What is this? I find my body passing through the luxuries of another’s order. The stale or crisp ins and out of small things kept in windexed glass boxes, resembling the miniature angles and tracks of the past, leaping out only through my own revving up of their engines. I watch them glitter and swirl in their old world, otherworldly elegance. It is the elegance of the unsaid, the trained hand that knew in its fingertips what braille the artisans of memory use. It sets up its signposts and waits for the rush of modern life to wipe its white and sunlit dust all over the floors of these parlors. It sets up death and waits for life to reanimate it.
I am tracking my way through modern day Philadelphia and I pick up a pencil. I study it, its fine orange finish, its countered edges. I do not write with pencils: what an arcane notion. But I put it in my satchel anyway. It is made of wood and feels like something real.
Across the narrower streets that encase old Jewish families and old Christian families, the brownstone and brick hovers on a street brought by November into its full elegance. I walk with my body, this body that houses me, that doesn’t currently have a home, even an apartment, of my own. I, who studied the most elusive and aristocratic of ideas from a state school, I with a taste for a lifestyle of contemplation and experience that I cannot afford and don’t wish to be able to afford. I who stray into this liminal space between the trappings of culture and grace that only merchants and the children of aristocracy can provide. I, who long to be a writer, who long to be on these bookshelves, bound in fine leather and read before a fire: I am neither schooled appropriately, nor am I connected appropriately.
I neither have the manners to join the collectors of art in their drawing rooms, nor do I have the easy defiance to make art that would shatter their glass boxes. I am the seed that only half-grew. Germinated and then sprouted only its tip. Yet I wander through the facades of the imposing past, the past that was built on money, that paid for its beauty with the grunts of other’s labor. And I want to know why I cannot reconcile myself to it. And then I see a new thing: a museum called The Rosenbach on Delancy Street. And I step in, timidly, like I’m entering someone’s home who is still upstairs or outside. And I’m greeted immediately by a man who may have been a butler in one of these homes in his past life. He is gracious. He is courteous.
There were two brothers, both with money, one who collected art and prints and furniture (mild interest) the other who collected rare books (Yipes! sign me up). Most notable, James Joyce’s Ulysses manuscript was on display there. I pay him eight dollars and the next thing I know I have joined a small tour.
I suffer silently through the docent’s mumbled droning about the dining room silver and the wine cooler with the lock to keep servants out. I wait patiently while he points to portraits on the wall and explains the important people who had once lived here or been connected to those who lived here. I try to imagine why I feel so put off by these things, by the things that are not of my class.
For me, there is a world of difference between gaping at an important manuscript because it changed modern literature and gaping at a silver cup because it was bequeathed by the queen of England. Some would say that they represent the same connectivity to giant structures in history. I say that a silver cup bequeathed by the Queen of England to a bunch of rich Philadelphia merchants as a congratulations for their being so rich and splendid is only interesting if you like to think of yourself being that rich and splendid. And most people do. That’s why places like that downstairs of the Rosenbach house exist.
But give me the Rosenbach upstairs any day. Dr. Rosenbach was the brother with the rumpled collar, literary loves, and a portrait of himself in the reading room that made me want to sit in his lap. He had collected manuscripts and first editions that are rare, rare, rare: Pilgrim’s Progress, Milton’s copy of Thucidities, letters from Lincoln… He even had copies of the first printing of the Gutenberg Bible pass through his hands at some point. Yes, the first printing of any book ever. But even this guy wasn’t rich enough to hold onto that thing for long.
But, feh, who needs all this specific information. You could get that on their website.
N’allez pas trop vite! As our dear Proust would say.
The rooms are dark and spare, with rich woods and one with an old prayer carpet worn by time. We aren’t allowed to stand on it, and all the books are behind lock and key. It feels distinctly how I imagine it would feel were I a bourgeois bohemian in the early part of the century who the Rosenbach’s were somehow obliged to show their library. I feel, in other words, like my presence is intruding on something that certainly doesn’t belong to me and will only be tolerated for a little while more.
I want to open one of those cases, sit on the old divan and just remember a memory that maybe isn’t mine: sitting in an English-style library before a roaring fire, reading a first edition of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, or studying the tiny, slanted handwriting of certain pages from the manuscript of Ulysses. Places like this are the inner sanctum of the true English major’s heart, and even though we are so rarely allowed to touch anything, these places are what make up happy, make us believe, again, in the idea of society, of priviledge, of art and of letters. We are anachronistics, we Anglophile, literary bibliophiles, pining away from an English countryside manor we’ve never stepped foot in.
And when I say “English majors” I truly mean that. This doesn’t, of course, mean that all English majors idealize the reading life, or that only people who went to college and studied literature can. What it does mean is that I give special place to those who made the sacrifice to their career of studying and dedicating themselves to literature during college, many of whom suffer for it afterward. There is hope, though, as you can read about on my Teach page.
In my team of docent-lead peers, a comment would be made here or there with poorly performed humility, filling in notable little trivia about Marianne Moore at the Marianne Moore room (yes, there was a whole room just lifted from her New York apartment and transported here) or holding court quietly about the Joyce.
It’s been five years since grad school for me, but I’ll never forget those moments of the most muted but present desperation to know, to show you know, to BE whatever it it we thought was contained in these revolving worlds of the literary past. Here I am, still on the inside and outside of the crowd: listening to the docent, listening for the grad students’ posturing, seeing the sincerity licked with this human need to possess the past through saying what we know in hushed tones just loud enough for six people to hear.
I am sensitive to these dynamics because I contain them all in myself. And when the young woman tells the other that she teaches British lit. and creative writing at Penn, where she is a grad student, and the other woman is duly impressed, I am convulsed by this involuntary jealousy, remembering the days when I taught English and wanted nothing more than to one day be secured at a great university teaching interesting classes.
But in my vigilant self-awareness, I am able to step beyond it and laugh at myself, at how easy it is to forget that the trappings of a life are rarely the heart of it and that teaching English felt very little like sitting in a drawing room and reading. And that the thing that has given me the most edge and scope in my work has not been trifling through literary trivia at parties with frenemies, but in sitting alone in my apartment, listening to my heart, to the walls, traveling back through the architecture of my life and resolving, where I can, the fractures in who I am.
I was a state school girl from a middle-class neighborhood in Rochester, New York. We ate tuna helper and for the first 18 years of my life, the closest I got to art was through Cats or Phantom of the Opera. But I read the greatest books in history until five in the morning every summer night. And to me, that’s worth more than the Queen’s cup, or even the scrawled manuscript of Ulysses behind glass. After all, Ulysses is hard enough to read, even as a paperback.
I travel with the inner sanctum of books in my heart. I am not rich enough, nor may I ever be, to have my own collection of first editions signed by great writers to their secret lovers and hidden behind glass. But if I am to speak of my day, to speak in a way that earns the grace of my own day, I must not be afraid of the guises and privileges of the rich, imagining the world of important happenings will somehow always be some world beyond me.
If I am ever to become a great artist, it will not be by enchanting myself with the symbols of the past that cloak themselves in charming ideal, but in facing the winter wind that sets on my face as I leave this museum and wind my way back through by the video shops, graffiti, and brownstones.