A Preliminary Inventory of John Ashbery’s Personal Library
By Rosangela Briscese, with Micaela Morrissette
Illustrated by Ahndraya Parlato
A form of writer’s autobiography.
—Hermione Lee, biographer of Edith Wharton
The epigraph to this introduction refers to Edith Wharton’s personal library collection, which Wharton addressed in her autobiographical writing. She explicitly disclosed the significance of many items and thereby drew direct connections between her work and her literary influences—much to the satisfaction of scholars and fans.1 But explicitly stated correlations are not requisite to the productive use of a writer’s personal library catalog. In alternate forms, a “writer’s autobiography” may emerge spontaneously. A less-detailed road map of a writer’s reading habits is just as conducive to creative, exciting research.
By presenting, for the first time in publication, a preliminary inventory of John Ashbery’s personal library collection, we hope to encourage diverse avenues of exploration. As Ashbery scholars look to his domestic environments to enrich their studies of his work and persona, a record of his library holdings adds an intriguing, informative dimension to the connections traced from Ashbery’s created spaces at home to the created spaces on the page. In fact, the inventory adds an intriguing, informative dimension to Ashbery-related studies regardless of how its users wish to consult or apply it. It offers readers a significant degree of creative opportunity, a quality that we hope will make it valuable to serious students and general enthusiasts alike, whether used as a resource for rigorous research, a catalyst for artistic response, or simply a recommended reading list.
The work of preparing a library inventory is a routine and methodical task. Yet this should not imply that personal library collections are to be received in routine or fixed ways. The usual descriptive terminology that introduces such collections does entail the repetition of certain phrases, including: biographical information; reading processes; context; atmosphere; importance; personal taste and style; process of literary creation; inspiration; insight into ideas and works; circle of acquaintances; literary culture of the times; diversity of activities; insight into the writer’s reading habits; annotations; inserts; autographs; inscriptions. Orienting our inquiries by such concepts will continue to provide valuable perspective, as the repetition of these ideas from collection to collection certainly does not detract from their validity or relevance, neither as they apply generally nor as they apply to Ashbery’s collections. But at this point we might also take care; among the seemingly straightforward concepts listed above, some will surely launch debate.2 And there are those who argue against the very idea of paying attention to a writer’s personal library.3 However, after acknowledging these concerns, I suggest that the complications inherent in studying a writer’s personal library be conceptualized to inform perspective within such investigations rather than to prohibit or impede them. The continued study of Ashbery’s work seems best served by this reasoning, which allows creative and academic responses to be enriched by knowledge of his library’s contents.
Approximately 3,000 books and 300 compact discs populate the present inventory, but it is indeed “preliminary” because Ashbery’s collections are ever-expanding and because the inventory is not exhaustive with respect to his current holdings.4 Our project was conceived as part of the Created Spaces symposium, or, more accurately, the publication of the symposium provided an opportunity for initiating the project, but it soon became apparent that present circumstances and practical considerations would make it impossible to perform an exhaustive inventory in conjunction with this event. Consequently, we narrowed our scope and elected to contribute a preliminary inventory to the symposium—one version of a larger, ongoing project that would still effectively represent Ashbery’s personal library. At this time, we did not attempt to list every book in Ashbery’s collections, and we did not attempt to record complete bibliographic information for each item. But since we believe that the context of an item is part of its informational value, especially as the library functions in Ashbery’s domestic environment, we structured the present list so that it would convey the context of the items that are included.
Some terms borrowed from the field of archival practice, namely provenance and original order, are useful for understanding the function of context in the preparation of the inventory, even though we were dealing with a collection of books and not traditional archival documents, and though we were inventorying rather than processing:
The principle of provenance or the respect des fonds dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.
Original order is a fundamental principle of archives. Maintaining records in original order serves two purposes. First, it preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. Second, it exploits the record creator’s mechanisms to access the records, saving the archives the work of creating new access tools. Original order is not the same as the order in which materials were received. Items that were clearly misfiled may be refiled in their proper location. 5
To be clear, the contents of personal libraries are not typically regarded as archival records, although as “evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator,” the case might be made for them as such, especially when the personal library is that of a writer. Nonetheless, this is generally not the current practice. In fact, when an institution possesses both an individual’s library and his archives, the presentation of the collections could be characterized as separate but complementary, with archival finding aids often noting the personal library as an auxiliary resource.
