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Seeking Anne Spencer


Archival research possesses a hushed glamor. To realize that Marianne Moore carried around the very book you’re holding—or that Langston Hughes rolled that exact piece of paper into his typewriter late one night and yanked out a poem with the ink still damp—is like being visited by a character you thought you’d invented. Such knowledge can change how you think about art, and it certainly changes how you read.

Archival work takes resources, however, and the prospect of mystical closeness with vanished authors, while seductive, isn’t what drives me to spend the time and money. In 2015, when I finagled a brief visit to the Library of Congress, I wasn’t just giddy about leafing through Edna St. Vincent Millay’s scribblings. I had an essay underway and I hoped to learn when certain poems were first drafted. Could I locate notes Millay kept during her 1922 stay in Shillingstone, England? If so, would poem drafts be mixed in? Might I even find variant lines to substantiate my theories about Millay’s abortions and what they meant to her?

What I found—what I usually find when I invest similar effort—were partial answers to some of my questions. I did find a notebook from the time Millay visited Dorset and tried, with her mother’s help, to induce a miscarriage through herbs and hard walking. No incendiary early drafts confirmed all my hunches; that version of Millay is still, to some degree, a missing person. But she was jotting down titles for a new collection, revealing that certain poems existed, at least in some form, years before they saw publication. I felt a frisson of recognition because I do the same most summers, taking stock of what I’ve written lately, seeing how poems might fit together.

I entered the archive seeking more answers than I received. Aside from a few sentences for an essay, “The Smell of Tansy through the Dark,” forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, my main research result was confidence about the story I was building. None of us can fully reanimate even a bracketed slice of the past, learning everything there is to know about one difficult season in one person’s life. I can’t reconstruct my own thirtieth summer completely, for that matter. Evidence is partial and memories are not trustworthy. But you can arrive at a reasonable certainty that you know what there is to be known—that you’re in as good a position for speculation as anybody else.

Sometimes, however, an archive is fiercely unyielding, perhaps because it’s very large or very small. Diligence reaches its limits, or luck fails. You can’t even get to the position of being able to say: well, I know the little there is to be known. What does a responsible scholar do then?

Case in point. A few years ago I decided to research Anne Spencer, a writer identified with the New Negro Renaissance. She lived and worked in Lynchburg, Virginia, writing poems but also helping to found the local chapter of the NAACP and fighting for justice in the Jim Crow South. I knew anthology pieces, but that no longer seemed enough, given that Lynchburg is not much more than an hour’s drive from my home in Lexington. She was my neighbor and I needed to seek a deeper acquaintance.

After reading what’s in print by and about Spencer, I applied for a few hundred dollars of summer research money from my home institution, enough for a couple of weeks of commuting. I expected to divide my time between Lynchburg and Charlottesville—also an hour and a quarter away, in a different direction—because most of Spencer’s papers are located in the latter city, at the University of Virginia.

The first trip to the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, in June 2017, was a revelation. Anne Spencer’s granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, gave me a tour. I ducked into what she called “the W. E. B. DuBois memorial bathroom”; learned that Spencer scribbled notes on the actual walls of the house her husband built; admired art by her friend and neighbor, Amaza Lee Meredith; gazed at her easy chair and around a writing cottage paved with greenstone; and met other Spencer scholars while strolling among the poet’s roses. When, a few weeks later, I rifled through file boxes at the University of Virginia, my sense of Spencer’s work patterns, personality, and commitments deepened. Thriftily, she drafted poems, letters, and smaller fragments on any piece of paper that came to hand, and then, maybe years later, she’d rotate the page to write something else. It was wonderfully interesting, but clearly much of what remained was undateable and unfinished.

My project bifurcated. I gave a paper at MSA 19 in Amsterdam that focused partly on a poem Spencer and Amaza Lee Meredith painted on a kitchen cabinet door. That will become an essay next summer, I hope (after a visit to Meredith’s papers). The other piece is an article on Spencer’s activism for an edited collection, due soon. I’m drawing connections between epistolary elements in Spencer’s poems and her stinging missives to the editor about racial discrimination. Many drafts of such letters survive, and the biography, Time’s Unfading Garden by J. Lee Greene, emphasizes the efficacy of Spencer’s campaigns. With a deadline looming, I had to devote the last few summer days in which archival expeditions were possible—during the end of August and beginning of September—to tracking down examples in print.

At first I was optimistic. I could read her local paper on microfilm at Jones Memorial Library in Lynchburg, so I targeted a few likely publication months and set to work. Rapidly I realized the task would be enormous. The Lynchburg News was a daily paper, the location of the letters varied, and I needed to read some articles, too. During my first session, seven hours straight, I covered only nine months from the end of the Great War through the summer of 1919, when, according to Greene, the poet initiated a movement to “oust white teachers from the local black high school . . . she organized a forceful campaign within the black community to bombard the paper and public offices concerned with education with letters supporting this action.”[1] I found not a single piece pertaining to the struggle, much less one signed by Spencer.

I drove home and hit the books again. The late 1950s and early 1960s also seemed promising; I knew Spencer had a lot to say about school integration during the Civil Rights era. Again I identified dates, motored along mountain roads, read egregious amounts of microfilm, found nothing. Then my own semester ground into gear, making further detective work impossible.

Did biased white editors refuse to publish Spencer? Certainly letters that never see print can still have a big impact. Or did Spencer never send fair copies of her eloquent drafts? That’s not what family and friends told her biographer, but stories can get muddled. Maybe the chief informant Greene cites about the 1919 campaign, the poet’s son Chauncey Spencer, was off by a year or two. Maybe I was unlucky, picking the wrong dates, packing up canisters of tape just a few pages before a potential discovery.

Scholarship always requires weighing the costs versus rewards of time and effort. In this case, thoroughness would be wildly expensive: checking every paper from the relevant decades would take weeks. Plus, skimming microfilm is awful (the librarian kept offering me Dramamine). It would be hard to find even another day or two for archival searching before the essay deadline, but in any case, I haven’t been able to narrow down another likely six-month window.  

What I have managed to establish: Greene’s biography, while remaining an immensely valuable piece of scholarship, is missing some twists. In letters, as in poetry, Spencer might have drafted more than she finished or sent off to potential publishers. But that’s an intuition, not a claim I can prove.

Yet the poet’s apparition is a few degrees sharper in my mind’s eye, for whatever that’s worth. More importantly, I have a better grasp of where she lived then, and where I live now. In the early nineteen-sixties, a recurrent feature in The Lynchburg News was “The Confederate Column,” celebrating white southern heritage during the Civil War centennial. I knew about violence and injustice during that era, but somehow I didn’t know this—the daily, ordinary noxiousness of opening the paper every day to idolatry of “heroes” who fought to keep your grandparents enslaved. Amongst the coverage was a photograph of Confederate reenactors gathered around a piece of Lost Cause art on my campus, at Washington and Lee University. Edward Valentine’s statue of recumbent Lee holds a place of honor in Lee Chapel, some yards downhill from the third-floor office where I’m typing. Spencer’s Lynchburg, at least, isn’t mysterious. 

I have devoted my life to telling plausible stories about absences, so continuing to seek Anne Spencer, without especial hope of answers, is fine by me. I like to imagine frustration might even be her gift to me; it would be in character for the troublemaking, generous spirit I’ve conjured. The whirring microfilm readers might not reveal everything I hoped to learn about one activist poet, after all, but they do restore my attention to urgent silences at home.


[1] J. Lee Green, Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), 87.