Letters from an American Farmer

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes

[Posted by Jacob Miller '14, for AMST 838/438 "America Collects Itself"]

J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur is an 18th century French writer, most famous for his expository work recounting the cultural and structural identity of the newly forged American colonies to the European world. At a time where colonists were fashioning their own identity and Europeans wondered about the makeup of this “new world” society, Crevecoeur attempted to bring his own interpretation of this new American identity. One of Crevecoeur’s most popular works both today and during his writing career was a volume of narrative essays published under the title, Letters From an American Farmer.   Written from the perspective of a fictional American farmer, James, living in the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania, these essays are a direct attempt at depicting the American condition from the corrupting evils of slavery, to descriptions of local animals, plants and trees, as well as descriptions of Quaker society on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Crevecoeur spent an extensive amount of time in the colonies of New York and Pennsylvania before the Revolutionary War, even purchasing 120 acres of farmland in Orange County, New York and marrying Mehitable Tippet, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. He even became a naturalized citizen in New York in 1765.[1]

Letters From an American Farmer ImageIn the Watkinson, I handled and read sections from a copy of the text published in 1783 in London, printed by T. Davies. One of the most interesting aspects of this particular book was the incredibly detailed and expertly inserted foldout map of the island of Nantucket. This version of the text also bore the lengthy original title of Letters from an American farmer: describing certain provincial situations, manner, and customs not generally known; and conveying some idea of the late and present interior circumstances of the British colonies in North America. While thorough, this title has been shortened in the more recent publications. While the subject matter of this letters is extensive, I found Letter III and Letter IX to address the most interesting aspects and problems facing our newly forged nation.

Letter III is titled “What is An American?” This letter attempts to assign meaning and parameters to the culture of America. Recognizing the multi-cultural heritage of the new nation, Crevecoeur, as James, writes, “The next wish of this traveler will be to know whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From This promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans has arisen.” With this mosaic of cultural heritage as the foundation, Crevecoeur builds to address the very question of citizenship as a right. “Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and saves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country?” While part of a multifaceted depiction, I think this argument is one of the more poignant pieces of Crevecoeur’s constructed American identity. For Crevecoeur, the removal of predetermined societal clout based on birth or caste is the basic right of every American. The removal of monarchical society and the ability to be socially mobile, based solely on how hard you are willing to work is an idealized, and arguably accurate depiction of the early years of colonial life. In order to examine this depiction critically, one must compartmentalize the reality that these rights were only allotted to white men, and this land, which is depicted as free and ready for cultivation and enterprise originally belonged to now displaced native populations. In some ways, the recognition of this reality taints the idealized tone of this early work of America cultural study.

Crevecoeur does mention the Indian tribes in this letter; however, it is part of a comparison that contains the lingering social hierarchies that he celebrates absence of in American society. One of the sections deconstructs the structure of society to a primal level. In this letter Crevecoeur also argues that colonists brought order and structure to a savage world. The settlements, buildings, religious and governmental organizations that have been established are in many ways an inherently positive civilizing force in the region. He compares these interior and coastal towns with the frontier areas near the “great woods.” “There, remote from the power of example and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society.” He goes on to state that they exist and live off the wild; therefore, this wild permeates its way into their existence and behavior.

Letter IX titled “Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; On Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene” is also very interesting and an important critique of slavery. Crevecoeur paints a portrait of the stanch contrast in the populace of this town.  “The inhabitants are the gayest in America; it is caked the centre of our beau monde, and is always filled with the richest plants of the province, who resort hither in quest of health and pleasure.” This is the Charles-Town at the top of the social spectrum, those lawyers, planters and merchants who reap the rewards of an economy based on the sweat equity of slaves. The world of the slave is depicted much differently as “they are obliged to devote their lives, their limbs, their will, and every vital exertion to swell the wealth of masters.” This contrast is chilling and Crevecoeur seems ahead of his time stating through James, “I hope the time draws near when they will be all emancipated.”

This collection of letters is any incredibly important depiction of early life in our country. It shows the founding principles and cultural identity that resulted from the conditions and societal climate of early colonial America. While slightly hypocritical and shaped by a catering to its largely European audience, this work contextualizes and provides an insider look at the founding of a nation. Crevecoeur brought the American colonies and frontier to a worldwide audience and handling a text from the very time that people were reading about the nation I call my home for the first time was a fascinating experience.

[1] J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur. (1735-1813). E-publisher LiterNet. Edited by Albena Bakratcheva. 2009 http://liternet.bg/ebook/amerikanska/bio/j_de_crevecoeur.htm


Washington’s Will

   Posted by: rring   in Americana, Classes

[Posted by Mollie Scheerer '14 for AMST 838/438 "America Collects Itself"]

IMG_7338George Washington died on December 14, 1799 at his Mount Vernon home in Virginia. Upon his death the total sum to which his property and land amounted was $530,000 and was divided among his family, friends, and organizations and causes close to his heart. A copy of it is at the Watkinson published in New York on January 23, 1800 by J. Furman. The original will was printed in Alexandria but the copy in particular at the Watkinson is an authenticated copy as noted by George Deneale, Clerk of Fairfax County Court in Virginia. The original was printed in his office and on the page preceding the title page, Deneale writes that this copy, with the schedule of Washington’s property directed to be sold annexed, is a “True Copy from the Original.” His name was signed at the bottom of every page in the original manuscript but was not included in the copies printed in January of 1800.

