Posts Tagged ‘Elena Danielson’

How Andrei Sinyavsky’s papers wound up at Stanford – and a long-ago trip to Fountenay-aux-Roses to get them.

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Mother, son, and wisteria at the rue Boris Vilde.

It’s a small world, of course. And even smaller if you’re at Stanford. No sooner had I posted yesterday’s thoughts about the Russian writer Andrei Sinyavsky (pen name Abram Tertz), then a tweet surfaced in cyberspace from a dear friend: “”Cynthia Haven brought back memories of reading Abram Tertz, then meeting him in the Hoover Archives reading room as Sinyavsky. Both he and his wife Maria Rozanova were regulars in the Hoover Archives reading room in the 1990s. They just could not stay away.” No wonder. With its extensive collections on the Soviet era, it would have been a miracle to them.

Elena Danielson, the friend, and also the former director of the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, told me that Hoover had, in fact, acquired the papers of Sinyavsky, and she herself had collected them from France.

I noodled around google a bit and found the Stanford press release from October 1998. It’s another story of Hoover’s truly remarkable archival rescue efforts:

The Hoover Institution has acquired the papers of the Russian writer and human rights activist Andrei Siniavski. Siniavski’s writings and his trial for allegedly publishing anti-Soviet slander in foreign countries are considered key in mobilizing the human rights movement that contributed in significant ways to the forces that discredited and toppled the Soviet system. “Siniavski was a writer whose fiction provoked the regime to frenzy and galvanized the movement that eventually brought it down,” said Hoover Institution Senior Research Fellow Robert Conquest after hearing about the acquisition.

Beginning in the 1950s, Siniavski sent abroad writings under the pseudonym Abram Tertz that he could not publish legally in the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1965, tried in 1966 and sentenced to forced labor.

Demonstrations against the trial galvanized young intellectuals, among them Vladimir Bukovsky and Alexander Ginzburg, and inducted them into the human rights movement. In response to international protests at Siniavski’s mistreatment, the regime allowed him to emigrate to France in 1973.

Siniavski’s wife, Maria Rozanova, also publicized her husband’s plight and refused to leave the Soviet Union without his papers. Authorities relented in order to dispatch her abroad, and she was able to save the record of her husband’s life and work.

Once in the west, Siniavski taught at the Sorbonne, served as a visiting professor at Stanford and received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. He died in 1977. [Correction: it was 1997.]

The collection contains biographical information on Siniavski and his father, who was arrested for political activity; unpublished manuscripts and correspondence from before his arrest; materials on smuggling his manuscripts abroad, including secret codes he used; evidence of his influence on students at Moscow University; evidence of people spying on him; materials on his arrest and trial; a copy of the KGB interrogation files, notes on the search of his home and photographs from the early days of the human rights movement; papers from the emigration and continuing human rights activities abroad, including broadcasts for Radio Liberty and tapes of complete interviews and sections not broadcast; and papers on emigre politics.

“The trip to rue Boris Vilde was such fun, about 1998 I suppose,” Elena recalled. “The wisteria covered house was classic French, and the interior, stuffed with papers on make-shift shelving, was so very Russian. The son, Iegor Sinyavsky Gran, is a novelist and a charming guy.”

She went back to her notebooks and files to find some photos for me.

“Maria Rosanova and Iegor Sinyavsky, rue Boris Vilde, Fountenay-aux-Roses,…I’ve just found the wisteria-covered house, stuffed with the late Andre Siniavsky’s papers in boxes, on shelves, overflowing the furnitures…Maria looked around in despair ‘Bumagi, bumagi, bumagi…'” (That would be бумаги, бумаги, бумаги. Or “papers, papers, papers…” to the rest of us.)


“The widow was totally bewildered by the huge stacks of papers,” she recalled. “But we got it all shipped and cataloged.” Then, a little later, “Such charm. The two of them made the collecting trip into one of the highlights of my career.” I could almost hear her sigh, all the way from Twitterland.

And she had another souvenir in her house from his days at Hoover, way back in the 1990s. She explained: “I bought The Trial Begins with an intro by Czesław Miłosz for a class at Berkeley, so in the 1965-1969 era. I just found the book which he autographed for me in the Hoover Archives reading room, dated 1992. He signed it Abram Tertz.

