Laura Gilpin at St. John’s

Laura Gilpin at a Santa Fe campus event, late 1960s or early 1970s

While the books at Meem Library will always and forever hold center stage at our college, the silent stories told by our library’s art works are always fascinating and complex in their own right. Among these is the tale told by the Laura Gilpin photographs hanging quietly on our library’s walls. 

Laura Gilpin’s name may no longer elicit wide recognition, but here in the Southwest her work still stands shoulder-to-shoulder with that of her more famous friends and contemporaries Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams. As such, Gilpin’s is a story well worth revisiting, and particularly given her close ties with the Santa Fe campus in its first decade of existence. Laura Gilpin’s connection to our College is yet another example of the diverse base of financial, literary, and artistic patronage that infused a distinctive regional vitality into the Santa Fe campus and its library (even before there was a bona fide library) back in the fledgling years of the 1960s and 1970s. Meem Library is fortunate to be able to display no fewer than three of Gilpin’s photographs, and it behooves us to share a little of the history behind them, which has faded with the passing generations.

Laura Gilpin’s association with the College began in the very first years of the Santa Fe campus. In 1966 Ms. Gilpin, a neighbor to the campus on nearby Camino Del Monte Sol, made a book donation to the nascent campus library, then housed in what is now the campus Bookstore space in Peterson Student Center. An archival letter dated September 6, 1966, from St. John’s College President Richard Weigle to Laura Gilpin reads as follows:

My dear Laura,

Again I want to thank you most warmly for the gift of books which you made to St. John’s library. The sets of Ruskin and Victor Hugo are most welcome. They make a handsome addition to our collection.

I was delighted to share your good news about [your new] book. We will look forward to its publication, a year hence, with keen anticipation. Perhaps between now and then we can persuade you to put on a show of your photographs here in the Student Center.

With warm good wishes, I am, most sincerely,

Richard Weigle

Copy of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice donated by Laura Gilpin to the Santa Fe campus library in 1966
Original donor acknowledgement gift plate in the library’s copy of Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice

While parts of the correspondence that follows are missing, it is clear that Ms. Gilpin, then 75 years old and just entering the decade that would mark the very height of her career and fame, wasted little time in taking President Weigle (whose greeting suggests the two by then already knew one another passably well) up on his offer of a gallery show. On Nov. 27, 1966, just two and a half months later, an article by John MacGregor, editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper’s weekly events calendar Pasatiempo, appeared in that paper with the following announcement:

Of all photographers of the Southwest, none has seen and pictured the region in its many moods for so long a time as has Laura Gilpin.

On the eve of her 50th year as a professional photographer, an exhibit sampling her work in the Southwest opens today in the balcony gallery above the main dining room of St. John’s College Student Center. It will continue through the end of 1966….

While the Pasatiempo indicates the gallery opening occurred on November 27, 1966, records also show a more formal “Punch Party and Reception” in Ms. Gilpin’s honor scheduled for December 18 from 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the Student Center, with invitees including St. John’s faculty and staff, members of the SJC Santa Fe library committee, and members of the SJC Santa Fe Board of Associates, then chaired by New Mexico governor Jack Campbell.

On the appointed day of this in-house reception it was none other than John Meem–with his wife Faith the principal donor of the land on which our campus now sits and also with Faith a namesake of our own Meem Library–who stood to address the assembled. His handwritten notes, retained in the library Archives, read as follows:

The Faculty and Staff of St. John’s College, members of the Associates of St. John’s College, members of the Library Board of St. John’s College, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Our purpose in gathering here is to celebrate Laura Gilpin’s fiftieth anniversary as a great American photographer. In doing so it is appropriate that we should remind ourselves of the highlights in her distinguished career. Mr. Lewis Thompson, a member of the Associates of St. John’s College, kindly consented to prepare a brief biography, which it is now my pleasure to read to you:

“Today Miss Laura Gilpin looks back over a career of photographing everything and everyone in the Southwest from Lillian Gish at Central City to the lonely Navajo in the isolation of the reservation. Throughout her work the emphasis has been upon capturing the irretrievable transient moods of its people and landscapes.

