88 – Doing Little at Yale

For those wondering what exactly I’m doing here at Yale University this fall: I was awarded the H.D. Fellowship in Literature at the Beinecke Library here.
The H.D. stands for Hilda Doolittle, and I’m getting in there with the jokes before my brothers do it for me.
Not Eliza Doolittle, the cockney upstart of My Fair Lady: Hilda.
And I may be doing little, but I’m consoling myself that doing little among the researchers at Yale is still doing a fair amount of work. 

They’re all so clever, I whinged to my mother when I rang home. I feel like the stupidest person in the room the whole time. She consoled me; my husband reacted differently.
Of course they are and it’s good for you: you might raise your game.
That’s the man I married.

So, here I am, doing little and spending a lot of time in the Sterling Memorial Library.

Sterling Memorial and New Haven's Blue Sky
Sterling Memorial and New Haven’s Blue Sky


It’s a beautiful place to work (as is the Beinecke Library, but Sterling is normal temperature while the archival room is freezing) and it’s only a block from where I’m staying. I count the grey squirrels that cross my path on the way to work; I’m averaging four.

I realised that while I was waiting for archival materials to come from off-site, I should read up on Ms Doolittle. HD was a Modernist poet, born in Pennsylvania into a scientist family. She was the sixth child, and the only daughter of her father, a professor of astronomy, to survive. Surrounded by brothers, she fought to prove a woman could think and write, could be creative and make a meaningful contribution to the world outside of science. She spent most of her life in Europe where she mingled with Yeats, Pound, Woolf etc and repeatedly revised her name in publication until she eventually settled on using only initials: H.D.

Not a tabernacle -- the entry to the book stacks
Not a tabernacle — the entry to the book stacks


It’s a useful thing to do as a woman: use initials. It’s practical, fast, business-like without being cold. It betrays no affectation, allows for no double-barrelled silliness or any unconscious gender bias. It establishes ownership and clearly states who you are, without giving anything personal away.

I thought about this again when the archival material arrived and I began to work through the papers of Theresa Helburn, director of the American Theatre Guild. She has a great autograph: a dramatic, strong TH where the second vertical line of the H reaches down to the basement, as if she’s not afraid to go into the dark mess. The top stroke of the T puts a straight, firm roof on the matter: it’s all under control.

Theresa (Terry) Helburn
Theresa (Terry) Helburn

This was a woman who set up the Theatre Guild in 1919 as a collaboration between directors, writers and theatre companies that wanted to smash the star system and see quality work on the American stage. They produced over 225 plays, premiering work by Eugene O’Neill and G. B. Shaw. This was a woman who read hundreds of plays (American and foreign) and filed each reader’s report, alphabetically by title, in a ring-binder. The records show that she was familiar with a number of Irish playwrights that had had work produced in Dublin.

And especially for my Uncle Tommy: It was Terry (the gender-neutral name her friends used) that suggested to Oscar Hammerstein in the back of a taxi he should write something about ‘land: just land.’ He thought it a silly idea, but later that week he found himself composing something:

Gonna give you barley, carrots and per-taters
Pasture for the cattle
Spinach and ter-may-ters
Flowers on the prairie where the June bugs zoom!
Plen’y of ao air and plen’y of room

TH travelled around New York for months with Hammerstein; he played songs to people and she tried to charm them into donating funds to stage their new musical. They eventually raised just enough to put up Oklahoma temporarily, and the rest is history.

TH was far too practical to consider herself a muse, but she was a facilitator of talent. She began as a writer, before finding work in casting and literary management. It was during her days as a casting agent that she and Ria Mooney became acquainted. Helburn told Ria, while working for the Civic Repertory Theatre, that she had “a tall personality and a small body”.

I’m not quite sure what to make of that statement, but it bruised Ria’s already fragile sense of her own physical body. She started to hate her short legs and decided that she had always looked middle-aged and should only play such parts. Soon after that, she started teaching and directing.

Despite the comment, Ria continued to admire and respect Helburn. She remembered particularly that in the dark days after the Civic Repertory closed, when Ria trudged the streets of NYC looking for a part, TH was determined to prove that the right director and right part could turn everything around for her. Ria recalled this many years later, as she sat in the director’s chair at the Abbey and pined for the energy, passion and support that she had found in New York City. She wrote to TH and found a roundabout way of asking TH for work, hoping to flee Dublin. TH politely told her to stay where she was, but praised her ‘long and warm memory’. Was it a tall memory too, I wonder?

We tend to feel that Ireland is a tiny island, far from the East Coast of America where everything is bigger, brighter, louder. I’ve learnt to talk up an octave when I visit here if I want to be heard at all; I focus on straightening my back and filling my lungs, like some kind of elocution lesson. But the more research I do, the more I realise how tightly interlinked New York and Dublin were in the 1920s and 1930s, long before Skype happened and Cadbury’s chocolate made it into the grocery stores here.

It’s easy to talk about the Irish society that imposed regulations on Irish women during the 1930s [the academic commentators call it the ‘patriarchal meta-narrative’ but it was less narrative than Nazi] but it rapidly becomes apparent that Irish women were always being influenced by women outside of that society: women like TH. I feel like I’m only slowly starting to infiltrate their circle, asking gently for entry to the guild by leafing through pages and pages of reports and letters. If I inch my way in properly any time soon, I’ll send a note home signed off CC.



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