In mid-2016 I was put in contact with a private party who was interested in the letters between American painter Romaine Brooks and her lifelong partner, author Natalie Barney, a collection held in the University of Tulsa’s McFarlin Library Special Collections. The party interested in the letters had several large and small scale projects in mind down the road, but initially, I was being asked to read the letters, 633 in all, looking for several different features. Primarily, I was looking for any mention of previously unknown paintings by Brooks. On the heels of a recently discovered Brooks painting in Europe, there was reason to believe there may be more unknown paintings out there. In addition, I was asked to look for any evidence of Brooks’ or Barney’s Antisemitism and to identify a small collection of letters that could function as a kind of selected letters tracking their decades-long relationship.
In addition to these goals, I was also interested in confirming that the letters were properly organized (with a very few exceptions they are), transcribing passages and locating documents regarding Brooks’ finances, mentions of her painting process, recording the people and places mentioned, and the author and recipient addresses. These secondary concerns were valuable to McFarlin Special Collections and exist more or less as an expansion of their already quite thorough finding aid. In discussing the project with the Special Collections staff, our hope was to record as much detail on the letters as was reasonably possible in order to provide future researchers with a lean but detailed guide to the collection.
Being approximately half way through the letters at this point, I have collected a massive amount of data, identified many details valuable to the private party who initiated the project (no evidence of unknown paintings unfortunately), and found several letters between Brooks and Barney that shed light on their inspiring, romantic, and singular relationship. From here, as I complete the reading of the letters, I plan to put together a digital exhibit for McFarlin Special Collections to display the collection to the public. My overall hope, however, is that the work I’ve done with the letters proves valuable to researchers in the future who are interested in Brooks’ work and her unique painting style and personality.
In addition to my teaching and research responsibilities and being on the academic job market, it was difficult to find time to devote to reading the letters. Sustaining the project has provided me with a nice sense of continuity as my future is uncertain and as I’m trying to secure a long term academic position. It’s also been a really valuable crash course working on extended archival projects. My reading and research as an English Ph.D. is quite closely related to these efforts, but tends to build on rather than produce them. My dissertation chapter on Joyce, for instance, capitalized on the significant work scholars have done with his letters. The opportunity to work on these projects and gain the experience has been very rewarding.