How To Do Things With Archives

The network graphs documents connections among Louise Thompson, Langston Hughes, Nicolas Guillen, Thyra Edwards, Nancy Cunard, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Kay Boyle. It includes poems "A Communication to Nancy Cunard," "Soldiers in Ethiopia," "A Note from Spain," "Mother to Son," and "Mother and Son"
A network graph created with Gephi and hand-entered data.

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I was hooded in the Graduate Center’s commencement ceremony on Wednesday, and this morning I learned my advisor died.

I had some difficulty working with Jane the past few years. On more than one occasion she wielded her considerable writing talents to skewer me in an email. But she was a forceful mentor, particularly important when I was new graduate student. She generously shared her findings from archives, told me to apply to conferences, and to publish my writing. She wrote me letters. And her scholarship, of course, is stunning in craft of writing, analysis, depth and scope of knowledge.

While this week has been one of reflecting on acknowledgements, what I am sharing below appeared as a postscript to my dissertation. I hope it gives a sense of Jane Marcus’s formative influence.

Postscript: How To Do Things With Archives

The seed of this dissertation began in a Kinkos on the Upper West Side, as I made (probably illicit) copies of my professor’s copies from the archives. It was my first semester of graduate school, and I had delved into my research on Langston Hughes and the Spanish Civil War for Jane Marcus’s British Writers and the Spanish Civil War course. (Hughes, of course, was not British, but I sometimes have a perverse approach to writing papers and designing projects, and Jane allowed this tendency.) My research brought me to the Schomburg, where I read the Baltimore Afro-American on microfilm, the periodicals room of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street to scroll through reels of the Daily Worker, and to its reading room to browse paper copies of Volunteer for Liberty. I found poems published in periodicals and scoured Hughes’s Collected Poems for any related to Spain. I drew on the pamphlets in the series of Les Poétes Du Monde Défendent Le Peuple Espagnol, which included one that paired Hughes’s “Song of Spain” with a poem by Lorca. I read secondary scholarship on Hughes and the Spanish Civil War, including work by Michael Thurston, Anthony Dawahare, and Cary Nelson. I had careful and thorough notes on loose-leaf paper (perhaps the most organized of my graduate school career). I had, I thought, a pretty thorough grasp of Hughes’s work from Spain.

As I was making these copies at the Kinkos on the Upper West Side, however, I came across a poem I hadn’t seen before. I had to double check, because it featured some familiar elements. It was an epistolary poem, signed from Johnny and addressed to Alabama. The content of the letter, however, was new. “Dear Sis,” the letter began. This poem—my first archival discovery—was my entry into graduate school, and the beginning of this project.

*          *          *

My methodology, then, for research in (women’s) archives:

  1. Talk with feminist scholars.

In my case, this happened in my classes with Jane, and with others of her students, including Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, who had, this same semester, gone to the Library of Congress and found an unpublished Spanish Civil War novel by Muriel Rukeyser in a box marked “Miscellaneous.” Rowena has gone on to bring Rukeyser’s novel, Savage Coast, into publication with the Feminist Press.

Jane insisted on the importance of going to the archive. She spoke with the knowledge of the women who scholars excised from history in the interest of portraying heroic men. And she spoke with the experience of fighting for the return of women’s texts and histories to libraries, classrooms, bookstores, and public discourse.[1] She also knew these internationalist connections among writers that I wanted pursue, and was generous in sharing what she’d found in her own archival research.

Evelyn Scaramella also modeled generosity of scholarship for me. When we discovered we’d been pursuing many of the same subjects and visiting practically all of the same archives, she was kind enough to share with me her discoveries and insights from her extensive research in Hughes’s papers at the Beinecke. She tipped me off, for example, to certain folders that wouldn’t seem to include Spanish Civil War materials, but did. She recommended Spanish publications to look at and passed on her article about Hughes’s friendship with Dorothy Peterson. This collaborative ethos and spirit of sharing enabled my own research.

Though time in the archive tends to be solitary, the work does not need to be. Jane’s students exchanged information and organized panels on women and the Spanish Civil War, and I also benefited from contact with the students, writers, and scholars who work on the Lost & Found CUNY Poetics Document Initiative chapbooks. Such communities are crucial to archival work, and contain a seed that could potentially transform academic labor and production to something more collective.

