Thursday, June 9, 2022

A Skeleton Key to Reading

The first general catalogue of the New Rochelle Public Library was published in 1897; in it there were but four books listed on the subject of native Americans. Within a few years that collection grew to include many of the reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology whose mission was to organize anthropological research of indigenous cultures. One young reader of these massive reports was a neighborhood boy named Joseph Campbell, who lived just nearby the library, then situated at the corner of Pintard Avenue and Main Street. Young Campbell’s intellectual fascination for the native peoples of North America launched his career as a writer, professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, and author of path-breaking studies in comparative mythology and religion. His most famous and enduring work is The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) first issued by the Bollingen Foundation, which published the collected works of psychiatrist Carl Jung in English translation. 

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was also co-author of A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (1944), the earliest thematic interpretation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which came out in book form in 1939. Finnegans Wake (aka “the Wake” for avid fans of Joyce) is likely one of the most difficult and perplexing reading experiences one might ever encounter. That’s putting it mildly, for Campbell introduced Joyce’s masterwork as a “monstrous enigma,” a strange book that is a “compound of fable, symphony, and nightmare.” Unraveling the multiple meanings twisted into each word of the Wake demands unusual dedication to the art of reading. As a scholar of world mythology Campbell arrived early at a fortuitous position for illuminating the riddles, teasing out the obscurities, and formulating tactics to explicate the inexplicable in Joyce’s fantastic apotheosis of word craft. Campbell and Robinson’s Skeleton Key has provided much-needed leverage to jiggle out a bit of foggy clarity from what has been deemed “the terminal book.”

However, reading the Wake is also a lot of fun – much more fun than Wordle or the Saturday crossword puzzle, as exciting as translating Shakespeare from Esperanto to Volapuk, and certainly more enriching than, say, golf.  Though one may need to consult encyclopedias and vast libraries for help, the single prerequisite to the study of the Wake is not the Skeleton Key, but rather Joyce’s earlier novel Ulysses (1922), one hundred years old this year. Ulysses is the quintessential modernist novel, widely appreciated for the endearing humanity of its protagonist, Leopold Bloom. The time frame of the novel is a single day: June 16, 1904, and hence we have Bloomsday, a secular holiday devoted to the art of reading. Both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are challenging, to be sure; and Joseph Campbell leapfrogged over the former to excavate the multiple layers of meaning in the latter, a step that began to focus his investigation of world mythologies. 

In fact, Campbell borrowed a word – monomyth – that Joyce invented in the Wake, this to describe the hero’s journey as a model of story-telling and myth-making. Just as the physicist Murray Gell-Mann plucked the word quarks from the Wake to label a subatomic particle that is the constituent ingredient of protons and neutrons (putting Joycean spin on the matter), so too Campbell deployed monomyth to explain a narrative motif universal in myths and stories across many cultures. Not surprisingly, Campbell found Finnegans Wake to be a treasury of myth whose intricacies, with some study, serve to develop and improve our abilities in reading and writing. Focusing here on the Wake is not to abandon our celebration of Ulysses, but to suggest that Joseph Campbell, in his wide-ranging studies of psychology and comparative mythology, has helped develop our abilities to enrich the understanding of life and the problems of the world from the experience of reading books. It is tempting to believe that Campbell would have appreciated these literary slogans:

Reading is experience for the imagination.

Literature is equipment for living (Kenneth Burke).

What we read governs how we think. 

A poem is a machine made of words (William Carlos         Williams). 

Great writers demand great libraries

There are no good readers, only good re-readers


Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to

read them at all (Thoreau). 

Joseph Campbell well knew what the best books are, and he gave us a skeleton key to unlock one of the greatest. If you have yet to read Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, June 16th is the perfect time to begin.  These masterworks continue to fascinate because they lead us deep into worlds of story throughout the entire universe of books. 

Happy Bloomsday!

June 16, 2022 / David Rose / NRPL Archive 

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Mystery of the London Bankruptcy

This is a guest post by Oliver Hughes, archival volunteer, reporting on the completion of an exciting project in the New Rochelle Public Library Archive under the supervision of David Rose, Archivist. It deals with the oldest item in the Archive which has been an almost total mystery ever since it arrived here some decades ago – a vellum manuscript produced in London in 1726. The material of the manuscript, an animal skin of some kind, is so fragile that close examination could be ventured only with great care and at much risk of damage, and even when unfolded the handwriting presents such difficulties that reading the text was a laborious and uncertain task. No transcript existed to our knowledge, and therefore little was known for sure about the contents of this document, only in broad terms that it had to do with bankruptcy proceedings in London.

