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On Working in Widener

Richard Marius

Widener Library is Harvard's Fort Knox, except that at Fort Knox gold is merely a symbol of wealth whereas at Widener the treasure is real--the literature of civilization stacked rank on rank in the dim light of miles of quiet corridors. I have had the privilege of a tiny study on the top floor of Widener for the past eighteen years--a cramped room where the radiator has never shown any symptom of heat in winter and where, until last summer when at my own expense I installed a cooling unit, the air in July and August resembled that of a sauna. Still it has been my corner of paradise where I have done obscure scholarship, toiling after answers to questions that, as scholarly questions do, feed on each other.

I worked for years on the Yale Edition of the Complete Works of St. Thomas More. The edition was concluded only this year at fifteen volumes, but in the way of such enterprises, some of these "volumes" spread out to become two or three thick books, the pages consecutively numbered so that in the end, twenty heavy and formidable tomes in Yale blue make up the edition. My name appears with those of various colleagues on the spines of six of them. When Yale began this edition in 1959, More had not been fully edited in English since 1557, and his collected Latin works had not known the light of print since 1689. No one had ever published a complete edition of both the Latin and the English works.

I can testify that some good reasons exist for this neglect. More can be furious, stubborn, illogical, and bloodthirsty in his incessant demand that Protestants be burned alive at the stake. He can also be witty, beguiling, and tragic. As a defender of the Catholic Church against Luther and other Protestants before the Council of Trent, his massive books open a window onto a landscape that had previously been seldom studied. In the absence of a "complete works," the labor was there to be done, and a team of patient editors carried out this task over more than three decades.

Drawing on my work as an editor, I published a biography of More in 1984, writing it through three long drafts on a selectric typewriter in my cell in Widener, working often until midnight or one in the morning when it often seemed that I was alone with More's ghost haunting the vastness of stacks and corridors which, in the dead of night, can be a place of resounding silence.

More can be tedious, and for a textual editor and biographer he can be maddening. In his fierce fulminations against the Protestants he quoted the Fathers of the Church time and again to prove that Luther and Tyndale and the lot were a crowd of innovators, doing no miracles to establish their authority to cry down fifteen hundred years of Catholic tradition. More hurled patristic quotations at them like sharp stones: "As St. Cyprian saith. . . ." "As St. Chrysosthom saith. . . ." "As St. Austin [Augustine] saith. . . ." Unfortunately for the poor modern scholar, More seldom tells us where St. Austin saith it. He was often deceived by pseudonymous works claiming to be by Fathers of the Church when in fact they were written centuries later. So we drudges who undertake scholarly editing at one time had to find our way through the 221 volumes of J. P. Migne's Patrologiae Latina or the 161 volumes of his Patrologiae Graeca and discover the text--or to confirm that the text More quotes was in fact not written by the author to whom More attributes it. In the days before Migne was placed on CD-ROM (one disk holds all 221 volumes of the Series Latina), I sometimes used a 3x5 card to slide down the columns of fine print looking for the key Latin or Greek words of a text that More had quoted in English.

Naturally enough, the two Patrologiae represent only the beginning of the sources an editor and biographer must command in doing any work on Thomas More. The nearby presence of the Houghton Library with its special wealth of manuscripts and rare books is to my mind the keystone of Widener's arch.

For the past decade now I've been laboring on Martin Luther--not editing him, thank God, but writing a new biographical study, placing him in the broader context of his times, giving special attention to his fear of death and his disbelief in traditional church teachings about hell. Too often, I find, biographers have treated Luther entirely in terms of systems of theology that evolved before him. Harvard's Professor Harvey Cox once characterized such scholarly efforts as built on the assumption that theological thought was a "sealed train" passing through history into which nothing but theology was allowed to enter. I am trying to see Luther in the broader light of an entire culture that produced melancholy poems, hideous icons of death, and a secularism that is sometimes rowdy and sometimes immensely sad but whose spirit stood against both Catholic and Protestant piety. Thanks to Widener and Houghton--connected to Widener by its "temporary" bridge of sighs--I have been able to read all sorts of arcane lore, some of it printed in the nineteenth century and never entirely explored.