  1. Imagine beyond the archive.

As I wrote that first seminar paper on Hughes and the Spanish Civil War, I pondered a line from Jane Marcus’s Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race: “I […] thought it would be an interesting problem in gay history to open that folder on writers and the Spanish civil war in Cunard’s papers at the Humanities Research Center, to think about the relation between radicalism, race and homosexuality in the context of the Spanish Civil War.”[2] Marcus conjures this folder for her readers so that they can join her in filling a critical void in modernist scholarship. It was an invitation to read with imagination, critically, between the lines of what is on the page.

I found a related gesture in Griselda Pollock’s Virtual Feminist Museum. She proposes “a museum that could never be actual,”[3] in which the young German artist Charlotte Salomon and teenaged diarist Anne Frank (who mused that she might become an art historian) encounter one another.[4] Nazis killed both of them in concentration camps. Pollock wonders, “What would Anna Frank have written about Charlotte Salomon’s work as they both aged,” and what world would they have created?[5] Pollock marks “the lostness of that generation not only of Jewish modernist women, but of entire cultural moments of transformation and challenge.”[6]

Feminist scholars approach the archive with the knowledge that it is necessarily incomplete, and by no means a “neutral” zone.[7] Those of us who want to interrogate these exclusions, and consider what other worlds are possible, enter that uncertainty with a critical stance that is open, curious, perhaps suspicious, perhaps angry—but not neutral. The ethical stakes of research come into focus.

A researcher whose inquiry goes against the logic, description, or disciplinary assumptions inscribed in an archive’s organization, must speculate, and ruminate. In “The Taste of the Archive,” Brent Edwards recalls encountering a photograph of a man emerging from vespasienne, a public toilet in Paris, in Claude McKay’s papers at the Beinecke Library:

Although I didn’t have any way to place it, the vespasienne photo in McKay’s papers remained in the back of my mind for years and, as I worked on other things, from time to time I reconsidered it. In the summer of 2010, I went to see an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art called “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century,” which included samples from the remarkable scrapbooks Cartier-Bresson had kept in the early 1930s. On a hunch, I wrote to the Fondation Cartier-Bresson to ask whether anyone there recognized the photo, and the archivist there confirmed that the photograph of the man exiting the vespasienne was taken by Cartier-Bresson himself.[8]

Edwards discovers the details of this photographs’ significance neither by accident nor by force. He links this process of eventual discovery to the conditions of McKay’s preserving the photograph in the first place. Brent Edwards writes:

[…] in McKay’s holding onto the photograph, there is something like a queer practice of the archive: an approach to the material preservation of the past that deliberately aims to retain what is elusive, what is hard to pin down, what can’t quite be explained or filed away according to the usual categories.[9]

If McKay seeks to preserve what is elusive, Edwards describes a protocol to engage such elusive materials. It’s a protocol that requires curiosity and serendipity. Research in elusive materials pushes against the “usual categories” of our disciplines and taxonomies. In Foucauldian terms, we can think of the stakes of this work as the questions we ask or can ask.[10] Can questions open up the archive? Or is it always that the archive delimits our questions? By thinking speculatively, and skeptically, we can look past the materials we encounter to query what is missing or what had been foreclosed by history. McKay’s photograph by Cartier-Bresson of Charles Henri Ford emerging from a public toilet, like the manuscript flushed down the toilet in East London, and Pankhurst’s poems on toilet paper from Holloway Prison, are all emblems that demand that we examine and question the forces that construct an archive.

  1. Skim, Browse.

I was fortunate that the subjects I studied here generally had dedicated collections of their papers in institutions. (Or, another way to say this is, I came to study these figures because they had dedicated collections of papers in institutions.) As Carol Gerson notes in Working in Women’s Archives, often women’s work was not valued enough to be collected on its own merit. She writes, “women’s papers often survive only because they have been preserved in the papers or organizations whose public significance extends value to their correspondents or members.”[11] I was additionally lucky to have finding aids for all of the collections I consulted.

Thanks to archivists’ labor in processing these collections, I was able to locate archives and the materials within them comfortably. Nonetheless, there is a certain amount of openness in my approach of the archive. My work benefited from a generally curious and broad approach to research (as well as financial support for archival research that granted me the time and space to be meandering). I try to skim everything that comes across my reading room desk, even if it is chronologically outside of the scope of my project, or seems irrelevant. With enough time, I request folders on a whim. If I am given boxes of folders, I flip through the contents of every folder. For one thing, dipping into the papers that made it to the repository is a way to glean a biography, or a general sense of an organization or movement, and its shifts over time. I looked at many collections that did not directly impact this project (Bricktop, Josephine Baker, Rosey Pool, The League of Coloured People, The Young Socialist Magazine, and a folder of materials related to Claudia Jones’ exile in the U.K., to name a few)—and they provided a broader context to place my study. Sometimes these searches turned up unexpected connections, like Virginia Woolf’s signature on a letter about the Scottsboro case.

