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Oppositions in the Modernist Archive

In the opening days of 2020 modernists may have rejoiced over two significant events. On January 1, works published in 1924 entered the public domain. On January 2, Princeton University opened to the public the recently uncrated 1,131 letters from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale. In these two opposing examples of the modernist archive 2020 stages a central tension between diffusion and enclosure, between the dream of a universal library—which paradoxically and simultaneously enacts a “library without walls”—and that of a “classical archive,” as Wolfgang Ernst describes brick and mortar structures.[1]

The idea of a universal library dates back at least to the sixteenth century, when bibliographers like François Grudé de la Croix du Maine, Antoine du Verdier, Conrad Gessner, and Anton Francesco Doni prepared catalogs or “libraries” for the King of France containing ambitiously comprehensive book lists organized according to elaborate knowledge taxonomies.[2] The universal library was a never-realized assembly of texts whose combined effect would have been intended to produce moral improvement. Even in that relatively early period of print culture, the physical libraries du Maine and du Verdier’s catalogs imagined would have been vast undertakings. Reflecting that aspiration for comprehensive utility, early modern library architecture emphasized the equality of one book with another. The spines of books were assembled en face in vertical storage bookcases, which, in turn, were secured to walls in row upon row in large open multistoried galleries in architecture emphasizing accessibility. Of course, this democratic interface masked library selection criteria, a determination of which objects would be collected and which, judged to contain no (educational) value, would remain uncollected.

In the late 1920s, the idea of a “library without walls” gained currency in library science communities and subtly modified the idea of the universal library. The phrase encapsulates the spirit driving the rapid proliferation of Carnegie libraries and new inventions like the bookmobile, which delivered books to rural dwellers. To put this in perspective: by 1920, the United States had 6,000 libraries and of those libraries approximately 2,000 were built with Andrew Carnegie funds.[3] Just as the rise of the professional historian cocreated the archives of the nineteenth century, modernists like Marianne Moore and Nella Larsen, who worked as librarians—Moore worked at the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library and Larsen at the 135th Street Branch––participated in the period’s enthusiasm for an expanded accessibility of the public library. Larsen, as a woman of color, was particularly cognizant, as Karin Roffman writes, of the library’s antiquated classification schemes, which assumed a racially homogenous readership. Roffman’s study describes the Melvil Dewey classification of black authors under one of two numbers: either 325 “colonization” or 326 “slavery.”[4] Such a classification scheme shaped the meaning of library materials, no matter the counternarratives offered by individual books. Taking into consideration Moore’s and Larsen’s daily engagement with Dewey taxonomies as well as new trends in library science, it seems all the more plausible that both writers’ creative output subverts classification, hierarchy, and fixed schemas.

Rockville Fair, [Maryland], 1928.
Fig. 1. Rockville Fair, [Maryland], 1928. Digital ID: (digital file from original) npcc 33353 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.33353. Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-npcc-33353 (digital file from original). Used with Permission of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Then as now one of the strategies for circumventing these ideologically-overdetermined library interfaces entails seeking out archives and special collections repositories. The archive, as a subset of the working library, offered modernists an antidote to the implicitly moral expectations of the universal library. In many cases, the way to gain a sense of diffusion, possibility, and alternate historical narrative was to visit the classical physical archive. Ezra Pound famously spent hours at the British Museum Reading Room studying newly acquired Japanese prints, which until then had not been seen outside Japan. Moore used the American Natural History Museum and W. B. Yeats made use of the Municipal Gallery.[5]

A Modernist View on the Universal Library

Alain Resnais’s 1956 short film Toute la Mémoire du Monde (All the Memory in the World) is a meditation on the legacy of the Bibliotheque du Roi, what would become after the French Revolution the Bibliotheque Nationale. In the course of the film, employees dressed in canvas dustcoats push iron book carts through book-lined chambers of the beaux arts structure of the old Bibliotheque Nationale. The film surveys the interior and exterior features of the building, from the catwalks that wrap the glass domes, the subterranean boiler room, to the hauntingly vast succession of closed stacks storage, to the soaring ceilings of the grand reading room. In a series of crosscuts, the film depicts library users standing poised at the thresholds of the map, prints, engravings, periodicals, medals, and the manuscripts departments as if to underscore that special collections archives are subsets of the larger library enterprise.

Still from All the Memory in the World (Les Films de la Pléiade, 1956)
Fig. 2. Still from All the Memory in the World (Les Films de la Pléiade, 1956), directed by Alain Resnais).

