinating sets of papers,” Heyworth said. “The Skipwith papers primarily consist of correspondence between the president and Patriot soldiers, including Nathaniel Greene. Oxonian Kate Skipwith, who was a direct descendant of Greene, donated these items to the University of Mississippi for preservation.”
“The Faulkner papers are unpublished letters and poems found in the attic of Phil Stone, one of his closest confidants. Given to the university by a Mrs. Wynn in the 1980s, these documents are in both his (Faulkner’s) and some unknown person’s handwriting.”
The Wynn Faulkner Poetry Collection, donated by Leila Clark Wynn and Douglas C. Wynn, consists of 48 pages of early poetry written by Faulkner, most likely between 1917 and 1925.
“What distinguishes this collection is the proportion of unknown, unpublished poems, poem fragments and variants contained among the 48 typescript pages,” said Jennifer Ford, head of UM’s Department of Archives and Special Collections where both collections are housed.
Four students in Heyworth’s Imaging Text and Technology course are assisting in the research. They are Danielle Thornton, an English major from Natchez; Marie Wicks, an international studies major from Ocean Springs; Devon Emig, a German and linguistics major from Tupelo; and Steven Stringer, an English major from Ridgeland. All are enrolled in UM’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.
“This class, which combines engineering with the humanities, seeks to train students in optical imaging,” Heyworth said. “With these skills, they can conduct groundbreaking research which has the potential to change the canon of large, long-established portions of Western literature.”
The students, who presented brief discussions of their findings at the annual Oxford Conference for the Book last weekend, are excited about their discoveries.
“I haven’t used the equipment a whole lot yet, but it’s really been interesting,” Thornton said. “We’re seeing the effects of digital imaging on papers never seen before, which allows us to better understand their origin and historical context.”
Normally one who avoids early morning classes, Emig said she finds the class and research most enjoyable. “I took this class on a whim, and it’s turned out to be really fun and fascinating. Working with a developing technology and a great team of professors is providing me a new insight into someone whose works I read all throughout high school,” Emig said.
Previously, Heyworth and another team of UM students used the lab to help restore “Les Esched d’Amour” (The Chess of Love), a long, 14th century Middle French poem. The unique medieval manuscript, damaged in the World War II attack on Dresen, Germany, was believed too badly damaged to be recovered before Heyworth and Daniel O’Sullivan, associate professor of modern languages, began working on it under UV light six years ago. Last year, using the portable lab, Heyworth and his students photographed the most damaged portions of the text. Shot under light of various wavelengths, the images are being mixed, manipulated and digitally enhanced.
The value of the lab, however, goes beyond that manuscript, the Skipwith and Faulkner projects and even beyond pure research.
“Ideally, I want the lab to be a teaching tool for UM students,” Heyworth said. “The lab is to be made available to U.S. researchers to use in recovering other manuscripts at home and around the world. Already, the imaging team is planning trips to the Sinai and Tbilisi, Georgia, to recover some of the earliest copies of the Gospels, hopefully with the help of UM students.”
For more information on Heyworth’s work, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.