The Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers is housed in the New York Public Library, on the second floor. A large common space is ringed by offices, each with a door and louvres to allow privacy, each occupied by staff and one of the year’s 15 fellows. Offices are assigned by lot at the first meeting: each new fellow dips a hand into a hard hat filled with 15 slips of paper on which a number has been inscribed: I pulled out 11, thought by some to be the best office, a corner office, with a sliver of a view of 5th Avenue skyscrapers and, on one wall, a relic of the original building, bronzed cast-iron book shelves. The Cullman Fellowship is a writing fellowship, making available a community, access to the extraordinary resources of the NYPL, and, above all, time. It is part of the contract that fellows come in more or less daily, Monday to Friday, and do not travel too much outside New York (special permission required). Weekly lecture-lunches, coffee and tea, and an array of newspapers and periodicals (as well as picture puzzles for a mind-clearing change of pace) are supplied. There is communal pressure to produce, a gently pressuring intensity. People in our year, as in previous years, got a lot done. On average, I heard someone say, books come out 2-3 years after the fellowship year. The fellows are all writers with a plausible need to use the holdings of the NYPL: novelists, poets, translators, journalists, as well as ‘scholars’ – but even among the academics, many teach in writing programs, and most do cross-over work, employing agents/editors who help them to get their work before the public. Among my (uniformly interesting) cohort, I might name a few: Sally Rooney (very up-and-coming novelist writing her third novel); Susan Bernofsky (prize-winning translator re-translating Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain), Bill Goldstein (interviewer, creator of the NYT books website, preparing a biography of Larry Kramer), Eric Sanderson (wildlife preservationist working at the Bronx Zoo, author of Manahatta, a book providing the deep eco-history of the island, before Henry Hudson stepped foot on it in 1609, now extending his purview to the boroughs)… Tours of the library, given by curators, bring out the wealth of its holdings: Map Room, Manuscripts and Archives, Berg Collection – at the last one sees such literary treasures as: Charlotte Brontë’s portable writing desk (containing locks of hair of family members), the first manuscript version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Nabokov’s copy of Kafka’s Metamorphoses with notes, a drawer full of objects owned by Jack Kerouac.
I was at the Cullman Center to write the book, Warburg Circles, 1929-1964: A Movement of Ideas. It has to do with the mid-century mission of scholars affiliated with the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg (Warburg Library for Cultural Science) in Hamburg: the library and staff transferred to London in 1933 to become the Warburg Institute; many Warburgians went even further afield, some, including Erwin Panofsky (and his student, my own mentor, William Heckscher), landing in the United States. My book – which draws on archival work in now some 30 archives – falls into three parts, and I wrote up sections of all while in New York. The third part is devoted to tracing diasporic histories in an interlinked set of ‘short stories’. This is where the holdings of NYPL came in. All the files of the ‘Emergency Committee for Displaced Foreign Scholars,’ which operated from 1933 to 1945, its offices on 45th Street, were deposited in the library after the war. Stacks of documents make it possible to learn the logic of bureaucratic decisions and to trace in exquisite detail the lives of academic refugees in desperate straits, to discover just how they were helped (or not) as they tried to settle in this country, and to see what happened when they got here. The contrast is with the archive of the sister organization in Britain, also founded in 1933, the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (SPSL) – which now operates as the Council for At-Risk Academics (CARA), still today helping scholars ‘to escape to a place of safety where they can continue their work.’ I had earlier made use of the SPSL archive, deposited in the Bodleian Library in Oxford; it was a gift to have time to work with the EC papers in New York. I gathered details for several stories and wrote up one: a brief history of the German art historian Walter Friedländer, who was 60 when Hitler came to power, old enough that American universities, thinking of pensions, were reluctant to support him, a scholar who would somehow survive in the US by teaching, mostly at the IFA, backed by Panofsky and others; it is a story of mid-century American politics and bureaucratic hurdles, a story full of bitterness, humor, frustration, compassion, and friendship, a tale that shows one European making his way in alien American institutions.
I was due to give my lunchtime Cullman talk, ‘Academic Refugees of the 1930s: The Dispersion of the Warburg Circle,’ on March 11. COVID struck. On March 9 the lecture was canceled (though the invitations had gone out, the food had been ordered). On March 11 and 12, I tried hastily to finish up work at the NYPL (and at the Leo Baeck Archive, where I had been working with unpublished Panofsky papers). I was one of the non-New Yorkers among the fellows who early on opted to leave NY. On Friday the 13th I flew to Detroit. Some months later, May 22 – the last day of the Cullman year – I gave my paper on Zoom. Looking back, I am grateful to fate: how fortunate to have had seven months in Old New York, living in a studio apartment on 10th Avenue between 57th and 58th, to have made much (if never enough) of the endless opportunities to view creative performance and created objects, precisely then, at the end of the pre-COVID era.