|Tom Wolfe at the White House, from Wikipedia|
. . Let’s talk about some gifts that are not being given these days. . . to New York City’s libraries.
Previously, Noticing New York has written about how it is a problem these days if you want to give to New York City libraries because what you give to libraries paid for with taxpayer and charitable contributions might well be wasted when libraries are sold. Donations might even be used to sell, shrink and dismantle New York’s library system assets. See: Wednesday, October 30, 2013, Conundrum For Those Wanting To Donate To Libraries: People Who Would Use Our Donations To Shrink and Sell Off Libraries.
Perhaps the New York Public Library felt a little distraction was in order. At the November 20, 2013. NYPL trustees’s meeting Tony Marx finished up his president’s report to the trustees hinting at a headline grabber that would be unveiled at the end of the meeting concerning an “amazing note and celebration of another gift to the library.” This turned out to be the NYPL’s acquisition of the `Tom Wolfe papers.’ When the time came for Mr. Marx to talk about this acquisition, he reported it under the rubric of enhanced “public accessibility” and described it as an “ongoing gift,” . . . “the gift that keeps on giving” because Mr. Wolf would, in moving his collection of papers to the library, also send everything that is subsequently “added to his collection.”
Why might Mr. Marx have been especially eager to showcase a gift to the NYPL from a celebrated author with great fanfare? Because, months before in June, what had made the pages of New York Times respecting the NYPL was that Edmund Morris, another celebrated author had announced he "no longer intended to leave his research archive to the library as had been planned" because the library was no a longer fit repository for preserving works or making them available to the public. Mr. Morris announced this as he was giving testimony before a state assembly hearing expressing his concern that the NYPL was proposing to gut the stacks of the 42nd Street Central Reference Library, part of the consolidating shrinkage of the “Central Library Plan” whereby two other major libraries, Mid-Manhattan and the Science, Industry Business Library (SIBL) are supposed to be sold off in real estate deals. The New York Times quoted Mr. Morris as follows:
An exquisite repository is now going to be turned into a populist hangout, and have its former stack space stuffed with more and more and more and more miles of computer cable . . . That’s O.K. for scholars whose attention span extends back no farther than the early 1980s. But those of us cognizant of what happened to civilization after the great library in Alexandria burned down can only think with trepidation of what the Central Plan is going to do to the historical memory of New York.(See: Critics Prompt New Review of Library Plan, by Robin Pogrebin, June 27, 2013.)
Mr. Morris’ full testimony can be watched here:
Pulitzer Author Edmund Morris Testifies Against Central Library Plan, Published on Jul 11, 2013 (on Citizens Defending Libraries YouTube Channel- I am a co-founder of Citizens Defending Libraries and a promoter of its petition opposing the sale of New York City libraries.)
So, given a few months, the NYPL had, via Mr. Wolfe, come up with an attention-getting counter to Mr. Morris’ criticism and bad news. The only problem was that the papers coming from Mr. Wolfe are not going to be a gift. The library will be paying for them, a reasonably appreciable amount at that:
$2.15 Million. See: Right Stuff? The Library Thinks So, and Buys It- Library Acquires Tom Wolfe’s Papers for $2.15 Million, by Jennifer Schuessler, November 20, 2013.
To be fair, Mr. Wolfe’s papers are truly likely to be of interest to those who look a back a little way in time so Mr. Morris’ jab at “scholars whose attention span extends back no farther than the early 1980s” was not perfectly prescient if Mr. Morris had thought to be envisioning something like the Wolfe collection when he spoke. Mr. Wolfe’s first novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities," may have been released only as recently as 1987 but Mr. Wolfe was receiving significant public recognition going back to the cusp when the late 1960s turned into the early 1970s. Even so, Wolfe might still be viewed as sufficiently topical in nature and not yet so thoroughly tested by time as to make one wonder about Mr. Marx's self-congratulatory praise for the transaction quoted in the Times stressing history: “It will add significantly to the library’s holdings not just in American literature but in the history of New York City as well.”
Mr. Morris is best known for his biographies of two United States Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, who as president from 1901 to 1909 has made it into certifiable history, and Ronald Reagan, who was president during the "Bonfire of the Vanities" era, 1981–1989.
Maybe time will prove the historical value of the Tom Wolfe collection, but couldn’t the collection have been given to the library rather than sold to the library for $2.15 million? Oughtn’t it have been given rather than sold and for such a pretty penny at that? That’s the argument at least one critic offered in an article at the website “The Awl”:
So first, to be polite: thank you for making this happen. And now. So many questions: Why not take the tax donation? Why send out our troubled libraries to secure seven figures for what should be a gracious gift? Also: Just, why?(See: Rich People- Old Pig Demands $2.15 Million From Our Library For His Dusty Papers, by Choire Sicha, November 21st, 2013.)
The New York Public Library's wonderful Stephen A. Schwarzman building is mid-step in possibly great and possibly terrible changes, including moving materials to off-site storage. They have just announced that they are delaying release of their latest design plan. The actual future use of the main library as a research facility is literally at question right now. Tacky timing, Tommy.
