Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Praise of Meaningful Work


FROM JULY 2006

A Google search on an entirely unrelated topic recently brought forth a name from the past: Hargrett. As in, “The Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library” at the University of Georgia library, home of a lock of Jefferson Davis’ hair, the Confederate Constitution, and other curiosities great and small. I worked there my last two quarters as an undergrad at UGa. In college I helped make ends meet by painting houses, making sandwiches, clearing kudzu, shelving books, and making copies, but the finest gainful employment I ever had in Athens was on the second floor of the UGa Main Library in the Rare Book and Manuscript Department. The Hargrett Library has now put a list of its holdings online. Searching it reminded me again of how good I had it from August of 1986 to March of 1987.

In coming to the Hargrett Library when I did, I wandered into the outskirts of a crime drama. One of the higher ups in the department was a collector or rare books and manuscripts on his own. It turned out that he had augmented his own collection with some material belonging to the University. The year after I graduated he was convicted of stealing and sent to jail. I came along before he had been arrested, but the investigation was well under way and he the prime suspect, so much so that his office was being moved to another part of the building, away from the valuable stuff. One of my jobs was to make a list for the department director of everything this fellow had on his office bookshelf at the time of his expulsion. I was excited to find bound copies of a couple of parliamentary acts from the colonial era. They were land grants, officially authorized real estate grabs, but in that 18th century typeface and that ornate parliamentary diction, they were enough to make a person think he had his hands on something special, probably composed by a lord in a white wig. There was also a lot of stuff on Gus Hall. I have no idea whether there was anything incriminating on the list I produced, but probably not. It would take a major league conspiracy theorist to connect the dots between General Oglethorpe and the American Communist Party.

To be even peripherally involved in an investigation like that was both exciting and unexpected, but it was a small part of my job and stands out in my memory less than the day-to-day work. What I didn’t appreciate about my daily tasks at the time was that I – a highly undeserving and unqualified undergrad – received meaningful work to do. My supervisors didn’t make me a receptionist or a glorified janitor or send me out for bagels. Instead they gave me boxes of letters, photos, and other personal memorabilia to organize and catalog. These were not, as you can well imagine, the papers of heavyweights – I did not have my grubby untrained hands on the personal correspondence of Richard B. Russell. But I did have a hand in organizing for shelving some of the papers of the following:

- William Tapley “Tap” Bennett, Sr., one of the agricultural pioneers who labored in the 1930s to reduce Georgia’s dependence on King Cotton. Bennett’s contribution was in the area of livestock. Working on his stuff always reminded me of the time a bar-b-q dinner my father and I were enjoying was ruined by the local extension agent, who was using the back room of the restaurant to notify local stockmen about a new kind of parasite that was appearing on the underside of livestock. One of the most vivid slide shows I have ever seen.

- Mildred Lewis Rutherford, longtime headmistress of the Lucy Cobb Institute, an Athens finishing school for young women that flourished in the late 19th century – the R.E.M. video “The One I Love” was shot there. Miss Rutherford, as pictures of her attest, was an old school Southern Victorian dame, active in both the UDC and the anti-suffragette movement. The sort of woman you could imagine casting disapproving glares at Scarlet O’Hara.

- Wylly Folk St. John, of Social Circle, Ga, a fairly well-known writer of mysteries for children, one of which was evidently made into a Disney movie. Most of the correspondence wasn’t hers but letters she received from her husband, who was a salesman of some kind. While out on the road he wrote her a steady stream of apologetic letters on stationery from now defunct Atlanta hotels – the Winecoff, the Henry Grady, etc. One day I Xeroxed the letter-head of some of his notes and for a few years I had some pretty cool faux stationery to write my own letters on.

- Gilbert Maxwell, a sensitive Southern poet who showed early promise, went north, worked as a writer, editor, and actor, became a part of Tennessee Williams’ circle. Fame and major creative success ultimately eluded him. It was obvious to me – obtuse as I can be about such things - that Maxwell was gay. The trajectory of his life and the subjects of his poetry (especially after he retired to Miami) made that clear. But it is a curious thing that the description of the collection (it has my name on it, but I don’t remember whether I wrote it or it was just the real librarian being nice) doesn’t mention this detail. Looking back on that omission, I feel like a collaborator in the pernicious institution of the closet. On the other hand, we did mention that he had worked on biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Joan Crawford. Maybe we were just counting on readers to put two and two together.

A fine collection of third tier famous Georgians, an honor roll of semi-noteworthies, our literary historical Biff Pocorobas. And I got to walk up the hill from Park Hall when my Shakespeare seminar was over and work on their collections. For some reason I had no idea how unusual that opportunity was. Even when I got bored with my own work the treasures that were around me reeked of significance. One day I disappeared into the stacks and spent a couple of hours with a box of transcripts of WPA slave interviews from the 1930s. One of the professionals was cataloging the papers of Calder Willingham, a novelist and screenwriter who had a hand the scripts for The Graduate, Little Big Man, and Paths of Glory. Then there was the time I came in to work and found a worn-looking bound volume sitting in my customary workspace. “What the hell is this doing here?” I asked, pretending to be annoyed. “Oh,” my ever-bland supervisor said, not even looking up, “That’s an original typescript of A Streetcar Named Desire.” I opened it up. It was. With The Poker Night, it’s original title, in big letters on the title page. The text was full of handwritten revisions. I couldn’t believe I was holding it in my hands.

That was as big time as it ever got for me there. I never did get to see Jeff Davis’ hair.

p.s. Some weeks after writing this I was in the science fiction section of a Grand Rapids used bookstore. I am often in Grand Rapids and in used bookstores, but rarely in science fiction sections. I was looking for something by the genius of paranoid sci-fi, Philip K. Dick. His “oracular” work was the subject of a laudatory cover story in the New Republic some years ago, and he seems to have influenced a couple of Steely Dan songs. Those are favorable nods from authorities I trust, enough to make me set aside my disdain for the genre. Also, I liked the film of Minority Report. But Philip K. Dick books cannot be had used. Oh, sure, you can find all 21 books in the Mutant Vixens of Planet X series, but if you want Dick’s We Can Remember if For You Wholesale, you had better be prepared to pay for a fresh copy. Anyway, in my latest fruitless search for used PKD fiction, I saw a name in the D’s that looked familiar: Tom Deitz. And I remembered: When I was working up in the Hargrett library I often heard of a member of the library staff, a Tom Deitz, who was striving to make it big in the world of fantasy literature. Was it the same guy? Oh yes. He did make it big, big enough to have six or seven of his books in paperback available in a Grand Rapids used bookstore.

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