Please view our final class project, a digital exhibition that brings together selected archival materials by and about H. L. Mencken, Dashiell Hammett, and Gertrude Stein.
MODERNISM IN BALTIMORE: A LITERARY ARCHIVE
“Modernism” is hard to place. As a cluster of literary, artistic, and musical performances, displays, publications, communities—flows of ideas, people, and things across a variety of creative activities—concerned with aesthetic and socio-cultural disruption of the status quo, its space-time borders are notoriously resistant to firm definition. When was modernism? And where? Was literary modernism in particular something that was enacted by a specific cast of important characters, in specific cities, salons, journals, books, poems, conversations, and friendships? Or was it more diffuse than that—can we say that modernism happened in places that did not host exemplary, self-consciously modernist activities?
One might assume that concrete answers to such questions, if they could be found anywhere, would be found in the archives. And indeed, repositories around the world contain materials that allow us to study major modernist players and their less famous counterparts.
However, as students in the spring 2015 iteration of “The Literary Archive” course at Johns Hopkins University discovered, the archive isn’t always the source of definitive facts or the end-zone of literary research. Archival materials, such as first and later editions of books, notes, manuscripts, letters, diaries, magazines, photographs, maps, and audio recordings, can answer some significant questions; but they also open up brand new ones.
In our class, we examined in depth three modernist prose writers with ties to Baltimore: the popular and boisterous journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken; the detective story writer Dashiell Hammett, famous for his “hard-boiled” mysteries; and the avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein.
While Mencken’s connections to Baltimore are well known, as the indefatigable Sun columnist, those of Hammett and Stein are no less important. Baltimore is where Hammett worked as a Pinkerton agency detective before the First World War, and where he learned the observational practices that informed his signature literary techniques. Baltimore is where Stein studied to be a scientist, finishing all but her final semester at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; her training here was crucial to her later literary experiments with the representation of thinking and seeing. Both Hammett and Stein moved away, of course, and became firmly associated with other places—Hammett with San Francisco and Stein with Paris. But what does this conjunction of modernist and proto-modernist pursuits in Baltimore mean about this city’s history as a modernist locale? And what does it mean that Mencken, Hammett, and Stein turned out to occupy such radically divergent sectors of the modernist economy—the middle-brow, the low-brow, and the high-brow, respectively?
Students in “The Literary Archive” grappled with Mencken, Hammett, and Stein as modernist writers—and with the idea of “the literary archive” more generally—through hands-on examination of rare book and manuscript holdings in the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins.
- The Robert A. Wilson Collection of H. L. Mencken, the gift of collector Richard Frary, and the George H. Thompson Collection of H. L. Mencken;
- An artificial collection of Hammett materials relating especially to The Glass Key, set in a unnamed city that is presumed to be Baltimore;
- The Devery Collection of Gertrude Stein and the Robert A. Wilson Collection of Gertrude Stein (on deposit).
This exhibition represents the final results of their research. Each student independently conceptualized and realized a digital exhibition about one of our three writers, selecting and interpreting materials that raise—and illuminate—new questions about his or her writing, publication record, or reception. Along the way, they also learned how to use the WordPress blog and Omeka exhibition platforms.
Please enjoy their incredible work!
Devika Agrawal, “H. L. Mencken Through the Eyes of Others”
Astha Berry, “H. L. Mencken: His Life In His Own Words”
Allison Cox, “Adapting Hammett”
Laura Ewen, “Dashiell Hammett’s Pinkerton Past”
Kylie Sharkey, “Gertrude Stein: The Modernist and the Magazine”
Hon-Wai Wong, “Stein’s Portraits”
Gabrielle Dean, Curator of Literary Rare Books and Manuscripts, The Sheridan Libraries, and Lecturer, Program in Museums & Society
Technical advice, set-up, and training:
Mark Cyzyk, Scholarly Communication Architect, The Sheridan Libraries
Reid Sczerba, Multi-Media Development Specialist, Center for Educational Resources