Their differences notwithstanding, both collection types focus on the creator, which is why it seems appropriate and beneficial to translate the archival principles of provenance and original order into guiding principles for the treatment of personal library collections. Particularly when the persona of the original library owner is a primary motive for its being studied or maintained, it follows that there would be an interest in preserving context in this fashion, as though the act of collecting were a type of creation. It is in this sense that provenance and original order influenced our outlook as we conceptualized the presentation of the collection information. In the case of this project, because we treated a discrete collection in its “natural setting,” conveying provenance was not a very exacting task. The representation of original order proved a slightly more demanding charge, since an accurate reflection of Ashbery’s library arrangement required the communication of several key concepts via the inventory structure.
We presume that the manner in which Ashbery organizes his books and CDs, from the high-level arrangement to the determination of a particular item’s placement within it, is in service to his own use and access needs, as he is the primary patron of his own library in addition to being its director. Moving, then, from archival terminology to a library analogy, the determination of an item’s primary subject, and in turn the “classification” of the item, needs only to support his individual purposes. A cataloger at a public library, in contrast to the private library owner, must consider a diversity of patrons and access needs when assigning an item its appropriate classification.
Ashbery’s arrangement and order entail the division of the main library collection into several broad subject or genre categories (e.g., Fiction, Biography, Art, Poetry), with some of these subcollections branching into additional subdivisions (e.g., the Poetry section includes an Anthologies subdivision). Ordering schemes are not necessarily consistent across subcollections; the rules governing the order within each collection suit the idiosyncrasies of that particular category. The ordering schemes utilized in certain subcollections might seem more transparent than those utilized in others, at least to an outside observer approaching the library for the first time. For example, the Fiction books are organized by author last name, with Ashbery determining the “primary” author in the case of multiple contributors. On the other hand, the Travel books are organized roughly by geographic location.
Ashbery’s personal library occupies several rooms of his home in Hudson, New York, as well as space in his New York City apartment. Since an exhaustive inventory was not within the scope of the present project, we decided to deal exclusively with the contents of three rooms in the Hudson residence: the upstairs library/office, the upstairs study/den and the master bedroom. As a result, most, but not all of the subcollections are represented (e.g., the Architecture category is not included). However, as this is a working, growing library whose contents are often in flux, even the subcollections that are included should not be regarded as complete; in fact, each subcollection continues into an “overflow” shelving area located in the basement of the home. The overflow shelves, which were introduced several years ago in response to space limitations, are not included in the inventory.
The inventory is structured as a set of separate lists, one for each of the subcollections represented. Within each list, additional subdivisions are included as necessary, mirroring the actual arrangement of Ashbery’s shelves. As such, the order of items within the lists reflects their purposeful arrangement on the shelves. The compilers executed a small amount of refiling (as prescribed in the definition of original order) in the course of their work when they encountered items misshelved per Ashbery’s organizational scheme. Having done so, the correctly restored order is that represented in the inventory lists.
Due to privacy concerns, the inventory does not note gifts, inscriptions, annotations, or other markings. In accordance with the nature of this inventory as “preliminary,” the compilers collected limited bibliographic information for each item rather than match the granularity that might be found in a library catalog record. As such, the inventory’s format is closer to that of a shelflist, with title, author, editor, and other contributor names recorded. Different editions of the same texts are all listed (e.g., multiple versions of a foreign language text, each with a different translator, or multiple printings of a novel, each with substantially different front matter), but multiple copies of identical publications are not included. In cases of authorial ambiguity, the compilers attempted to use the location of the items on the shelves to define their “primary authors.” This was easily accomplished in sections which were organized by author name. On that note, a contributor who may not be the “primary author” in the sense that we usually understand that term has been given such prominence if that contributor’s name was that by which the item was filed on the shelves. For example, Ashbery’s shelves include issues of periodicals interspersed amongst his books, and the location of each periodical reveals which of the issue’s contributors has been used for filing; in these cases, the author of interest (per the shelving order) was identified as the primary author in the inventory list.
