Blog #151: Planting a Gopnik Reference in a Description of My Visit to the Wazzu Woolf Library

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

Children of Writers

I do not know whether pilgrimages to the shrines of famous men ought not to be condemned as sentimental journeys. It is better to read Carlyle in your own study chair than to visit the sound-proof room and pore over the manuscripts at Chelsea. I should be inclined to set up an examination on Frederick the Great in place of an entrance fee; only, in that case, the house would soon have to be shut up. The curiosity is only legitimate when the house of a great writer or the country in which it is set adds something to our understanding of his books. This justification you have for a pilgrimage to the home and country of Charlotte Brontë and her sisters.

“Haworth, November, 1904,” Virginia Woolf

Some saints lead their pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela; others lead their pilgrims to Canterbury; mine led me to Pullman, Washington, by way of Nelson, BC, and Moscow, Idaho. The round-trip journey, with a return route through Spokane, Twisp, Winthrop (which, with the kind of cosmic irony that almost makes you believe in the existence of god, is a Virginian cowboy shrine), Burlington and Blaine, took five days and added 2,029 kilometers to the odometer.

Pullman, Washington. Never did a saint’s relics find their way to a more remote seeming location, nor a more incongruous one. The town of Pullman is a sleepy insignificant excrescence, a shrivelled umbilicus of a town. On the hill above the town is WSU (or Wazzu, as it is known to its denizens) a crisp, well-kempt, affluent looking university. The center of the university is a steep sided bastion of a football stadium, and everything at WSU subtly gives of the Washington State Cougars and marching bands and young men in khaki. Nothing gives of Virginia.

And yet…and yet…she is fittingly enshrined. While the glass dome of the Terrell Library is not the dome of the British Museum, the space which it shapes is dignified and august. The doors to the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections are directly at the foot of the marble steps which lead down from the balcony corridor of the entrance level; and, inside the Special Collections, the friendly, helpful librarians, led by gracious, bow-tied Trevor Long, are worthy keepers of the shrine. Their worth is, in part, demonstrated by a current archive exhibit, Over Here: World War I and the Palouse. Propaganda posters in this exhibit seem to encapsulate so much of what Virginia fought against.

Thoughts of war and thoughts of Virginia’s long war against war were only part of what I took away from the library. Disillusionment, awe, and childish delight were also part of my harvest. The disillusionment, of course, was inevitable, given my romantic streak and the exaggerated excitement with which I approached the pilgrimage. I knew, of course, that I would not find a Pointz Hall library in Pullman, yet I somehow felt that that to see and touch the books would magically allow me to inhale their flavour as they graced the shelves and tables of Virginia’s homes. Ruled by emotion rather than reasons, I journeyed with some of the biographical imagination that Adam Gopnik describes in “The Poet’s Hand,” his amusing and thought-provoking account of Shakespeare enthusiasts and scholars who build “an enormous scaffolding of conjecture” as they search for relics of the Bard. Like those scholars or, rather, like the Alvearie annotator, I went “dowsing for connections.”

The library I found is the library most sensible scholars would have hoped to find. On first approach, it consisted of a spacious, reasonably bright reading-room with large tables and relatively empty bookshelves. It was a practical, quiet workspace where I could spread myself out with treasures summoned from the deeper recesses of the library. Three glass fronted offices looked in onto the room, and in each of the rooms a member of the library staff worked away in semi-public anonymity. Busy as they were, they were always instantly available when, Aladdin-like, I summoned them to do my bidding.

The first two books I asked for were Leslie Stephen’s The Times on The American War: A Historical Study and Kinglake’s Crimea. In part, I was looking to touch a part of the Pointz Hall library; in part, I was looking for evidence that Virginia had spent hours reading, studying and thinking about those books. The Kinglake books were worthy of Pointz or any other hall. They were solid massy books, with deep red covers textured with raised red stipples, and light darkened spines. They showed signs of careful, respectful use, the pages cleanly slit and no underlinings, dog ears, or smudge marks. In the five volumes, the pages which contained Kinglake’s critical thoughts about the “Times” did not seem more heavily used than any of the other pages. There was no “smoking gun” to support my theories about Kinglake’s influence on Virginia’s ideas about the Crimean War and the influence of the “Times.”

Enough for today. The “Times” on The American War can wait, as can the description of other, more wondrous treasures. For now, laundry and other domestic chores need to be done, and I also have to get ready for a wedding. I hope I can find the old suit which I wear but once every ten years, and I also hope that it will still fit once I disinter it. Once returned from the wedding, I’ll fix my glittering eye back on the library.

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