Washington’s will is a window into the life and values of the first President of the United States. He bequeathed his entire estate and everything “real and personal” to his dearly beloved wife, Martha for the remainder of her life. He also gave his property on Pitt & Cameron Streets in Alexandria to her and her family for the rest of its legacy. His love and devotion to his wife during his lifetime is apparent in his will as he respects and trusts her by leaving decisions about his property to her best judgement. Even in his bequests to other family members and friends, much of it has to do with Martha’s well-being after he dies as he wanted to ensure she live the best life possible even without him.

IMG_7339Perhaps the most interesting and well-known part of his will is the freeing of his slaves, however. In his will he states that after Martha’s death all slaves that he owned were to be emancipated. He waited until after her death to ensure she was taken care of after his passing but both wanted their slaves to find freedom when they were gone. Being the noble man that he was,
however, he makes sure that they were not released into the free world without being able to land on their feet. He intended for his heirs to make sure the slaves who were too old, young, crippled, or sick were comfortably fed and clothed. For the young slaves with no parents alive, able, or willing to provide for them in freedom, they were to be bound by the court until they were twenty-five years old. He further protected their well-being by forbidding the sale and transportation of any slave out of the commonwealth of Virginia, wanting to keep families together and near their home. The release of his slaves, even in his death, was a powerful statement to make at the time. Washington also wanted to ensure his slaves lead good lives after their freedom, going a step further than most would have done.

Washington also granted immediate freedom upon his death to William, his valet, or whom he called his “Mulatto man.” Again, just as he did for the rest of his slaves after Martha’s death, Washington wanted to ensure William was able to lead a satisfactory life after his master’s death. Due to his position as Washington’s valet, however, William received even more advantageous options. In his will Washington gave William the choice of immediate freedom or, if he so chose, to remain working for Washington’s estate. Washington alludes to William’s situation of being crippled due to accidents that had befallen him rendering him incapable of walking or any active employment. With either option William chose, however, Washington states that he was to receive thirty dollars a year for the rest of his life. Washington’s bequest toWilliam is unlike many master-slave wishes in a last will and testament. Not only is it extremely generous and unprecedented, Washington also speaks to William’s faithful services during the Revolutionary War and their attachment to one another. Another indication of his character, Washington left four thousand dollars to the Trustees of the Academy in Alexandria to support a free school for orphans and the poor annexed to the current Academy. He believed in the power of educating the youth of the United States in strong institutions on our own soil and planned for the establishment of a university in the District of Columbia in his name. There, he intended students to complete their education in all branches of “polite literature; in arts and Sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of Politics & good Government; and…by associating with each other, and forming friendships in Juvenile years, be enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices & habitual jealousies.” Washington also gave a generous endowment to Liberty Hall Academy, later named Washington & Lee University which carries on the President’s legacy and interest in education today.

Although George Washington did not have any children his many nieces and nephews benefited from his will, as did other relatives and friends and their heirs. A great many interesting objects were left for those especially fortunate, such as a gold cane left to him by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to his brother Charles; spy glasses to one of his childhood friends that Washington revealed “constituted part of my equipage during the late war”; and for the Earl of Buchan, the box made out of the legendary Elderslie Oak that sheltered Sir William Wallace after the Battle of Falkirk near Paisley, Scotland. Most of the bequests in Washington’s will are thoughtful and seem personal, again showing his character as well as his respect for those close to him. The physical document itself is interesting as in this edition a schedule and breakdown of Washington’s property to be sold is included. He had a great deal of livestock to be sold including horses, donkeys, mules, cattle, sheep, and hogs totaling to around $15,658. This copy also includes a note from the publisher revealing that the document states it was sealed on July 9, 1790 but the testator omitted the last nine. Although the will states it was finalized that year, it was actually sealed in 1799 just months before Washington’s passing. He also signed the bottom of every page in the original manuscript but his signature was not included in later copies produced. Although the original document is always interesting to explore, sometimes the following copies and editions can be even more revealing about the true nature of the original, as seen with the Watkinson’s copy of George Washington’s Last Will and Testament.

[Posted by Professor Sarah Rivett, Princeton University]

Abenaki Prayer Book IHoused in the American Indian Vocabulary Collection of the Watkinson Library are two manuscript prayer books from the eighteenth century, written in the Abenaki language. The prayer books are in the same hand, and on the inside of the front cover of one of them, we have a clue as to who the author might have been: “Father Germain, the last Jesuit missionary of the St. Francis.” Ordained in Belgium, Charles Germain decided to work as a missionary in New France.  He lived among the Abenaki for twenty-nine years, from 1739 until his death in 1779.