In my study, the black­bound copies of the Kritische Gesamtausgabe of Luther's works published at Weimar lie in piles on every surface, including the floor. In addition a myriad other books relating to Luther and his time make it difficult for me to move from one spot to another in my little room. When students come to see me, we always go through a lot of shifting and lifting to provide space for them to sit down. The variety of sources is priceless. What did Wittenberg look like in Luther's time? Down on the second level West in Widener's stacks are wonderful old German picture books reproducing drawings of the city when Luther lived there. I have wondered if the high walls around the city might have created for Luther the impression that tiny Wittenberg was the world.

Almost every day I descend to level D in the tiny, creaking elevator and make my way on a trek around the stacks to the tunnel that leads over to the Pusey Library extension of Widener where books on church history are stored. A heavy door stands on the border between Widener and Pusey. I get a daily test of strength from the gale that rushes through this door when it is opened, a gale created by some mysterious alchemy of convection currents blowing towards Widener as if the spirits of authors locked up in Pusey had decided to take advantage of the open door to rush to an ethereal social moment with the spirits of those authors stacked on the other side. While the door is open, the howl is like a gleeful hurricane. When the door shuts with a clunk behind me, the descent of stillness and quiet is abrupt and mysterious.

Pusey 3 is the most subterranean part of the Harvard Yard's library complex. To save precious space the books have been stacked floor to ceiling on huge moving shelves. Most of these shelves lie flush against their neighbors so that to open an aisle between them, the seeker must press a green button at the desired place, whereupon hidden engines grumble and shake, and shelves bearing thousands of pounds of books lurch jerkily apart, allowing access. The impression on the button pusher, often alone in that remote area, provides a bit of the triumph that Moses must have felt when he opened the Red Sea.

For scholars whose lives are usually staid, the opening of this huge mechanical contrivance also provides a small thrill of imagined danger. Signs warn us not to take our weight off the floor by climbing on the shelves to obtain out-of-reach books. We are to use the small step-stools provided for such purposes. One's weight activates electronic sensors beneath the floor that keep the shelves from grinding shut while one stands between them. No library folk tales circulate about death suffered by the unwary in Pusey 3. But the imagination works against one's confidence in electronic design when one stands in one of those open aisles between those ominous shelves and feels the flexible floor underfoot yield, offering saving space in response to one's avoirdupois. Sometimes I think of writing the Pusey Library Mystery whereby a scholar is found crushed like a waffle between the moving shelves in what seems to be an accident but that to the probing eye of a hard-boiled Harvard scholar of the Renaissance immediately presents itself as murder.

For me the greatness of Widener is that I can find almost everything there, a treasury so tremendous that no one has fully explored it. In working on my biography of Thomas More, I consulted regularly the translations of the diplomatic correspondence between Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador in London, and his sovereign, the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire--and also King of Spain and nephew to Henry VIII's queen, Catherine of Aragon whom Henry divorced in 1533. Many pages of the early volumes of this Calendar of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers, relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain had never been cut, although they had been standing on their shelves in Widener for almost a century. I studied them, pocketknife in hand, and felt that they had been waiting there for me all those decades.

In a similar spirit I came upon another, lesser treasure a couple of years ago when I was editing the Columbia Book of Civil War Poetry for Columbia University Press. In the anthology I included popular poems from and about the Civil War. I wanted to take a look at less well known poems, the versifying stuff that marked almost every public occasion during the nineteenth century in the United States, the doggerel in many respects more representative of democratic tastes in poetry than better poems that survived. I went prowling around the dark Southeast corner of the fourth level of Widener's stacks and came on a trove of reports of reunions of the Society of the Army of the Potomac. Every year after the Civil War veterans of the army that had finally defeated Robert E. Lee--after being defeated by him many a time--gathered in convention to celebrate their triumph and their comradeship during the greatest experience of their lives.

