by Saxon Henry
I have touched literary history with my own hands! During a number of trips to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University over the summer, I reserved work by writers whose literary legacies are decidedly important to the advancement of writing and criticism. My first archival foray introduced me to Edmund Wilson’s journals, Henry Miller’s Paris diaries, and letters and sonnets written by Petrarch (on parchment; in his own hand)! Each choice has significance to projects I’m working on, and I am still marveling at the experiences of holding their words between my fingertips.
During dinner the night before my first library excursion, I was rereading Robert Grudin’s The Grace of Great Things, a book that never fails to inspire me. As soft pools of light circled the pages that night, Grudin reminded me to resist the notion that I could achieve domination over creativity. “We no more ‘have’ ideas than ideas ‘have’ us, and indeed the creative process might be simplified if we stopped searching for ideas and simply made room for them to visit,” the author wrote. I loved the thought of letting go to that extent so I made a decision I would try to do so as I digested the archival materials I would explore the next day.
I checked into the library feeling a mixture of excitement and awe. First, I was handed the box containing Wilson’s journals, the first of which was a beautifully bound, pocket-sized leather travel diary he began on May 11, 1908, when he was 13. His travels took him from Gibraltar to Spain; then to Italy and the UK. In Venice he notes, “One day we went out in a gondola to the Adriatic Sea where we bathed. The Adriatic was full of little crabs that you had to be very careful about stepping on or annoying in any way.” I spent hours sifting through his life as expressed through his own ramblings, thumbing through his last two journals with the most excitement because they covered the 1920s, 30s and most of the 40s when he was an editor at publications such as Vanity Fair, The New Republic, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. Seeing that Wilson typed up his last journal helped me understand it is a normal impulse for writers to want their words to live on; that my judgment against myself for continually mining what I see as dated material is unwarranted because the effort is important to the creative process and to the legacy a writer leaves behind—by intention or default.
I’m still not sure why, but it was Henry Miller’s diaries that made the strongest impression on me. One critic said his writing is “muscular” and there was ample testosterone oozing from the pages holding his scribbling. It was also in the tenor of the newspaper clippings he’d assembled as he was researching The Tropic of Cancer and The Tropic of Capricorn. His writing had a scrappy tone to it, much rougher around the edges than Wilson’s cultured voice; and Miller’s Paris diaries served more of a purpose than Wilson’s journals—they held research for his books. He had included observations of varied aspects of life in Paris, many of which he used in his manuscripts, such as lists of street names, and descriptions of places and people, many of the entries crossed out or checked off as he included them in drafts.
He had also pasted articles about Bohemian life on the Left Bank onto the pages, as well as other types of clippings, illustrations and photos, several of which were of Anaïs Nin’s eyes. This helped me see that my extensive research for a book of sonnets I’m writing, which took me to New Haven in the first place, makes complete sense from an author’s perspective. This quieted the impatient “in the world” piece of me that had been berating the deeper part of me determined to take her time with the material because I saw how the effort fosters the authentic voice of the narrative. The experience brought me face-to-face with concrete examples of how writing is breathed to life and nurtured—processed through diligence and time as a writer plants seeds and cultivates the soil. Such a valuable awareness for me at this stage of my writing life!
This point was driven home with even greater clarity as I was reading Grudin’s book during dinner the evening after my library visit: “If inspiration is indeed an abandonment and a transcendence, it is nonetheless impossible without groaning effort, without the painful winning of skill.” He sums up the equation by saying the perfect recipe mixes “hard-earned expertise” with “unencumbered and trustful receptivity.”
Looking through those boxes holding significant efforts by Wilson, Miller and Petrarch (I can’t even believe I’m writing his name!) concretized something I have only intuited to this point: I see what it means to take my writing seriously. These men now serve as beacons and guides as I continue to find my own way, not just professionally but in some respects personally—a new tack for me, as I’ve long had female writers I consider inspirations but never before has it occurred to me that male authors could be personal muses as well. I was slicing into a frittata at breakfast the morning after I spent my first day absorbing the three writer’s literary histories when the question popped into my mind, “Can you outsmart a legacy of pain?” A letter tucked into Miller’s diaries from his father brought this to mind. It felt too intimate to photograph, which was strange because I hadn’t hesitated to snap images of letters between Miller and Nin, who were lovers at the time. Henry had scribbled several notes on his father’s letter in red, the one I remember being “(!)” just above the remark that his dad couldn’t remember what time of day Henry was born.
I’ve often berated myself for my inability to move beyond my own inherited familial pain, but if someone as solid a writer as Miller couldn’t let go of his, I see now the M.O. I was hoping would squelch mine is bogus. I was living under the misconception that if I could only become the stature of writer I dreamed of being, nothing else would matter. After a day of riffling through the writings of several of the “greats” who have come before me, I see how naïve that idea is.
I saw this in the keepsakes Miller had chosen to save for posterity. I saw it in the fact Wilson longed to escape the yoke of being seen only as a critic. I saw it in the scrolling cursive of Petrarch, who considered his youth wasted in the study of law and who chose a literary career at a time when such a move stacked him against incredible odds. I’ve saved the 14th-century writer for last because he segues to a literary adventure I am about to take. I am heading to Parma next week, one of a handful of lucky people attending the Mercanteinfiera Antiques Fair there, and I will be staying on for a few days afterwards to do some additional research into the life of the poet, who lived in Parma off and on during his adult years. I take Grudin with me; if not his physically bound words, I take him in spirit, especially this earnest caveat: “…if we cannot specify or command inspiration, we can, I think, practice deserving it.”
I feel as if my spirit has now been uncannily opened to appreciate every literary experience I’m setting up for myself, and I promise to share my Parma revelations when I’m back, along with my other excursions to Beinecke that include sifting through letters and writing by Earnest Hemingway, Djuna Barnes, Sylvia Beach, Floyd Dell, Arthur Davison Ficke and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because I’m traveling to Europe, I’ll be taking a few weeks off from the Improvateur blog; I will hopefully see you back here on October 16, Parma karma permitting!
[This is the first in a new series I’m calling “Traveling with Books.” If you have any travels you’ve taken recently during which a book made an impression on you or made a difference in the flavor of your trip, I’d love to know about it so please leave me a comment and fill me in?]
Text and Images © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is the founder of The Literary Blog to Book Movement.