We are living in a golden age of both fretting about handwriting and fetishizing it. Polemicists lament that cursive is going the way of the dodo. Meanwhile, old-school devotees of pen and paper post their work on social media with hashtags like #snailmail and #penpal.
“The Magic of Handwriting,” an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, might seem at first glance to be part of this nostalgia. Instead, it simply luxuriates in the humble, intimate and sometimes very messy traces that some of the great figures of history have left behind.
The show features some 140 items from the encyclopedic holdings of the Brazilian collector Pedro Corrêa do Lago, who got his start at the age of 11, when he wrote to prominent figures to ask for their autographs. Today, he owns roughly 100,000 letters, notes, receipts, manuscripts, signed photographs and other pieces documenting notable lives in the arts, politics, science and other fields.
During an interview at the museum, the relentlessly loquacious Mr. Corrêa do Lago, 60, called his collection “a symbolic snapshot of Western culture over the past 500 years.” He also see it as it the product a kind of madness. “It became an absolutely crazy project that drowned all the money I made,” he said, with a laugh. “I should be in a straitjacket.”
Here is a sampling of items from the exhibition, and the sometimes quirky, sidelong glances they offer at their creators.
Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, 1935
When it comes to graphology — the study of handwriting to reveal character — count Mr. Corrêa do Lago among the skeptics. “I’m not convinced that it’s a science,” he said. But the exhibition includes a charming relic of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s adventures in chirology, or palm reading. He made this impression of his hand in 1935 in the presence of Dr. Charlotte Wolff, who detected “a rare gift of observation” and “love of animals.” The analysis and the print, which Saint-Exupéry signed, was published in a Surrealist journal, along with ones for André Breton, Aldous Huxley and Marcel Duchamp. “That he would sign an impression of his hand is perfect,” Mr. Corrêa do Lago said.
Pope Anastasius IV, ca. 1153
The oldest item in the show is a 12th-century parchment papal bull, signed by the reigning pope, Anastasius IV; three future popes; one future antipope; and one future saint. Anastasius marked the document with a single cross, written inside a circular symbol, known as a rota, near the center. “Imagine all these robed gentleman with this thing, spread out on an enormous wooden table, and now I can put it on my dining table,” Mr. Corrêa do Lago said. “It’s like a time machine.”
The Young Victoria, 1826
Neatly drawn letters trot across the page in this 1826 letter by the 7-year-old future Queen Victoria, sending birthday greetings to an uncle, the heir presumptive to the British throne. “When she was learning to write, she would copy models, which is why her writing looks so calligraphic,” Mr. Corrêa do Lago said. “But it didn’t stay at all like that.”
Rasputin, ca. 1910
The show includes many examples of gorgeous handwriting. And then there’s this signed photograph (circa 1910) of Rasputin, whose few surviving notes, according to the exhibition label, “are nearly indecipherable.” Mr. Corrêa de Lago doesn’t speak Russian. “But those who know Cyrillic have said it’s very bad handwriting,” he said.
Ernest Hemingway, 1930
When the archives of Who’s Who went up for sale, Mr. Corrêa do Lago spent a month poring over nearly 200,000 forms, culling those filled out by 1,800 still-notable people from the sea of the now-forgotten. “I had such an experience of sic transit gloria mundi, of how fleeting fame is,” he said. The show includes forms by Alan Turing, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, which stand as mini-autobiographies. In 1930, Hemingway listed his hobbies as “skiing, fishing, shooting, drinking,” and his education as simply “Abroad.”
AllEn Ginsberg, 1972
The show includes this photograph of a wild-haired Allen Ginsberg taken in the Australian desert in 1972, on which the poet later inscribed “Summit Ayers Rock Self Portrait Arms Length.” (He mistakenly gave the year as 1971.) At the summit, Ginsberg wrote a letter to his father, composed a poem and then turned the camera on himself, capturing the flies buzzing around his head. “I think of it as a proto-selfie,” Mr. Corrêa de Lago said.
Franz Kafka, 1924
In general, collectors prefer complete signatures: “Oscar Wilde” is better than just “O. Wilde” or just “Oscar.” “But here, just K for Kafka is O.K.,” Mr. Corrêa de Lago said of this 1924 letter, which was written a few weeks before the author’s death from tuberculosis. “You can probably imagine he had difficulty writing it, but the handwriting is so good. We have a piece of his life in our hands.”
Frida Kahlo, 1947
About a quarter of Mr. Corrêa do Lago’s collection consists of signed photographs — a category that some serious bibliophiles sniff at (and the Morgan does not actively collect), but that he says can be revealing. “You never inscribe an image you aren’t happy about,” he said. Frida Kahlo hand-colored and inscribed this photograph of her painting “The Frame” before giving it to a Brazilian diplomat posted in Mexico in the 1940s.
Giacomo Puccini, Ca. 1908
“A piece of paper recording the exact moment of creation in my opinion is the aristocracy of the autograph,” Mr. Corrêa do Lago said. (An autograph, in manuscript parlance, refers not to a signature but to anything in someone’s hand.) The exhibit includes several pieces showing thought hitting paper, like this portion of a draft of Giacomo Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West,” composed around 1908 in what a contemporary observer described as a coffee-fueled frenzy during which the composer sat at the piano “nervously tormenting the keyboard, drawing from it thrills of happiness, sighs of sadness, spasms of love, flames of rebellion and tired notes that seem dropped from weeping eyes.”
Jorge Luis Borges, ca. 1940
Mr. Corrêa do Lago owns the only known manuscript of Jorge Luis Borges’s classic story “The Library of Babel,” written around 1940 on nine pages of notebook paper meant for financial record keeping. The story, about an infinite library, might be seen as finding an echo in Mr. Corrêa do Lago’s own project. He was 17 when he met Borges in Buenos Aires and interviewed him for a newspaper. By coincidence, the exhibition’s curator, Christine Nelson, met and interviewed Borges when she was 19. “When I found out Pedro owned the manuscript,” Ms. Nelson said, “I was overcome with emotion.”
ALBERTO Santos-Dumont, 1929
“I included mostly household names,” Mr. Corrêa do Lago said of the show. He also put in five fellow Brazilians, including the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont, represented by a 1929 pen-and-ink sketch of some of his flying machines. When Dumont flew a biplane in 1906, the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight was still secret, leading Brazilians to claim to this day that their guy was first. The exhibition label doesn’t go that far, but does note — pointedly? — that Dumont was an “early advocate for open design” who freely shared drawings of his inventions.
The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection
Through Sept. 16 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.
Jennifer Schuessler is a culture reporter covering intellectual life and the world of ideas. She is based in New York. @jennyschuessler