A Look Inside the New York Public Library: An Interview with Jean Strouse

by Jean Strouse

photography Todd Hido

Issue V

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The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers occupies part of the second floor of The New York Public Library’s landmark Stephen A. Schwarzman Building at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street – which is celebrating its Centennial this year. A handsome space of wood and glass with 15 offices around a common lounge area, the Center has since 1999 served as a home within the Library to an impressive array of creative writers, independent scholars, and academics.

Chosen through a competitive application process, the 15 selected Fellows each fall come to the Cullman Center for an academic year, from Sepember through May, to do research in the Library’s extraordinarily rich collections, work with profoundly knowledgeable curators, and to write.  The list of books published by Fellows based on their work at the Library is remarkable indeed, and among its alumni the Center counts several winners of prizes such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The distinguished historian Peter Gay was the first Director of the Center, from 1999-2003, and he was succeeded by Jean Strouse, a prize-winning biographer. During her tenure as Director, Jean has created an atmosphere that encourages vital interdisciplinary exchanges and collaborations inside The New York Public Library and for the general public, through evening “Conversations from the Cullman Center.” Some of the speakers for the Fall, 2011 public Conversations are former Fellows Stacy Schiff, Ben Katchor, Louis Menand, and Wells Tower.

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Strouse discusses the chemical reactions that take place when 15 highly talented people are virtually living together for nine months:

“We cannot curate what happens among the Fellows in each year’s group, but each year it is magical and unique. As they do the difficult, lonely work of research and writing – behind their office doors but sharing common public spaces – they talk to each other and learn from each other, across the disciplines of history, fiction, poetry, biography, and art. They talk during coffee breaks, over lunch, going out for drinks at the end of the day, staying in for drinks at the end of the day – and taking in all the cultural riches of New York.

The Center likes to have a range of experience in each class, including some Fellows who are young and just starting out, some in their 40s and 50s, and some older writers and scholars, in the prime of distinguished careers. One of the youngest Fellows, Karen Russell, 28, had published a book of short stories before her Fellowship; while she was here she finished her first novel, the deservedly celebrated Swamplandia, published in 2010. Patrick Radden Keefe at 27 took a year off from law school to come to the Cullman Center and write a book about electronic eavesdropping, which was published in 2005 – Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping – and launched him on a successful career as an investigative writer and reporter.”

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During a year of doing research at the Library, Fellows often make astonishing discoveries.

“David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, was writing about two recently-found first person accounts by slaves who had run away from their owners during the Civil War. In the Library’s Map Division, David found an 1863 map of Mobile Bay, Alabama, showing the specific places identified by Wallace Turnage in his dramatic narrative of escape. The map appears as an illustration in Blight’s book A Slave No More, Two Men Who Escaped to Freedom.

The British biographer Hermione Lee, now president of Wolfson College at Oxford, made a different kind of discovery. She came to the Cullman Center to work on her biography of Edith Wharton – living in England, she needed to immerse herself in Wharton’s New York. Her office in the Center looked out on Fifth Ave.; and early in her time here she learned that just across the Avenue, at the northeast corner of 42nd Street and Fifth, had stood the house of banker Levi P. Morton – the house in which Edith Wharton had her coming-out party.”

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Many of the Fellows work with the Cullman Center Institute for Teachers, leading seminars and workshops for middle school and high school teachers from New York City’s public schools. The Center gives nearly 200 teachers a year the experience of working closely with a gifted writer or scholar, and learning at first hand about using this great research library. The teachers come to the Library for day-long workshops during the school year and week-long seminars during the summer, to study subjects ranging from creative writing and journalism to the Harlem Renaissance , the American Revolution, Shakespeare, Melville, and Poe. One teacher called her seminar week “a spa for the mind.” Many others have called it the best professional development experience they’ve ever had.

The Institute for Teachers provides the Fellows and the Library with a significant way to reach out to the New York City community – and to introduce new people each year to the extraordinary resources housed in the 42nd Street building. This is just one of the ways in which the Library and the Cullman Center make up an integral part of the city’s cultural landscape.

As the Library enters the 21st century, the grand marble building retains the beauty of its youth, protects the collections that have been carefully assembled over the past century, and contains cutting-edge thinking and technology for a new, digital age. Strouse reflects on some of the technological advances that enhance creative scholarly work – her own, and those of Fellows and other Library patrons – and on the Library’s next hundred years:

“The use of online resources by scholars and writers has expanded exponentially since I arrived at the Cullman Center in 2003 – and over the course of my own writing career the nature of research and writing has changed even more dramatically. 

I wrote my first book (Alice James, A Biography, 1980) on a typewriter, which seems inconceivable now. All that manularity – taking notes by hand, retyping pages, using whiteout, making carbon copies – did it make writers think more carefully before putting words on paper than they do now? Maybe; it’s impossible to know. Writing is thinking; it takes as long it takes.

During the 15 years it took me to research and write my second book, Morgan, American Financier, the computer and the Internet changed the lineaments of the universe. I was writing about the late 19th century, when railroads were altering the world as radically as communications and information technology are altering ours 100 years later. In the 1990s I took a laptop to libraries, looked things up online, and found passages in my own manuscript by means of word-searches.

Then came Google, and other means of access to unfathomable amounts of information. With ease, in libraries and at home, authors now roam widely during the thinking and writing process. Yet that ease can be a liability, inviting us always to look up just one more thing, tempting us constantly away from tough moments in writing. A number of Cullman Center Fellows unplug from the Internet in their offices – then go online at a central computer when they are ready for breaks.

The Internet probably could have trimmed three years off the duration of my Morgan project. However, if I had to choose between saving three years of research time and the incomparable value of reading original letters and diaries on the actual pages handled by their authors, I would choose the latter. You learn things from the object itself that you cannot learn from a digital copy. Yet you learn different, invaluable things from cyber realms. Fortunately, it’s a false choice. Most of the Fellows at the Cullman Center are deeply immersed in physical, material sources and also in the Library’s terrific, ever-expanding digital resources.

No one in 1911 could have imagined the world we live in now – and we cannot possibly imagine what the world will be like in 2111. Still – if I were granted two wishes, 100 years from now I would like to see widely democratic access to books and information and education all over the globe – which will require forceful political will as well as dollars and constantly-improving technology. And I would like to see the sustaining vitality and continuing use of the cultural heritage that lives in the books, manuscripts, and other materials this Library has been collecting and preserving for the past 100 years.

Set on the site of the old Croton Reservoir, The New York Public Library with its famous lions is an internationally recognized cultural icon. Walking into the building every day is still thrilling, even though I’ve been doing it for eight years. I love the quiet before and after public service hours, when the presences in the long marble halls are ghosts of writers and readers past. Other things I love: the smell of books in the underground stacks, which go straight down seven floors below the building, and then further down and west under Bryant Park to Sixth Avenue; the pneumatic tubes in the Catalogue Room, which until a few years ago transmitted readers’ call slips to Library pages who fetch the books from the stacks; the handsome modern auditorium and sleek computer classrooms in the relatively new South Court wing; the immense arched windows in the gorgeously restored Rose Main Reading Room – windows that were entirely blacked out between World War II and the 1990s; the sight of hundreds of people working in the Reading Room every day, on computers or reading books; the Children’s Room, which has the original Winnie the Pooh; the wooden public phone booths in the halls – people still use them to place calls, and every now and then one of the phones rings. The past and the future are very much alive – and talking to each other – in this building.”

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