Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Promise of Language

October 8 - December 23, 1998

The exhibition Laura (Riding) Jackson and the Promise of Language features books, letters, photographs, manuscripts, and other materials primarily from the Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson collection held by the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.

Laura (Riding) Jackson's multifaceted and demanding literary career spanned seven decades, beginning in the 1920s with her association with the circle of Southern writers known as the Fugitives. A poet who later renounced poetry, a literary critic, an editor, a printer/publisher, and an ardent thinker on language and its relation to truth, (Riding) Jackson wrote extensively in a variety of genres and exchanged ideas with Hart Crane, Allen Tate, Robert Graves, Gertrude Stein, and other luminaries of the period. While best known for her poetry, she also edited the literary journal Epilogue, ran a private press together with Robert Graves, and worked with other writers including Norman Cameron, Jacob Bronowski (who began as a poet), and James Reeves.

Born in New York City, Laura Reichenthal grew up in Brooklyn and attended Cornell, but left to marry history professor Louis Gottschalk in 1920. Her own publications began with individual poems in literary periodicals in the early 1920s. In 1924 the Fugitives awarded her the Nashville Prize for poetry, praising her as a fresh and original new voice. Her first book, The Close Chaplet , was published in 1926. She and Robert Graves collaborated on the influential Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), which helped to lay the foundation for the New Criticism, the school of thought that was to dominate Anglo-American literary criticism for the next thirty years.

In 1938, after several volumes of poetry, fiction, and essays, Riding published her Collected Poems, which marked the apogee of her career as a poet and prompted John Berryman to hail her as "the peer of any woman now writing poetry in English."Yet it was just as this point that she renounced poetry. She now turned to a study of language and its moral dimension, which would occupy her for the rest of her long life. This project culminated in the most compelling works of her later career,The Telling (1972) and Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (published posthumously in 1997).

Laura (Riding) Jackson's life was one of transformation, each stage of it marked by a change of name. The exhibition provides a chronological overview, moving from her childhood as Laura Reichenthal in Brooklyn, and her student days at Cornell University in the late 'teens; through her bohemian life as poet Laura Riding, living in New York City, Egypt, London, Majorca, France, and Switzerland, and her thirteen-year association with Robert Graves; and finally through her marriage to literary critic Schuyler B. Jackson and her years in Wabasso, Florida, where she spent the last 40 years of her life as Laura (Riding) Jackson.

Laura (Riding) Jackson's significant contributions as a pioneering force behind literary Modernism and as a dedicated scholar of language and its meaning have not been fully understood. Instead, her work has been neglected--partly because she refused, for a time, to allow her poems to be anthologized; partly because those she influenced sometimes reacted against the force of her formidable personality; and partly because of the vagaries of fame.

When (Riding) Jackson died in 1991, she left behind a legacy of literary works, writings on language, some notoriety, and not a little controversy. As an alumna with fond memories of Cornell, she gave her papers to the Cornell Library, including not only manuscripts and correspondence but also her own retrospective commentary on some of her work. She first donated literary papers to Cornell in 1975, then continued to add to the collection throughout the last years of her life and bequeathed the remainder. The collection is now fully organized and described, with catalog records both in Cornell's local online catalog and in RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network database). The exhibit will remain on view in the exhibition gallery of the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, 2B Kroch Library, through December 23, 1998. Exhibition hours are Monday-Friday from 9:00-5:00 and, while classes are in session, Saturday from 1:00-5:00.

The exhibition, and the Laura (Riding) Jackson symposium held in the Division on October 8-9, were sponsored by Cornell Library's Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, with the generous assistance of the Sonia Raizzis Giop Charitable Foundation and the Laura (Riding) Jackson Board of Literary Management.

Exhibition curated by Margaret Nichols, Assistant Rare Book Librarian, Cornell University Library