The beginning of this essay welcomes diverse uses of the inventory. One of the very “uses” that we encourage is its completion, even if the notion of a “complete personal library” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is unlikely that any collector would remain in permanent possession of every single book in his library. But comparatively speaking, the state of Ashbery’s collections leaves us in a comfortable place for eventually completing this project. Much more difficult have been those impressive reconstructions of widely dispersed author libraries—either physically (locating and obtaining books), intellectually (citing and describing missing items), or both. Bibliographers Philip Kelley and Betty A. Coley reconstructed the library of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a 1984 publication, tracking 2,519 volumes.7 Similar laborious reconstructions have been performed on the libraries of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and the George Eliot–George Henry Lewes collections.
The future of Ashbery’s personal library has not yet been determined, but as a working collection, it is fascinating to compare it with those collections that are formally maintained by academic and cultural institutions. The diverse treatments of such collections, likely due to unique practical factors and curatorial visions, all evidence a great degree of commitment. Institutions may devote rooms to writers’ libraries, evoking the original settings: Robert Penn Warren’s personal library at Western Kentucky University exhibits his desk, typewriter, and personal items; the John O’Hara Study at Pennsylvania State University’s Special Collections library is a recreation of the study in his Princeton, NJ home; the Katherine Anne Porter Room at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library is unlike most others in that Porter herself participated in its design—that is, it is not simply a recreation of a room in her home, but an additional “created space” decorated with her assistance.
Practical constraints often override the interest in maintaining such spaces. Devoting a room to an author’s library is not feasible for an institution with space limitations, but the insertion of “original owner” metadata in electronic catalogs allows for the contents of writers’ libraries to be identified and pulled together even if they are not physically shelved in the same place. The books in the Robert Frost Room at New York University are or will be electronically tagged in this fashion as the contents of the room are gradually integrated into the general special collections. The change is due largely to space considerations.8
As Ashbery’s library inventory is presented here in relation to his domestic environments, readers may be especially interested in collections that reside in former residences-turned-house-museums. It certainly seems fashionable (and perhaps responsible, from a collections-care perspective) to donate to a collecting institution; still, there are many noteworthy examples of libraries that reside partially or completely in writers’ former homes: Edith Wharton’s library at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts;9 Rudyard Kipling’s at Bateman’s in East Sussex, England; Thomas Carlyle’s at his home on Cheyne Row in London; the Samuel Pepys library, maintained by Magdalene College in Cambridge, England, “to which it was bequeathed under stipulations that ensure that its contents remain intact and unaltered.”10 A portion of Carl Sandburg’s library remains at his former home in Flat Rock, North Carolina, while much of it is now stored at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Ralph Waldo Emerson’s personal library is housed at Harvard, but each room of his Concord home contains a collection of his family’s books. A particularly interesting case is the library of Lion Feuchtwanger, a German Jewish émigré writer who settled in Los Angeles and willed his collection and his former residence, Villa Aurora, to the University of Southern California. USC has since sold Villa Aurora to a German consortium “interested in preserving this historic monument as a study center.” The university has devoted proceeds from the sale to restoring the on-campus library space and creating an endowment for future support of the library. Currently, the collection’s rarest books are stored on the USC campus, but the majority, some 20,000 books, is on permanent loan to Villa Aurora.11
The examples offered here raise questions of context, authenticity, and meaning, echoing the list of descriptive words and phrases presented at the beginning of this paper. While I opened this essay by encouraging creative use of Ashbery’s preliminary library inventory, without contradicting that statement, I will close with a cautionary anecdote taken from a review of William Baker’s The Libraries of George Eliot and G.H. Lewes: “Baker notes that a volume of poems sent to Lewes by his old friend William Bell Scott was acknowledged gracefully: ‘Your beautiful volume arrived last night and was duly welcomed.’ But the copy, later sold at Sotheby’s, was there described as ‘uncut.’”12 Unpacking the significance of a writer’s personal library collection is a thorny endeavor, so the question persists: just what can these collections tell us? I propose that they can tell us much, if we check our assumptions and look closely at what is really there.