I am very glad to report that after three months wrestling with this curious and challenging manuscript, I have succeeded in producing a typed transcription, available for viewing here. I worked from photographs, which I took in two brief sessions so as to minimize the handling of the manuscript. This posed some difficulty, as I had to take the photographs from quite a close distance in order to make the writing legible, resulting in more than a dozen disjointed segments which I had to transcribe separately and then stitch together. I also ran into unfortunately intractable obstacles in the form of the deep creases and folds of the manuscript, which swallowed up a number of words beyond recovery. Likewise, there were some few instances of damage that had effaced the words in places, but these were rare, and the majority of the document was clearly visible – leaving only the problem of the handwriting!

This was indeed the greatest challenge I faced, making sense of the hand and the peculiarities of orthography employed by the manuscript’s creator. But soon I began to find it captivating and engrossing work, very much like a puzzle. At first I had to cut my way through the thicket letter by letter; close, careful study yielding up some of the easier words to me. Then with enough of these established, context clarified others. Eventually I had a command of the whole alphabet and could decode nearly any word. It became a wonderful thrill to have the text open up to me. What had once been an impenetrable scrawl snapped into view, and I can now read the original at sight almost as easily as I read the type. But I am very glad that no one else now will have to go through such a process in order to read this document! Much remains unclear about it, not least its provenance and the story of how it came to New Rochelle in the first place, having seemingly nothing at all to do with any place outside southeastern England. But should it attract the interest of any researcher, a transcription is now available, and I hope it may play at least a small part in shaking this particular piece of the past free of obscurity.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Land of Enchantment: Exploring the Norman Rockwell Museum

Did you know the Library owns an original Norman Rockwell painting? This treasured piece of art is now on view in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge MA? Barbara Davis, New Rochelle City Historian and former NRPL Community Relations Coordinator, recently visited the museum and shares this illustrated brief with us:

If you have an opportunity to travel to the Berkshires, be sure to visit the museum to see NRPL’s magnificent painting, Land of Enchantment, prominently on display in the exhibit, Real and Imagined: Fantastical Rockwell. (It will return to its permanent home, above the desk in the Children’s Room at the main library, once the exhibit concludes on October 30, 2021.) 

The works of four other (former) New Rochelle artists – all members of the New Rochelle Art Association – are also on view! They are part of the corresponding exhibit, Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration.

"The Other Side" by Dean Cornwell with exhibit label at the start of the "Enchanted" exhibit.

"Vampire Girl" by Coles Phillips with exhibit label

"Pan" by J.C. Leyendecker with exhibit label

"The Submarine Menace Again!" by Orson Lowell with exhibit label

Never been to the Norman Rockwell Museum? You can meet many of his New Rochelle models there, as they are featured on the covers of Saturday Evening Post Magazines exhibited on the museum’s lower level. This space also features a video on the life of Norman Rockwell which, regrettably, omits the fact that he came into prominence while working and living in New Rochelle. He was an active member of our community for over 25 years, from 1913 – 1939.
And – he was a great supporter of New Rochelle’s extraordinary history, as evidenced in this letter found in NRPL’s archives.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Environmental Activism in New Rochelle: Citizens for a Better Environment

The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 ushered in an era of popular concern for our living environment unlike any other event. It arrived in an era of grievance and protest over war, racism, and social justice; and while it seems celebratory, Earth Day now provides a regular opportunity to educate about climate change, the extinction of species, and our fragile environment. There were other watershed moments – the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and the nuclear catastrophes of Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986) come to mind, but Earth Day is special for its hybrid mix of purpose, gravitas, and celebration.

Several New Rochelle residents observed Earth Day in 1970, all eco-friendly citizens who had organized the Ecology Club of New Rochelle in 1969. This group built a foundation of concern about environment pollution and alarm over the possibility of construction of a nuclear power plant on Davids Island. The Ecology Club was an offshoot of an earlier group, the Citizens League for Education About Nuclear Energy (CLEAN). As their concerns grew, the club reorganized as the New Rochelle Citizens for a Better Environment (CBE) to focus on a broader spectrum of issues beyond the single matter of nuclear power and its dangerous waste streams.

Excerpt from CBE News / December 1972

CBE opposed the nuclear plant and helped to prevent it by requesting a public hearing in 1971 prior to a city council vote on a contract extension pertinent to Davids Island. CBE’s pressure led to broader interventions. On April 12, 1971 (ten days before the second Earth Day), council passed a resolution to establish an Environmental Conservation Advisory Commission for New Rochelle. The commission was created to advise the mayor and the city council on environmental problems, conduct surveys and studies, educate the public, and connect with other environmental groups. 

