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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

A World Enough: Robert Frost, J. J. Lankes, and the Baker Library[*]


When he observed that 'Nothing makes a man more reverent than a library,' Sir Winston Churchill was stating a verity with which, I daresay, most bibliophiles would concur. Were he making that observation here this afternoon, he would most certainly be preaching to the choir. For all of us can claim some connection to a library which, by dint of its holdings, no less than its reputation, bespeaks a prestige enjoyed by few such institutions. However, today I propose to discuss the Baker's connection with two illustrious individuals whose lives and legacies, both individually and combined, give a certain pause to applying the term 'reverence,' at least in the traditional sense that Churchill used it.

I should remind you, however, that I speak not as a Dartmouth alumnus (a fact I confess with sincere regret), but as one of many 'outsiders,' so-called, who have been befriended and assisted by the Baker staff. Thus, I feel I should acknowledge at the outset that while observations made from such a perspective may offer a potential freshness, they may also contain a hint of unintended familiarity. And, recalling Dr. Johnson's arch retort to James Boswell in a similar instance-'I know no right you have to talk to me on that subject'-I fear that I must once again appeal to the spirit of tolerance and graciousness that has been shown me here over the years.

To the initiated, of course, the mere mention of the names Robert Frost and J. J. Lankes calls forth immediate recognition and specific referents. Still, I would suggest that speaking of them within the context of a library such as this is to acknowledge a certain element of irony. We know, of course, that had Robert Frost completed the program of study he embarked upon at Dartmouth in the autumn of 1892, he would have been graduated one hundred years ago this past spring. As it was, he left before the end of his first semester-whether of his own volition (prompted, apparently, by love-sickness, home-sickness, or disillusionment over the curriculum) or, as has been alleged, at the insistence of the administration (as punishment for a boyish prank). Thus, despite his later celebrated associations with the College, and notwithstanding the probability that he is the most illustrious holder of the distinction, Frost was, by strictest definition, a Dartmouth dropout.

One may only hypothesize upon his fate, had he become Robert Frost, A.B., 1896. Signed with such an academic imprimatur, would he subsequently have produced 'West-Running Brook,' 'Birches,' 'The Road Not Taken,' 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,' or 'Mending Wall'? Fortunately, the question is rhetorical, for none of us who labor in academia can overlook the humbling truth that few of the many who stay our course will ever be able to claim such lofty achievements. Indeed, the question is a classic one in American literature: Suppose, for instance, that a certain freshman at Princeton had not heaved a beer bottle through the window of President Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, but instead had gone on to earn a degree. Would he have written Mourning Becomes Electra and Long Day's Journey into Night? Would he have received the Nobel Prize for Literature? Or, had he completed the course at Yale, would another rebellious undergraduate, expelled for blasting a door from its hinges with a charge of gunpowder, still have created the 'Leather-Stocking Tales'?

In a certain sense, such musings may seem absurd. But considering that we are assembled this afternoon in a place that, for all of its intellectual and institutional eminence, honors these and a host of other academic recalcitrants, these questions warrant reflection. At the very least, it seems to me, they illustrate the fact that despite their celebrated reputation for orderliness and decorum, this and other great libraries embrace a vast and liberal breadth of human experience that is anything but orderly and decorous. Contained within their stately walls and regimented stacks is a teeming aggregation of thought and deed that strains at the very bricks and mortar. This reality seems to have inspired (at least in part) Ralph Waldo Emerson's reminder to the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society that it is the 'Meek young men [who] grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.' Emerson in turn exhorted his audience of young American scholars to abandon passive study and to seize upon the kinetic resources of life and learning.

Robert Frost was about as far from this model of the 'meek young man' as one could imagine. On the other hand, he bids fair as an embodiment of Emerson's American scholar. For, to Frost, the library was an entry point to the larger arena of empirical and intellectual experience that would furnish the raw material for his poems-the writing of his own books. Although he nourished his talent by voracious reading, it was his extra-academic accomplishments and his intellectual independence that would earn for him honorary degrees from some of America's and Britain's most distinguished institutions and, for the volumes of poetry he produced, an honored place in their libraries.

'October,' first state, L. 106A.