Germain lived through tumultuous times of a war-ravaged northeast that culminated with British dominion of North America following the Seven Years War (1754 – 1763). When Germain arrived in the Abenaki community in Acadia, the region was already under British control, as a consequence of the Treaty of Paris (1713) that ended the War of Spanish Succession. Germain was a military strategist as well as a missionary. He worked as a liaison between the government of New France and the Abenaki Indians under his pastoral care. His aim, like that of his predecessor, Sebastian Rale, was to consolidate Acadian resistance by ensuring that Franco-Catholicism left a lasting mark on North America. Committed to his faith and his country of origin, Germain’s proselytizing of Abenaki souls was intimately connected to his disdain for the Anglo-Protestantism.

Language was Germain’s tool of both Abenaki conversion and war strategy. Speaking the language of the indigenous inhabitants of North America proficiently was the best means of communicating Christian doctrine and establishing alliances. Since the French presence in North American paled in comparison to the British, in terms of population and cosmopolitan development, the Indian-French alliance was France’s only hope of survival. Luckily for Germain, his Jesuit predecessors were accomplished linguists. Sebastian Rale lived among the Abenaki in Norridgewalk from 1691 until his death at the hands of the British in 1722. He composed an extensive dictionary that is now housed at the Houghton Library in Cambridge Massachusetts. For Rale, learning Abenaki was an incredibly difficult task. There were no books on the topic, no grammars, and no teachers other than the Abenaki themselves. Rale describes going to sit in Abenaki wigwams for eight to nine hours every day as “a child goes to school.” He spoke as best he could and the Abenaki corrected him. Because of Rale’s work, Father Germain entered a community with a fairly substantial written record of Abenaki. Indeed, we might even speculate that Germain developed his prayer books from Rale’s scribal publications of similar texts. Additionally, some of the Abenaki would have known French while others were used to playing the role of teacher to the Jesuit missionaries in an ironic process of role reversal where the European became the student and the American Indian the teacher.

Abenkai Prayer Book IIScale is the most striking material difference between the Abenaki Prayer Books composed by Germain and Rale’s Abenaki Dictionary, or the monumental Illinois-French Dictionary compiled by Jacques Gravier and also housed at the Watkinson Library. Gravier’s dictionary contains over twenty-two thousand words listed alphabetically, with the Illinois preceding the French. The writing is small, economizing space in the enormous tome bound in marbled leather. Composed over decades, words were crossed out. Corrections were made, sometimes in Gravier’s hand and sometimes in a different hand, possibly that of his successors, Julien Binneteau and Gabriel Marest. By contrast, the Abenaki prayer books are small enough to fit in a missionary’s pocket. Composed of only about twenty leaves, they are sewn together with a thin piece of leather. The design ensures that the books function as useable texts in liturgical and ritual worship. The contents are equally succinct: morning prayers, evening prayers, the Ave Maria, the ten commandments, catechisms, confessional prayers, and psalms. Each title appears in French, as a clue to the priest leading the service, while the text itself is in Abenaki. It is likely that these prayer books were used by priests other than Germain. Such was the case with the Illinois prayer book written by Claude Allouez for Father Jacques Marquette to take on his travels along the Joliet trail. With the aid of such a prayer book, a priest could get by with minimal language skills. The prayers were mnemonic, sung within the context of a primarily oral indigenous language culture. Additionally, many of the Abenaki who had already converted to Catholicism lead the prayers during ritual worship, often more effectively than the priests who were bound by a partial understanding of both the language and the worldview that it represented.

Germain entered into Abenaki territory with the goal of controlling the Abenaki people for imperial purposes. The Abenaki-French alliance during the Seven Years War is the dominant narrative that we associate with this time period. Yet texts such as these Abenaki prayer books suggest an alternative perspective, one in which language both facilitated French desire for indigenous dominance and undermined it. To learn the language, missionaries had to submit to instruction. They had to suspend their education and their linguistic training in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew in addition to several European languages. The indigenous languages of North America were nothing like they had ever encountered, nothing that they could have planned for upon leaving the Old World. To become proficient in Abenaki, Rale would assemble a group of native speakers whom he felt to be the most intelligent and eloquent. Before them, he would recite the catechism and hear their corrections. In doing so, he learned how different the language was from European languages, how delicate the mode of correct expression was. The massive dictionaries produced by Jesuit missionaries at the turn of the eighteenth century were attempts to visually capture the phonetic sounds of the spoken words around them. The catechism functioned as an educational text for native proselytes and missionaries alike. In some cases, this is all we have left of an otherwise lost language.

As anyone who has studied a language other than his or her own mother tongue knows, language is a window into a worldview. Language gives us unique access to another culture. Something is always lost through translation, but in the case of the Abenaki prayer books, something was also gained. These texts became mnemonic tools for priests and proselytes alike. The form of translation reflected in the prayer books was cyclical, from oral to written and then back to oral. In learning the Abenaki language, the Jesuits also learned of Abenaki culture. And while Christianity was a tool of colonization, it also changed through translation. Doctrine, pious practice, and religious expression took on new resonance when expressed through words intended to represent an entirely different cosmos.


