The Papers Chase

In 1979, I learned that the archives of author Henri-Pierre Roché (1879 – 1959) were in the collection of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (HRC) at the University of Texas at Austin. Because I was working on gathering material for my dissertation—which, at the time, was declared as “Walter Conrad Arensberg and New York Dada”—this material was very important to me, as Roché was an intimate member of the Arensberg Circle during the years of World War I. I wrote immediately to the acting director of the HRC, Carlton Lake, who was best known in the field of art history as co-author with Françoise Gilot of Life with Picasso (1964). I asked Mr. Lake if he could provide me with the photocopy of a specific page from Roché’s diaries cited in another publication, and he wrote back to tell me that he could not copy anything from the papers for “legal reasons,” but that I would be able to inspect Roché’s correspondence with Duchamp if I ever traveled to Austin. He also informed me that he did not yet own the journals, but was negotiating with the owner to acquire them, and would let me know as soon as he did. 

Over two years passed before I heard from Mr. Lake again; he wrote in 1982 to tell me that he had acquired the journals, but also to inform me that “they have not yet been processed.” He told me that if I should go to Austin, he would allow me to consult the journals, and that he would attempt to find a way to “not contravene the guidelines set up to protect the journal and its future.” This was a red flag to which I should have paid more attention. Nevertheless, I immediately made plans to visit the HRC, largely at my own expense and on a student budget, to consult the journals. I arranged a meeting with Mr. Lake as soon as I arrived. Upon entering his office, I was greeted by a somewhat portly man of diminutive stature who appeared to be in his seventies, sporting a pure white mustache and goatee and wearing a white suit and vest. I immediately thought of Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, an observation that was reinforced when Mr. Lake spoke, for he possessed a marked Southern accent. The first thing he told me was, “Because of the way I speak, you are going to assume I am stupid, and because of the way I dress, you are going to assume I am rich.” In an effort at cordiality, I told him that I thought nothing of the kind, and within the next four days, he would prove to be anything but stupid. Because I learned he had acquired the rare French manuscripts for the HRC from his own personal finances, however, I assumed he probably was a man of means (although that was something I was never able to verify).

In an effort to get on good terms with Mr. Lake, I brought along with me three original, handwritten, and illustrated letters from ceramicist Beatrice Wood to Henri-Pierre Roché, which were given to me as a gift from Wood a few years earlier. I decided that since the HRC had the rest of their exchange, it would only be appropriate if these letters joined the other materials already in their possession, so I let him know that it was my intention to donate them. He seemed delighted, assuring me that I would receive a deed of gift before leaving the library that day (which I did). I then inquired about the journals, which he told me would be made available to me, but would have to be consulted in the main reading room of the library. He directed me there and, as soon as I entered, a woman at the front desk named Linda Ashton informed me that it was library policy to supply all readers with regulation notebooks and pencils. Ms. Ashton gave me binders containing transcriptions of Roché’s diaries, not the original diaries themselves, because she said they were still in the process of working on them. I sat down and took detailed notes, being very careful to transcribe the French accurately. At the end of the day, they asked me to surrender the notebooks so that they could be reviewed. This seemed a bit unusual, but understandable, for I presumed they wanted to make sure my transcriptions were accurate. This same procedure continued for three days, until I filled no fewer than four or five bluebooks cover to cover with notes taken from Roché’s diaries. On the last day, just before leaving, I asked if it would be possible to view the journal of 1917 – 18, which had not been transcribed. One of the librarians told me that they would request permission and, if I returned to the library as soon as it opened the next day, I might be able to see it. I extended my stay, and when I arrived then next day I was delighted to be handed the original 1917 journal, which was very fragile, and written in a hand that was difficult to decipher. Nevertheless, I immediately sat down and began taking notes. After about an hour, however, the diary was ripped out of my hands by a university policeman, who said he had been instructed to have me surrender this document immediately, and that my time at the library was over.

As you can imagine, I was flabbergasted. Why had they given me access to this document, only to take it away? As I prepared to leave the library, I was in for yet another surprise. When I asked for my blue notebooks, the librarian informed me that the staff had not yet had the time to review them sufficiently. At that point, I lost my patience and demanded the return of my property, whereupon they reminded me of the fact that the notebooks and the notes they contained were never my property: they were provided by the HRC (including the pencils that I had used to take them) and were never surrendered to me; since they had never left their possession, they were never legally mine. As can be easily imagined, I was furious—I had never felt so thoroughly taken advantage of in my life. When I returned to New York, I wrote a long letter to Mr. Lake expressing my disappointment, imploring them to please send me the many bluebooks I had filled with notes. He responded by telling me that my transcriptions were simply too thorough and complete, in effect duplicating the content of material they hold in unique form. They would send me the dates of the entries I consulted, along with abbreviated versions of my notes in English (it was from these sources that citations in my dissertation and book on New York Dada were derived). To this day—thirty-three years later—I have never again seen the blue books filled with notes.

Since this disastrous experience, much has changed at the HRC. Thomas F. Staley was made director in 1989, but great difficulties remained when I requested access to Roché materials. Although it was never explicitly stated, I suspected that Carlton Lake was still behind their reluctance to share this material, and I eventually learned that Lake did not want anything published until after he and Ashton organized an exhibition and catalogue devoted to the Roché holdings, which took place at the HRC in 1991 (Henri-Pierre Roché: An Introduction). At the very moment when this exchange was taking place, Lake wrote and published his autobiography, Confessions of a Literary Archaeologist (1990). Needless to say, he did not confess to the egregious maltreatment to which I was subjected, something I’m sure he would have preferred to forget. In 2003, Lake retired and, in 2006 he passed away. Since then, the materials in the French collection have become increasingly accessible, and a request I made recently for digital images of select entries from the original Roché journals was granted.

It is my contention that no public repository should have the right to deny access to materials in their possession, unless it can be demonstrated that the very act of consulting them will cause inadvertent physical damage. As a result of my experiences with the HRC, when Beatrice Wood was contemplating the repository to best care for her papers, I convinced her to donate her diaries, countless letters, photographic albums, etc. (over twenty-six linear feet) to the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art (AAA), where the material was microfilmed and made available to scholars at regional centers throughout the United States. By the same token, when I acquired papers from the collection of Walter Pach in 2011—including two critically important ledger books listing works sold at the Armory Show (Pach helped to organize this important exhibition)—I donated them to the AAA, where, I am pleased to report, they were immediately utilized by scholars working on the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show exhibition in 2013. Eventually, most of the archives held by the AAA will be digitized and made available online—the ultimate act of accessibility—openly sharing the materials in their possession to anyone who wishes to consult them.


Francis M. Naumann

FRANCIS M. NAUMANN is a gallery owner and Duchamp scholar. His most recent book, The Recurrent, Haunting Ghost: Essays on the Art, Life and Legacy of Marcel Duchamp (New York: Readymade Press), was published in September 2012.