In making its argument, the Awl article described Mr. Wolfe as “83 and also quite wealthy.” Authors are frequently far from well-to-do. Therefore, before I castigated an author for taking money that was available and on the table I thought I’d check and see what I could find out about Mr. Wolfe’s resources. I don’t know Mr. Wolfe’s current net worth or what kind of money Mr. Wolfe might have at any time squandered. I did find. however, that in January 2008 Mr. Wolf was signing a book proposal contract for $7 million. (See: Inside Tom Wolfe's $7 Million Book Proposal, 1/8/2008.) Not only did `Bonfire’ sell well; its rights were bought and it was made into a big budget 1990 film (although that film bombed at the box office).
Offering her commentary for the New York Times about the acquisition of the Tom Wolfe papers, Ginia Bellafante observed: “charity here is more closely tied to self-promotion than to the anonymous doing of good works.” Ms. Bellafante might have been talking about Mr. Wolfe's self-promotion with these words; his transaction to put his papers in the library was certainly raising his profile in the news. But Ms. Bellafante was actually talking about how acquisition of the Tom Wolfe papers will be made possible with a “generous donation from NYPL Trustee Katharine Rayner” according to the NYPL’s press release. You see, although Mr. Wolfe was not giving his papers, there was an actual gift of funds being funneled by the NYPL into this purchase. Ms. Bellfonte was talking about Ms. Rayner's self-promotion (using Tom Wolfe), not Mr. Wolfe's.
Ms. Bellfonte pointed out that:
while the figure is hardly exorbitant in the realm of cultural philanthropy, which vastly outpaces social-service philanthropy, it represents more than twice the amount of the biggest gift ever made by an individual to the Food Bank for New York City. The all too obvious irony is that it is just this sort of fracture in the city’s psychology that might find trenchant expression in a piece of writing by Tom Wolfe.Mr. Marx, promoting the Tom Wolfe papers acquisition story in an interview with the Times when NYPL’s press release came out, similarly observed the Wolfe penchant for writing about the wealthy and class divides while staying away from impolitic specific mention of such hot-button terms:
Tom Wolfe has been a citizen and analyst and critic of New York society in the midst of some of its greatest controversies,” . . . His work touches on so much of the sociology of the city. .Yep, one of Mr. Wolfe’s Vanity Fair stories in 2009 was titled “The Rich Have Feelings Too,” synopsised in the Wall Street Journal (August 27, 2009, The Horror of Flying Commercial After Private Jets): The rich don’t like the experience of being cut down to size when they have to fly commercial airlines like everybody else.
Aside from countering the bad press of the Edmund Morris announcement, why was the NYPL, governed by its wealthy trustees, so very eager to acquire the Tom Wolfe collection that they leaped to spend $2.15 million on it at this time? Does acquisition of the caricaturing work tame it? Make it seem somehow friendlier, more manageable? Put it in is place? Relegate Mr. Wolfe to a court jester role? Does it signify that Mr. Wolfe has been invited safely into the club?
According to the Times, the Wolfe collection, already 190 boxes of material, will take up “about 100 linear feet” of the ever more limited shelf space the NYPL is fast reducing with its plans to sell off libraries and destroy the Central Reference Library stacks. See: Wednesday, November 27, 2013, Are NYPL Trustees Flying Blind on The Basics? Numbers To Inform Them About The Drastic Dwindling of Books In Manhattan’s Principal Libraries Are Missing From Their Minutes, and Thursday, November 21, 2013, Drastically Reducing Manhattan’s Main Library Space (At City Expense), The NYPL Was Only Just Recently Increasing Its Space (At City Expense).
The NYPL’s conception is that as it makes shelf space for books in Manhattan ever more limited and precious it doesn’t need to maintain shelf space for its books and collections in Manhattan; that instead, it is sufficient to send its books and collections off to Princeton in southern New Jersey.
Will Mr. Wolfe’s collection be shipped off to New Jersey too?
Mr. Wolfe seems to think he has cut a different deal with the library. According to the Times, Mr. Wolfe values his collection enough to have that collection occupy top-price Manhattan real estate. It is: “Currently in storage in Mr. Wolfe’s apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.”
As for the future, Mr. Wolfe seems to envision that his collection will continue to occupy that kind of real estate even though this is exactly the sort of real estate that the NYPL is very busy finagling to sell as it plans the shrinkage of libraries:
“I feel like I’m not parting with it,” Mr. Wolfe said. “After all, it will be just down the street.”Will it really?
If Mr. Wolfe feels up to writing a serious saga about class distinction and class conflict in today’s world he could write brutally, acerbicly, and with all the profligate exclamation points and capital letters he wants about how libraries, our institutions of Democracy, the `great equalizers’ according to Rolling Stone Keith Richards, are now being sold off in real estate deals calculated to benefit a privileged few, not the public. That saga, well written, is one that ought to stand the test of time.