Turning from Frost to J. J. Lankes, we see the definition of Churchill's reverence-inspiring library stretched further still. Having forgone the opportunity of attending high school in favor of a technical education (some of his earliest drawings were for an elaborate patent application), Lankes darkened the doors of few institutions of learning until, somewhat reluctantly, he began teaching in the Fine Arts Department at Wells College in the autumn of 1932, at the age of forty-eight. By that time, through random study and intense application, he had developed his considerable artistic gifts to a highly finished level. Having worked mainly in the woodcut, his ultimate métier of choice, for a decade and a half, his technical skill and stylistic distinctiveness had earned high praise from publishers and other artists.

'October,' second state, L. 106B.

By the early 1930s he had produced some eight hundred woodcut designs. Several dozen of these had been exhibited in prominent galleries; many illustrated the texts of contemporary authors. With one of the latter, Robert Frost, Lankes had formed a particularly close attachment. The manner in which this came about reveals certain striking similarities in the temperament and artistic vision of each man. It indicates, moreover, the prominent role of fate in their individual careers and in the melding of their talents. Well before their initial contact, in 1923, the work of each had evoked a sympathetic response from the other. Lankes's first encounter with Frost's poetry was his reading of 'After Apple-Picking' in 1918. By this time he had produced fewer than a hundred designs, most of them renderings of realistic images which, though impressive for the skill they displayed, were, relatively speaking, undistinguished thematically. Haunted by the power of 'After Apple-Picking,' with its numerous ambiguities and the range of interpretation suggested by its deceptively simple imagery, he gradually began to introduce similar qualities into his own creations. By 1920, he was attempting a graphic analogue to the poem. The completed design, titled 'October (Moonlight and Apple Tree),' emerges from a steady progression of idea and image. A few months ago I discovered two preliminary studies for this design, which were long thought to be lost. They indicate the steps by which the idea evolved into its ultimate form. The first attempt, obviously unfinished, features only the tree, its gnarled configuration being typical of Lankes's flora. The next introduces the house but, although other primary elements have been added, the result is still incomplete, particularly in terms of proportion and tone. In the third, or finished, design we finally see incorporated the somber, meditative mood of the poem, as well as its essential imagery. The 'long two-pointed ladder' extends through the branches of an ancient apple tree, while the diminutive house of the harvester, its windows barely illuminated, seems overpowered by the natural symbols of tree, sky, and moon.

'October,(Moonlight and Apple Tree)', L. 107.

In this final form, the scene seems to pose some of the same questions as the poem: What is the point of labor? Where does the laborer fit in the great natural scheme? As dwellers in the human realm, are we given definite truths to guide us, or only ambiguities to ponder? The theme, along with its attendant questions, haunted Lankes relentlessly after his initial reading of the poem. He would re-create the subject graphically at least five more times, the last two attempts coming almost forty years after the first.

'Winter," L. 111.

It was, however, not 'October' that first called Frost's attention to Lankes's work but, rather, 'Winter,' an illustration appearing in the Liberator in January 1922. In some respects resembling 'October,' in that it incorporates symbols of labor within an overarching natural setting, this design resonated in Frost's mind and remained fixed in his memory. The following year, when asked to select an illustrator for his 'Star-Splitter,' which was to appear in the September issue of The Century Magazine, Frost chose Lankes. Writing to the artist about the project, Frost noted that the two, working alone, shared 'a coincidence of taste,' which, he emphasized, was far superior to personal acquaintance as a rationale for combining talents. Observing that 'most friendship is feigning,' Frost felt that the new collaboration had come about for the right reasons.

Dust Jacket from Frost's Collected Poems (1939).

A personal association soon developed, however, and over the course of almost two decades the two corresponded frequently, visited on occasion, and saw their work combined numerous times and in various settings. Two additional and notable examples from the 1920s were the Frost volumes New Hampshire (1923) and West-Running Brook (1928), both of which contain Lankes illustrations and decorations. In the 1930s Lankes designs appeared in Frost's Collected Poems (1930, 1939), as well as in two of the early Christmas poems, Neither Out Far Nor in Deep (1935) and To A Young Wretch (1937). Although the 1941 Christmas poem, I Could Give All to Time, was accompanied by Lankes's 'A Witness Tree,' one of his most easily recognized Frostian images, it was effectively the last time that the work of the two would be combined in their lifetimes. There is, however, one intriguing exception to this statement: Henry Holt and Company proceeded to take the 'Witness Tree' design, for which they had duly paid, and display it on the cover of a prospectus announcing Frost's volume of the same title, to be published in 1942. When the book itself appeared, however, its jacket bore an illustration by Alan Haemer, done obviously in a medium and style vastly different from Lankes's. This unusual turn of events had apparently resulted from a sudden and still unexplained break between Lankes and the commercial department of Henry Holt and Company.

