INTERVIEW - Literary Magic at the New York Public Library:
Jean Strouse, Biographer and Director of the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers
Put a scholar or a writer in a library and brain cells fire. The stacks become shelves of imagination and discovery, especially when they are located in The New York Public Library (NYPL), the second largest public library in the United States, behind only the Library of Congress. Of the more than 18 million patrons who come through the NYPL’s doors annually, 15 in particular stand out. They are heavyweights of intellectualism, a team of scholars and writers, lured each year by the library’s profound atmosphere. They are the Fellows of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, the Library’s main research center at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.
The Cullman Center, New York Public Library
The Cullman Center, its Fellows, and the vast research resources of the NYPL make for stimulating collaborations. The Center describes itself as “an international fellowship program open to people whose work will benefit directly from access to the collections at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building – including academics, independent scholars, and creative writers (novelists, playwrights, poets).”
All Fellows, including prominent past alumni Jennifer Egan and Karen Russell, are guided by Jean Strouse, the Sue Ann and John Weinberg Director of the Cullman Center. Egan won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad; multiple award-winner Russell wrote the novel Swamplandia!
Born in Los Angeles and a graduate of Radcliffe College, Jean Strouse moved to New York in 1967. She took her first job in publishing as an editorial assistant at The New York Review of Books, where she worked for one of its founding editors, Robert Silvers.
One of the tasks Strouse performed at the NYRB was “keeping open a path to (Silvers’) desk among the stacks of books on the floor. Books kept streaming in from publishers every day, and clearing that channel was a constant challenge.”
The essayist and novelist Darryl Pinckney, who is working on a project called After Dark: Race Mixing in the Margins, 1931-1971, while at the Cullman Center in 2011-12, offered a similar picture of the NYRB premises in his contribution to The Company They Kept, Volume Two: Writers on Unforgettable Friendships, edited by Robert B. Silvers. Although Pinckney spoke of the office ambiance during his own tenure at the NYRB, which was more recent than Strouse’s, the atmosphere seemed about the same. “Books were streaking across the ocean and galleys were zooming in from the West Coast or the East Side,” Pinckney writes, “nearly all by messenger, by overnight delivery, because everything was urgent, every contributor was at the center of a drama called his or her 'piece.'”
Strouse’s own essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Digest, Slate, Vogue, and Newsweek -- where she worked as a book critic for four years.
In 1980, she published her first book, Alice James, A Biography, about Henry and William James’s troubled sister. In the process of doing her research, Strouse read the original manuscript of Alice James’s diary, which was housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as James family papers at the Houghton Library, Harvard University, and other materials at libraries and archives on both sides of the Atlantic. The book won the Bancroft Prize in American History and Diplomacy. John Leonard in The New York Times called it “a Jamesian novel, subtle, evasive, embroidered, splendid.” It was recently reissued by New York Review Books Classics, with a new Introduction by Colm Toibin. The Paris Review made it a staff pick, and an editor at The New Republic chose it as the best book of 2011 (while noting its original publication date).
Strouse also published the critically acclaimed, best-selling biography of J. Pierpont Morgan, Morgan, American Financier (1999). She drew a full portrait of Morgan's life in a book that was named one of the Five Best Books on American Moguls and Five Best Books on Financial Dynasties by the Wall Street Journal. It is available in paperback from HarperPerenniel. The English biographer Michael Holroyd called it "….an extraordinary accomplishment, filled with the vitality of the biographer and the fascination of her subject—Morgan has finally met his match."
Add to the aforementioned achievements Strouse’s own fellowships – from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Radcliffe Institute, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Working with a small staff, Strouse organizes the process that selects exceptional applicants for the highly competitive fellowship program. The complete list of Fellows is long--13 years, 15 Fellows a year--and available on the Center’s website (www.nypl.org/csw). (I urge readers to take a look at the individuals and their accomplishments.) The Center is located on the Library’s second floor, up a flight of marble stairs from the famous Fifth Avenue entrance hall. It has its own central lounge area, a small kitchen, and private offices for each Fellow and member of the staff. Here, I talked with Strouse about her past work, her book on Alice James, and her work at the Cullman Center. And ice skating.
WRR: Darryl Pinckney (see above) came to The New York Review of Books after you were there. I wonder if you’ve shared war stories.