More from Elena’s albums:


Herbert Hoover: “He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?”

Sunday, February 12th, 2017

Hoover with a homemade ham radio, probably at Stanford’s Lou Henry Hoover House. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is one of Stanford’s most charming and engaging speakers – not to mention a fount of knowledge on a dazzling range of topics. The former Fulbright scholar is the author of The Ethical Archivist (Society of American Archivists, 2010) – we’ve written about it here. Her Ethics of Access will be published this year with the same publisher. One of her many enthusiasms is Herbert Hoover (we’ve written about the president’s astonishing philanthropic efforts to save a starving Russia here.) Elena spoke last week for the Stanford Historical Society. And what better venue than the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium?

An excerpt:

Herbert Hoover’s particular mentality, while unusual for an American politician, is something familiar to us at Stanford and perhaps easier to recognize in the 21st century than it was previously. He is part of a Stanford tradition that has been with us since the founding in 1891, and only become more clear over the decades. He loved science, technology, engineering, math, and machines, chemistry, trains, steamships, radio, television. He was also a collector, collecting ore samples and semi-precious stones all his life, and also collecting books and manuscripts. Collecting seems to go with this mind-set.


Archivist extraordinaire. (Photo: Sunny Scott)

He was the kind of person who knew how to quickly take advantage of the new technology of the late 19th century. In 1898, he proposed to his beloved bride, recent Stanford graduate Miss Lou Henry, by telegram. Also fascinated by emerging technology, she immediately accepted by return cable. He traveled constantly by rail, steamship, ocean liner (an estimated hundred weeks of his life – or two full years – on ships). He went around the world at least four times prior to World War I, and crossed through war zones during the Great War.

During the belt tightening and labor shortages of the U.S. entry into World War I, he dismissed his chauffeur (normal for a man of his wealth to have), and delighted in driving his roadster a bit too fast for comfort. When he was elected president, before the inauguration, back then held in March, he got on a ship and took a four-week good will tour of Latin America. His train car or steamship cabin was always a mobile office. Going through his papers, I remember marveling at the number of telegrams he would shoot off every day to keep various business and philanthropic organizations mobilized, the way we send off emails. And he was never happier than when he was focusing his math skills on complex financial transactions with large numbers of zeros, the more complicated the better…He was different from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman. You’d have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to find the same combination of love of science, love of foreign travel, and love for complex negotiations.

He was an early adopter. He had a ham radio in his campus home for Herbert Hoover Jr. He was the first person to broadcast on TV in 1927. He was the first president to broadcast a campaign speech on the radio, the first president to have his own telephone on his desk, the first person to use a teleprompter on national TV (1952). He thrived on using emerging technology. It was his strength, enabled him to solve problems, and, in some ways, it was also his weakness, he expected problems to have solutions. He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?


Stanford landmark

Then he took the technical skills he learned at Stanford, starting at age 22, to high-level, high-stakes ventures in Australia, China, and, what I consider the transformative period, in Tsarist Russia. This last is, in my opinion, one of the most significant and least researched episodes in his life. This technical career got him involved in Stanford campus politics, then some global politics and finally American politics, as he tried to apply engineering solutions to international and social problems, a technocrat in the good sense of the word, as a logical, fact-based problem-solver. Throughout this time, he remained deeply committed to helping the university that launched his career, and the career of his wife Lou Henry, his older brother Theodor Hoover, and his sons Herbert Hoover, Jr., and Allan Hoover, his closest friends such as Ray Lyman Wilbur. All Stanford grads, all techies. And we will see his two lasting monuments – not on Mount Rushmore, but two engineering marvels that both have strong connections with Stanford.

Hoover Dam was one of them. From Elena Danielson:

They excavated 3.7 million cubic yards of rock, poured 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete, built four tunnels through which they diverted one of the country’s greatest rivers, installed 45 million pounds of steel, imbedded 582 miles of one-inch cooling tubes, and built a 726 foot tall dam with a 2,000 megawatt power station. The electricity that was generated paid for the construction. Even as president, engineering was his great love.