1. Biography and Autobiography
9. Visual Art
In preparing this introduction, I found the Web sites of the following organizations invaluable, and hope others may agree:
Society of American Archivists:
Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division:
Harry Ransom Center Authors’ Libraries Collections:
Thomas Hardy’s Library at Max Gate: Catalogue of an Attempted Reconstruction:
The Ladder: A Henry James Website:
Robert Penn Warren Library:
John O’Hara Study:
Katherine Anne Porter Library:
Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf:
Feuchtwanger Memorial Library:
Bateman’s (home of Rudyard Kipling):
Lewis Mumford Private Library:
Cyril Connolly Library:
Susan Sontag Archive:
James Dickey Library:
Browning Library Collection:
Cool Conservation Online:
A cautionary note on the methodology and contents of the inventory, from the co-compiler
The relevance of these inventories to the Created Spaces concept as it applies to John Ashbery is simply that they represent the most satisfying and immediate conflation of physical and textual realms. Ashbery’s overstuffed bookshelves dominate the four main spaces in the second story of his Hudson house. Running floor to ceiling in several of the rooms, the books become the boundaries that demarcate these environments. Inside these Ashberian walls—where for many of us the dust of ages falls, or long-nailed rodents race—are infinite labyrinths of thought and language. Ashbery’s acknowledged mainstays, admitted influences, and inner circle are there, as are many Renowned Classics, modern “minors,” and new discoveries, by turn delightful and bewildering—from Bundling: Its Origin, Progress, and Decline in America and The Newgate Calendar: Comprising Interesting Memoirs of the Most Notorious Characters Who Have Been Convicted of Outrages on the Laws of England, with Speeches, Confessions, and Last Exclamations of Sufferers, to The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, Fifteenth to Eighteenth Century (Volume I).
The lists we present are snapshots of some of Ashbery’s many libraries, as they existed from November 2007 through January 2008. The areas we inventoried—Biography and Autobiography, CDs, Fiction, Film, Miscellanea, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Travel, and Visual Art—represent some of Ashbery’s various collections. These are slippery entities, always in flux, with books constantly coming in and going out. Only a few weeks after the contents of the Fiction library had been documented, we saw with a certain horror another round of overhauling begin to take place.
The libraries enumerated here are all located in Ashbery’s Hudson house, though they do not represent the whole of the repositories there—at least five other collections, of books on architecture, works in French, personally inscribed volumes, and so on—are not included, nor are any of the libraries in Ashbery’s New York City apartment documented at this stage. Furthermore, unshelved materials are excluded from our lists, based on our failure to judge whether the books piled on tables and heaped beside chairs were old favorites or exciting new acquisitions, rather than gifts from blurb-seeking publishers or books not yet begun and perhaps never to be finished.
We have endeavored to identify the books using the bare minimum of information. The reason is tri-fold: First, extenuating circumstances presented themselves in the form of limited time. Secondly, the audience to which we present the inventory is a general one, and a scholarly offering would have been inappropriate, as well as dreary. Finally, our interest in these collections focused on the content of the works described; bibliographic information about the volumes themselves was superfluous to our goal.
The supplemental information, beyond author and title, varies from section to section. For example, we cited translators in almost every case in such collections as Fiction or Poetry; almost never in the case of Cinema or Travel. Listings of CD recordings are the most minimal: we note only the name of the artist by which Ashbery alphabetized the disc, the text that appears on the spine of the case, and the release number, where available. In narrowing the scope of the enterprise sharply down to the “most essential” descriptive information for each book, oversights have no doubt occurred, in which we failed to document elements that might be pertinent to Ashbery’s interest in the items or to a reader’s use of the list; and we regret these.
As Rosangela Bricsese notes in her introduction to the inventory, we have given due prominence to the context of each volume by respecting the idiosyncrasies of Ashbery's own arrangement insofar as it was practical to do so. Obvious misshelvings have been corrected: this includes not only errors of alphabetization, but also cases in which books were clearly shelved out of order due to the size of the volume vs. the height of the shelf. On the other hand, we have often maintained original order even where a volume would appear to be in the wrong library altogether.