  1. Research intersections along the way.

As I reviewed archival materials, I tried to keep track of the individuals’ names that came up, and literary work mentioned, in order to pursue those connections. Being able to search the internet while looking at archival materials was extremely helpful. Looking at a manuscript of a Langston Hughes poem, for instance, I could search for a line to see whether it had been published. If a title of a book or periodical was mentioned, I could search Worldcat to see what library held it. I could look up information about individuals mentioned, and note if there were any publications by or about them, or if they had a collection of their own papers in an archive. These searches sometimes recursively suggested further inquiries in the original archive.

  1. Bring attention to gender and digital archives.

A few years ago, Miriam Posner warned of the implications of the professional rewards granted to those who code in the field of digital humanities. Since, as she says, not all of us have had access or encouragement to learn the intricacies of code, and those who have tend to be middle and upper class white men, the field tends to be skewed. [12] (Posner: “I love that you learned BASIC at age ten. But please realize that this has not been the case for all of us.”)[13] If women and people of color who have not learned to code become disproportionally excluded (or have been excluded from the outset, perhaps not reaching the academy at all) from DH jobs, debates, and discipline-defining conversations, their perspectives, and by extension certain histories and texts, are, and have been, left by the wayside.

I await the Three Guineas of the digital age. Perhaps Katherine Harris has begun to articulate it. Harris raised the alarm that digitizing projects are reproducing the canon-making judgments of the past, excluding women, people of color, and cultural productions deemed middle- and low-brow.[14] Harris and Roger Whitson discussed these issues on twitter, an important arena for digital humanists. Their discussion touches many points that resonate with Woolf’s cry against the exclusion of women from the public realm, material resources, and education.[15] (Intriguingly, the twitter conversation echoes the formal structure of Three Guineas, an epistolary essay that begins with an exchange with an ally of another gender.) Harris points out that digitization projects tend to draw on the collections of university libraries, some of which “have policy to not collect ephemeral stuff.”[16] As Woolf wrote in 1938, we won’t find women’s experiences recorded in history books and biographies. We must look at the newspapers and other ephemeral sources.

The absence of women authors from the libraries is a matter of access to money and prestigious educational institutions—a materialist concern that is announced in Woolf’s title.[17] Harris argues, “we haven’t funded enuf dig projs for women authors[,] to equal those on male authors.”[18] Digitization projects have a big impact, as the work is shareable and the data sets they create can be taken to be representative.[19] Scholars draw on data from these digitizations (geographical locations, word choice, etc.) to make claims about an era’s writing.[20] Harris’s warning has some teeth. The “mistakes of the past” are repeated, but “hidden behind all of this glorious data,” so no one seems to notice.[21] How do we expand the canon, and change the institutional structures that allow such erasures, in the making of and the preserving of writing?

Digital humanities may, however, offer methods to take on Woolf’s directive to read “sometimes openly in the lines, sometimes covertly between them.”[22] Lauren Klein’s work on James Heming, chef of Thomas Jefferson, recovers Heming from the obscurity of place in the Papers of Thomas Jefferson to visualize the centrality of Heming’s labor in Jefferson’s life.[23] Klein identified which documents in the Papers mention Hemings, and using the University of Virginia’s digital edition, text-mined all of the names in those documents. Then, she developed “a basic co-appearance script” that that tracked “the relationships between the people mentioned, and the number of times each person was mentioned together.”[24] She created a graph of these interpersonal relationships. Klein reflected, “In contrast to the sixteen documents (out of an estimated 18,000) that turn up in a search for ‘James Hemings’ in the Jefferson Papers, James Hemings here is positioned at the center of the diagram. This central position points to the undocumented labor—the difficult, daily labor—that Hemings was required to perform.”[25] This project elegantly demonstrates the potential of applying digital humanities tools to archival papers in order to bring forward figures that had been relegated to the background.