And Stanford’s Hoover Tower is the other:

He planned the construction of Hoover Tower with instructions to make it as seismically sound as possible given the technology of 1939 with a steel I-beam skeleton and rebar reinforced concrete on a thick concrete pad. Here he stored the documentation he had collected from the turmoil of the Great War, the Russian Revolutions and subsequent political upheavals. The inspiration of those great collectors on the pioneer faculty John Casper Branner and Andrew D. White found tangible expression in the Tower. The Tower held up well in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated much of the construction on campus. His intellectual interests and his engineering mind-set worked together.

You can hear the whole talk here


Not a bad legacy. Ansel Adams’s 1941 photo of Hoover dam.

Ivy Low Litvinov: surviving Stalin … and D.H. Lawrence, too

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014



Ivy Low Litvinov and friends in the U.K. …before it all began. (Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“It is one of the wonders of the age that Ivy survived to die a natural death,” wrote American diplomat and historian George Kennan in a 1989 letter. Dying in one’s bed wasn’t the usual exit from Joseph Stalin‘s Russia, and Ivy Low Litvinov, as the wife of the genocidaire’s foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, wasn’t a likely candidate for a natural end. Yet she lived in Moscow with their children until 1972, when she returned to the U.K. The recipient of Kennan’s letter, the Book Haven’s own Elena Danielson, Hoover Institution archivist emerita, tells this and other tales about the British author in the current Sandstone & Tile here (beginning on p. 18):


(Photo: Joseph Freeman papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

“In November 1943, Ivy was traveling from Washington to Moscow and showed up, without warning, at the Stanford Library. She wanted to read a collection of original letters by her friend, British novelist D.H. Lawrence, in what was then known as the Felton Library. The research at Stanford was Ivy’s refuge in a dangerous time. In 1939, her husband had been dismissed as foreign minister and disgraced by Stalin, only to be recalled to active duty in 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. He served as Stalin’s ambassador to Washington for a crucial year and a half, from December 1941 to spring 1943. He and Ivy arrived in the U.S. on December 7, while the Japanese were bombing Pearl Harbor. The Litvinovs, especially Ivy, were wildly popular guests in Washington and New York in 1942. She lunched with Eleanor Roosevelt and dined with Marjorie Merriweather Post, one of the wealthiest women in America. By 1943, however, Maxim – again in political difficulties – was abruptly recalled from Washington to Moscow and an uncertain fate.”

Still, she had a few dreamy days at the Stanford Library, where she recollected her loving, and stormy, history with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda. She wrote in a letter to a friend: “In t. meantime I retire into my literary life and have been reading up on Lawrence & making unexpected discoveries… I went to Stanford University & was shut up for 2 days in t. adorable Felton Library, which has a rich collection of Lawrence being accumulated in the last 12 years, but I t. first person to ask to see it. In his letters found most amusing references to self. All this I have assembled & begun to write article.”

Elena writes, “Ivy may have spent most of her adult life in the Soviet Union, and she went down in history as the wife of Stalin’s foreign minister, but she always viewed herself primarily as Ivy Low, the writer. She was born into an environment where the people closest to her were constantly reading and writing for publication.”  She wrote for The New Yorker, Manchester Guardian, Blackwood’s Magazine, Vogue, as well as two published novels – and she did finally write her article “A Visit to D.H. Lawrence,” which was published in Harper’s Bazaar.  “Ivy’s research on Lawrence at Stanford helped her steady her nerves while awaiting her perilous return to the Soviet Union.”

Hoover acquired her papers, including letters, manuscripts and photos, in 1987 – not far from the D.H. Lawrence collection at Green Library.

It’s a fascinating story – read it here (again, beginning on p. 18).

More on the man who tried to stop the Holocaust: Jan Karski’s visit to Stanford

Friday, April 26th, 2013

photo(1)On Wednesday, we wrote about the Polish hero who tried to stop the Holocaust, Jan Karski.  No sooner posted than we got a letter from the former director of the Hoover Archives, Elena Danielson, who remembered one of his visits to Stanford (she’s pictured at right with Karski).  “Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier,” she recalled. “He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.”  The Jan Karski Papers collection was established at Hoover in 1946.