A section such as Cinema had no clear guiding principle at work; for the reader's convenience, then, the list is arranged alphabetically by author. The Travel library had the ghost of a system, rendered spectral by the passage of time and the crisis of shelf space. In order to facilitate the reader's access, this inventory has attempted to honor the original intent, and volumes are organized alphabetically by region. There are sections for the United States and Europe, for countries outside the United States, and for both states and cities within the U.S. The library of Biographical and Autobiographical works includes a number of critical texts, which are about the work of an author, rather than his or her life (i.e., works on Heidegger, Joyce, Pound, Wittgenstein). While these arguably belong to Non-Fiction, we have left them where Ashbery placed them. Similarly, the Non-Fiction library, rather than the Autobiography collection, includes the selected letters of Philip Larkin, D.H. Lawrence, Vincent Van Gogh, and Horace Walpole, as well as the journals of Katherine Mansfield and Denton Welch. While it was tempting to call these anomalies misshelvings, the inventory maintains the original context, on the assumption that Ashbery may have been interested less in the biographical than in the critical aspects of these works. In a few instances, Ashbery has deliberately violated his organizing principles in order to ensure that individual volumes are shelved together. Non-Fiction works are alphabetized by the author's last name; however, works by and about Nietzsche are shelved together, and appear under the author name Nietzsche in the inventory. This is the case as well for works by Pater, Plato, Teilhard de Chardin, and James Thomson, in Non-Fiction; and for Rimbaud and Roussel in Poetry. Laura Riding Jackson is as thorny as ever: her verse, her prose, and critical work on her writing are all alphabetized under her own name in the Poetry library.
Each book is identified with a maximum of one primary author. Additional authors are listed in the editor field as (a). Editors, editors in chief, series editors, and so on, are given as (e). Illustrators (not the artists to whom exhibition catalogs and art books are devoted) appear with an (i). Curators, as well as the authors of introductions, prefaces, forewords, notes, opening essays, and afterwords, are written (s). (T) represents translator.
A final, fierce caution: These lists have not been double checked for accuracy. Any one wishing to make sure of the information pertaining to a specific volume must confirm it independently. Moreover, the identifications of works printed in any language other than English should be subject to the reader’s harshest scrutiny. Scholars involved in formal research, who require more information about a particular volume on the library shelves, may contact the Ashbery Resource Center, a project of The Flow Chart Foundation for Bard College, at arc at flowchartfoundation dot org.
1Cowell, Alan. “After a Century, an American Writer's Library Will Go to America,” New York Times (December 15, 2005). New York Times online archive (http://www.nytimes.com) (March 14, 2008).
2See the “Authors' Libraries” and “Writers' Libraries” discussion threads in the ExLibris Listserv archives.
3For example, Rosemary Ashton's review of William Baker's The Libraries of George Eliot and G.H. Lewes offers the following critique: “I do, however, have some doubts about the necessity of publishing such lists. They can be of interest only to those engaged in close research into the life and work of George Eliot and/or Lewes, and such persons are usually able to consult the material directly. . . . Baker's claim that 'the record of. . . . books throws important light on their ideas and works . . .' seems overstated. . . . [I]t would be difficult to draw conclusions about importance or influence. ” The Review of English Studies 35.140 (November 1984), p. 594.
4Ashbery’s library is an active, private collection; its contents are not available for use.
5See the glossary at the website of the Society of American Archivists.
6The Society of American Archivists defines archival records as “materials created or received by a person, family, or organization, public or private, in the conduct of their affairs that are preserved because of the enduring value contained in the information they contain or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator.” Typically, they are comprised of forms such as correspondence, manuscripts, photographs, and financial documents, but artifacts or published materials may be found among a collection's archival records as well. For more information on the distinction between archival records and other collections materials, readers may refer to www.archivists.org.
7Margaret Smith, review of P. Kelley and B.A. Coley's The Browning Collections: A Reconstruction, in The Review of English Studies 36.143 (August 1985), p. 445.
8Email from Mike Kelley to the author (March 3, 2008).
9As of this writing, The Mount is “faced with imminent foreclosure.” A pledge campaign to save the site has been extended to May 31, 2008. See http://www.edithwharton.org/.
10See Magdalene College website.
11Christine E. Shade, “The Feuchtwanger Legacy,” University of Southern California Chronicle (September 4, 1995), p. 1. Also see http://www.usc.edu/libraries/archives/arc/libraries/feuchtwanger/index.html.
12Rosemary Ashton, review of William Baker's The Libraries of George Eliot and G.H. Lewes, in The Review of English Studies 35.140 (November 1984): 594.