Thanks to a generous grant from UW-L, I spent the last month doing archival research on E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, and W.H. Auden in New York City. Many of these authors’ journals, diaries, letters, and early drafts of published works are housed at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection. My goal was to discover more about their personal interests in natural history and ecological science in order to help me interpret how their literary works intersect with the environmental issues of their day and shape ethical attitudes towards nature and the non-human.
The architecture of the New York Public Library is positively grand, as one would expect when a building is guarded by two huge stone lions. But the grandeur is even more palpable inside, where one is greeted by large sweeping marble staircases with fresco-painted ceilings. On my initial visit I had to fill out forms and applications for access. The small cathedral of history that is the Berg Collection Reading Room is not open to the public—a fact that reminded me of Woolf’s critiques of cordoned off academic spaces in A Room of One’s Own, yet also her more affectionate descriptions of the hallowed air of the British Museum’s reading room. After the required hoops are cleared, I push the button for the librarian to admit me to a small wood-paneled room with only two large tables that seat merely four scholars at a time. Although most of their material is catalogued online, the librarians still prefer you to use the sliding drawers of the impressive catalogue cards to write out call slips for specific materials. They bring you only a few items at a time. Bound materials rest in cradles to protect their spines and even the loose-leaf pages of handwritten letters are turned over with a ginger touch to preserve them for future scholars.
Some of the highlights of my academic research included finding small daily diaries where Auden meticulously recorded the dates of the first time a Morning Glory bloomed, when he heard particular birds re-appear each season, or when certain fruits ripened, with the same kind attention that he pays to the timing of meter and rhyme. In one unpublished, handwritten journal dated 1964-65, he discusses the scientific picture of the world in contrast with the sensual one, as well as concerns about natural resources and energy, which support ecocentric readings of his poetry. Similarly, letters by E.M. Forster revealed that he met a prominent ecological scientist, Jan Smuts, during a visit to South Africa. These historical pieces will help me as I continue to put together a book about how literature written in the early twentieth century represented the relationship between humans and the natural world, including questions of value that have become increasingly important today.
I found myself completely engrossed in my reading at the Berg Collection, but when I would break for lunches, Bryant Park, right in the back of the library, provided a welcome distraction. It is a bright green open space flanked by rows of tall trees. Sun-worshippers loosen ties, draping themselves out on the lawn, and couples read the newspaper at tables underneath the trees. It was not uncommon to see people who spoke different languages and came from different economic classes sit across from one another and play a game of chess on one of the public chess-tables in the park. On Thursday and Friday afternoons, the lunch-time crowd was treated to talented musicians playing Cole Porter tunes on the piano or Austrian dance-melodies on the accordion. One of the things that struck me during my month in New York City was the ubiquitous presence of the arts. Painters sold art out of guitar-cases on street-corners, a woman played a saw in an underground subway terminal so well that a crowd gathered around her, and there were an array of free performances such as Shakespeare in the Park or Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors. (I saw an amazing jazz ensemble and dance troupe perform at Lincoln Center in the rain! Despite the weather, a little girl there with her dad was dancing with a plastic bag tied over her head to keep her braids from getting mussed, and older couples took each other by the waist and tried out some swing dancing in the aisles.) This palpable energy of creation, innovation, and beauty added a richness to the vibrant hum of urban work and life. It reminded me how public appreciation for poetry, novels, art, and dance can create community, give us hope, and put us in touch with universal emotions, infusing life with purpose during difficult times.
I am grateful to UW-L for the opportunity to do this important research and look forward to sharing it with my students and, hopefully, a wider reading community.