A story on Karski’s longstanding relationship with Hoover is here.  It begins: “A letter dated April 16, 1945, and signed by Stanford University president Donald Tresidder, formalized a relationship between Jan Karski and the Hoover Library (now known as the Hoover Institution) on War, Revolution and Peace that was to last until the end of Karski’s life. The letter confirmed a temporary appointment ‘to collect materials relating to political, economic, social, and other developments in Poland and other areas in Europe which have been attacked and occupied by Axis forces.'”

From Elena’s email:

Jan Karski was already a hero for those of us on the Hoover Archives staff when the East European curator Maciej Siekierski organized the visit by Jan Karski, seen in this photo from the mid-1990s [photo by Zbigniew Stanczyk]. Karski began working directly with Herbert Hoover back in 1945 to document the history of Poland in World War II. As a result, the Hoover Archives hold the largest collection of 20th century Polish archives outside of Poland, and the heart of the documentation is concern for human rights.

Hoover’s own interest in Poland went back to his humanitarian relief work there in World War I. Starting in 1945 Karski traveled to  London, Paris, and Rome, as well as Switzerland to coordinate the collection of documentation on the Nazi horrors in central Europe as well as the Soviet crimes. Those documents at Hoover preserved the truth about the Katyn massacre and the Gulag, information suppressed in Russia until 1992.  Karski used the same discretion, tact and diplomatic finesse to save the Polish embassy files abroad that he had used in his secret missions during the war.

jan_karskiThose skills were still evident in old age when I met him. He dressed meticulously, spoke in carefully chosen words, and conveyed the seriousness of his work to preserve the truth about the war. His sense of humor showed in ironic flashes. He told a story, now I’m retelling it from memory so I hope I have this about right, from 1942. He was in Switzerland conferring with OSS chiefs about his trip to the U.S. to see Roosevelt. He persuaded the OSS that they had to buy  him better shoes if they wanted him to be taken seriously by the president of the United States. Something like that. Most of all, I was impressed by how gracious he was to us lowly archives staffers who brought him cardboard boxes full of the history he had saved half a century earlier. He made us feel like keepers of the flame. His concern for human dignity was not just theoretical, it was part of his approach to life.

More bookplate porn!

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

A Toni Hofer woodcut bookplate

What a difference a couple days makes! A whole new world has opened up to me, and my wallet has opened up as well. Here’s why.

On Friday, I posted “Bookplate Porn: “A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever,” and I challenged readers to submit their favorite bookplates.  (In the post, I had admired some of the excellent Stanford Library bookplates of Lisa Haderlie Baker.)

No sooner did I post my short piece on Facebook page than I got an almost instant reply from colleague Mike Ross: “Ooohhh. When I get back home next week,” he promised, “I’ll have to find the bookplates a Linz, Austria, woodcutter made for our grandfather, who’d helped there in the late stages of World War II. They’re gorgeous!” However, he didn’t wait till he got home to post again.  He added this 12 minutes later: “I just remembered his name: Toni Hofer. He’s mentioned in a number of articles, including this one.

Bookplate engraving by Niu Ming-Ming

The article is from – get this – a bookplate collecting society in Austria, called Österreichische Exlibris Gesellschaft, or the Austrian Exlibris Society, emphasizing the bookplate as “a bearer of culture … that was identifiable as an art form in itself.” It was an important enough organization that the Nazis messed with it. Who knew bookplates had that kind of clout?

It was all, however, just the tip of an iceberg. A search for Toni Hofer (we couldn’t wait for Mike Ross to come home, wherever he is) led me to Ebay.  Type in “exlibris” into the search function to discover a world of wonders.  Apparently, there is a whole subterranean movement to collect bookplates. Over a thousand are featured on ebay even as I write, some from the Czech Republic, others from Romania, Russia, Finland, Denmark.  Check them out.

Naturally, I couldn’t resist. I’ve bought three already, and bid on two others.  You can look at hundreds right now. One of the wiggiest is from a Chinese artist at right.

