The press department for the Rosenbach Museum refers to Stephen Colbert's book "I Am A Pole (And So Can You!)" as a "children's book," quotations included.
But inside the Philadephia museum, Colbert's work sits alongside the real stuff.
The institution’s latest acquisition, the manuscript for Colbert’s rhyming story about a pole that discovers its patriotic duty, is now a bona fide part of the museum's rare books collection, joining works written by Abraham Lincoln and James Joyce.
From now until November, visitors are encouraged to test Colbert’s manuscript against the museum's pride, a handwritten version of Joyce's "Ulysses." The "Ulysses" manuscript will sit in a glass case beside the original "I Am A Pole” manuscript, along with odds and ends that Colbert deemed relevant -- the empty bottle of Bud Light Lime he says he drained while writing his contribution, the pen and a backup one he kept close, a receipt for the turkey sandwich that kept him going.
"People might wonder why we would do something like this," Rosenbach director Derick Dreher told The Huffington Post in a phone interview. "Isn’t it risky? Or silly? I would say anything we can do that makes 'Ulysses' relevant on an ongoing basis is worth doing."
It’s the sort of publicity stunt Colbert is famous for championing. If the move is gently opportunistic on the museum’s part -- a way to show the public that it's not just offering a “collection of old stuff,” as Dreher said -- it's also not entirely random. One explicit link to Joyce appears early on in Colbert’s text, in the opening lines.
"Colbert has written, 'I am a penguin,' and 'penguin' is crossed out, and then 'I am a stately, plump Buck Mulligan,' and that’s crossed out, and then 'I am a pole,''' explained Patrick Rodgers, a Rosenbach curator. "That’s a reference to the very first lines of 'Ulysses.''' (Joyce's full line reads: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.")
The reference is explained clearly at the museum, so visitors other than "the four people who’ve read 'Ulysses'" will catch it, Dreher said. He added that Colbert is "actually a huge fan" of Joyce’s 1000-odd-page overhaul of the English language. This might not surprise anyone who heard Colbert's 2011 commencement speech at Northwestern University, when he recalled student days of wearing turtlenecks and muttering dark scholarly soliloquies. "He is hugely knowledgeable," Dreher said. "He had all sorts of questions for us about what specific passages look like in the original."
The exhibit also explores Colbert's relationship with the late Maurice Sendak; the Rosenbach has an extensive collection of the illustrator's work. It was after seeing the much-passed around video of Colbert interviewing Sendak that the Rosenbach decided to develop a permanent Colbert collection. The interview's artifacts -- Colbert's and Sendak's side-by-side drawings, the bag of "censored" bits that Colbert cut out of the nude scenes in Sendak's "The Night Kitchen" -- are part of the acquisition.
Dreher, who announced the news in a segment on Tuesday night's "Colbert Report," told The Huffington Post that the exhibit is a “new and risky interpretation” that Joyce would have hated -- something that doesn't bother him in the least.
"This is really going to show people who haven't seen the 'Ulysses' manuscript that this is a worthwhile endeavor. You can’t just sit back and assume people will care. What they have is respect for and interest in Colbert. When he says 'Ulysses' is interesting, that gives it real credibility. Now they're interested."
Below see some objects from the Rosenbach's exhibit "Maurice Sendak and Stephen Colbert: Interviews, Objects…and Poles!"
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