Arbitrary Artifacts

Beinecke_Library_interior_2
Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

I walk into the Beinecke one bitterly cold morning this winter to see two chairs. Inside, the silence wells up like the inside of a cathedral; the walls glow faintly where the sun seeps through thinly-sliced marble. A glass-walled tower filled with books rises imposingly through the center of the room. Inside are some of the oldest and rarest books on earth, with still more stored in the miles of shelving underground — 500,000 volumes in all, making this one of the largest rare book libraries in the country.

A little-known fact about this illustrious place: nestled among the Gutenberg bibles and the collected letters of Ezra Pound are a pair of eyeglasses once owned by Walt Whitman, a pen used by Eugene O’Neill, and a waistcoat worn by T. S. Eliot when he was a young and apparently slender student at Cambridge. A few pencil sketches by Langston Hughes are archived next to original drafts of his poems, and elsewhere is a tiny box containing the key to London’s Kensington Gardens, acquired for the use of J. M. Barrie while he was composing the story that would become “Peter Pan.” The Beinecke’s original editions of Shakespeare’s plays routinely draw scholars from other countries; who visits New Haven in order to find the key to Neverland? The Beinecke has a compulsive tendency to hoard the objects that have strayed in or out of the lives of famous writers and artists. This means not only the letters and marginalia of brilliant minds, but also their watches, pens, hand-painted cards, death-masks, and, in some cases, locks of hair. These ordinary objects, when they are identified and catalogued, become important by their associations. As Nancy Kuhl, the Beinecke’s curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature, points out, “A library is always a place where certain things survive by chance. In some ways those chances are meaningful, and in some ways they are arbitrary.”

Among the most extraordinary objects in the Beinecke are two Louis XV-style chairs that once sat in the famous salon apartment of the poet and patron Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

“There they are,” Nancy says, indicating two surprisingly modest chairs, unguarded and unobtrusive where they sit off to the side on the library’s lower level. The seats and backs were embroidered by Toklas along a pattern by Picasso. In pictures of the room where Stein received luminaries like Modigliani and Hemingway, the chairs are crowded but prominent amongst the clutter of furniture, as though stand-ins for the matched set of Stein and Toklas themselves.

The Beinecke possesses 163 boxes in its Stein collection — including annotated drafts, letters and love notes, artwork, even a few dried plants from Stein’s garden — but these chairs are the most concrete artifacts of the literary and artistic collaboration at the heart of the Lost Generation. Without the rest of the collection, they might be merely attractive; here, they are totems of an age.

“It’s not always clear how scholars are going to use [an artifact],” Kuhl admits. But in the end, “things become interesting in their context here.” The scraps of a great writer’s small, inglorious personal life can reveal what is left out of the text — like Walt Whitman’s glasses. Of all of the photographs and frontispiece portraits of Whitman, magnificently bearded and hatted, in the Beinecke’s collection, not one shows a picture of the famous “natural man” in glasses. It is one thing to try to imagine Whitman’s published persona for oneself, and a very different thing to be able to look through his own spectacles at the Beinecke. “We know that these objects excite people’s imaginations,” Kuhl says with a smile. “They bring us closer to the physicality, the actuality, the reality of the person.”

Later, at my desk, I take stock of the items that have come to rest around me: a thinning stack of Post-it notes, the top one of which lists in illegibly tiny handwriting some “words to think about & enjoy” (pentimento, sylph, poryphyry), a few meeting agendas on which I have drawn many small, unblinking eyes, a postcard copy of a painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister, and some old receipts for coffee I don’t remember buying. And though the Beinecke certainly won’t be clamoring for my pencil jar anytime soon, it is reassuring to know that in this constellation of familiar objects, there is some intimation of a whole.

Comments