We accept submissions by iphone

Back to the contest.  More contestants. In case you haven’t figured it out, there will be no winners and no losers in this contest.  It’s like Lewis Carroll‘s Caucus Race; as the Dodo said, “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.” Except there aren’t any prizes, either. Consider everyone getting honorable mentions.  And it won’t end. Keep sending me pictures of pretty bookplates till the end of time.

Elena Danielson replied by email yesterday with her own nomination.  She sent a photo from her iphone with the note: “Hand Printed at Paper Crane HMB … This one pasted in 1st Ed of Moment in Peking autographed by author Lin Yutang.”

I did a little google search of my own for bookplate porn (I figured I couldn’t have invented the term) and uncovered this: “If there’s such a thing as bookplate porn, this gorgeous book is the ultimate,” wrote Sadie Stein in The Paris Review.  She’s referring to Martin Hopkinson‘s new book on bookplates, The Art of Bookplates.

A bookplate book

From him, I learned that “bookplates originat[ed] in their modern printed form in 16th-century Germany, where books were highly valuable.”  He writes:

In the early 1500s, Albrecht Dürer and other German engravers and printmakers began to create highly decorative bookplates, often featuring armorial devices and coats of arms for wealthy individuals and institutions. As the fashion for ornamental bookplates spread, distinctive national styles evolved. Nearly every conceivable design element—from cupids to scientific instruments, portraits, and landscapes—served to decorate personal bookplates. This volume explores the various sources of ex libris inspiration, including designs by C. R. Ashbee, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Eric Gill, and Rudyard Kipling, as seen in the books of Frederic Leighton, Calvin Coolidge, and many others.

Finally in a postscript to my original post, one reader submitted this suggestion with the words:  “Here is one of my favorites. How could it not be?”

The comment is from Richard Katzev.

A Polish poet, an American archivist, and two summer reads

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

Music to my ears.  The following from Joanna Szupinska in Cosmopolitan Review –  a transatlantic quarterly with a Polish angle:

Edited by journalist and author Cynthia L. Haven, the timely new collection An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz brings together 33 entries by friends and scholars of the poet from the U.S. and Poland who worked closely with him during his life – as students, colleagues, and translators – spanning his entire career. Biographical in nature, each essay reveals delightful anecdotes illustrating the subject’s personality, including his raucous laughter, insatiable appetite for food and whiskey, and deftness at producing cutting insults. Through the collected vignettes, the reader gets to know him as a faithful letter-writer, devoted teacher, and thoughtful translator. Taken together, the volume offers a portrait of Miłosz’s life philosophy as he applied it to the circumstances dealt him by Fate.

The book is organized in a roughly chronological progression: from the subject landing himself in trouble for subversive leftist activities during his student years at Stefan Batory University in Vilnius, to his work as the cultural attaché in the Polish consulate in New York directly following the Second World War, to his swift realization of the new government’s totalitarian approach and Miłosz’s resultant defection to France. We then follow him to his professorship at the University of California, Berkeley, and that Northern California city by the bay would become his home for the next four decades until his eventual, permanent return to Kraków in 2000. Offered up as little stories about the now world-famous poet by people who knew him, An Invisible Rope is a fun, quick read perfect for a few summer afternoons. The reader comes away feeling as if she knows this person as a man – no longer merely the picture of a legend. It compels the reader to revisit even his most well-known works, from The Captive Mind to Road-Side Dog, to be read anew, refreshed by the contextualization of a life lived.

Read the rest here.

I’m not the only one who got a few nice words this month.  Sarah Peasley Miller over at Information Management said this about The Ethical Archivist:

There may be a delightfully subversive message woven throughout The Ethical Archivist, a focused and remarkably readable guide for archivists. Author Elena Danielson, a consultant and archivist emerita of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, provides a tidy summary of the profession as seen through the prism of ethics.  …

Archivists’ role has evolved over the centuries from protecting benefactors’ secrets, to ensuring authenticity for public good, to promoting open and equal access. “The postmodern archivist has a more complex challenge: preserving a sense of trust in the face of massive change,” states Danielson.