County Sewage Treatment Plant / Echo Bay, New Rochelle / c. 1975
Photo courtesy Kit Bregman
Through the decade of the 1970s, the New Rochelle Citizens for a Better Environment served the community as a voice to raise awareness and a platform to offer realistic solutions to ecological problems. CBE was surprised to be dismissed by some as “well-meaning obstructionists,” but to its credit it focused on air pollution, water pollution, wildlife preservation, recycling, and consumer education. CBE advocated for a municipal recycling program, a wetlands ordinance to protect Titus Mill Pond, and the prevention of unplanned zoning in the city. It also established the first municipal curbside pickup of newspaper waste in Westchester County.

The NRPL Archive contains newsletters and records of the CBE along with the Long Island Sound Study Records. This study was a cooperative project of the 1990s to mitigate disastrous water quality problems in the Sound that also benefitted from a citizen’s advisory committee. As we focus on Earth Day 2021, with our urgent concerns over a global pandemic and rampant climate change, we should also remember the earlier efforts by citizen’s groups such as CBE to focus attention on the fragility of our planet.

April 22, 2021 / David Rose / NRPL Archive

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

A Good Laugh Is the Best Pesticide

Newspaper pranks on April Fools’ Day are as numerous as strands of pasta on a spaghetti tree, almost as old as journalism itself. A bit of research on this subject will have you chuckling over news stories on draining clouds for powdered water, how to leash your pet lobster for a stroll in the park, and the day the Pittsburgh Pirates moved to Titusville. The Harvard Lampoon has long been a bastion of “undergraduate humor,” and after World War II Mad Magazine set a new standard for lowbrow humor that entertained teens across the nation for years. As models of parody, both have been influential.

Excerpt from Stranded Scar, 1947
Student journalists at New Rochelle High School have participated in the tradition of All Fools’ Day hijinks, and there are two wonderful (or silly) examples of this in the Library Archive. Residents of New Rochelle remember its long-lived newspaper
The Standard-Star published from 1923 to 1998. High school students themselves still produce the Huguenot Herald, a school publication now online whose name recalls the founding of the city by the French Huguenots. Each of these newspapers has been parodied in All Fools’ Day spoofs as “Stranded Scar” and “Hug Me Not, Harold.”

Stranded Scar appeared on April 1, 1947. Its banner headline announced “NRHS Will Become Boy’s School in September.” Along with loopy stories about rheumatism in Ford automobiles and the Insect Suffrage Society, complaints about the quality of food served in the high school cafeteria were abundant, as in the story on the oyster-eating frenzy of the Rhinoceros and Circular Clubs. It’s possible that Stranded Scar was repeated in subsequent years.

Hug Me Not, Harold was published in 1952. Again, the lead article revealed a jaded expression about the fate of the high school: “NRHS to Flee Fires by Move into Lakes.” Sixteen years later, this idea tragically came to pass when the high school was destroyed by the work of an arsonist. A concert notice for Happy Harry Haigh and his Heavenly Hepcats offered a manic preview of musical repertoire: “The Teachers Are Earning More Money,” “Overture to the Underworld,” and the finale of “Tsaishdotlekbuslkrjsky’s 10th Symphony (his 6th and 4th combined).” One immediately thinks of PDQ Bach’s “Fanfare for the Common Cold” and the musical shenanigans of Spike Jones. 

Excerpt from Hug Me Not, Harold, 1952

There are at least two historical lessons in this April Fools’ Day tomfoolery. The first is that we are attracted to eccentricity through humor, and this leads to an appreciation of intellectual diversity, or so we would hope. The second is that student journalists are not spouting empty foolishness as much as they are exercising their imaginations, and imagination is always the secret ingredient for accomplishment and success. Most everyone likes to pull a prank on April Fools’ Day, but no one likes to get pranked. So be careful (but irreverent) on April First this year and every year. And keep in mind the sage remark for dispelling the blues from the novelist Vladimir Nabokov – a good laugh is the best pesticide

April 1, 2021 / David Rose / NRPL Archive

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Do You Rhumba?

Castle Society Dance Folio

Do you rhumba? Groucho Marx famously asked this question in the zany movie A Night at the Opera. Groucho took special pleasure in spoofing ballroom dancing. But along with the rhumba there was the foxtrot, the bunny hug, the hesitation, the maxixe, the Boston, the one-step, the tango, the turkey trot, and most especially the Castle walk, named for New Rochelle’s lively dance couple Vernon and Irene Castle (1893-1969). 

