I have known Robert Harris for 18 years now. When I first came to the DeGolyer Library in 2001, I made it a top priority to contact the man who had put together an exhibit at the DeGolyer in 1987 and for which we had published a catalog. But getting in touch with Robert was not as easy as one would have thought. Our addresses on file were out of date and the Internet search engines were not as all-knowing then as they are today. I sent letter after letter. Months went by. Finally, a break-through. I received a phone call. Robert introduced himself. I introduced myself. And we’ve been carrying on a conversation ever since.
He agreed to participate in a panel discussion that fall at the library on book collecting. He agreed a few years later, in 2004, to curate an exhibit, “The Enduring Walt Whitman,” featuring major works and new arrivals from his ever-growing Whitman collection. Shortly thereafter, he endeared himself even more by including the DeGolyer Library in his estate plans, so that one of these days the Harris collections will be preserved and made accessible here. I say collections, plural, since Robert’s range of interests includes not only Walt Whitman but also Tennessee Williams, John Ciardi, Theodore Roethke, Robert Frost, and many other literary figures.
We have a running joke: whenever Robert calls me on the telephone, he introduces himself by saying, “Am I speaking to God’s gift to bibliography?” If that is true, I have to remind him, our God must have an extraordinary sense of humor. The real gift is the man who has dialed my number: generous, thoughtful, curious, in love with the written word, and eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm with all, and especially those who share his devotion to Walt Whitman.
I too am an acolyte. In my younger and more vulnerable years, I actually thought that Walt Whitman represented the ideal candidate for library work. This person wouldn’t have a master’s degree in library science, wouldn’t be certified by the Society of American Archivists, and in fact wouldn’t have a university degree at all. But even without the usual academic credentials, my candidate would at least have some practical experience, as a teacher, a printer, an editor, a journalist, and an inveterate and habitual scribbler and saver of papers, letters, fragments, notes, and jottings. And most of all, my candidate would have a remarkable and capacious vision and a sense of the unity and connectedness of all things, just like Walt Whitman, one of the roughs. I even thought that, for staff development, one could do no better than to read, mark, and inwardly digest Whitman’s poems, and beyond his poems, his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, which we would use, verbatim, as our mission statement, collection development policy, and staff procedure manual. Is this impractical? Yes. Unworkable? Yes. Incapable of assessment? Emphatically yes. But true nonetheless? Yes.
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
What Whitman did, with Leaves of Grass, we also do in special collections: name, catalog, organize, revise, enlarge, exhibit, celebrate, chronicle, and publish, in a never-ending cycle. For all the particularity, the individuality, in Leaves of Grass and in our collections, it is the organic unity, the connectedness, the relationships, that matter. This quality is not self-apparent or self-evident. The staff helps make this magic happen, through their expertise and engagement. Readers help make this happen, through their diligence and imaginative leaps. But we also depend on collectors (and donors) like Robert Harris, who gather source materials together so that knowledge and understanding may more readily flow from them. On the occasion of Walt Whitman’s 200th birthday, we are grateful to Robert Harris for assembling new and old favorites from his collection to help us appreciate the genius of one of America’s great poets. We think you’ll enjoy the show.
As Whitman tells us,
“Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Russell L. Martin III