As documents are increasingly stored digitally, and the sheer volume of records presents challenges for ensuring accuracy and allowing retrieval, the author addresses myriad implications and observes that archivists, as information brokers, “are at the center of the IT storm.”

How to find?  If you google “The Ethical Archivist Information Management” you can get to a free pdf.  If you go to the journal website, you hit a pay wall.  Go figure. (Elena talks about pay walls in her book….)

A good man is hard to find: Carl Weber, Tony Kushner, and Bertolt Brecht onstage in Texas

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Jane Horrocks as Shen Teh in 2008

What, exactly, is the title of the play? In the dark years between 1939 and 1941,  Bertolt Brecht wrote  The Good Woman of Szechuan – or sometimes its Szechwan. More commonly nowadays, the play is called The Good Person of Szechwan – or Szechuan. I’ve even found the occasional The Good Soul of Szechuan.

The original is “mensch” – a word that has more slangy connotations today. Elena Danielson, who said it’s one of her favorite plays, agrees that “person” doesn’t quite work, “a bit too sterile for ‘der gute Mensch.'”

On the other hand, without de-gendering the noun, how else would you keep the link to Genesis, where God promises to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if Abraham can find a handful of good men?  I also felt unexpected Job-like resonances in the play, when the gods come down to test the prostitute Shen Teh, known for her love for her neighbors, and someone who (again like Abraham) entertains angels unawares. Despite the gods’ insistence, Shen Teh says she’s not good, and learns after many trials, “To be good and to live splits me in two like lightning.”

Carl Weber with Florentina Mocanu (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

The three gods who visit the impoverished Szechuan claim,  “Many, even among the gods, doubted that there were any good people here.” Is it true, the gods wonder, that “good deeds destroy the doer”?

In any case, last week I finally got a chance to watch last year’s Trinity University production directed by Carl Weber, a protégé of Brecht and a veteran of the Berliner Ensemble. Carl loaned me the DVD after his return from Austen.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph about a production at the Young Vic in 2008, called the play “an utter stinker” with “glib Marxist sermonising.” Obviously, I don’t agree, though I think Brecht sets up a straw man of goodness – a “Saint Never-to-Be,” as one of one of the characters sings.  Goodness is more than being a patsy.

Tony Kushner's translation of Brecht

Nevertheless, only a few minutes into the DVD, I found myself scrawling down lines from the play.  No surprise – the translator is Carl’s former student and protégé, Tony Kushner, of Angels in America fame (he’s interviewed in my article on Carl here).

According to the gods, “This world can be redeemed if one person can be found who has over come this world – just one.”

The human characters in the play protest, “The world is too cold!” to sustain human charity, to which the gods offer their intransigent reply, “Because people are too weak!”

As for the Sodom-and-Gomorrah link – aha! I’m on to something.  According to an obscure footnote in Wikipedia:

Mallika Sarabhai in Indian adaptation

In Munich in 1924 Brecht had begun referring to some of the stranger aspects of life in post-putsch Bavaria under the codename ‘Mahagonny’. The Amerikanismus imagery appears in his first three ‘Mahagonny Songs’, with their Wild West references. With that, however, the project stalled for two and a half years. With Hauptmann, who wrote the two English-language ‘Mahagonny Songs’, Brecht had begun work on an opera to be called  Sodom and Gomorrah or The Man from Manhattan and a radio play called The Flood or ‘The Collapse of Miami, the Paradise City’, both of which came to underlie the new scheme with [Kurt] Weill.

I was prepared for didacticism, and I got it.  But I threaded through  Helen M. Whall‘s online “The Case is Altered: Brecht’s Use of Shakespeare” and found this: “In many ways the story of Szechwan is a parodic version of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Within that frame Brecht mocks many other Old and New Testament parables, including Elijah’s visit to a poor woman and Christ’s miracle at Cana.”

Well, call me thick – but I didn’t see it as parody or snark. Perhaps it was Tony Kushner’s luminous translation, or perhaps it was Carl’s skilled direction, even with amateur performers, that gave the play a sense of the miraculous as the gods come down among us, looking for a good man – or in this case, woman. Or maybe it was Brecht’s searching for new answers to very old questions:  What is goodness?  And can it survive uncorrupted in a world where “the hand you extend to the poor is torn from you,” as Shen Teh says? “The world cannot go on as it is.  No one can stay good here.”

