"I just filled out a form, and they brought it right to my table," said Robert Watkins, a doctoral candidate at St. Mary's University writing his dissertation on 19th-century American translations of Italian verse. "It was an unbelievable feeling, to have right in front of me pages not seen by anyone since Longfellow wrote on them!"
Longfellow's translation of Dante's masterpiece, the first by an American, was published in 1867 and is still in print.
Librarians at Harvard University's Houghton Library were understandably thrilled at Watkins' find. "We're all very proud of Mr. Watkins for this amazing discovery," said James Underhill, curator of modern literary manuscripts, reached via email. "We know just how difficult our online catalog can be for researchers," he explained, noting that searching by author sometimes even requires that the name be entered with the last name first, followed by the first name.
The Longfellow manuscript has been at Houghton since 1954, when the Longfellow House Trust placed it on deposit with the library along with the rest of Longfellow's papers. "We've exhibited it several times, parts of the translation have been digitized and are available online, and of course it's listed in the finding guide to the collection," Underhill said. "But until Mr. Watkins called for it last week, obviously we had no idea that it was important."
Watkins says that while he's in Boston he plans to visit the Boston Public Library. "I read somewhere that they might have a book that John Adams wrote in," he said. "Wouldn't it be amazing to find that?!"