Strouse: We’re good friends. We’ve known each other for a long time. Darryl was very close to Barbara Epstein, Bob Silvers’ co-editor from the Review’s beginning (she died in 2006), and Elizabeth Hardwick who was another of the Review’s founders. Ian Buruma and James Fenton are current Fellows this year as well; all three of them write frequently for The New York Review.
WRR: What was editor Robert Silvers like to work for?
Strouse: He’s brilliant and demanding, and he works incredibly hard, for very long hours. It’s astonishing how much Bob does. People get phone calls from him as he edits their galleys on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, late Saturday nights. When I was there, he had only one assistant; after a few months we brought in a second shift, to start around 5:00 p.m. and stay as late as Bob did. Now I think there are four. The assistants are always a good deal younger than he is, and none of us could keep up with him. It was a great education for me.
WRR: I’m interested in the development of Alice James, A Biography. You had a conversation with Lorin Stein (editor of The Paris Review) as part of the Cullman Center/NYPL events. I listened to that, loved your exuberance about the Alice James project as you were working on it. You saw the entire original diary.
Strouse: Yes, it was in Berkeley. A descendant of one of Alice’s brothers, Robertson, lived in Berkeley, where he was a professor in the Forestry Department at the University of California there; he had inherited the diary and put it on deposit at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. He was extremely generous and kind to me. I spent a couple of weeks at the Bancroft, reading every word of the diary, which was written, of course, by hand. Alice first went through the book writing on all the right-hand pages. Then she flipped it over and wrote on the left hand page – so while you are reading one page, the facing page is upside down.
WRR: Alice James had all kinds of mysterious physical symptoms. Did she have any organic illnesses before she was diagnosed with breast cancer?
Strouse: Nobody really knows. Mostly she had hysterical or “neurasthenic” illnesses for which no organic cause was ever found. Her life was dominated by these odd, probably psychosomatic ailments; they were very real to her – in fact, incapacitating. The final cancer was the only serious physical disease we know about. When it was diagnosed, she was relieved to have an actual disease rather than all that endless, vague guessing about her symptoms.
WRR: New York Review of Books Classics just re-issued Alice James, A Biography. Did you learn anything new about her since you originally did the biography?
Strouse: Letters between William James and his wife – who was also named Alice - were unavailable when I did my research. The Houghton library at Harvard said that the family member who donated them stipulated that they remain sealed for a few more decades – I don’t remember the exact time period. A couple of years after my book was published, one of the librarians there called me and said that a William James scholar had asked to see the document forbidding scholars to see the letters until X date -- and they couldn’t find the document. So they opened the archive. A scholar named Susan Gunter wrote a very interesting book about William’s wife, called Alice in Jamesland. Some time I’d like to go read the letters, but I haven’t done it yet.
WRR: You were re-invigorated by your visit to the Cambridge cemetery where the James family plot is located. I can imagine that writing a biography is very intense and long. What did you think about that experience you had at the cemetery?
Strouse: I wouldn’t say ‘reinvigorated’ actually. I learned a lot from that experience. I lived in New York and had moved up to Cambridge to do the research because all of the family papers were at Harvard’s Houghton Library. That was the first full year I spent doing research for the book, and I had been reading Alice’s letters and diary, her brothers’ and parents’ letters, everything then available that her brothers and father had written -- I’d gotten to know them pretty well. Still, I was at an early stage. And I hadn’t gone into this project with any idealization of Alice. I almost didn’t write the book because she was such a difficult person. She was often depressed, she ‘took to her bed with the vapors,’ effectively making a sad ‘career’ out of being ill. Yet her letters and diary are remarkable. She did have a ‘Jamesian’ voice, and she reached at the end of her life an almost existential philosophical acceptance of who she was. But she did not lead the kind of life that usually merits a biography. She wasn’t famous or productive or even happy, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to stand to ‘live with’ her for what I expected to take two years. It turned out to take five. Still, with all my reservations about the project, I kept being drawn back to it because the family was so richly interesting, with two genius brothers, two ne’er-do-well brothers, and an extraordinary eccentric for a father. I finally decided to go ahead because the project offered a chance to look at the whole family and its dynamics from a fresh point of view. I definitely didn’t want to make Alice into a feminist victim-as-hero. I just wanted to tell the story.