I may have come up with different answers, but Brecht’s play, in Carl’s direction, for a few hours renewed my sense of wonder at this strange and tragic world.

Elena Danielson: The scintillating world of an archivist, and “a masterpiece”

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

She's more bubbly than this picture suggests

In April, I commented on Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” event, “a warm and friendly gathering of about 100 or so booklovers at the Stanford Humanities Center,” in which Humble Moi participated:

Particularly memorable: Elena Danielson‘s breathy presentation of the ethical issues of archiving.  Don’t think that sounds exciting?  You have to hear Elena tell about it.  The author of The Ethical Archivist has been privy to billets-doux of the long-dead and recently dead, and all the burning secrets held in donated letters and memorabilia.

Archivists aren’t usually considered to live scintillating lives, but Elena sure makes it look like hot stuff.  I recounted her vivid tale of the Martin Luther King, Jr., legacy here.  (She also wrote a guest review for Debra Satz‘s  Why Some Things Should Not Be For Sale, and is a regular commentor on the Book Haven.)

So we were pleased to see praise for her work in College & Research Libraries, in a review by W. Bede Mitchell:

“The reader cannot help but come away … impressed with how deeply entangled is the archival profession in ethical dilemmas. …

She [Elena, that is – ED] is invariably thorough, sensible, and sensitive when analyzing ethical challenges that can arise when acquiring or deaccessioning materials, providing equitable access, protecting the privacy of patrons and donors, authenticating materials, and determining the circumstances in which displaced archives should be relocated. In addition, her writing is clear, engaging, and imbued with a devotion to her professional values. No doubt her many years of experience have tempered idealism with realism, but not to the point of cynicism. When she convincingly demonstrates at many junctures that establishing ‘a standard of integrity that inspires confidence in the documentary record’ is neither easy nor safe, Danielson goes on to argue eloquently why ensuring such integrity is what the archivist profession should be about. …

It is difficult to imagine a better written or more thorough and thoughtful work on such thorny issues. ‘Masterpiece’ is an appropriate description.”

Fine words … but it’s all so stuffy compared to the real-life Elena, her eyes sparkling, confessing the secrets she’s collected over decades with barely contained excitement.  Or, more recently, telling me that nine months after the book launch, only 73 copies of the book are left.  Is there a second printing in the works?

Brava, Elena!

The day after Shakespeare’s birthday, and “the first of arts”

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Wordsworth: Yesterday's child

Yesterday was my first time attending “A Company of Authors” – a warm and friendly gathering of about 100 or so booklovers at the Stanford Humanities Center.  (Video will be added when available.)  Particularly memorable: Elena Danielson‘s breathy presentation of the ethical issues of archiving.  Don’t think that sounds exciting?  You have to hear Elena tell about it.  The author of The Ethical Archivist has been privy to billets-doux of the long-dead and recently dead, and all the burning secrets held in donated letters and memorabilia. Ian Morris, author of Why the West Rules—For Now, as always, stole the show with his story about how everything came to be in the last 15,000 or so years.

We celebrated the parade of April 23d birthdays:  William Shakespeare, Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Nabokov, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner, Shirley Temple Black, St. George, and George Steiner, too.

As promised, Peter Stansky, read George Steiner’s poem:

To choose one’s birthday is the first of arts.
Renowned birthdays mark the man of parts.
The kalends are replete with faceless days,
So why not make one’s entry in a blaze?
Alas, I failed on the first day I was born!  Steiner noted:
And honest Wordsworth  tells us in his Ode
How the Platonic soul in its abode
Must before birth make choice of room and board –
No one is born on my day, although it is St. James‘s Day.  That means I should wear a cockle shell.  Or move to Spain.  Or both.   I shall have to be my own parade.
But all such glories are but dusty ends
When set against this laurel-crown of friends. …
How could the heart do otherwise than say
How wise it was to choose St. George’s day!