Some early exemplars of these had been sturdily bound and reposed high on Widener's shelves--translated there from Gore Hall that had housed the Harvard Library before Widener was built. As the years passed and old soldiers faded away, the last issues were gathered helter-skelter in a heavy manila envelope that, when I opened it, gave off a cloud of dust and decay. Here were unbound reports, printed on yellowing and crumbling paper, threatening to dissolve into powder as I carefully turned through them. The last one was dated 13 May 1915--just over a half century after Lee offered his sword to Grant at Appomattox. From these reports I was able to gather not only examples of the doggerel I was seeking, but also to absorb in a powerful way the nostalgia and the proud sadness in these men at the discovery of how time devours things--even something as grand as our most terrible war. From my reading of those reports with their soundless ghosts of bugles on distant Southern fields, I took the idea of giving the title "stillness" to the last part of my book. I devoted this concluding section to poems that reflected on the serenity of the battlefields after the shooting stopped when a re-united nation set them aside as memorials to the men who died on them.

Widener has not only nourished my scholarly side; it also helped me write my last novel--and filled in some gaps in my family history. My father fought in the Belgian army in 1914. He was wounded in the head, the chest, and the legs by an exploding German shell before Antwerp, picked up on the field of battle by British litter bearers, and taken to London where he spent three years in a military hospital in Chelsea. In 1917, discharged from hospital and the army, he came to this country, bearing over his right eye a diagonal scar at the place where his skull never healed from the shrapnel wound..

He seldom talked about the war. I lent him my copy of Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August once, but he returned it after reading a hundred pages. "I do not want to remember it," he said. On occasion I could pry out of him a few details--that he had he had been in the field army when the Germans bombarded the forts at Liège and that the flames from the dropping shells had sent fire five hundred meters into the sky, that his part of the army retreated through Louvain shortly before the Germans destroyed the priceless library of the old university there, that he had been in the artillery before the Germans captured his gun, that he was wounded on 28 September 1914, that he remembered only a blinding flash, that he was lying behind a railroad embankment when the shell burst, that he was picked up by English soldiers at night who heard him cry out in the dark when he recovered consciousness.

When I decided to write a novel loosely constructed on his life, I wanted in my skeptical way to verify the few details he had given me. Down on level B West of Widener were shelves of books, many covered with dust telling in detail the story of the Belgian army in 1914 and its dogged fight and retreat before the German juggernaut. I blew off the black dust of huge, illustrated tomes such as L'Armée belge dans la guerre mondiale, (with maps and photographs), and I was able to trace his approximate course across Belgium to his destiny. Yes, fierce fighting went on in the railyards outside of Antwerp, and 28 September 1914 was a particularly bloody day. I learned a detail that my father had not told me--that rain poured down all that day and that the soldiers' boots were heavy with mud. I scanned the photographs--including one of Belgian soldiers crouched with their rifles and waiting behind an embankment outside of Antwerp--and I studied the maps, inconclusively, of course, but feeling a certain closeness to a young man I had never really known. Some of the details went into my novel, published in 1992 four years after my father's death; some stay only in my heart.

Yet with all its delights, Widener is daunting because its grandeur shrinks our lives and daily demonstrates our mortality. The gargantuan writer with gargantuan appetites, Thomas Wolfe, came to Harvard from North Carolina to study for his M.A. in 1920. He said once in an interview that he wanted to read every volume in Widener. In a letter he wrote about 1923 he said, "The Widener Library has crumpled under my savage attack. Ten, twelve, fifteen books a day are nothing." Later he gave to his protagonist Eugene Gant in Of Time and the River the same desire: "He had spells and rhymes of magic numbers which would enable him, he thought, to read all of the million books in the great library."

Perhaps he imagined that one of these spells would empower him to march down the narrow aisles in the stacks, speed-reading one book after another at the pace comedian Woody Allen once satirized when he said he had read War and Peace in a half hour. "It's about Russia," Allen said. One might suppose that if one spent an average of a half hour on each book in Widener, one might emerge with a tolerable list of subjects on which books are written--Russia and all the rest. Lists can be informative and interesting. So, if at Thomas Wolfe's imagined pace, we spent a half hour on each of Widener's 3.5 million volumes, we might become tolerably educated. The minor problem is that our effort would require almost 200 years, and if we took time to sleep about, say, six hours a night, we would extend our task by another century. Chances are that in that time, other books would be published.