The Dry Salvages

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Anisha Chakrabarti '14, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

IMG_1893Going to the Watkinson Library to research T.S. Eliot was an astonishing experience, as I found that the collection included works from throughout Eliot’s life. The work I chose to examine was a copy of Eliot’s poem, The Dry Salvages. The piece is the third of four sets of poems that Eliot published later in his career entitled, The Four Quartets.

 While the first time the poem was published was in February of 1941 in an edition of New English Weekly, this version was published in September of the same year and is the first edition of its publication alone.

The poem is not particularly long; therefore it surprised me that it was published on its own in such a sparse manner. It is slightly flimsy; the book cover is cardboard, and it is bound in an elm green binding that has been reinforced by green tape. The pages are yellowed, but do not look particularly worn. The book cover says nothing; it is only when you turned to the title page that very simply, T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages, Faber and Faber is printed. This made me think that perhaps the edition had been published originally with a compilation of other works.

IMG_1894Faber and Faber is printed quite largely on the title page, so I looked up what the publishing company was. The second page describes the publishing as being done in London. Upon research, I learned that the editor of Faber and Faber was in fact, T.S. Eliot. This means, that he had completely control and editorial power over this piece, and approved it. It would then make sense, that he could have released his own work on its own, regardless of its length. This made me question the format of the font and layout of the piece in relation to the time period in which it was published.

Eliot’s pieces contain such complexity; it made me wonder if that was the reason for the simplicity in the format of the publishing. I then considered the time period in which the piece was published. Eliot had been working on the piece during the air raids of Great Britain during World War II. So the simple paper, short work, lack luster binding, and plain fonts may have been a result of a lack of resources during the war.

Although the piece was published in Great Britain, and was written there, its title is derived from a rock formation that is located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as Eliot indicated on the third page before the poem begins.

I was first attracted to this piece in the Watkinson because I was interested in its autobiographical nature that Eliot was writing about during his later life. The Dry Salvages includes references to Gloucester Harbor, where Eliot would go sailing as a child. I thought it was intriguing that how even though he essentially ex-patrioted, at a later time in his life he was writing about his childhood in the United States. It makes sense, as it was a time of disorder in his new home of Europe that he would be reflecting on his earlier American life.

What I found most striking about The Dry Salvages in relation to studying early Eliot and why it was also very interesting to read because of its similarity to the section, Death by Water in the Wasteland. Eliot was writing almost 20 years later, yet many images and themes of life as being a boat adrift, as well as the sea, from Death by Water are still imminent in The Dry Salvages, yet it was a more hopeful poem than the Wasteland.

In the original, pre-edited manuscript of The Wasteland, you see the much longer IV. Death By Water, and in the original, Eliot references “The Dry Savages,” and comments on it in his notes. This did not make the final version of The Wasteland, but was clearly an idea that Eliot thought about even twenty years later and that he went back to in The Dry Salvages.


[Posted by Forrest Robinette '16, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

MooreTurteltop-4-1On October 19th in 1955, Robert B. Young, the head of the Marketing Research Department at the Ford Motor Company, sent a letter to Marianne Moore to ask if she would help the company in coming up with a name for Ford’s newest series of cars. What followed was a yearlong written correspondence between the businessman and the poet in which Moore suggested hundreds of possible names for the Ford E-car, what would eventually become the “Edsel.” Some of her suggestions include the “Ford Faberge,” the “Mongoose Civique,” the “Pluma Piluma,” the “Turcotinga,” and, perhaps the most infamous of all, the “Utopian Turtletop.” Moore and Young’s letters were collected in a book that I found during my visit to the Watkinson titled,  “Letters Between Marianne Moore and the Ford Motor Company.” The book is particularly fascinating because, as the correspondence continues, we see Mr. Young realizing that he may have bitten off more than he can chew in his attempt to work with the very eccentric Moore. It is fascinating to examine how the tone of his letters change as Moore continues to send page after page of bizarre names for the Ford E-car.

In his first letter to Moore, Young’s tone is extremely humble as he requests help on a problem that is, as he says, “more in the field of words and the fragile meaning of words than in car-making.” Young repeatedly establishes himself as Moore’s inferior on the subject of words and he holds her up as an expert. He writes, “We are seeking the help of one who knows more of this sort of magic than we.” His use of the word “magic” frames Moore’s artistic work as something that transcends the more mundane world of car-making. Young seems to be engaging in some flattery here in the hope of enlisting Moore as a consultant. Young is successful and Moore agrees to help, but he quickly runs into difficulty as he tries to establish the terms of their business relationship.

MooreTurteltop-4-2Throughout his letters, Young repeatedly tries to settle on a method of payment for Moore’s services. At the end of his first letter he writes, “Of course, it is expected that our relations will be on a fee basis of an impeccably dignified kind.” Moore does not acknowledge this comment in her responding letter and simply says, “I am complimented to be recruited in this high matter.” Young becomes more insistent about monetary reimbursement in his second letter saying, “in compliance with procedures in this rigorous business world, I think we should make some definite arrangements for payment… before pursuing the problem further.” Moore once again fails to respond to his comment and instead responds with her first suggestion for a name, “The Silver Sword.” She then launches into a lengthy description of the Haleakalā Silversword, the rare Hawaiian plant that inspired her suggestion.