Alice is buried in the Cambridge Cemetery, and I realized toward the end of that first research year that I had never been to visit her grave. It seemed like kind of a clichéd idea – biographers visit the graves of their subjects – and I did it with an amused sense of self-mockery. On the day of Alice’s birthday, in early August, I bought some daisies in Harvard Square, got a plastic coffee cup, and made my way to the cemetery. The James family plot was hard to find, and not very distinctive, far in the back of the cemetery, looking out over Soldier’s Field Road.
I put the flowers down on the grave and was suddenly amazed to find myself in tears. Then, as soon as I ‘heard’ what I was thinking, I laughed. I had thought: thousands of people no doubt came here to pay their respects to Henry and William over the years, and probably no one has visited Alice’s grave since her friend Katharine Loring died in the 1940s. And I heard myself saying, to Alice, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” What made me laugh was that that’s what she did to everyone in her life. Her mysterious illnesses were, among other things, a non-negotiable demand to be taken care of; and here they were, working on me, too, from beyond the grave, after 100 years. I didn’t think I had developed any powerful emotional response to Alice – but there it was. I learned a lot from that moment. As a biographer, of course you have emotional responses to your subjects. If you can hold still and ‘listen’ to those responses, you learn a great deal, about yourself, of course – but also about the person you are studying.
WRR: You’ve been the Director of the Cullman Center since 2003. How different is it now from the beginning in terms of the applicant pool or requirements?
Strouse: Peter Gay was the founding Director from 1999 to 2003. And since the Center was just getting started, people didn’t know about it. Peter did a wonderful job of inviting people to come, taking out advertisements, getting the word out. He appointed three Director’s Fellows each year, which was a way of getting good people to come. He and the Library’s president then, Paul LeClerc, put the Center on the cultural map.
The initial idea for a scholars’ center here came from Robert Darnton, who was and still is a trustee of the Library. When a space opened up here on the second floor, when several collections were moved to a new building nearby, Bob suggested that it be used for people who needed to use the research collections at the Library, like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He discussed the idea with Paul LeClerc, and eventually, Paul talked about it with Dorothy and Lewis Cullman.
Dorothy said, “I would like to support this but not if it’s just for academics. I want it to be for scholars and writers.” She was an extraordinary person – alas, she died about three years ago. I miss her a lot. Her idea was brilliant, and the mix of scholars and writers makes up what’s magical about this place. There are plenty of academic scholarly centers, and plenty of writers’ and artists’ colonies; to have both groups in the same space, along with independent scholars and the occasional visual artist, for a nine-month term is unusual and terrific. We give each Fellow a stipend, a private office, access to all the Library’s fantastic research collections and electronic resources, and the gift of time to focus entirely on their work. We introduce them to the curators and other invaluable members of the Library’s staff. But in some ways, the best thing we give them is each other. You can’t plan the chemistry that takes place among the Fellows each year – each year it’s different; but there are always long-term, cross-disciplinary exchanges among people working in close proximity to one another and offering fresh questions and perspectives over lunch, drinks, tea breaks, walks, or after Library hours.
Each Fellow gives a talk about his or her project over lunch on Wednesdays, to the other Fellows, some members of the Library staff, and invited guests. Today, Ian Buruma talked about his book on the year 1945 and the immediate aftermath of the war in Europe and Asia. It was tremendously good. People ask great questions, from many perspectives. (Ian Buruma moderated the recent Tribute to Christopher Hitchens, an event included in the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature.)
WRR: I have a view there should be a think tank composed of former Cullman Center Fellows that meets periodically and tries to solve the problems of the world.
Strouse: I don’t know about solving world problems, but they’re pretty good at thinking about all kinds of things. We have very strong affiliations with our alumni. When one of them publishes the book he or she worked on here - we can’t always do this because there are so many former Fellows - but often we’ll have an evening program at the Library about the book. (Strouse displays a selection of attractive promotional cards and materials showing examples of events). Wells Tower, a Fellow last year, interviewed Karen Russell (Fellow 2009-2010) when Swamplandia! appeared. We generally have audience-friendly conversations rather than lectures. Fellow Nathan Englander ( 2005-2006) talked with actress/performance artist Sarah Jones a couple of weeks ago about his new collection of stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Ann Frank.
These evening events help us show the New Yorkers and the wider cultural world what happens here, what kinds of work gets done in this great library – and also the extremely talented people who come through here, and come to work hard.
People come here to work. Regarding the offices of the Fellows: each one has a wooden door and a large glass panel with wooden louvers. Fellows who keep the doors and louvers to their offices closed are saying, “I’m concentrating – leave me alone.” If the door and louvers are open, it means “I’m working but you can stop by and talk.”