'Witness Tree,' L. 1042.

By this time, however, momentous personal changes had occurred in the lives of both men. Frost was now a widower. Following the death of his wife, Elinor, in 1938, his domestic and professional spheres were dramatically and permanently transformed. Lankes's life had also undergone radical alterations. He had lost his position at Wells College; had gone through an acrimonious divorce; and was at loose ends both in terms of occupation and creativity. Despite various attempts on the part of both men to continue their long association in the ways they had formerly done, their roads gradually diverged-though never so far as to disappear from one other. However, the patterns of their lives in the succeeding years reveal much of the nature of their modified connection. Lankes spent the remainder of the 1940s in Tidewater Virginia, where he had lived since 1925. As a practical means of supporting himself, he was forced to take a position as head of the Technical Drawing section of what we now know as NASA, at nearby Langley Field. This was an ironic twist, in that it meant returning to the ranks of drafting that he had abandoned in disgust more than thirty years before. In 1950, he moved to Durham, North Carolina, where he lived a rather frustrated and lonely existence until his death in 1960.

Frost, by contrast, was at the peak of his celebrity. During the years in Durham Lankes kept track of him through the press, through mutual friends, and through occasional personal communications. For example, the two continued to exchange Christmas greetings cast in their respective art forms. Frost tried to include time for Lankes during his annual appearances at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as he had formerly done in Virginia, whether at Norfolk or the College of William & Mary. Frequently expressing empathy for Lankes's reduced circumstances, he offered encouragement and support whenever he could.

For years Lankes had dreamed of producing a book of 'Frostiana,' which would contain examples of Frost's poetry, his own graphic depictions of it, perhaps an account of their friendship, and a personal appreciation of Frost's work. Ironically, it was Frost who had first proposed that the two 'have a little black and white book together of verse and pictures in equal measure.' He had made the suggestion back in 1923, the year of 'The Star-Splitter' and New Hampshire, before he and Lankes had even met. It never materialized during the two decades of their closest association. However, during the 1940s and 1950s, Lankes revisited the prospect time and again, usually with Frost's blessing. Although it ultimately proved to be beyond his powers of conception or execution, Lankes continued to fancy it as a treasured, if elusive, chimera.

Why did the two never turn the dream into reality? Certainly there was the inescapable fact of each of their 'way[s] leading on to way,' as Frost so memorably put it. Moreover, such a project, even in a robust market for poetic subjects, would have had to pass muster with a publisher's marketing department. What is clear is that the reasons for procrastinating did not derive from misgivings on the part of either of the collaborators. The faith of each in the artistic integrity of the other remained unflagging for the duration.

But one is not so impressed by the divergence of their two roads, or even that each extended far in its respective course, as by the fact that, by various twists of fate, they converged again at Dartmouth, in the Baker Library. Unfortunately, many of the markers on these paths are now obscure, but in this as in so many other matters, Frost's commanding presence proved a dominant and attracting force. Surrounding this center were certain individuals who knew both Frost and Lankes, who recognized various affinities in their respective métiers, and who respected their personal connection. Indeed, to speak of these two singular artists within this forum is to call up several friendly shades from Dartmouth's past, especially those of Ray Nash and Herbert Faulkner West, through whose many good offices the work and lives of Frost and Lankes were often linked in the 1940s and 1950s and, indeed, continue to be.

