In 1994, Leonard Milberg ’53 met with a young, relatively unknown professor in New York. Milberg recently had donated a collection of American poetry to Princeton’s library, and professors were nudging him to move on to Irish poetry. To sway Milberg, they enlisted the help of Professor Paul Muldoon, who brought a collection of Irish poetry and some of his own work to that lunch meeting.
Milberg was enchanted by both Muldoon and the work. “I thought it was intellectually exciting poetry,” said Milberg, a New York businessman. That meeting led to a series of donations of Irish literature to Princeton — first poetry, then drama, and this year prose, a gift that will be marked by an exhibition at Firestone Library Jan. 28–July 10 and a symposium organized by Muldoon at Princeton on Feb. 5–6, studded with luminaries of Irish fiction.
One of those stars will be novelist Colm Tóibín, whose visiting lectureship in Irish letters at Princeton Milberg has underwritten for the last three years. The lineup also includes Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for his novel, Let The Great World Spin; John Banville, whose 2005 novel The Sea won the Man Booker Prize, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary award; and Roddy Doyle, who perhaps is most famous in the United States for The Commitments, a novel about a rhythm and blues band in Dublin, which was made into a successful movie. The symposium will include lectures and readings.
Also accompanying the exhibition is a special issue of the Princeton University Library Chronicle that will include essays, short stories, and chapters of novels in progress by many of the living writers included in the Milberg Collection.
Milberg’s collection and the exhibition feature first editions by all of those Irish writers and others, as well as portraits, manuscripts, and letters that stretch back to 1800 — including two of Iris Murdoch’s notebooks and a portrait of novelist Maria Edgeworth. Renée Fox *10 and Gregory Londe, a Princeton graduate student in English, curated the exhibition and edited the accompanying catalog.
It was “highly unusual” that graduate students would curate a Firestone exhibition, said associate University librarian Ben Primer. “They thought about new ways of doing an exhibition with audiovisual material” — Londe traveled to Ireland to shoot a series of video interviews with featured authors and created a catalog that will appeal to scholarly and general audiences alike, said Primer. The catalog includes a series of essays by Irish writers and scholars of Irish literature that, together with about 100 color illustrations, tell the story of Irish prose.
The title of both the exhibition and the symposium, “The Cracked Lookingglass,” comes from a phrase that James Joyce used in his novel Ulysses to refer to the critical issue of national identity in Irish art raised by England’s long occupation of Ireland. In recent years Irish writers have come to focus on “a more self-consciously cosmopolitan range of subjects,” Londe said, as Ireland became more prosperous and the violence in Northern Ireland receded.
Milberg isn’t focused on cultural politics, though. He clearly loves to collect — he dedicated his most recent donation to Princeton to his longtime antiquarian book dealer, J. Howard Woolmer, and gave it in honor of the late professor Robert Fagles — and he also hopes his collection serves an educational purpose. “I try to have courses tied to the collections,” Milberg said. Londe noted that he and Tóibín used the prose collection when they co-taught a course on the history of Dublin in literature in 2009 and a course on the Irish novel in 2010.