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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Prof. Megan Quigley: Adventures in the Archive

Megan Quigley, an assistant professor in the English department, is on sabbatical 2012-13.  She is working on several projects, including a book manuscript, Modernist Fiction and Vagueness, and an article on Wallace Stevens, analytic philosophy, and the alphabet.  Prof. Quigley will be teaching a class on the modern British novel this fall.

From Prof. Quigley:
I always get in trouble in the archives.  Maybe this is slightly paranoid, but whenever I’m doing archival research, looking through an author’s manuscripts, correspondence, and personal library at a rare book’s library, I can feel the eyes on me.  For a while, I’m good.  I diligently look through correspondence, take fastidious notes, photograph only when and where I’m directed.  But then, then my appetite grows.  My curiosity soars.  I am elated, inexhaustible.  I am suddenly in 1927 evaluating Vanessa Bell’s cover drawing for the first edition of her sister’s To The Lighthouse; or I’m holding Wyndham Lewis’s drawings in my hand, wondering when and why Ezra Pound looked like that; or it’s 1950 and I’m reading a letter, not collected in Wallace Stevens’s published letters, where he’s told that on the night the eminent critic F. O. Matthiessen committed suicide, the only topic that brought light to his eyes was discussing Stevens’s poems.  How did Stevens feel when he read this?  What can the handwriting show me?  What does that double underline mean?

Then I begin to push the limits.  I stop making eye contact with the kind librarians behind the desk as I drop off my manuscript call slips.  My materials grow and I persevere.  The bell that rings at 11:45 seems earlier and earlier.  I hurry to drop off slips before everyone heads to lunch.  I’m sure I need to see Henry James’s letters too.  And W. H. Auden—his drafts are here too?  I find non-rare books that I’m allowed to keep at lunchtime when the room is empty and quiet.   I chug my bottle of water near the lockers (I’m not sure that I’m not allowed any liquids in the building) and hurry back to my assigned desk.

Later, when a door from an inner sanctum opens behind the counter, I think myself invisible.  I am absorbed in the first edition of Eliot’s Poems in front of me, the woven blue Hogarth cover at odds with the harsh lines within.

“Miss Quigley?”
I can’t pretend I don’t see the figure next to me anymore.
“Can you come talk to me up in my office?”
I visualize myself as a wise old man in a three-piece suit, with thick glasses, a purposeful, heavy step, and thinning white hair, as I walk up the stairs.
“Miss Quigley, you seem to be ordering up a lot of Wallace Stevens personal library, is this correct?”
“Yes.”  (I’m glad I didn’t ask to see the Gutenberg bible or that first edition of Goethe.)
“Do you need to see his first edition of Ulysses?”  The voice is friendly so I venture to look over from the bookcase where I’ve been staring.
“Yes, well, you see, yes.  I think there’s a chance that Stevens took notes in it, so you see, yes, I really thought it best if I see it.”
“And how many more books from Stevens’s library do you intend to call up?”
“Well, actually, you see, um, I’ve really just gotten started.  I have several more call slips filled out already.” (Actually I have forty-three more, I filled them out in my hotel room last night.)
“Why don’t you come with me?”

As we exit through a small back door in his office into a dark corridor, I wonder if my fellowship is about to be revoked.  It smells like an old school gymnasium back here.  We take a small elevator down, down, down and enter a vault, after he swipes his security card several times.  In the vault we are briefly in total darkness.  He’s not actually going to kill me?

“Oh dear,” he exclaims, “Let me just get the switch, it’s over here.”
The sudden brightness reveals a kind of bibliophile’s heaven.  Stack upon stack, row upon row, of rare books.  Jane Austen, in twenty different early versions?
“Dude!” I shout.  (Seriously, that’s what I said.)
 I briefly lose my guide as he heads rapidly over to the Stevens section.
“Here,” he says.  He is pointing to several shelves.  “It’s much easier for us if you find what you need and call it up all I once.”
I nod eagerly.
“Oh, and much of this is actually not catalogued yet, from a recent library purchase, so you might find something here you didn’t know you wanted.  You can have about ten minutes here, then I have a lunch meeting.”
New, uncatalogued, books from Stevens’s library?
We smile at each other.  And I get back to work.

Prof. Megan Quigley and daughter at the Huntington.