Resnais’s modernist perspective on the library has much in common with the Enlightenment vision of the library as an architecture of totality, but it also emphasizes librarians and patrons as constitutive of libraries in a way unrecognized in the early modern period––implying that these systems and structures rely on the tacit or explicit participation in the institution as an enclosed knowledge regime, protecting against diffusion, proliferation, permutation, and contradiction. In ceaseless repetition, the staff stamp, catalog, and shelve documents.

Although Resnais was commissioned by the French Foreign Ministry to represent the Bibliotheque Nationale as a modern facility, Toute la Memoire documents the Bibliotheque’s information systems and its capacity to handle massive inventories even as it signals its subversion by inventing an imaginary travel guide to Mars, a blatantly “non-existent title in the real Petite Planète (Little Planet) series of travel guides edited at Editions du Seuil.[6] This uncatalogable issue, adorned with a cover photograph of actress Lucia Bosé, celebrated actress of Italian neorealism, is delivered to the library.

The BN staff process the Mars issue of Petite Planète without pause. Perhaps they recognize and welcome the subversion or perhaps they are mechanically conditioned to perform their duty without judgment. The film tracks the book’s passage into the library’s elaborate and rational acquisition system. At the conclusion of the film, the magazine issue reaches its storage location—its place in the catalog, in the library, in the building, and its place in human knowledge, interrupting a row of uniformly-wrapped cloth bound books. The visual effect is striking. A woman has interrupted the uniformity of the interface. The camera lingers on an image of Bosé’s face. Her confident stare returns the viewer’s gaze. This fake travelogue’s quixotic insertion into the serious and compendious work of the BN signals that France’s attempt at a universal library is vulnerable to disruption: first, through the inherently destabilizing force of women in archives; and second, through the passage of an unsanctioned document that offers possible alternate accounts of a world made possible by alterations of the archival record. In this way, Resnais presents the Bibliotheque Nationale as interface of modern and ancient, disruption and order, permeability and sequestration.

Still from All the Memory in the World
Fig. 3. Still from All the Memory in the World (Les Films de la Pléiade, 1956), directed by Alain Resnais).


Significant narratives of modernism will undergo revision in 2020 and it is the classical archive that makes this upheaval possible. The embodied experience of traversing architectural spaces and handling physical materials presents its own challenge. Obscurity has also allowed archives to store and protect materials that can lie dormant, temporarily sequestered, protecting them from peril for a time ready to receive them. The physicality of the Hale/Eliot correspondence is captured in a series of eyewitness descriptions that highlight the unsealing of the materials as an event, the letters as physical objects, in situ, original, and unique. A recent Guardian article dramatically recreates a scene of enclosure at the moment of exposure as it describes the splintering open of wooden crates that have held the T. S. Eliot letters. A more accurate but no less vivid account of the moment of exposure, describes the way that

the copper bands holding the crates and the wooden slats clattered to the table. Revealed at last were the letter boxes that held the answers to one of the most intriguing mysteries of modernism: Princeton’s trove of more than a thousand letters sent by T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale between 1930 and 1956.

Susan Stewart explains that the unofficial opening of the materials actually occurred a few months prior to January 2, 2020. As a necessary preparation for making the materials accessible, archivists needed to open the boxes and catalog and digitize the contents.

Seals on the Eliot/Hale correspondence.
Fig. 4. Seals on the Eliot/Hale correspondence. Photograph by Shelley Szwast. Used with permission of Princeton University Library.

Just as Michel Foucault identified Flaubert as the first author of the modern era because he conceived of his own archive, the Eliot and Hale letter cache reflects modernists’ acute consciousness of their archivability and of the classical archive as “preserved time” that can be, in its own way, disrupted.[7] Hale’s arrangement with Princeton to store the letters with her letter of explanation and Eliot’s strategic use of the Harvard archives to transmit his own document on the nature of the correspondence bespeaks an awareness of Eliot’s and Hale’s own sense of their historicity. Seeking amendment to the Hale letters, Eliot writes on Thanksgiving Day (11/25/1960, amended in 1963):  “I wish the statement by myself to be made public as soon as the letters to Miss Hale are made public. (I make clear a little further on what I mean by the term ‘make public’).” Eliot’s reflections and explanations anticipate the future status of the archival document. Hale too talks of “future students” and “biographers of the future.” Although Eliot had suggested in 1930 that he could place Hale’s and his own letters at the Bodleian, by 1960 Eliot pronounces Hale’s deposit of the letters as a “disposal.” This term “disposal” implies a view of the archive as distinguishable from the library. The archive is at worst a dump, a place for devaluing what once had value but, more likely, and in a less extreme sense, Eliot may have imagined the archive as a neutral repository, as that which aspires as much as is possible to be a nondidactic plenitude.