So Widener is an implacable monument in brick and stone to the Roman proverb, ars longa; vita brevis est, or as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, "Art is long and time is fleeting." I often feel that brooding truth. Down in the dark on level D West, surrounding the tiny elevator is a large area devoted to books about Hungary. Just in front of my eyes each time I descend is a row of interestingly illustrated books with the mysterious collective title A Magyar Nemzet Története. I have not the slightest idea what the title means. I am told that Hungarian is an exceptionally difficult language, and although something in me truly yearns to know what on earth those attractive books are about, I will never read them. No more than Eliza Doolittle will I ever learn Hungarian. I could read a nearby thick volume in a brown binding, Geschichte der Ungarn. But I won't do that either.

If I spend too much time reading about the history of Hungary, I will never finish writing my Luther, and the book I have on tap about Shakespeare's English history plays will never get written either. And I might never write another novel. So walking through these darkened ranks of learning and compilation provide intimations of mortality on every hand. Well, that's the way it is. Somehow the difficulties of learning and the appreciation of the impossibility of knowing all we might like to know add a certain zest to life--and even provide a curious dissatisfaction with religious notions of eternal bliss.

The director of my dissertation at Yale, Roland H. Bainton, was a devout Christian. He told me with great feeling once that he sometimes worried about heaven. What would he do there? He said he thought he could be happy only if he could keep on studying, learning things. I imagined Mr. Bainton moving his big study on the fifth floor of Sterling Library to a cloud somewhere with angels bringing him books from the celestial stacks and Mr. Bainton himself pecking away at a resurrected version of the typewriter on which he wrote.

But in the mood of Wallace Stevens's poem "Sunday Morning," we might imagine that in paradise we could know everything we wanted by instantaneous osmosis. Suppose there were no need for study and research and writing. Suppose I might learn Magyar instantly, merely by expressing a desire to do so. I raised that question with Mr. Bainton one day at lunch, and he recoiled. Such a heaven would be hellish. I understood his reaction perfectly. Knowledge as we understand it is part of a process of life, like eating, drinking, and sleeping, oddly dependent on time and our limitations for its pleasures. Widener presents the limitations as an almost overwhelming physical presence of building and books. The acquisition of knowledge becomes a contest with time, energy, and discipline. We win and we lose at the contest all the time. Yet we keep playing the game, and our occasional victories offer a satisfaction of having for a moment achieved a modest triumph over mortality. If it were not so, the scholarly and literary life would provide no more pleasure than baseball to a pitcher if he struck out every batter and never suffered defeat. As Hal says in Henry IV, Part 1, "Nothing pleaseth but rare accidents."

Great libraries, as we all know, do not inspire universal reverence. The Germans destroyed the library at Louvain with its treasures of manuscripts and ancient books, and the great church historian Adolf von Harnack (who had written the declaration of war for the Kaiser) wrote to justify the horrendous deed. Christian fanatics destroyed the library of Alexandria in the fourth century, doubtless believing they were helping to purify the world by purging it of pagan literature. Holgrave in Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables would seem to want nothing to do with libraries when he delivers his tirade against the "Past." "A dead man sits on all our judgment-seats and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions. We read in dead men's books! We laugh at dead men's jokes,and cry at dead men's pathos! We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients!"

I'm not at all sure that most people in this country--even most educated people--can understand the benefits of a place like Widener. I recall a colleague in my first teaching job, a small college in Pennsylvania, who told me that he had complained to a former president, a retired general, that the college library had only a hundred thousand books. "Well, young man, when you read those come and see me, and I'll buy you some more," the general said.

The difference between a small liberal arts college and a research university lies here. It is one of the pleasures of Harvard that we do not have to explain why a university should spend so much money collecting items such as unbound copies of the annual reports of reunions of the Army of the Potomac. Every scholar is an eccentric of sorts, driven by accident and by sometimes random curiosity to seek out information and to paste it together in a form that makes sense to the scholar--who hopes (often in vain) that other scholars will take note. I have often been struck by how important it is for writers and scholars to be able to play with their minds, how random and accidental their interests are, and how unpredictable are the materials that they translate into books, articles, essays, or reviews. I've never known a writer great or small who could not point to some accidental influence that stirred interest in a subject that then became absorbing enough to write about. Every writer I have ever known at some early age fell in love with libraries and the occasional aimless browsing they inspire and began to find in them eccentric delights that finally condition the special eccentricity that determines whether writers succeed or fail. The great research library offers old and arcane books and journals a quiet shelter as they wait sometimes for decades for the scholar who needs them to come along and use them. When we find something we want, dusty and unused though it may be, the library suddenly seems to exist for us alone.