From what I have seen of the available correspondence of the four -Frost, Lankes, Nash, and West-it is revealing in ways that might surprise the novice reader. One is struck initially by the lack of pretense, or posturing. Rather, they communicated in a disarmingly familiar, unaffected way on matters of mutual interest, such as printing and illustration. To Lankes, Nash, and West, Frost remained a lofty, though hardly a forbidding, presence of whom they spoke in respectful but friendly terms. Yet, implied in virtually all the communication and commentary among the four is a shared passion for the highest achievable standard in the ultimate printed product. Whether the medium was the poetic text itself; the graphic design embellishing it; or the subtle and challenging matters of typography, design, paper, and binding, there is a powerful and reassuring sense that each man had the highest respect for the sphere of the others. Each was confident that his peers held to a similar standard and that, given this assurance, communication could be carried on with an ease untrammelled by competition or territorial jealousies.

Nonetheless, West and Nash functioned day-to-day within an institutional structure. As a result, for all their commercing in the larger world of printing and books, they possessed an academic cachet that Frost and Lankes respected but did not choose to pursue. However, the dual credentials of West and Nash placed them in an ideal position to serve as catalysts to the likes of Lankes and Frost. We know, for example, that it was West who urged the artist to make Dartmouth the primary repository of Lankesiana, as he subsequently did. We know, too, that Ray Nash wrote appreciatively and incisively about Lankes, man and artist, a few months after his death.[1] It was a lengthy article, interspersed with more than a dozen of his favorite Lankes images. In many ways the memoir echoed Nash's earlier piece in Print magazine (Spring 1942) on both Frost and Lankes, titled 'Meeting of Mounted Men.' There he had observed that 'this poet and this graphic artist produced the best of things for modern ears and eyes-"Said some of the best things we ever said"-for timeless human wisdom.' He had closed this brief encomium by invoking Frost's poetic reference to the winged horse, Pegasus, which, according to the poet, betokens 'a man's [being] right up on his high horse and ridin' easy, that's what I like. . . .' To Nash, these friends were 'Two men on their two winged horses riding together, riding high, riding easy: Robert Frost and J. J. Lankes.'

And so the winged flight of the two ultimately alighted at Dartmouth, its arrival richly celebrated by the poetic record of the one and the woodcut images of the other. And here they reside, but not as specimens of some earlier life form, suspended in an amber-like stasis, for meek young students to regard with passivity. Rather, taking their place beside the many other dropouts and mavericks, no less than the staid and more orthodox lions of the academy, they form part of a living present, where they continue to fire the imagination, enrich the spirit, and inspire new creative activity, much as they did while alive.

If these characteristics deserve to be included under the definition of Churchillian reverence, as I believe they do, then that reverence is the richer for them. For, in reality, all prominent libraries should, and generally do, defy narrow definition. If they be truly great, their sphere must be large enough to accommodate Emerson's passive student along with his dynamic scholar; the austere drone with the enlivened dreamer; the pedant with the dilettante.

In the Baker Library, Frost and Lankes have found just such a sphere-a world enough to afford them the necessary latitude for continuing their ongoing missions. It has been a rare privilege to have engaged both of them here, where their work is so bountifully represented. Drawing upon this resource over several years, I have been able to fashion if not that 'little black and white book together of verse and pictures in equal measure,' then one that I hope gives some indication of the breadth and depth of the four-decades-long association of two remarkable creative minds who also happened to possess singular personalities. I can only hope that my work will have the effect of strengthening a sense of this bond in the poetic and artistic communities. What is certain, however, is that the experience of producing it, with the untiring assistance of so many talented and selfless members of the Baker staff, the Friends, and the Stinehour Press, has bound me to these entities in countless ways. And to have been invited to speak on this occasion, in this place, and to this gracious gathering, is an honor I shall cherish always.

Editors' note: Coincident with Professor Taylor's Stephen Harvard Lecture was the publication of his Robert Frost and J. J. Lankes: Riders on Pegasus (Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1996). Orders for copies of this heavily illustrated volume ($45.00, postpaid) will be gladly taken by the Office of the Librarian, 115 Baker Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH 03755-3525. Tel: 603-646-2236.

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*This essay is a revised version of Professor Taylor's Stephen Harvard Memorial Lecture, given at Dartmouth College Library on 10 October 1996.

[1] Ray Nash, 'J. J. Lankes,' Printing and Graphic Arts, 8:4 (December 1960), 97-109.

Last Updated: 5/3/12