The Classical Archive as Time-Based

In this latter case Eliot would be adhering to a perspective that differentiates between the library—recognizable by its breadth, its utility to human knowledge, and its project of ethical development—and the archive as a subset of the library, experienced as a slightly more volatile depth. Libraries are public and implicitly (invisibly) ordered while archives are restricted spaces whose organization is not intrinsic, but a product of how it is seen. In this formulation the archive is not universal so much as a fissure, an opening delving into deep strata. The materials in the archive may assume greater or lesser value at any given moment. Additionally, there are fewer structures through which the archive signals how to read the objects it contains. It could be inferred that Hale regarded her deposit not as disposal so much as a sequestering, a deliberate identification and selection of a time-based hiding place. This function of the classical archive as site of burial and exhumation repeats with another recent, though far less dramatic, emergence, that of previously unknown Virginia Woolf papers “including extensive correspondence, rare printed books, and unique material such as photographs, original artwork, and ephemera (including Woolf’s passport).” In both the Hale/Eliot and the Woolf situations, it is the archive rather than the larger library enterprise as paradigm that can collect and preserve unpublished materials, ephemera, nonstandard textual artifacts, and documents of indeterminate value. As per copyright restrictions, the Hale/Eliot correspondence may only be viewed in the reading room of Mudd Library. Scholars may transcribe portions, but digital reproductions are not permitted. Theoretically speaking, until 2035 the Hale/Eliot materials will remain unique, in a sense, like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, although Faber and Faber is slated to publish transcriptions of the letters as early as 2021. The letters’ fixedness and identity as objects in the preserved time of the classical archive contrasts with the multiplication, reproduction, repurposing, desacralization, and reanimation of 1924 publications.


Public Domain Day, which recurs every January first, this year celebrates the addition of works published in 1924. Until 1978 copyright lasted for seventy-five years for corporate authorship and, after the creator’s death, resided with an author’s estate for fifty years. But in 1998 the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act extended copyright, adding twenty years to the copyright term. This has meant that for my generation (entering college in 1998) modernism could easily appear to slip into obscurity after 1923. It is therefore no surprise that special collections archives have been a significant corrective force in the research and teaching of modernism. But in 2019 the copyright extension act expired and works published in 1923, like William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All and Jean Toomer’s Cane, became newly available for republication, remixing, quotation, and collage. This year materials such as Marianne Moore’s Observations, Hugo Ball’s 7 schizophrene Sonette, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, and E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India have been disinterred from their controlled fixed positions in the archive. Here I construe “archive” not as classical archive but in a second sense, closer to the modernist desire for a subvertable permeable universal library­­––as a diffuse but no less materially locatable knowledge system.

The modernist-era concept of a “library without walls,” which regained currency in the 1970s as university and public libraries began to create digital catalogs of their holdings and to imagine new ways of reaching users (see trigram google ngram). 1996 represented a high-water mark for the term “library without walls” which is consonant with the advent of Web 1.0. The phrase continued to be used in discussions about digital diffusion. In 2010 Robert Darnton discussed plans for a National Digital Library, which would be the “digital equivalent” of the Library of Congress. The technologically-facilitated fantasy of a universal digital library without walls is at root a modernist idea of the library. Certainly, the phrase maps fittingly onto the internet, a fluid nonplace where, as Roger Chartier writes, texts may be “emancipated from the form that has conveyed them” (The Order of Books, 90). Digital reproduction enables printed texts in the public domain to become “open, mobile, and malleable texts.”[8] But in 1994 Chartier rightly worried that “By the reader’s preference texts and hypertexts assembled on the screen are by nature ephemeral and, unless secured, can be cut, increased, moved and copied at will.”[9] This speaks to what Ernst has more recently observed: “the equation of Internet and archive leads to the ultimate dissolution—liquidation—of the concept, immersively, like ink used to write on water” (Digital Memory, 85). The architecture of the internet, with its protocols, vector fields, reconfigurability, and dynamic transfer, should not be conflated with the intentional storage structures of brick and mortar archives. The time-based nature of physical archives, documenting an event, textual or otherwise, that took place at one time, and their function as an inscription site, remain essential.

