New York, New York is actually not my favorite place in the world — people aren’t angrier or ruder there than anywhere else, they just seem more isolated, ironically enough. Or perhaps I’m simply more isolated there. Either way, E.B., K.P.B., and I all made it safe and sound via Bolt Bus (our driver took real pleasure in calling everyone aboard “family” the entire time). From there, making it up to the Butler Library for our research passes into the Rare Manuscripts & Books section of the library seemed as though it would be easy enough but to our surprise:
“Sorry, we don’t have partnerships with JHU or GWU, so we can’t give you passes.”
This left us all rather astonished considering that A) it’s a library, not a bank or a club or a religious sanctuary and B) I had the print-out of an email discourse I’d shared with one of the Rare M&Bs Librarians detailing how I would be able to acquire a visitor’s pass.
Of course, when I explained this to the lovely gentlemen they were quick to say, “Oh, well we can let you into that department, sure.”
In other words, random visitors cannot come in to utilize regular old library books, but if we want access to your rare and irreplaceable documents, there’s no problem! Needless to say, there was plenty of flabbergast and hufflepuffling on our way upstairs — why in the world should these texts and resources be holed up in an elitist ivory tower to begin with? What were they frightened of? That there would be a rash of book thievings? Or maybe they just don’t want anyone but Columbia students to use their bathrooms — university libraries and their toilets!
I was fortunate enough to get to spend the entirety of the afternoon there (despite their early close hours due to Spring Break), sifting through Ginsberg’s letters to Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, his father, Lionel Trilling, his brother Eugene, and vice versa.
Of course, what I was most excited to see was what types of literary magazines and political papers Ginsberg had kept lying about his apartment; I wanted a fresh angle on his thought processes, interests, and pastimes. And good ol’ A.G. didn’t disappoint —
The fellow kept everything from amateur, small-time small-time lit mags to freaky coloring books (given to him by fans) to grassroots political periodicals from a variety of small towns (often featuring him or another Beat) to lit mags dedicated entirely to LGBTQ materials. I felt as though I were meeting A.G. anew (although I will say I do not have a “Well, I met A.G. when…” story — it’s only through his words and biographies that I’ve come to have my own scholarly, literary crush on the guy).
His letters were also, of course, a wonder on every page (even on those where he discussed the more “normal” business such as borrowing money from his father (Louis Ginsberg) or congratulating his brother on his first baby). Many of his letters are already published as books (check out: The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, or — my personal favorite — The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder) but many remain unpublished. Of course, when you visit a Special Collections or Rare Manuscripts library, you are typically allowed to take digital, no-flash photos of the materials which means that I now not only have the pleasure of housing many of these letters in my own (digital) files but that I also have plenty of time now (sort of) to try and decipher handwriting so garbled it could be that Ginsberg had actually dictated to a Coyote, the poor Old Man scrawling down notes as best he could between claw, paw, and pencil.
Anyhoo, we’re on our way back from the bustle, cigarette smoke, and towering towers of NY to home home again Maryland where the further research and sifting through of these new files may commence.
And while some may argue that this is why all archival materials ought to be digitized — I must beg to differ. There is something magical about going to an archive and handling the primary documents your subjects created — it brings you closer to them, to the project and process. For example, during my work today I came across a note A.G. had scrawled across the inside of an old, empty matchbook and I could see from the scruffing and scratching of the paper that each one of those matches had been well struck, possibly for one of those iconic cigs blowin’ smoke around his typewriter as his fingers flew about “Howl.” I swear in that moment I felt as though I could both hear and smell A.G. strikin’ up that final match whether for cig, joint, or warmth, see the little light dancing a soft glow across his beard. There is something about being there and handling the materials yourself that makes the whole process suddenly seem deeply real and freshly important to at least the primary person you’re sharing the research with — your subject.
Anyway, folks, the q’s from this morning still stand —
What most intrigues you about A.G.? What would you be most interesting in learning more about regarding A.G.?
What title do you think might be a good, official fit for the book?
All business aside, I hope you all have smashing St. Patty’s Days!
Be safe & Keep on, keepin’ on