Saturday, 5 January 2013

In praise of paper, and in memory of Lionel Cuffie

Having listened with half an ear this morning to Richard Coles, JP Devlin, et al. discuss the superiority of paper books with Margaret Mountford (of Apprentice fame) on Saturday Live, perhaps I was extra alert today for some love token to mark my long histoire d'amour with the book.

Margaret Mountford, as you may have been able to guess, is also a fan of the book - and made an interesting observation about not being able to remember so much when she reads text on a screen; her brain is trained to remember that something is at the top of the left-hand page, etc. - and I think mine is too. It transpires that Margaret gave up the glamours of meting out judgement to Bright Young Tycoons to complete a PhD in Papyrology - she had been doing it part-time and wanted to complete it within the allotted time without having to request an extension (these rather mundane details fascinate me - I do wonder how many other successful corporate lawyers would display her genteel attitude to education).

Well, the books decided to remind me why I love them this evening, with the above epistle from an old copy of Santayana...

Just as I love reading "Acknowledgements" sections, I also find inscriptions and bookplates fascinating; I never erase or cross out the names of those who have previously owned my books - instead I add my own - and I hate being given a book with a blank front page (the legacy of a family who would scrawl and draw long dedicatory inscriptions on every book we gave) -- and to the man who once RIPPED OUT the front pages of all of the books I had left in his house, because my name was written on them: there is a particularly unpleasant corner of purgatory reserved especially for you.

One of my favourites is a copy of Isadora Duncan's autobiography which was once owned by Corin Redgrave, and I found out about a whole set of mid-century Cambridge feminists all because one of them had once owned my Edna St. Vincent Millay "Conversation at Midnight. Tonight, however, I was re-reading Santayana's "Genteel Tradition" and - procrastinating but also interested - decided to look up the "Lionel Cuffie" of Harvard who had previously owned my copy. Was he now a writer himself? - or an academic, or lawyer, or politician? - for a man who had been at Harvard forty years ago, the possibilities seemed endless.

The answer, unfortunately, was none of these: Lionel Cuffie died in 1985, from AIDS. He did, however, do remarkable things: in 1969 he founded the "Rutgers Student Homophile League" (only the second student organisation for gay men and women in the US): "I founded the league on impulse from my conscience, I thought it was my moral duty to bring other people to the same realizations that I had come to over the summer -- that we, as homosexuals, are an oppressed minority." 


What became of Cuffie between his years as an English Major at Rutgers and his death in 1985? This decade or so is a mystery to the casual Googler. He graduated from Rutgers in 1972, and my copy of Santayana would suggest that he went on to Harvard for either a Masters or a PhD.

There are a number of references to his time at Rutgers (and the Lionel Cuffie Award for Activism and Excellence was founded there in 1998, to be awarded annually to an outstanding LGBT student activist); but the nosey internet stalking procrastinator in me wants to know more - chiefly because he strikes me as such a fascinating character. I want to know more about the experience of being Black and gay - more about this: "Being Black and homosexual, one forms a double consciousness of being oppressed. By forming a consciousness of being Black, I gradually came to form a consciousness of what it is to be gay and oppressed too." What did he do when he graduated? Who did he leave behind? Did he carry on studying literature? What was he mainly interested in? My marked up (in very neat handwriting) copy of Santayana suggests an interest in the shifting sands of American culture at the end of the nineteenth century. Certain passages are underlined, with ticks and asteriks, sometimes both, such as this, from Van Wyck Brooks: "It was a tremendous moment. Never had we realised so keenly the spiritual inadequacy of American life: the great war of the cultures left us literally gasping in the vacuum of our own provincialism, colonialism, naiveté, and romantic self-complacency." I wonder if he saw in any of this truths which were relevant to his own life.

I am glad that he has been remembered, and his life memorialised in some way, through the award, and through the various books (on Black Feminism, Art, etc.) which do mention him,  but I can't help but think that this is still paltry remembrance. Perhaps it is a phenomenon of those men who died in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, I don't know (and am too young to remember) - were they insufficiently memorialised and celebrated through obituaries and other means as a result of shock or shame or something else? 

I am grateful to my tatty old book, which was previously Lionel Cuffie's less tatty old book, for giving me a glimpse into his life, and for leading me into a new world of knowledge which I would otherwise have never encountered. These chance glimpses and leads and hints, creating webs of knowledge and textual history outwith the control of both author and reader, are just one of the many reasons why I will remain forever devoted to my paper books.

(Oh - and the plural of papyrus is papyri.)


  1. I was a year ahead of Lionel at Rutgers ('71) so he wasn't in any of my classes but I knew him, generally. Everyone knew him. He didn't seem too oppressed to me when he waltzed down George St proclaiming, "Here come da Queen."

    I didn't care that he was gay and no one else seemed to either. He, and every other alleged "oppressed minority" create this illusion in their own mind, cry out for equality but special treatment, hence not equality.

    Now Rutgers has a dept of Women's Studies. Another group that declares itself oppressed. When I was a student the joke was about college courses in basket weaving. At least a basket has a purpose, to transport goods from one place to another.

  2. I had the good fortune to meet Lionel in July 1977 in Boston. He and his running partner Calvin became great friends. We stayed in touch until he moved to San Francisco in the early 80's.

  3. I me tLionel Cuffie and Calvan Vail in San Francisco standing on line to see "Female Trouble" at the Roxie. We were friends for life. I miss them--.