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Penn Libraries’ Acquisition of Laurence Sterne Materials Fortifies 18th Century Literature Collection

Posted on by Sara Vilanova

The Penn Libraries now houses the best collection of material relating to 18th century British novelist Laurence Sterne and his works in the western hemisphere with its acquisition of the Geoffrey Day Collection of Sterneana. Sterne is most famous for his nine-volume novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman which attracted a wide readership in its day and remained influential to writers and thinkers throughout the 19thand 20th centuries. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and other modernists cited the influence of Sterne on their own work. His innovative stream-of-consciousness and self-referential prose has become a common feature of the contemporary literary canon. Sterne also used typography, art, and book layout in ways not before seen in the English novel. Every copy of the first edition of volume three of Tristram Shandy included a uniquely marbled leaf of paper inserted within the printed text. Subsequent editions and translations of the novel have had to grapple with this technical challenge. The Geoffrey Day Collection, for instance, contains dozens of examples of this marbled leaf, some elaborately colored, some cheaply and uniformly printed, and some blank with a textual note to the reader of what is missing.

Amassed by Day over a lifetime as a Sterne scholar, this collection includes over 100 volumes of Sterne’s work printed before 1800 in English alone, including three copies of the rare York-printed first edition of volumes one and two of Tristram Shandy. The collection also includes over 100 translations of Sterne’s work in 21 languages (including Basque, Japanese, and Hungarian), dating from Sterne’s lifetime to the present. Among these translations are at least two (one in German, one in Dutch) which are not known to exist anywhere else. Further, the Day collection also includes the only known copy of a completely spurious edition of volume 9 of Tristram Shandy, published clandestinely in 1767. Beyond Sterne’s fiction, the collection also contains copies of the works he drew from in his writing, editions of his letters and sermons, and difficult-to-locate scholarly works on Sterne from around the world. In addition to the purchase of his collection of printed volumes, Day gifted the Penn Libraries a manuscript letter written by Laurence Sterne to a local apothecary the day following the death of Sterne’s daughter in childbirth. Day had himself received the letter as a gift from scholar and Penn benefactor Dr. William Zachs (C’83) who helped connect the Penn Libraries with Day this past year.

The Day collection will add to what is already one of the premier collections of 18th century English fiction in North America including the Singer-Mendenhall collection and the Teerink collection of Jonathan Swift. The acquisition of this wealth of Sterne material builds on these strengths while also encouraging new research on experimental writing, book design, and the transmission of English fiction to continental Europe. The Penn Libraries was able to acquire the collection thanks to the generosity of local philanthropist Dan Gordon.