To what purpose? I am not at all sure that my scholarship and my fiction writing have been of much specific benefit to a wider world. As I have suggested, scholarship and writing become a game played against time. Yet I think there is something more to study than just a game. For one thing, the scholar's discovery of the difficulties of knowledge is in a free society a continual antidote to the simplistic fanaticisms that sweep all peoples at one time or another and that threaten the very notion of democracy. It is supreme wisdom to understand how difficult it is to learn, to see how our ignorance looms over us like a dark and impenetrable forest only faintly illuminated by what we know. The most valuable service the scholar can perform at a given moment may be to say, with authority, "It's not that simple; I don't know." Skepticism is in its own way a kind of prophetic pronouncement against those dangerous simpletons who claim absolute knowledge..

Libraries like Widener are reservoirs for the human community, and despite the individualism of scholarship, any kind of creation requires a community consciousness transcending the present. Reading and writing, as Saul Bellow once said, represent a breaking of bread with the dead, making the dead live again as we ponder their written words and use them to inspire and shape such creativity as we possess. The metaphor of creation sticks in my mind from my religious upbringing. God created with words. The book of Genesis opens with those mysterious words: "In the beginning God created the skies and the land, and the land was roiling chaos, and darkness lay on the face of the abyss of water, and the breath of God brooded on the waters, and he said, Be Light, and light became."

Words create the reality of consciousness. Without words, human consciousness is a confusion of feelings and thoughts, a great formless, dark pool of wave and abyss, drives and desires, terrors and tribulations that no psychological theory can unravel. The words we speak and write shape the darkness of consciousness into light.

Five thousand years of writers have helped sort out the chaos of individual consciousness and have given us the words that not only define the external world but define also our own minds--words that join us to the plural consciousness of past and present. I love the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Bible and the Gilgamesh Epic. They paint human experience with its mystery and fragility in broad, bright strokes the colors of blood and wrath, love and fear, time and death.

Three millennia of writers working after these texts have created words with shadings and depths that have invented a more subtle and more ambiguous and much more mysterious human sensibility than these early writers ever knew. We cannot now read these ancient texts without using our words to create in their words a richness that could not have occurred to Homer or to the biblical writers or to the anonymous bards who sang of the futile quest by Gilgamesh for endless life.

I am not speaking of our greater command of facts. I am speaking of the shaping of human consciousness by the unending search for words and forms of sentences that define the encounter of mind and the world. We have all had the experience of truly seeing a landscape or a building or a painting or a movie only after we have read a writer's take on it. I once bicycled across Gothic France carrying a cheap paperback of Henry Adams' Mont St. Michele and Chartres. Yes, Adams was a hopeless romantic when it came to the Middle Ages and Gothic, seeing it all through rose colored windows. I saw Gothic in my own way--and came to dislike it. But my way would have been far different without his vision.

So with all writers who labor to express their peculiar vision of whatever it is they write about, whether fiction or non­fiction, history or poetry, science or even statistical analysis. We see best when our eyes are trained and focused by those who have seen before us. Our unique vision is shaped by our unique encounter with sources that no one else quite absorbs in the way we do. Reading and writing, the entire enterprise of scholarship and the arts are creative acts with incompleteness in the middle of them. Writers and all other creators strain to perfect the meaning that their words signify. They discover that they can never quite say all they mean.

Our languages are involved in a similar experience, striving to shape words and to will them into sentences to allow human consciousness to order both itself and the world beyond. At best our language and our consciousness in any one moment of expression remain separated by a distance as near as the gap between the finger of God and Michaelangelo's painting of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But it is just in that gap where the miracle of creation takes place.

A great library like Widener collects and preserves not only the information from the past but the development of human consciousness itself, and it is our present experience with that past consciousness that enables us to develop the richness of our own. If I may return to the biblical image without falling into grandiloquence, I would like to suggest that words create the light that falls on the face of the deep that is our own consciousness. That consciousness finally is more than useful and much more than a collection of data. It is our truest wealth, the source of all that is sublime in human life.

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Richard Marius is senior lecturer on English.

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