MooreTurteltop-4-3Young mentions money for a third time in his third letter to her. He writes, “It is unspeakably contrary to Procedures here to accept counsel… without a firm prior agreement of conditions (and, indeed, without a Purchase Notice).” While Young repeats himself about the issue of payment, Moore simply continues to send him fanciful suggestions for the E-car. In this third letter, Young even asks Moore to stop sending him so many suggestions. He writes, we propose “a recess in production for orderly bookkeeping.” Despite this comment, Moore continues to send letters in which she muses about the car’s name. At this point in the correspondence, it becomes clear that these individuals do not understand each other. For Young, this is his job and he intended to bring Moore on board as a paid consultant. For Moore, this is most likely a fun task that she has chosen to take on. This disparity in their objectives leads to a correspondence that is ultimately unproductive.

In Young’s last letter to Moore, it is clear that his attempt to utilize her help has largely failed. He writes, “contributions have been entered from many directions, and those from our “favorite Turtletopper” rate among the most interesting of all.” Note that he does not say the “best” of all. He says the most “interesting” of all. Young goes on, “We can scarcely begin to thank you for your interest… in our dilemma.” The word “interest” is particularly loaded because it would suggest that Moore approached Ford to offer suggestions when, in reality, it was Young who approached her. It seems as though Young is trying to let Moore down easy because he has realized that he cannot establish a steady or productive working relationship with her.

These letters are truly unique in how they shed light on Moore’s interactions with the non-artistic sectors of society.  I do not know who chose to compile these letters in a small book, but I do know that the book is one of only five hundred and fifty copies. I imagine that this book came about because someone wanted to preserve this unique look at the personality of Marianne Moore.

MooreTurteltop-4-4 MooreTurteltop-4-5 MooreTurteltop-4-6 MooreTurteltop-4-7 MooreTurteltop-4-8 MooreTurteltop-4-9 MooreTurteltop-4-10 MooreTurteltop-4-11


The Social Visibility of Poetry

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Michael Peluso, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

poetry society of america-3In the early 1960s, less than a decade after Wallace Stevens’s death at age 75, Trinity worked with his daughter Holly and the University of Connecticut archives to put together an exhibit on the poet. The exhibition focused partially on correspondences that Stevens kept up with friends and publishers, and also explored a significant portion of his personal collection of artwork that, presumably, influenced his own approach to poetry. Much has been made of the man’s fascination with burgeoning artistic movements, and the prints available help to flesh out a portrait of how Stevens explored the visual arts in service of his poetry.

Buried within a pile of these prints and correspondences, though, a small pamphlet caught my eye. Provided, presumably, by Holly for the exhibition, this rather unassuming program for the Poetry Society of America’s 41st annual dinner suggests an interesting personal, and familial, side of Stevens that isn’t usually immediately evident in his work or in the common conception of the reticent insurance man who made pains to keep his poetic excursions separate from his Hartford business life. The artifact also tells us a bit about Stevens’s world in the poetry community, and about the evolving reception to his work.

The 41st annual dinner occurred in 1951, and it’s worth noting that Stevens, our guest of honor, as well as the Honorary President (Robert Frost), and the Honorary Vice-President (Leonora Speyer) were all elder statesmen of American poetry by that time. It’s also worth noting that, among so many of their contemporaries who travelled overseas extensively and blurred the lines of professed nationalism, Speyer, and particularly Frost and Stevens, were all primarily American poets, making them prime candidates, naturally, for this poetry society’s recognition. The gathering was a celebration of the old guard, full of long-overdue odes to Stevens’s Harmonium from those early adopters who saw its worth well before the critics. Said A.M. Sullivan, it “made me aware for the first time of a person’s ability to enjoy poetry without the necessity of explanation or justification.” The celebration of poets passed, and the honoring of those formative to the “American” movement speaks to an appropriate concern with the foundations of American poetry. Additionally, the dinner was an occasion to meditate on the nature and presence of American poetry on a global stage, and a celebration of its current representatives. Similarly, a glance through guest list suggests that the society was, possibly, more concerned with the social visibility of poetry and poetic support than with the virtues of poetics themselves.

