Located in Special Collections at the University of Victoria is a little studied folder that contains fifty-one letters written by the British modernist author Mary Butts (1890-1937) to friend and fellow British modernist Douglas Goldring (1887-1960), with some few to Goldring’s second wife, Malin.
Alice Walker began 1982 with Virginia Woolf. Walker would spend the year recording events, plans, and phone numbers in spiral-bound pages of a calendar she had acquired filled with photographs of Woolf and her contemporaries. As Walker crossed out days, her purple ink seeped through one page, partly obscuring Woolf’s photograph on the verso. The lines meet Woolf’s likeness, a purple X just passing her eye. The range of inks that Walker used throughout her calendar suggest that this was chance, but the ink also recalls Walker’s novel published the same year, The Color Purple; likely unbeknownst to Walker, it was also a color in which Woolf preferred to write. It is the materiality of circumstance that makes this artifact a vestige of mass culture, everyday life, and artistic creation.
Using the modernist archive requires finding it first. The modernist archive does not live in one collection at one repository, such as a single university special collections department or one pivotal private library. Rather, the modernist archive is a term used to conceptualize a networked set of collections across many repositories in the United States or abroad. The fact that the modernist archive is dispersed rather than centralized is critical because each institution’s holdings are more or less discoverable based on local application of user experience (UX) principles. Weave, a Journal of Library User Experience defines UX as employing a variety of methodologies to inform improvements to physical and digital space so that the user can easily access collections and services. Th US Department of Health and Human Services provides an overview of UX basics that, adapted for libraries and archives, would require repositories to identify their users, what they want, what skills they have, and which they don’t. According to Coral Sheldon-Hess, when UX is properly implemented, users of all levels of expertise can more easily access what they need. When UX is ignored or poorly applied, users are more likely to perpetuate pre-existing archival silences as well as less likely to have successful searches.
Nancy Cunard began printing alone in 1927—in a heat wave no less, as she notes in her posthumously published memoir, These Were the Hours (1969)—and struggled her way through the difficult early stages of learning how to make serviceable prints on an Albion press. She quickly realized, however, that she would need help if the Hours Press were ever to become a successful small publishing house. In 1928, she therefore initiated her well-known collaboration with her lover, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, turning the printing room into a space where, as Jeremy Braddock has recently argued, “Cunard’s advocacy of radical race politics” was often perceived by others as working “in concert with the open publicizing of her own romantic relationships with black men.”
The past twenty years, along with the promises and perils of the digital turn, have seen a robust engagement with the modernist archive. One can map nearly point for point the rise of the New Modernist Studies and the Modernist Studies Association with the rise of digital resources that have reenergized the field: the Modernist Journals Project (1997), the Modernist Magazines Project (2006), the Blue Mountain Project (2012), the Modernist Versions Project (2012), ModNets (2013), and the Modernist Archives Publishing Project (2013), among others, have all contributed to the “expansive” forces enlarging the universe of material modernity.
This blog concerns itself with the messy, multidisciplinary spaces of the archives—both real and imagined. It brings together everyone involved in the creation of archives to discuss how these spaces shape, have shaped, and will shape the study of modernism.
Cushioned in an archival box in the Museum of Applied Arts, Belgrade, Serbia, lies a remarkable surrealist photograph: Nikola Vučo’s The Arrested Flight of Surreality (Zadržano bekstvo nadstvarnosti, 1929, fig. 1). Posing as a visual riddle, the photograph shows the figure of a woman with her back to the viewer, as if intent on moving on, or fleeing, and the semitransparent hands arresting her flight or gently pulling her in the opposite direction. The surreal effects of the photograph result from double exposure, considered an innovative technique at the time, wherein superimposition is obtained by apparatic means rather than interventions on the negative. Dual exposure photographs have to be premeditated and carefully staged performances, thus presenting great examples of what Pavle Levi has called “cinema by other means.”
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.