As he thinks about these treasures daily, he’s discovered a truth that those outside and inside the state typically miss. West Virginia is not a foreign hollow hidden in homogenous America, the keeper of the peculiar ways of an Appalachian island.
“They made apple butter in Boston, and they sang ‘Barbara Allen,’” Cuthbert said. “They just did it longer here. It took longer for older traditions to be wiped out here.
“West Virginia’s heritage is America’s heritage.”
Flannery O’Connor and a hurricane in New York
Carole Harris was only going to take a few days to sift through journals in West Virginia. But Hurricane Sandy had other ideas.
The City University of New York professor used the time the hurricane granted her by keeping her from returning to Brooklyn to thoroughly explore the 60 boxes of writings of Maryat Lee, a playwright and artist, in the WVU collection.
In the 1990s after Lee died, associate curator Michael Ridderbusch carted the boxes by truck from Lewisburg to Morgantown. In the boxes, among Lee’s life's work, were depictions of the friendship between Lee and author Flannery O’Connor.
Harris had found references to those 60 boxes in a few O’Connor biographies. But you can probably count on two hands the number of researchers who have looked through Lee’s boxes.
Harris found journals that told of Lee’s first meeting with O’Connor, the influence each had on the other and Lee’s coping after O’Connor’s early death from lupus.
And in going through Lee’s effects – a blue robe she wore during plays she oversaw in West Virginia, black and white childhood photographs, and drafts of her plays written with the youth of New York – she discovered much more about Lee and her times.
Some of Harris’ other research has been solely online.
“It was so different,” she said. “It felt so less thrilling than to have that notebook, the primary object, in your hands.
“I’ve never done research where I was like a real scout.”
That thought could be echoed by Elaine Treharne, a Florida State University professor who discovered an original 16th-century romantic poem written by a noblewoman in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Her discovery was on that same sixth floor of the WVU library in the Rare Book Room.
Even representatives from the Smithsonian Institution have been to the collection to verify a set of Plains Indians ledger drawings depicting the life of Sitting Bull.