With this in mind, Holly’s brief notations on the page showing her father are open to a range of interpretations. Under one picture, captioned “Richard Wilbur, in an entranced moment…” Holly underlined “entranced,” which undercuts the gravitas of the situation, and suggests, somewhat sarcastically, that the pomp and circumstance and florid language of the event was somewhat less than genuine, or, at the very least, trumped up to excessive proportions in either the intended perception or in the retelling. In the next pane over, Stevens himself takes center stage, “lending an attentive ear” to the proceedings. In the margin, with an arrow pointing to her father, a daughter’s “ha” complicates the scene immeasurably. It could be a simple piece of familial teasing, a goofy picture warranting a small jibe, or an inside joke between parent and progeny. Given what we know of Stevens, with his reluctance to discuss his poetry, mixed with the smattering of dignitaries, ambassadors, and actual poets in attendance, the notation, and Stevens’s expression, could be read as a signal of discomfort among the bombast of the occasion. The underlined “entranced” would certainly suggest that Holly was of the opinion that this group took themselves a bit too seriously (whether the group themselves shared this opinion remains less clear, although the text alone would suggest a certain formality), and paired with the somewhat inscrutable expression on Stevens himself, these two simple notations open a world of possibility about the truth of an experience otherwise unapproachable through the text itself. At the very least, these marks serve to humanize and humble. We tend to lionize our heroes, and even our attentions to their personal lives come through a reserved distance. Holly’s marks, however slight, give an intimately unguarded lens, and partial clue, into her father’s appreciation of his poetic society.


W. H. Auden’s Last Stand – Thank You, Fog

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Madeline Burns ‘16, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

Auden 1What I found in the Watkinson was Thank You, Fog, a posthumous collection of poetry by W. H. Auden, published in 1974. The poems in this collection were written in 1972 and 1973, up until Auden’s death in September 1973. At the time of his death, Auden had already assembled the poems he wanted to be in this book, and had selected its title and dedication. He was preparing it for publication by his literary executor Edward Mendelson.

The main reason that I selected this collection was because of Edward Mendelson’s commentary. In a note at the beginning of the collection, Edward Mendelson writes that the last poem that Auden wrote did not appear in this collection. He includes the poem at the end of his note. It reads:

Auden 4

He still loves life

but O O O O how he wishes

the good Lord would take him.

Mendelson’s commentary and the inclusion of Auden’s last poem ever written provides insight into the end of Auden’s life and how his poetry progressed over the span of his lifetime. Auden wrote about old age, and death, and coming to terms with old age and death. You can also see his religious influences more prominently than in some of his earlier poems. Especially in this final poem that Mendelson included, Auden came to accept his death and wished that “the good Lord would take him”.

Auden is typically considered to be an anti-romantic. He presents the world in a scientific manner, and writes in a orderly, neat writing style. His earlier poems are rooted in concrete images and colloquial language. While his style certainly carries over into his last collection, his ideas are more romanticized and abstract than in his earlier collections. The presentation of his poems was also different from that in some of his earlier works. His stanza alignment was more abstract, with many indented passages within larger poems, and asterisks breaking up stanzas.

Auden 9These poems were written during his short time in Europe before his death. He died in Austria in 1973, not in the United States, although he gained American citizenship in the 1940s. Some of his best work comes from the stretch of time that he was living in the United States. Was this elevated point in his writing career exemplary of the profound influence of his environment, or was it merely a combination of his age and skill at the time. This comes into question when looking at this later collection of poetry, written in Europe. Was the more abstract and pensive writing style primarily the result of his old age, or his environment?

One also has to question how much of these changes came directly from Auden, and how much came from Mendelson after Auden’s death. When looking at a posthumous collection of poems, one can never be sure what the author’s original intentions were. For instance, part of what caught my attention about this collection was its color – the cover is orange. Did Auden intend for it to be that color? Or were his directions not that specific, and did Mendelson have to make these decisions himself? Also, were all the poems included in this collection meant for publication? Auden did not want his last poem to be included in the collection, and yet Mendelson includes it in his introduction. Even with the most talented of poets, in a posthumous collection, not everything is worthy of release, even when in a fully completed form. As a collection of poetry, Thank You, Fog is not Auden’s strongest work. However, its existence stands as a testament to his life’s journey as a poet, and the ways in which his writing style developed over time.


The Poet & the Library

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Jordan Wilson, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

eliot0002An Address to Members of the London Library by T.  S. Eliot O.M.: On the occasion of his assuming the office of President of the Library. Delivered at the Annual General Meeting of Members in the Reading Room, 22 July 1952.

At sixty-three years old, T. S. Eliot succeeded Giles Fox-Strangways, 6th Earl of Ilchester as the ninth President of the London Library. Other predecessors included Irish poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the Scottish essayist, Thomas Carlyle. Eight years earlier, the Library lost close to 16,000 volumes in a bombing during the Second World War. Today. The collection holds over a million volumes with 97% of the collection available for lending and at 173 years old, the Library is kept under the English playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard.

In his address, Eliot attends to two questions: “Can such a library, limited to members and supported by subscriptions, survive? And, ought it to survive?” Eliot and his milieu have just traversed into modernity where there were many questions that needed to be addressed. Expatriotism and the Wars encouraged poetry and discourse to approach different methods. New styles were accepted. The social sciences had just entered the main stage and the modern artists were dealing with a new world in which its old God was announced dead.

