Here at Yale: Documenting the road well-traveled

Carl Van Vechten, Alice B. Toklas, and Gertrude Stein boarding a plane.
Carl Van Vechten, Alice B. Toklas, members of the flight crew, and Gertrude Stein boarding a United Air Lines plane in 1934. (From the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers.)

The concept of “travel” contains multitudes: adventurous voyages, forced migrations, documentary explorations, meditative immersions. Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature, and organizer of the Beinecke Library’s current special exhibit “Road Show,” manages to capture a wide range of them, through what Kuhl recently characterized as “the physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences of moving through unfamiliar places, encountering new landscapes and people, and exploring different ways of life and world views.”

The ambitious and expansive “Road Show”— a set of 30 “vignettes” composed of letters, postcards, annotated drafts, photographs, passports, sketches, telegraphs and various ephemera drawn from the Beinecke’s deep collection of American literature — illuminates the 19th- and 20th-century experience of travel through the eyes of artists and writers. It encompasses something more metaphorical as well: the journey from experience to art, and the journey of the archivist into the record. (As Henry Miller once observed, “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things.”)

The scope, as Kuhl put it, takes in “all the different ways human beings move in the world, and for all different reasons.”

During a recent virtual “Mondays at Beinecke” talk — which attracted an audience of nearly 150 joining in from across the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K. — Kuhl offered a peek into the curatorial brain.

Kuhl, speaking from a home office where three stacks of books precariously balanced in the background, sipped occasionally from an undulate blue mug that matched the hue of the pillows behind her. She spoke clearly and quickly with an infectious enthusiasm that vibrated through the screen. (“It’s a great pleasure to talk about things I love,” Kuhl acknowledged later with a laugh.)

Truman Capote and Donald Windham
Truman Capote and Donald Windham in the Piazzo San Marco, Venice, in 1948. (From the Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell papers.)

She introduced three of what she called “snapshots” from the show. (On the screen: a postcard of Truman Capote and Donald Windham in Venice — one of several in the exhibit featuring famed artists gaily posing with the tame pigeons of St. Mark’s Square.) “I use that term thoughtfully,” she noted. “It’s my hope that the experience of being in the show would be like looking at a slideshow of different kinds of adventures and travels.” With that, she launched into her own slideshow:

  • A photo of Gerald and Sara Murphy, friends of F. Scott Fitzgerald, looking insouciantly bohemian on a French Riviera beach; the couple was the inspiration behind Dick and Nicole Diver in the novel “Tender is the Night.” (Kuhl: “It’s not often that we get to see how a writer transforms the people in his life into characters in a novel. And it’s even, I think, maybe less often that we get to see what the people on whom those characters are based think about that.”)
  • A photograph of Sara Murphy, in a dark bathing suit, looking over her shoulder at the camera, pearls draped across her back, along with a description of the character Nicole Diver from “Tender is the Night.” (“Here we have this strange, extraordinary opportunity to see just how one-to-one the inspiration can sometimes be. We don’t always have examples that are so clear….It’s almost spooky, like I’m encountering the ghost of Sara Murphy.”)
  • Vivid portraits of Langston Hughes and artist Jacob Lawrence, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, who worked together on the book “One Way Ticket,” inspired by the Great Migration, during which millions of African Americans moved from the rural South to more urban areas of the United States. (“The question, how did the poet write the poem, is always on my mind.”)
  • An image of annotated drafts of Hughes’ poem “One Way Ticket.” (“This is an opportunity to see how he’s thinking about the way the measure of a line will work, and change the way his poem is read, and so he’s thinking, it seems quite clear, about sound and about music as well as about meaning.”) 
  • An orange-bordered piece of airline stationery (“Mr. W. A. Patterson, President, United Air Lines, Inc.”), with an observation of flight from Gertrude Stein, “In a kind of a way the light up here on the wing is the most beautiful thing.” (“This little fragment is interested in some of the same kind of things you would hear in some of her other writing.”)

Like many travelers, “Road Show” encountered a forced detour: originally scheduled to open in May 2020, it was postponed when COVID-19 closed the Yale campus. But the new itinerary brought with it new perspectives: with all the material assembled for an exhibit that couldn’t open, Kuhl offered a Public Humanities graduate workshop for which students created online micro exhibitions. They contribute to a robust online life for the exhibit, which allows the wider public to explore the materials virtually; Yale faculty, staff, and students may view it in person until Jan. 10, 2022.

To close out her talk, Kuhl addressed a question about how travel in the past two years — its absence and its reemergence post-lockdowns — might be represented in the archive of the future. “The wonderful thing about contemporary archives is how they are a document of the present moment and also sometimes don’t come into view until the moment is past,” Kuhl noted. “I don’t doubt that we will see different ways that all travelers retain evidence of their experience in ways that will help us understand this time.”

The Mondays at Beinecke series, which began in 2013 as an in-person afternoon tea and moved online in 2020, allows curators, researchers, and scholars an opportunity to offer insight into the library’s collections.

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