In an expanded and general sense “the archive” is often invoked as shorthand for an imagined grouping of documents that may have no administrative or physical apparatus formally connecting them, but which are linked by shared topic, author, event, technological writing apparatus, or group identity. In 2020 the modernist archive, released from the strict control of literary estates and prohibitive reproduction licensing fees, will produce new scholarship made possible by unrestricted access at numerous special collections archives and by the subsequent digitization and creation of new data sets of previously under-studied material. Project Gutenberg offers a helpful guide with “What Can I do with a Text that is in the Public Domain?” and Hathitrust provides a list of “1924 Publications” which enumerates their recently added materials. A few such items include the 1924 issues of Secession magazine. Just as the quixotic Petite Planète volume showcasing tourism of Mars entered the Bibliotheque Nationale, mixing and comingling in exciting plural convolutions, 1924 publications are newly accessible and ready for remediation.

Matthew Huculak writes about the hidden labor of librarians and archivists and cautions that then, as now, the material conditions of archives can reveal artifacts in new ways, or in turn obscure elements that were previously in view. An archive, Huculak impresses, is tethered to material conditions and organized, tended, and transformed by historical actors––archivists, researchers, administrators. What if we were to frame archival practice as carework, or enable carework to infuse theories of the archive? Undoubtedly, ethical labor-based engagements with archives are becoming a greater part of how modernist scholars develop a practice of the archive. Lise Jaillant and Alison Martin’s 2018 special issue in Modernist Cultures draws together essays by Douglas Mao, Claire Battersill, Daniel Goske, Andrew Thacker, and others whose work in archives “recover[s] important information about the identities, agendas and motivations of those central––yet often overlooked––middlemen and middle-women who ensured texts became ‘mobile’ and travelled across cultural and linguistic boundaries.”[10] Eric Bulson gestures to the necessary work still to be done in investigating “the material processes that would allow for any poem to travel in the first place.”[11] Amanda Golden, in her forthcoming Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets, demonstrates the important role of authors’ libraries and teaching notes as “an exemplary but overlooked resource for tracing the history and reception of Anglo-American modernism.”[12]

The dispersal of modernist scholars throughout various positions in universities and libraries, within and outside of the academy, signals a new era of the archive. Future Pasts will carry on in 2020 with bringing together “everyone involved in the creation of archives to discuss how these spaces shape, have shaped, and will shape the study of modernism” (Hucalak). As I take up the curatorial role of Future Pasts from my friend Matthew Huculak, I look forward to continuing to make space for exciting work that reflects on the theory and practice of the plural modernist archive.


I am indebted to Frances Dickey and Katerina Stergiopoulou for their “Reports from the Emily Hale Archive,” posted to the International T. S. Eliot Society website.

[1] Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[2] See Roger Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).

[3] See Wayne Wiegand, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[4] Karen Roffman, From the Modernist Annex: American Women Writers in Museums and Libraries (Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 2010), 71.

[5] For further discussion, see Catherine Paul, Poetry in the Museums of Modernism: Yeats, Pound, Moore, Stein (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002).

[6] Steven Ungar, “Scenes in a Library: Alain Resnais and Toute la mémoire du monde,” SubStance 41.2 (2012): 58-78, 66.

[7] See Michel Foucault, “The Fantasia of the Library” (1977), in ed. D. F. Bouchard and S. Simon, Michel Foucault: Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 87-109 and Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive.

[8] Roger Chartier, The Author’s Hand and the Printer’s Mind: Transformations of the Written Word in Early Modern Europe. (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013), 6.

[9] Roger Chartier, “The Printing Revolution: A Reappraisal” in ed. Sabrina Alcorn Baron, Eric N. Lindquist, Eleanor F. Shevlin, Agent of Change: Print Culture Studies after Elizabeth L. Eisenstein. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2007), 406.

[10] Lise Jaillant and Alison Martin, “Introduction: Global Modernism,” Modernist Cultures 13.1 (2018):1-13, 4.

[11] Eric Bulson, Little Magazine, World Form (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 80.

[12] Amanda Golden, Annotating Modernism: Marginalia and Pedagogy from Virginia Woolf to the Confessional Poets (New York: Routledge, 2020), 2.