Hitting the road

The Times Online wrote this for Steiner’s birthday two years ago: “The polymath Professor George Steiner  said it is rather embarrassing that birthday celebrations are taking place in Florence, Rome and Germany. There is also an event at Churchill College, Cambridge, where he has been a Fellow since 1961. He is researching a book about how great philosophy gets itself written, called The Poetry of Thought. He enjoys walks with his Old English sheepdog, known as Monsieur Ben. Professor George Steiner is 80 today.”

Meanwhile, birthdays march on:  Today Anthony Trollope was born in 1815. And Robert Penn Warren, the first U.S. poet laureate in 1905.  The Swiss poet Carl Spitteler, a 1915 Nobel winner, in 1845.

From Trollope: “As to that leisure evening of life, I must say that I do not want it. I can conceive of no contentment of which toil is not to be the immediate parent.”

Happy Easter, everyone!

Tomorrow: Meet the authors, and celebrate birthdays with Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Nabokov, and St. George

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

“Cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”

Tomorrow, April 23, is William Shakespeare‘s birthday.  It’s also William Wordsworth‘s birthday, and Vladimir Nabokov‘s birthday – and St. George’s Day, to boot.

It’s also the 8th annual “A Company of Authors” celebration at the Stanford Humanities Center, an all-afternoon gig celebrating the variety, richness and importance of the books produced by the Stanford community.  (More on the event here.)

This year’s auspicious date is not entirely a coincidence.  George Orwell biographer Peter Stansky, who founded the event along with the late, lamented Associates of the Stanford University Libraries, was particularly pleased by the possibilities offered by the juxtaposition.

Peter will open the event by reading a poem by George Steiner about the wisdom of choosing one’s birthday – you see, it’s Steiner’s birthday, too.

The event was inspired by the Los Angeles Times Book Fair and the annual Humanities Center Book party.  There’s a difference, however: the books will be available for sale at a 10 percent discount.  The fête kicks off at 1 p.m., and it’s free at the Humanities Center on Santa Teresa, and the company will be excellent, if I do say so myself.

“It is open to all who wish to come and learn more about the authors’ thinking behind their work, would like to chat with the authors in the periods between sessions and have the opportunity to purchase their books,” he said.  It has another purpose – “and that we can all feel that somehow we are in the tradition of Shakespeare!”

Authors include:  Charlotte Jacobs, Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease;

Birthday boy

Susan Krieger, Traveling Blind; William Kays, Letters from a Soldier; Gabriella Safran, Wandering Soul: The Dybbuk’s Creator: S. An-sky; Abbas Milani, Myth of the Great Satan and The Shah; Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now; Karen Wigen, A Malleable Map; Elena Danielson, The Ethical Archivist; Jack Rakove, Revolutionaries; Karen Offen, Globalizing Feminisms; Myra Strober,  Interdisciplinary Conversations; Stina Katchadourian, The Lapp King’s Daughter; Dan Edelstein, The Enlightenment: A Genealogy; Herbert Lindenberger, Situating Opera: Period, Genre, Reception; Debra Satz, Why Some Things Shouldn’t Be for Sale.  And you guessed it, Humble Moi – Cynthia Haven for An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz.

No RSVP needed

According to Peter, “Most importantly in my view, the books reflect the most important aspect of the University: the life of the mind which sometimes gets forgotten in the many day to day events that take place at Stanford. In my view, this event represents the essence of the University.”

It is also J.M.W. Turner‘s birthday as well as Shirley Temple‘s, which he doesn’t mention.  “Perhaps you can arrange for Shirl ey Temple to come,” he suggested to me.  Do you think?

Postscript:  I know, I know … Shakespeare’s birthday is conjecture, based on his April 26 christening.  Usually, in the 16th century, a birth was followed post haste by a christening in anticipation of instant death.  And, given that he died on April 23, and that April 23 was St. George’s day, and, after all, he did need a birthday – the world fixed on April 23rd.  Good enough for me.  Hope for you, too.  See you tomorrow.

Postscript on 4/23/2013  We mistakenly reported that Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday is on April 23.  Wrong!  It’s June 6, 1799 (what a pleasant way to usher in a new century!)  The error has been corrected.  Thank you, Tatiana Pahlen, for pointing it out to us.