Irene was born Irene Foote on April 17, 1893 in New Rochelle. Her father was a local physician. Her romance with Vernon – born William Vernon Blythe – began at the New Rochelle Rowing Club in 1910. Within a year they were married and launched in a career that put them in the forefront of the ballroom dance craze in America and Europe.

Irene was a fashion trend-setter in many aspects of pop culture beyond dance – her bobbed hair style was a hit and copied widely; she appeared in silent films; and many women envied or emulated her elegant lifestyle. She traveled to Paris with Vernon and achieved instant popularity in ragtime dance. In 1914, the couple opened a dancing school, and the two illustrations here (from the Library’s Archive) of the Castle Society Dance Folios are evidence of their popularity – everyone wanted to dance like the Castles and step out to their music. 

Castle Society Dance Folio No. 2 

The jazz historian Phil Schaap has pointed out that the ballroom dance craze of the 1910s and 1920s was a major factor in the breakthrough of jazz to the very pinnacle of pop music. Before jazz and swing, ballroom dancing ruled pop music in America. Dancers were the music stars, and the ballroom styles of dance fostered an orchestral concept. Jazz merged with the social ballroom phenomenon to create the jazz orchestra in the 1920s, usually with the extra vitality of a hot tempo. Not only that, paired couples like Irene and Vernon Castle countered sexism in instrumental music at the time by bringing the talent, grace, and audacity of female performers to the forefront. 

The Castles made ballroom dancing respectable and fostered much enjoyable entertainment during the years of the Great War. Tragically, Vernon lost his life in an aviation accident in 1918, but Irene went on to star in many silent films. For more on the Castles, see the 1939 film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (another famous dance couple), and the biography by Eve Golden, Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution (2007).

March 1, 2021 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive

Monday, February 1, 2021

Two African American Philanthropists of New Rochelle

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) stands as one of the most successful philanthropies in American history. Its incisive slogan – a mind is a terrible thing to waste – is etched into our collective memory because it challenges us to fulfill every promise of human improvement. We must never believe this principle can be reduced only to a branding exercise or advertising tagline, for it resonates with the necessity of seeking social justice through the immediate needs for higher education. The mind is a wonderful thing to nurture, cherish, and protect.

Frederick Douglas Patterson
Frederick Douglas Patterson
The UNCF ( today follows a threefold mission of student scholarships, financial support for historically Black colleges and universities, and advocacy for minority education. Two of its most prominent leaders, Frederick Patterson and Christopher Edley, were long-time residents of New Rochelle. Frederick Douglas Patterson (1901-1988) was President of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) from 1935 to 1953. His many educational attainments culminated in a Ph.D. in Veterinary Pathology from Cornell University. Named for the famed abolitionist leader Frederick Douglas, Dr. Patterson recognized the need for collaborative fund-raising among colleges serving Black students and founded the UNCF in 1944. Under his leadership, the UNCF became the largest independent source of financial support for the nation’s private, historically Black colleges and universities. Dr. Patterson went on to create the College Endowment Funding Plan in 1976, and after a long life of activism and leadership in education and philanthropy he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1987.

Christopher Fairfield Edley, Sr.

Christopher Fairfield Edley, Sr. (1928-2003) became President and CEO of the UNCF in 1973 just after the Advertising Council, a public service organization, coined its famous slogan. He had graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in 1949 and received his law degree from Harvard University in 1953. He then joined the Human Rights Commission of Philadelphia and became a law partner of the firm of Moore, Lightfoot & Edley. Over the course of a 17-year career with the UNCF, Mr. Edley developed it into one of the most widely recognized charitable organizations in the nation, increasing the visibility of the needs of Black colleges. Leveraging the UNCF mission into further prominence through strategic marketing, Mr. Edley broadened its campaign to television in an annual telethon with the singer Lou Rawls as host. His work set new standards in public service advertising. Further, he orchestrated the largest individual donation in the history of Black philanthropya $50 million challenge grant in 1990 from publishing magnate Walter H. Annenberg.  

The achievements of African American professionals in the struggle for racial justice in the U.S. have lasting importance to this day. The innovative leadership of Frederick Patterson and Christopher Edley of New Rochelle stand high among many signal achievements, and we salute their lives of service and activism during Black History Month as we study and learn African American history throughout the year.

February 1, 2021 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive