I will once again be touching literary history soon, as the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University reopened yesterday following a 16-month renovation to upgrade the 50-year-old building’s climate-control system, expand its classroom space, and restore the landmark to its original luster. The building’s architectural features—an exterior grid of granite and Vermont marble panels, a six-story glass-stack tower, and a sculpture garden by Isamu Noguchi—have been refurbished to fully preserve architect Gordon Bunshaft’s modernist masterpiece. Chicago-based HBRA Architects led the design work with assistance from New Haven-based Newman Architects, the collaboration bringing new life to the building, which originally opened in October 1963.
Touching Literary History
I’ve been keeping up with the project because I’ve spent many hours within the quintessentially midcentury building touching literary history with my own hands. During a number of trips, I’ve reserved work by writers whose literary legacies are decidedly important to the advancement of writing and criticism. My first archival foray introduced me to Edmund Wilson’s journals, Henry Miller’s Paris diaries, and letters and sonnets written by Petrarch (on parchment; in his own hand)!
I’ve combed through Edith Wharton’s papers and explored a number of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s dossier, which includes her correspondences with Arthur Ficke Davison, Floyd Dell, Bunny—as Edmund Wilson’s friends referred to him, and others. Each choice was significant to projects I’m working on, and each time I think about holding their words between my fingertips, I’m in awe that I have access to such important documents. I’ll be returning in just a little over a month to delve into Gertrude Stein’s papers, the ten boxes I’ve reserved contain letters passed between her and other writers, photographs of her travels and drafts of works she created along the way.
Some Examples of Touching Literary History
The books I choose to take with me are never arbitrary, and during my first excursion to the Ivy League campus, I decided to take Robert Grudin’s The Grace of Great Things with me. The book never fails to inspire me, and it was no different as I sat reading at dinner the night before my first experience of sifting through the archives. As soft pools of light circled the pages open on the table, Grudin reminded me to resist the notion that I could achieve domination over creativity. “We no more ‘have’ ideas than ideas ‘have’ us,” he wrote, “and indeed the creative process might be simplified if we stopped searching for ideas and simply made room for them to visit.” I loved the thought of letting go to that extent so I made a decision I would try to do so as I digested the ramblings of other writers I would explore the next day.
I checked into the library feeling a mixture of excitement and awe. First, I was handed the box containing Wilson’s journals, the first of which was a beautifully bound, pocket-sized leather travel diary he began on May 11, 1908, when he was 13. His travels took him from Gibraltar to Spain; then to Italy and the UK. In Venice he notes, “One day we went out in a gondola to the Adriatic Sea where we bathed. The Adriatic was full of little crabs that you had to be very careful about stepping on or annoying in any way.”
I spent hours sifting through his life as expressed through his own words, thumbing through his last two journals with the most excitement because they covered the 1920s, 30s and most of the 40s when he was an editor at publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Seeing that Wilson typed up his last journal helped me understand it is a normal impulse for writers to want their words to live on; that my judgment against myself for continually mining what I see as dated material is unwarranted because the effort is important to the creative process and to the legacy a writer leaves behind—by intention or default.
I’m still not sure why, but it was Henry Miller’s diaries that made the strongest impression on me. I remember reading an article by a critic once who called his writing “muscular” and there was ample testosterone oozing from the pages holding his scribbling. It was also in the tenor of the newspaper clippings he’d assembled as he was researching The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn. His writing had a scrappy tone to it, much rougher around the edges than Wilson’s cultured voice.
And Miller’s Paris diaries served more of an obvious literary purpose than Wilson’s journals—they held research for his books. He had included observations of varied aspects of life in Paris, many of which he used in his manuscripts. He had made lists of street names, and descriptions of places and people, many of the entries crossed out or checked off as he included them in drafts.
He had also pasted articles about Bohemian life on the Left Bank onto the pages, as well as other types of clippings, illustrations and photos—several of which were of Anaïs Nin’s eyes. This helped me see that my extensive research for a book of sonnets I’m writing, which took me to New Haven in the first place, makes complete sense from an author’s perspective. I was finally able to quiet the impatient “in the world” piece of me that had been berating my determination to take my time with the material. I simply see now that the effort fosters the authentic voice of the narrative and I’m grateful for having a clear confirmation of this.
The Grace of Great Things
These concrete examples of how writing is breathed to life and nurtured—processed through diligence and time as a writer plants seeds and cultivates the soil—have been invaluable to me during the past several years since. This point was driven home with even greater clarity as I was reading Grudin’s book during dinner the evening after my first visit: “If inspiration is indeed an abandonment and a transcendence, it is nonetheless impossible without groaning effort, without the painful winning of skill.” He sums up the equation by saying the perfect recipe mixes “hard-earned expertise” with “unencumbered and trustful receptivity.”
Looking through those boxes holding significant efforts by Wilson, Miller and Petrarch (I can’t even believe I’m writing his name!) concretized something I had only intuited to this point: I see what it means to take my writing seriously. These men now serve as beacons and guides as I continue to find my own way, not just professionally but in some respects personally—a new tack for me, as I’ve long had female writers I consider inspirations but never before has it occurred to me that male authors could be personal muses as well.
Until that point, I had sought out only female writers because I thought their struggles would echo mine more fully but I saw that this was not the case. It was brought home to me in a letter tucked into Miller’s diaries from his father. It brought this question to mind: “Can you outsmart a legacy of pain?” The keepsake felt too intimate to photograph, which was strange because I hadn’t hesitated to snap pictures of letters between Miller and Nin, who were lovers at the time. Henry had scribbled several notes on his father’s letter in red, the one I remember being “(!)” just above the remark that his dad couldn’t remember what time of day Henry was born.
I’ve often berated myself for my inability to move beyond my own inherited familial pain, but if someone as solid a writer as Miller couldn’t let go of his, I see now the M.O. I was hoping would squelch mine is bogus. I was living under the misconception that if I could only become the stature of writer I dreamed of being, nothing else would matter. After a day of riffling through the writings of several of the “greats” who have come before me, I see how naïve that idea is. I saw this in the contents of Miller’s boxes. I saw it in the fact Wilson longed to escape the yoke of being seen only as a critic rather than the writer he had hoped to become.
I saw it in the scrolling cursive of Petrarch, who considered his youth wasted in the study of law and who chose a literary career at a time when such a move stacked him against incredible odds. I’ve saved the 14th-century writer for last because he ties into one of my most satisfying literary adventures to date: a trip I took to Parma, which I featured here last week, where he lived off and on as an adult. It was an excursion that I believe represents the point of this statement by Grudin: “…if we cannot specify or command inspiration, we can, I think, practice deserving it.” I believe I am doing so every time I am touching literary history in some way, whether in real life or on the written page.
The Modern Salonière and Making Room for Ideas to Visit © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.by