Thomas F. Staley: Alchemist and Time Traveler - James Joyce Quarterly

Thomas F. Staley: Alchemist and Time Traveler

Thomas F. Staley:

Alchemist and Time Traveler

As the legend goes, an ambitious young professor with a newly minted PhD from Pitt came home to Tulsa with the aim of making what was then the oil capital of the world into an intellectual powerhouse.  So, in 1963, he took to his garage and, with the help of a few students, began laying out a modestly sized magazine audaciously titled the James Joyce Quarterly. Thirty-six cheaply set pages were stapled between Kelly green covers and accompanied by a deceptively reserved editorial statement: “The idea of the JJQ grew out of a modestly conceived notion to draw Joyceans together and to publish provocative essays dealing with Joyce’s life, work, and milieu.”  Those who knew Tom understood there was nothing modest about this venture at all.  It entered into an already crowded field of competing Joyce journals and aimed to make Tulsa rhyme with Dublin, Paris, Zurich, Paris, and Trieste.

Almost 60 years later, the James Joyce Quarterly has become not simply the international journal of record for one of the world’s most influential novelists, but an intellectual touchstone for those interested in modern literature and culture more generally.  During Tom’s tenure at the helm, it drew widespread attention for its innovative articles and eager attempts to bring artists, scholars, teachers, novelists, and Joyce’s fans into active dialogue.  Seamus Heaney published poems in its pages while painters jostled to have their work appear on its often lavishly illustrated covers.  Issues went out to avid readers around the world, and our subscription archive still contains some remarkable surprises, not least among them the renewal cards from John Lennon.

For most of us, this would be enough.  The JJQ is a fine and enduring legacy to Tom’s robust vision.  It turned out, however, that he was only getting started.  Just a few years after publishing that first issue, he founded the International James Joyce Foundation and helped institutionalize haphazard Bloomsday celebrations as juggernaut biennial symposia that moved from one glittering European city to another, their hundreds of participants spending a full week delving into the ever-twisting texts Joyce created. As the current secretary of that Foundation and editor of the JJQ, I can affirm that we all continue to stand on Tom’s broad shoulders, benefitting day after day, year after year from his ambitious drive to cement Joyce into our cultural and intellectual foundations.  And yet, the JJQ and the Foundation remain a footnote to a now much larger story.

My first inkling of what Tom was actually doing came in the early 1990s when, as a college student, I stumbled across some copies of the JJQ while trying to make sense of what would remain–for a few more years anyway–my largely decorative copy of Ulysses.  The first page of each issue had a small logo with what appeared to be some kind of castle, captioned “University of Tulsa.” That castle, it turned out, was McFarlin Library, the home to what I now think of as Staley’s practice run for his real life’s work.  When I later set to work in graduate school on a study of modern literature, that little castle began to loom ever larger.  It popped up in footnotes; my professors mentioned it in passing as a place they had visited; and some of my colleagues inexplicably left the Rhode Island seaside for the inferno-like summers of Oklahoma, just so they could explore the treasures of this odd prairie fortress.

Within its walls, it turns out, Staley had been collecting an extraordinary range of letters, manuscripts, artworks, and archives focused almost exclusively on the early twentieth century.  Thanks, in part, to his deep roots in the community and keen ability to charm donors, artists, and agents alike, he had engaged in the best kind of alchemy: transforming Tulsa’s vast oil wealth into boxes and boxes of paper.  If you haven’t done so, I urge you to take just a passing look at what McFarlin’s Special Collections now hold.  Yes, there are acres of Joyce stuff gathered from Harriet Shaw Weaver as well as Paul and Lucie Léon.  But you can also find Rebecca West’s detailed accounts of the Nuremberg Trials; the stacks of poems and cartoons that Stevie Smith randomly interwove into her books; and the strange novels and even stranger paintings Anna Kavan created that mix drug use, climate change, and apocalypse.  And then there’s the complete life archive of Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys’s Paris notebooks, the nearly 10,000 books and magazines from Cyril Connolly’s library, and the papers of Lynn Riggs, the Cherokee playwright whose Green Grow the Lilacs became Oklahoma!  You can even find an alternative ending for John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, or, as was the case shortly after I arrived, perhaps even discover an unpublished Rebecca West novel squirreled away in the boxes.

This list could go on to include paintings by D. H. Lawrence, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso, a sprawling collection of periodicals and comics, perhaps the richest surviving collection of materials on the Tulsa Race Massacre, and all kinds of rare and extraordinary books.  And here it all sits just outside my window, rising up above the university green to peer indifferently at the buildings of downtown Tulsa that helped generate all this cultural wealth.  Collecting and preserving such treasures is the work of many hands, but it was Tom’s daring that made it possible—the same wildcatting spirit that still defines the city as a whole.  From here, of course, Tom would move on to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, where he tapped an even deeper pool of money to create one of world’s greatest cultural institutions—a marvel made of paper that still has the capacity to evoke shock and wonder alike.  Here in Tulsa, Tom began the work that subtly but powerfully shifted the gaze of the intellectual world away from the capitals of Europe and the great libraries of Harvard and Yale toward the vast flatlands running through the middle of the country.

Fortunately, Tom became a colleague and friend whom I got to know a bit near the end of his career.  His magnetic personality drew you in, though you knew at the same time others too were constantly attracted to that same invisible field.  He could work a room with consummate skill, speaking with a subtly inflected Oklahoma drawl that arrested you with its directness.  You got a sense that there was always a deal to be made, a new idea just lurking around the corner, and, yes, a donation to be charmed from your wallet and fed to his alchemical project.  He produced capable scholarship early in his career, but that’s not what really matters.  Tom wanted, more than anything, to build the institutions that made scholarship possible for others.  As a consequence, his extraordinary legacy will live on far beyond his monographs and bibliographies.  It will flicker to life decades from now when a young professor’s first article appears in the JJQ or when a diligent scholar opens a document box and discovers a lost text, alternative draft, or revealing letter.

How ultimately do we describe such a legacy?  I have heard Tom called a giant, an icon, and even a whirlwind.  That’s all true, but such words are too worn by use to capture what made him so singular a figure.  For my part, I see him as a time traveler—maybe the only one I’ve ever known.  Rarely a man in the moment, he moved effortlessly to the past, which he believed, with relentless optimism, could be transported into the present.  And, inexplicably, he could move forward in time as well, seeing what would matter decades or even centuries from now—what work would need to be preserved and what institutions we’d need to make it meaningful.  In my two decades at Tulsa, I’ve seen such journeys in time as queer, feminist, and indigenous stories have emerged from the collections at McFarlin that Tom helped build nearly a half-century ago.  Like so many others, I’ll miss Tom’s energy, excitement, and keen judgment.  But I find genuine solace in knowing that our time-traveling companion will flash by in every issue of the JJQ, in every document box I pull from McFarlin, and in the vast archival treasures that will sustain generations of scholars to come.


By Sean Latham

Editor, James Joyce Quarterly