A U.S. Literary Archive Is Fading Away
New York Times
Friday, April 6, 2001
NEW YORK - The ancient Egyptians used stone and parchment, whereas our
collective memory is often stored on acetate, vinyl and emulsion-coated
films - forms that die quickly. Much of the documentation of 20th century
American poetry and literary culture is in evanescent form, and it is being
On a bicoastal itinerary from New York to San Francisco with detours to
Boston, Vancouver and Los Angeles, among others, you can find thousands of
decaying reels of audiotape, film and videotape.
Three of the most important collections are at the Poetry Project in New
York City, the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa
University in Boulder, Colorado, and the Poetry Archives at San Francisco
These materials have mainly to do with the New American Poetry, which
includes the Objectivists, the San Francisco Renaissance, the Beats, Black
Mountain and the New York School, the Umbra and Black Arts movements.
The texts of poets in these many movements are reasonably accessible, as
demonstrated by the magnificent 1998 New York Public Library exhibit, "A
Secret Location on the Lower East Side."
But the sights and sounds are fading fast.
Before they disappear, you can still listen to Langston Hughes (in 1958)
praising Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti for initiating
poetry-and-jazz performances the year before, an audio moment that neatly
links the Harlem Renaissance, the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beats;
you can hear James Baldwin discuss his novel "Giovanni's Room" with Philip
Roth (in 1960).
While the tape and film last, you can watch John Cage persisting in a
performance piece (about Henry David Thoreau) on the night President
Richard Nixon resigned - as the audience, wanting to celebrate, gets
You can see a San Francisco poetry reading for gay liberation in 1971, or
Allen Ginsberg in the basement at City Lights bookstore discussing William
Carlos Williams as Neal Cassady arrives.
You might see young Alice Walker discussing Zora Neale Hurston when the
latter was still forgotten, the former little known.
Preservation of such materials is incredibly labor-intensive.
Repository institutions are doing their best to protect their archives, but
a greater commitment from public and private donors is desperately needed.
Because many of the films and tapes are by now quite delicate, they must be
re-recorded in real time, with someone monitoring the process.
Existing tapes may be too weak to endure more than the one playing needed
for transfer to masters.
These materials are an invaluable legacy - readings, classes, public
discussions and other encounters with many of America's most important
writers of the past 50 years. Ideally, they should be available to the
public in the most accessible formats, saved much as the Smithsonian
Institute has preserved our musical heritage.
Otherwise, we will have at best the corporate version of, say, Jack Kerouac
- the cropped, airbrushed Beat posing in khakis rather than the dense
literary, poetic and social culture from which that photo was lifted in the
name of selling pants.
The writer, a poet and author of "Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays,
1982-1999," contributed this comment to The New York Times.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Fri Apr 06 2001 - 23:34:27 EDT