One should never measure great institutions merely by how well they put on a party. When it comes to the American literary scene of the twentieth century, however, one could be forgiven for correlating success in the book trade and success by the open bar. In this, the Gotham Book Mart – the NYC bookstore typically considered the leading booster of literary modernism in the United States – is no exception. As one of the archivists tasked with organizing Penn’s collection of papers from the Book Mart, it was my pleasure to experience a vast treasure trove of documents related to such leading literary lights as James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Marianne Moore – and, perhaps more importantly, to get my hands on photographic documentation of just how rollicking these literary figures could be, given copious amounts of liquor and a suitable forum to impress the crowd. (In the beginning I was surprised at how much literary correspondence consists of simply setting the alcohol budgets for these sorts of events – but no longer.)
How does an editor convince a writer that their book isn’t worth publishing? In the case of William Wister Haines and his editor, Edward Weeks, the answer can be found in the submission draft of Haines’ second novel, Standard of Living and the recently processed William Wister Haines papers. Not that Weeks ever directly conveys this opinion to Haines, of course; instead, the conversation takes place in the margins, between Weeks’ increasingly strident comments and Haines’ weakening attempts to address his criticisms. Taken as a whole, this conversation represents a fascinating portrait of editorial persuasion, as Weeks’ initial open-mindedness gives way, and he begins to lay the groundwork for rejection.
No longer a well-known figure in American letters, in his time William Wister Haines was best known for writing two novels about working-class railway linemen, Slim and High Tension, as well as Command Decision, a book (and play) about the latter days of World War II. For all three of these books, Haines’ editor at Atlantic Monthly Books was Edward Weeks, with whom he had a working relationship for over two decades.
Because she was both a poet/critic and a devoted Communist Party member, the life and work of Martha Millet is of particular interest to anyone looking for a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a Communist artist during the tumultuous period that spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War. With its emphasis on ideological conformity within American civil society, the McCarthyite period casts a long historical shadow over our understanding of Communist literary and social activity in American life, with the Communist themselves given only two roles to play: either foreign agents, actively undermining American society (the McCarthyite view) or unwitting stooges manipulated by the Kremlin. The papers of Martha Millet, however, tell a different story. Millet was certainly a committed Marxist; her work is deeply ideological, concerned with the struggle of the working classes and consciously anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, but it is not reducible to propaganda. Instead, it provides a compelling example of how the vision of international Marxism inspired working-class Communist artists to investigate and explore intersections between their own experiences and larger political struggles – even when the substance of these struggles conflicted with the official party line.
One of the most fascinating things about processing an archive is discovering the hidden worlds within it. The project on which I’m currently working, the Gotham Book Mart archive, is particularly interesting this regard. The iconic New York bookstore was central in the development of Modernism and American small-press poetry throughout the 20th century, and the archive is certainly of interest for anyone exploring these worlds, but there are other – perhaps odder – universes contained within it as well: for example, a large and impressive collection of postcards.
Andreas Brown, the owner of the Book Mart from 1967 until its closing, was one of the most well-known postcard collectors (the technical term is “deltiologist”) in America. Like many of the most serious deltiologists, his collection focused on “real photo” postcards: a short-lived style that appeared in the early twentieth century, in which the front of the card was a piece of undeveloped photo paper, allowing for a customizable – and sometimes one-of-a-kind – image.
But Brown’s collection contains many other kinds of cards, as well: panoramic cards, cards that also served as paper fans, and (my personal favorite!) a series of promotional cards for a Russian production of one of Chekhov’s lesser known plays, “Ivanov.”
Taken on their own, these cards are impressive enough, but what makes them especially fascinating is the context which surrounds them. See, Andreas Brown wasn’t simply a collector; as one of the most famous collectors in America, he was also a member of a national deltiological community which, in the pre-internet world, meant he received a great number of newsletters from postcard clubs across the country: the Maple City Postcard Club; the Pacific Northwest Postcard Bulletin; and, of course, the organization which Brown himself helped found, the Metropolitan Poscard Collector.
And, of course, Brown developed a relationship with individual collectors, too, many of whom sent him personalized cards during National Postcard Week. Besides being notable for their range of design style (and, frankly, skill), the cards are interesting for the window they give into the lives of their creators. Who can resist young Barbara Ellen, with her space-related collection? Here’s hoping that she completed sixth grade successfully!
This is what I meant by hidden worlds. It’s remarkable to think about (or, if you have the historical perspective, to remember) just how many of these small mail-order organizations there were in America – almost all of which have been rendered irrelevant by the web – and how many people’s lives were influenced by the networks they helped support. As J.P. Hartley famously put it in his novel The Go-Between, “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Sometimes, in the act of processing, it can be helpful to stop and consider the customs of the countries one is continually discovering, and their relation to our own.