Following a Mystery with One of Our Volunteers

Cathmar Prange is the daughter of John MacKay Shaw, the donor and curator for the childhood in poetry collection that bears his name in Special Collections & Archives. Every winter, Cathmar volunteers to continue organizing and curating her father’s collection and has been doing so for 18 years. She is still discovering things to this day. Here is one of her recent mysteries:

First Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.
First Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.

The John MacKay Shaw Collection at Florida State University has the manuscript for a book by Stephen Graham. It is two or three inches thick. Recently a colleague asked me the source of this manuscript, but we remain confused about its subject and whence it came. About the author, we knew little. Looking for something else a few days later, I opened the Third Supplement of Dr. Shaw’s bibliography Childhood in Poetry near the middle. Surprise! The page revealed the illustration of a letter penned by poet Vachel Lindsay to Mrs. Stephen Graham. The book that the illustration was copied from, Lindsay’s Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty, is described on the facing page of the Shaw bibliography. FSU’s library catalog revealed its call number and Special Collections staff retrieved the book from the closed stacks. The letter begins on the flyleaf and continues onto the half title page of the book. It is dated February 13, 1920 and reflects Lindsay’s memories of tramping with Graham and sharing their search for the meaning of life beside their campfires. There is no mention of anything related to the manuscript.

Second Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.
Second Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.

I was familiar with Graham’s name. In 1998, one of FSU’s English professors came into Special Collections and handed me some materials related to Stephen Graham. If the manuscript was part of this offering, it had been handed to somebody else and I never saw it until several years later. Most of these materials I received related to Graham’s leadership of a group who met in the out of doors and shared their poetry not only by reading it, but by performing it as well. These pages too shed no light on the mysterious manuscript.

Further searches of Stephen Graham in FSU’s catalog and in the John MacKay Shaw Collection Finding Aid yielded information but still did not answer my questions. I turned to the Internet. On Wikipedia, an article by Michael Hughes carries a lode of information; Graham’s whole life with titles of many books he had written about his travels all over the world. Hughes wrote this article for the love of it because he felt that Graham has not been given the attention he deserves. He mentions the long “tramps” that Graham and Lindsay shared and their mutual interest in the spiritual aspect of life. After ten years enjoying each other’s company, changes separated them, but they continued their friendship by mail until Lindsay’s death in 1930. Hughes says nothing on Wikipedia about Graham’s interest in poetry however.

Last Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.
Last Page from letter to Mrs. Stephen Graham from Vachel Lindsay.

Dr. Hughes remarks that late in his life Stephen Graham visited a friend in Tallahassee. Was this friend the professor who gave me the Graham materials?

Hughes has written a biography of Graham, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham. I have scanned this book on line fairly thoroughly several times and have yet to find any mention of our manuscript or an expose of The Poetry Society. I remain in contact with Dr. Hughes in hopes of some avenue opening up to the manuscript.  The latest from Dr. Hughes is that the Harry Ransom Institute in Texas has a copy of it. Stay tuned!

Perhaps the manuscript was written too late in Graham’s life for him to pursue publication, so he had given it to our professor in hopes that he could arrange it. I have written to Dr. Hughes; perhaps between us we can solve the mystery of the Graham manuscript.

Sudden discovery occurs often in my work in Special Collections – far often enough to keep the interest level up and set me off on new adventures each year. The library life is an exciting one – new mystery leaping out while research lays another mystery back to rest.

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