The sorts of sources that I have focused on in this dissertation—newspapers, correspondence, scrapbooks, pamphlets—tend not to be widely available in books, and thus are missing from personal and public libraries. They are, however, suited for non-linear presentations, as becomes possible in a scrapbook or a file folder, or forms developed by digital humanities: a database of texts or images, visualizations for text analysis, network mapping, or geospatial mapping. Digital technologies provide exciting possibilities for recovering and circulating archival materials that might otherwise remain silent. If we draw on ephemeral sources to map patterns of interpersonal and organizational contact, we can point out the presence of a history that would allow for forgotten texts and individuals to reemerge for close reading and recovery. I’m imagining work that could highlight black women journalists in the 1930s—geospatial representations of their locations, a collection of articles, a social networking graph that presents connections between authors and editors. A project like Stanford’s Mapping the Republic of Letters could be reimagined as “Mapping Black Internationalism,” populated with case studies of figures like Hughes, Cunard, Schomburg, whose correspondence would illuminate new texts, translations, collections, and publishing projects with an international range of contacts.

*          *          * 

The informal, semi-digital reproduction I undertook, standing at a copy machine in the Kinkos on the Upper West Side at the start of my graduate school career, was the beginning of an entry into archival inquiries. Why hadn’t this poem been discovered and republished, despite Hughes’s canonical status and the recent interest in his Spanish Civil War work? I continued to gather my personal collection of archival materials. Several years later, I saw the materials I copied that first semester in person at the Harry Ransom Center. I took photos on my digital camera to refer to later, a new policy for the HRC. As archives become more open to digitization, we have to pay attention to what materials are prioritized. Digital reproduction makes access and circulation more possible, but that potential is not an answer unto itself. What we discover, republish, and make accessible in digital repositories is still ruled by cultural values, methodologies, and the awarding of resources. And the people who can access these materials, is limited by access to technology, literacy, and level of education. Digital projects aren’t a solution to these structural problems, but they present a tool that could be applied to challenge them. Just as photomontage isn’t inherently an antifascist form, digital projects don’t guarantee any particular set of values.

Thyra Edwards, Nancy Cunard, Louise Thompson, Langston Hughes, and Sylvia Pankhurst circulated narratives that challenged the dominant accounts of their societies. They each innovated literary and print forms to reach out, internationally and interracially, to create collectives and change history.  They searched for forms with which they could reshape the terms within which they saw the world. The projects that scholars take up in the archive today can learn from their interwar attempts.

[1] Marcus, Hearts of Darkness, 145. “Accustomed as I was to challenging the hegemony of literary estates and biographers of writers […] it was a shock to find that a healthy suspicion and a basic skepticism about received wisdom are as necessary in reading (and believing) the biographers, autobiographers, and literary historians of what is called The Harlem Renaissance.”
[2] Ibid., 146.
[3] Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum, 9.
[4] Ibid., 164.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kadar and Buss, Working in Women’s Archives, 7.
[8] Edwards, “The Taste of the Archive.”
[9] Ibid.
[10] Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language.
[11] Kadar and Buss, Working in Women’s Archives, 8.
[12] Posner, “Some Things to Think about before You Exhort Everyone to Code.”
[13] Ibid.
[14] Cecire, Harris, and Whitson, “From Archival Silence to Glorious Data (with Tweets).”
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Woolf, Marcus, and Hussey, Three Guineas. See Marcus’s introduction for a discussion of Woolf’s attention to figures and funds (xlii-xliv).
[18] Cecire, Harris, and Whitson, “From Archival Silence to Glorious Data (with Tweets).” I wavered on whether or not to preserve the idiosyncratic spelling and abbreviations, this being a formal academic work, but decided to preserve the author’s deliberate orthographic choice. I only intervene to add a comma for clarification.
[19] Whitson, “DH, Archival Silence, and Linked Open Data.”
[20] Cecire, Harris, and Whitson, “From Archival Silence to Glorious Data (with Tweets).”
[21] Ibid.
[22] Woolf, Marcus, and Hussey, Three Guineas, 136.
[23] Klein, “When Reading Fails.”
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid.


  1. Anne, thank you for sharing these critical, feminist approaches to the archives and your personal reflections.

  2. Anne — this is fascinating, gives me a much better justification of my own work, and reminds me of how much Jane promoted her students’ intelligences, curiosity, and powers to add to knowledge & literature/ history.

  3. Congratulations on a wonderful accomplishment, Anne. I was very sorry to hear the news about Jane. The thoughtfulness and authority of this postscript are a tribute to her, but, more importantly, a record of your excellent thinking and hard work. I’m so glad you shared this!

  4. Beautifully articulated wise words about archives and more importantly about scholarly generosity.
    And why not publish that image of Virginia Woolf’s signature on the Scottsboro petition at The Vault at Slate?

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