Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Yaddo Records: How an Institutional Archive Reveals Creative Insights

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

The Yaddo Records: How an Institutional Archive Reveals Creative Insights

Article excerpt

ON THE AFTERNOON OF SEPTEMBER 7, 1968, members of the Corporation of Yaddo, the reclusive artists' retreat located in Saratoga Springs, New York, met to pay tribute to Elizabeth Ames, Executive Director of Yaddo from 1924-1968 (see Figure 13). Ames was then 88 years old and had held her title since Yaddo first opened its doors to creative "guests" in 1926. John Cheever, whose relationship with both Ames and Yaddo was especially intimate, recognized Ames' 42 years of service by describing the tremendous creativity, which occurred at Yaddo during her tenure,

   The forty or so acres on which the studios and principle buildings
   of Yaddo stand have seen more distinguished activity in the arts
   than any other piece of ground in the English-speaking community or
   perhaps in the entire world. As we all know, more than twelve
   hundred guests have stayed at Yaddo. The diversity, quantity and
   excellence of the work done here is staggering. There has never
   been anything like it. Many of the men and women responsible for
   the vitality in American art have done their major work in these
   rooms. Every sort of school of painting, music and literature has
   been represented and in some cases initiated here. (Six Decades 5)

Reference to Yaddo's guest list helps to corroborate Cheever's, seemingly, presumptuous claim. Since 1926, Yaddo has helped foster the work of Newton Arvin, James Baldwin, Leonard Bernstein, Elizabeth Bishop, Aaron Copland, Malcolm Cowley, Truman Capote, Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, Robert Lowell, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Clyfford Still, and William Carlos Williams.

However, despite its contribution, Yaddo has remained enigmatic, often referred to in biographical studies, but never itself the subject of critical inquiry. The reason is simple. Before October 2002, when The New York Public Library released Yaddo's archival record, focused study of Yaddo remained, essentially, impossible. While it is without question that the Yaddo Records will yield important insights, the composition of this archive raises critical questions about accepted modes of archival inquiry.

The Yaddo Records are comprised of family, institutional, and administrative papers. Not represented are manuscripts and typescripts of works composed at Yaddo. While these manuscripts (which are, in general, preserved by other archives) are important because they document the gestation of compositions which took shape amid Yaddo's environment of creative quietism, they have a finite value in terms of their critical importance. That is to say that there exists an essential moment when a creative manuscript no longer yields to critical interpretation and its value becomes, largely, artifactual. Institutional archives like the Yaddo Records document an essential, and overlooked, intersection between the critical importance of manuscripts and typescripts of creative works, and the material record which preserves the historical circumstances surrounding, and influencing, their development. As literary manuscripts exhaust their critical value, such moments of intersection become increasingly important, and the reward for the scholar who locates them, greater still.

Careful analysis of the Yaddo Records reveals two prominent moments of convergence. First, the Yaddo Records trace the origins of a community which, as Cheever describes, witnessed the creativity of many regarded artists. Secondly, Yaddo's archive reveals that during its most formative years an emerging group of intellectual and creative thinkers were responsible for shaping Yaddo's restrictive guest list, and that their decisions fused with Ames' administrative authority in ways which proved formative to regarded compositions.

For Cheever, Yaddo's record of fostering artistic development was deeply rooted in a combination of Elizabeth Ames' administrative genius, and the foresight of Yaddo's principal founders Spencer Trask, and his wife Katrina,

   The combination in tandem of Mrs Trask's generosity and Elizabeth's
   profoundly intuitive grasp of what one needed seems providential. … 
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