WRR: Do you personally look over all the applications that come in?
Strouse: I do.
WRR: It’s exciting that you get to see a fresh group of people with such potential for their projects each year.
Strouse: It’s a little daunting. This year we had 305 applications for 15 places. We just switched to an online application system this year, which made it much better. We had it designed by someone who had designed application systems for several other fellowship-competition programs. The Center’s Deputy Director and I read all the applications, but we don’t choose the Fellows, and I don’t have a vote on the Selection Committee. I have so many friends who would like this fellowship that I need a very strong firewall between the selection process and me. We have a reviewing committee of experts in all the fields people are applying in, and they read the applications we send out, score them, and send us their comments. From those responses we get down to about 30-40 finalists. Then a final selection committee chooses the 15 winners.
WRR: One requirement (for qualifying for the fellowship) has to do with the source material that the library has here, is that correct?
Strouse: Yes, that’s one of the main criteria on which we evaluate the applications. Excellence; and the need for the research collections in this building (the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building). There are collections in other research libraries in the NYPL system, such as the Science, Industry and Business Library, the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Cullman Center Fellows can of course consult those materials, but their primary focus needs to be here, in the humanities and social sciences collections.
WRR: What do you like to read?
Strouse: A lot.
Strouse: I don’t read biographies as much as you’d think. I love fiction -- that’s the first thing I turn to. And history. And these days I’m enjoying reading about science. The category doesn’t matter as much as the writing quality. Of course I also read biographies, but most are so long (including my own on Morgan) that it takes a real commitment of time; and I have a lot to read for my job as well as just for pleasure. Usually, reading for my job, reading the works of our Fellows, is a pleasure. There’s a terrific book that came out last year called The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. I got around to it late. And I recently re-read Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw: Wow.
WRR: I’m a slow reader, so it’s difficult.
Strouse: So am I. I generally have about eight books going at once.
WRR: If you had a talk show, something like C-SPAN BOOKTV (Ed. note: I had mentioned to Strouse I liked Brian Lamb as an interviewer), what kinds of questions would you want answered by literary authors? What kinds of things would you ask?
Strouse: I’d ask them a lot of the questions you’ve just asked me; and the kinds of questions Brian Lamb asks. I appeared on his show when my Morgan book came out.
WRR: Is Brian Lamb nice?
Strouse: We only saw each other for an hour, but he seemed very nice. He’s good about coaching authors. He’ll say: “I’m going to hold up a picture of your book and the camera is going to zoom in on the picture. You’ll keep talking to me, and there will be a camera on you as well, so just keep talking to me.” He asks a question and then gives you lots of time to answer.
WRR: That’s what I love about him. Not all TV interviewers do that.
Strouse: Bill Moyers is another excellent interviewer, of course. We had him talk with John Lithgow here at the Library last fall, when John published his book An Actor’s Education. Bill is terrifically generous. He wants to bring out the best in the people he interviews. And it goes without saying that Terry Gross is superb. She reads the books carefully, gets first-rate people, and asks thoughtful, sometimes unusual questions. She does a huge amount of preparatory work. A lot of people who do interview shows have their assistants read the books. It’s a completely different experience if they’ve done the reading themselves.
WRR: (Jokingly) So, do the library staff book finders wear roller skates? (Ed. note: This is apparently an urban myth)
Strouse: No, but there’s ice skating in (nearby) Bryant Park. I have ice skates under my desk.
WRR: You’re an ice skater?
Strouse: This year, I didn’t go once, but several of us from the Center have skated in the past few years. Last year we had a Fellow who had grown up in Minnesota. He skated just about every day while the ice rink was up, from November to February. He figured out that there are crowds before and after work, and at lunch time, but not from about 10:30-11:30 a.m.
WRR: I can’t stay up on ice skates.
Strouse: I skated as a kid. Your body remembers.
WRR: I guess you’ll be notifying the next group of Fellows soon.
Strouse: We will.
WRR: Next month I think?
WRR: What do you look forward to with that?
Strouse: Well, I can’t say now. We haven’t announced the names of those selected yet.* It’ll be a great year. Choosing only 15 Fellows is always hard, since there are so many good applicants. The pool gets stronger every year, which makes it increasingly difficult to choose. But that’s a good problem to have. I’m not complaining.