Having achieved a status of laureateship in poetics and in academia, and being credited as the father of modern poetry, T. S. Eliot looked on the members of the London Library as his next matter of business. Eliot had been prolific in his influence over literary discourse and he affirmed his own status. But Eliot’s intention was no more than to uphold the tradition of his predecessors so that the community may continue to survive. In his speech, Eliot isolated himself from his position as President in a way that echoed that echoed the tradition of literature rather than his own “parenthetical” anecdotes, which had “no direct bearing upon [his] main theme.” Eliot called himself indebted to the library, saying that without it, “many of [his] early essays could never have been written.” The Library became to Eliot what the café setting meant to Picasso. The difference: Eliot was content with his dialogue, which took place between himself and books.

The collection of the Library, Eliot recalls as being the only “of [its] size which contains so many of the books which [one] might want, and so few of the books which [Eliot] cannot imagine anyone wanting.” This feat was only accomplished by the Library’s “certain homogeneity of membership,” which seemed to be a crucial element of the Library’s mores. However, with its selective style, the Library has curated a prodigious collection that has brought it to stand as the world’s largest independent lending library. The institution’s Carlyle Fund provides scholarship for those with a true interest in joining, but cannot pay the annual fee.

In Eliot’s speech, he makes it evident that the availability of such a curated collection needs to remain standing, as it is vital to its culture as a whole. The absence of the London Library, “would be a disaster to the world of letters, and would leave a vacancy that no other form of library could fill.” With the scope of accepted literatures forever expanding since the days of the divide between high and low art, this simple booklet, which transcribes Eliot’s speech, reminds its reader of what role a collection of reference means to a culture. This cannot be the case of a library with “the awful burden of having to accept every book that is sent them.” The London Library’s Committee may provide for its interested members those publications that are worth preservation throughout this time and all time when discourse expands. What members gain is a haven of space where they are protected from the copious amount of lapsus linguae, which exists in literary output today.


Wartime letters of Wallace Stevens

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Walter Jongbloed '16, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

An Exchange of Letters between James Guthrie and Wallace Stevens: June 25, 1945 – Nov 23, 1945

photo 1Wallace Stevens, while living and working in Hartford CT, remained in contact with James Guthrie, founder of the British publishing company Pear Tree Press.  Guthrie was, aside from a publisher, an artist, endeavoring in prints and engravings.  The letters found in the Watkinson Library do not indicate how this interesting relationship began; however, between June 25, 1945 and November 23, 1945 these two men shared personal and profession aspects of their lives.  With World War II in progress between these dates, one can also witness the effect the War had on Stevens, or at least the feelings he was willing to write in his letters.  This series of letters reveal that both Guthrie and Stevens cared, in a professional sense, about the artistic work the other was producing.  In the first letter, however, dated June 25, 1945, Stevens reveals his desire for Guthrie to mail him one of his drawings.  Perhaps of more interest, though, Stevens reveals in detail the effect World War II was having on Hartford, CT.  He writes:

All during the war there have been very few visible signs of it here in Hartford.  Occasionally, on the street, one would see a long string of young men on the way to the draft board, but that was all.  We were intent on the war, yet it was far away.  At first, when someone that we had known was lost, there was an extraordinary shock; later, this became something in the ordinary course of events, terrifying but inevitable.  At the moment we are passing through a period of readjustment…From our point of view here at home, America has never been on the make, or on the grab, whatever people may have said of us elsewhere.  The Japanese war is likely to change all that.  This morning one of the people on the radio was talking about the necessity for having fortified outpost throughout the Orient.  I think most people would accept that idea quite naturally, and be willing to fight for it.

photo 2Certainly Stevens’ June 25th letter to Guthrie reveals the status of Hartford at this point in the War, yet it also presents a certain issue of immense interest.  What Stevens perhaps is alluding to is the idea of America as a world police.  Today the United States is constantly accused of policing the world; perhaps, Stevens found the turning point in history where this idea originated.  He does not explicitly say that he believes in this idea of fortified outposts throughout the orient, yet he does believe most Americans will fight for the idea of military precaution.  At the end of this letter, Stevens mentions a new publication containing his work.  He writes:

The Cummington Press…is going to print a small book for me during the next few months.  When it is published, I shall be glad to send you a copy.

Stevens wishes to send this book to Guthrie as soon as it is published.

After an exchange of two letters between Guthrie and Stevens, Stevens responds with a letter containing news on his recent book.  He writes about the status of his book:

When they were planning this new book they wanted to use color to some extent.  Accordingly, I sent them one of your books since green and blue were among the colors that they were considering.  Fortunately (I think) they concluded to do the text in black with initials and drawings in color.

This use of color Stevens mentions shows his desire for his poetry to be something contemporary and fashionable.  It is at this point where the relationship between Guthrie and Stevens becomes clear; Stevens values Guthrie’s work as a printer and his utilization of color in his publications; something he wishes to emulate.  Stevens evidently wants Guthrie’s artistic opinion of the book.

photo 4The Oct 18, 1945 letter was sent as Stevens held an executive position at a local insurance firm in Hartford.  In other words, Stevens was an insurance executive with upper-middle class standing.  His political opinions are somewhat unsettling:

More than ever there is a feeling that anything not a part of politics, not a part of sociology and not in a general way a phase of mass thinking has any right to exist.  What is going on in the world now is an extraordinary manipulation of the masses.  The manipulating forces are not apparent.  It can hardly be said that the politicians are manipulating forces because, as the great strikes demonstrate, the forces behind the strikes are defiant of the politicians.  The mechanism for this sort of thing has been perfected beyond belief…We have never exploited workers as they have been exploited elsewhere; it is still true I think that the man at the very bottom feels that there is a chance for him to be the man at the top.

