Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger is the curator for the New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle. This means that Denlinger “builds the Library’s collections documenting British Romantic literature and promotes them through classes, publications, digital projects, and exhibitions.” One of those exhibitions is this year’s display at the Morgan Library & Museum, entitled “It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200,” which will run from October 12, 2018 through January 27, 2019, and looks at the two century history of Mary Shelley’s seminal work.
“It traces the origins and impact of her novel, which has been constantly reinterpreted in spinoffs, sequels, mashups, tributes and parodies. Shelley conceived the archetype of the mad scientist, who dares to flout the laws of nature, and devised a creature torn between good and evil. Her monster spoke out against injustice and begged for sympathy while performing acts of shocking violence. In the movies, the monster can be a brute pure and simple, yet he is still an object of compassion and remains a favorite on stage and screen.”
As a companion, the Morgan will publish It’s Alive! A Visual History of Frankenstein through the UK publisher D Giles Ltd. It’s a hefty 300+ page tome, with nearly 190 color illustrations of the contextual depictions in the exhibition, many never before published in print. As Nora Crook, Professor Emerita at Anglica Ruskin University in Cambridge states in her advance praise for the book, It’s Alive! is “a feast for the eye and mind […] all set to be a beautiful reference book and teaching resource.”
It really is, too. Denlinger’s book sets the tone from the moment one looks at the canvas cover, embossed with silver foil lightning and red foil text. The turn of every page brings an interesting or intriguing image tied to the history of Mary Shelley’s novel and its many descendents. As Denlinger states in the introduction, “Too Terrible For Human Eyes: The Frankenstein Mystique,” there are thousands of articles and essays on JSTOR regarding the book and its myriad possible interpretations, but “despite this extraordinary attention, there hadn’t been a book focusing on how Frankenstein has been seen.”
There are surgical kits and devices such as vacuum pump bell jars, depictions of medical and scientific experiments (including two glorious paintings by Joseph Wright) and imagery taken from stage and screen adaptations, to say nothing of myriad looks at original, hand-written materials from many of the players in the now-famous ghost story contest. There are portraits and posters and playbills, and it would all be dizzyingly too much, were it not presented in such a well-balanced manner.
The story is told more or less chronologically, with the beginning predating the story itself, looking at what might have inspired Mary Shelley, be it the scientific breakthroughs of the time, or the work of her parents and their writing. Of most interest to casual fans — or those most familiar with the Universal Pictures’ 1931 screen adaptation — is also the book’s highlight.
While the organizers of the exhibition weren’t able to acquire an original one-sheet to James Whale’s cinematic adaptation, due to the fact that they are exceedingly rare, they did get their hands on “something even better: the sole surviving copy of a giant six-sheet lithograph billboard advertisement.” It’s never been used, and is absolutely pristine, and is, frankly, a thing of wondrous beauty.
It’s Alive! is the sort of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelf so often, it may as well find a home as near to where you sit as possible. I’m loathe to call it a coffee-table book, because that implies graphics over words, and the commentary is just as important as the images within. This book will make a lot of points in any argument one might have regarding the cultural importance of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over the years, as well as its continued relevance. Even if you can’t make the Morgan’s exhibition, you owe it to yourself to have the book.
For more information on the Morgan Library & Museum’s exhibition and associated programs, visit the Morgan’s website.