Although the beginning portion of this message seems altruistic in that he upholds the importance of freethinking, the concluding sentences reveal his political opinions.  This paragraph, written by Stevens himself, provides a portal into the very mind of this poet and insurance executive.  From the passage above, what attitude does Stevens hold toward the lower class? Clearly he sees the lower class as exploited, yet it is obvious that he does not see this exploitation as bad.  In fact, he himself does not believe that there is a chance for the man at the very bottom to be at the very top, he just believes a man at the very bottom feels that there is a chance for him at the very top.  Perhaps Stevens believes that the poor will always think there is a chance for success, even if success is only a hope.  How does this dark ideology appear coming from an insurance vice-president?  Written in confidence to his close friend, this letter and the messages contained in it reveal a lot about his political opinions and his feelings toward the portrayal of his work in his about-to-be published book.

These letters, however, are just two in a series of around seven where both the realities of war in England and The United States are evident.  Certainly Stevens valued his dear friends opinion on the artistic appearance of his newly published book, while also hoping to receive some original artwork from Guthrie.  It is also possible, however, that these letters reveal a lesser-known side of Stevens; Stevens as an insurance executive.  Nonetheless, these letters are a classic example of documents preserved by the Watkinson Library in which a wealth of knowledge can be extracted to provide a richer understanding of modern poetry; specifically, the man behind the poems of, Hartford’s own, Wallace Stevens.


Revealing the Object

   Posted by: rring   in Classes, Students

[Posted by Margaret Pallis, for Prof. David Rosen's course, "Modern Poetry"]

contact front coverWhen I searched the Watkinson for an object related to William Carlos Williams’ poetry, I found myself interested in a 1932 edition of Contact, a literary journal first published in December of 1920; three more editions came out in 1921, and a fifth and final edition was published in 1923.  In 1932, Williams, this time working with Nathaniel West, revived Contact, renaming it Contact: an American Quarterly Review.  However, the revived journal only lasted for a total of three volumes—all of which were published in 1932.  The copy I examined at the Watkinson was the second volume of this journal.

Part of what initially caught my attention was the quality of the paper.  While it was old, certainly, I was more interested in the fact that the paper was not of good quality.  The cover of the journal is unassuming, with no frills; however, the font is large and red, which commands attention.  There were very few advertisements in the journal, and with a little investigating, I discovered (in correspondence between Williams and Ezra Pound) that Williams had no money with which to pay for submissions to the journal.  It appears that neither the venture in the 1920s, nor this 1932 venture, was particularly successful financially.

The volume I examined of Contact includes two poems by Williams:  “The Canada Lily” (later renamed “The Red Lily”) and “The Cod Head.”  I believe that this was a first publication for both of the poems.  Certainly, Contact served as an opportunity for Williams to showcase some of his own poetry.  I also discovered, looking through this particular volume, that the journal also contained a continuation of a bibliography of “Little Magazines,” compiled by David Moss. This appears to be one of the first times that such a bibliography was compiled.  Each of the three 1932 volumes presented a section of the bibliography, as it was too long to include in one volume.

Williams Commentary page 1The main reason I selected this particular journal was because of the editorial that Williams included.  In the editorial, Williams suggests that the name of the journal encapsulates some of his ideas about poetry.   The idea of “contact” for Williams seems to suggest that symbols are no longer relevant, and he invites readers of modern poetry to see the object, instead of what an object may or may not symbolize.   In his commentary, Williams articulates his beliefs (about poetry and the role of poetry in our lives) when he suggests that we must come “eye to eye with some of the figures of our country and epoch, truthfully.” He suggests that, “if we cannot find virtue in the object of our lives, then for us there is none anywhere.  We won’t solve or discover by using ‘profound’ (and borrowed) symbolism.”  The idea of contact seems to be a cutting away of everything unessential, which then creates a new surface which allows for immediate and unmediated contact. We must, says Williams in his commentary, “reveal the object.”  Williams argues that the poet must let go of clichés and “dead stylisms.”  He argues that writers must “learn from the thing itself.”


Williams Commentary page 2The commentary also gave me what I suppose I might call an insight in Williams as a person.  Toward the end of that piece, he writes about Hart Crane’s suicide.  While I was initially struck by what felt like callousness, when Williams writes that “no one expects now to go on living after death; blackguards have already traded too long on that to our confounding.  Certainly Hart Crane bumped himself off with no thought of improving or marring his condition.” I may have been startled by the “bumped himself off” when I would, perhaps, have anticipated some sympathy for a troubled man.  Instead, I began to see Williams’ point that perhaps Crane had “done about the best he could do and was satisfied to let it go at that.”  There is a practical quality to the statement that is, I suppose, satisfying.