The major part of her time during the past year or two has been devoted to compiling and finishing the book on the Navajo which began more than 15 years ago. Its final form has just been determined, and The Enduring Navajo will be published next fall by the University of Texas Press.

The book, which Miss Gilpin recognizes as her “magnum opus,” will contain some 65,000 words and nearly 200 photographs in black and white and color recording the history, mythology, religious observances and life on the New Mexico and Arizona reservation.

The publication will crown a career which began in 1917 upon her graduation from the Clarence White School of Photography in New York City.

Born and raised in Colorado, Miss Gilpin decided to return to the west after a couple of years of commercial work in New York. She decided she’d rather be poor out here than run the New York rat race.

A variety of commercial assignments and freelance work followed.

In the mid-1920s, a lecture at Colorado College awakened what was to become a lifetime interest in archeology. The lecture was on the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan in Mexico. The lecture was very exciting, but one aspect of it troubled Miss Gilpin: the pictures accompanying it were poor. She wondered why the ruins couldn’t be photographed in a way which would tell the story as well or better than with words. Miss Gilpin promptly embarked on a project which was to result in her first publication, a paperback pamphlet on the ruins at Mesa Verde.

In 1932, again pursuing the trail of the wandering archeologist, Miss Gilpin went with a school group to Yucatan to photograph Mayan ruins. A book on Chichen Itza followed.

The same year, when Lillian Gish starred in the opening production of “Camille,” Laura Gilpin was on hand with her camera, and she photographed all the Central City productions for the next five years.

In the prewar years, another enduring interest asserted itself: photographing Indians. A part of her collection of portraits and other shots in New Mexico appeared in 1941 in Pueblos – A Camera Chronicle, published by Hastings House.

World War II brought Miss Gilpin a different kind of assignment. In 1942, she joined the Boeing aircraft plant producing B-29 bombers in Wichita, Kan. The work was incredibly demanding, and it was there that she learned the indispensable technique of making one negative right the first time.

Miss Gilpin’s most famous picture of the war years was a night shot of the great bird rolling out of an assembly hangar, its gleaming form reflected in the wet surface of the landing apron. Years later, she walked into the new Time-Life Building in New York to confront a 100-foot long photomural which had been made from her negative.

On VJ day in 1945, Miss Gilpin was back in Colorado. When gasoline rationing was lifted the next day, she headed south with a contract to do a book on the Rio Grande and a treasured case of Isopan film.

Miss Gilpin established temporary residence in Santa Fe in 1945 while working on her photographic study of the Rio Grande. She elected to stay and has made Santa Fe her residence and working headquarters to this day. In 1946, while still working on the Rio Grande book. Miss Gilpin went south from Laredo to Mexico City and to Yucatan for the second time, returning primarily to photograph the ruins at Chichen Itza which had been under restoration at the time of her first trip. In 1948, Hastings House published her Temples in Yucatan with pictures taken on that and the earlier trip.

In 1960-61, she was again to return to Yucatan, this time with an expedition sent out by the Museum of International Folk Art. Museum officials would rather not discuss the results of the ill-fated collecting safari, but for Miss Gilpin, it was both rewarding and productive. Many of the negatives from that trip remain unprinted but three of the pictures have been included in the exhibit here at St. John’s.

In addition to the “bread and butter” assignments of portraiture, architectural photography and magazine illustrations, for the last fifteen years, Miss Gilpin has devoted much of her time and efforts to telling the story of the American Indian–primarily the Navajo. Her first close introduction to the Navajo Reservation had come in 1932 when a close friend, Miss Elizabeth Forster, was one of two pioneer nurses to demonstrate public health nursing near Shiprock under the sponsorship of the Southwest Association for Indian Affairs. The collection of photos of the Navajo has grown from year to year.

At first she had no idea of writing a book, but interest among members of the tribe itself spurred her on. Tribal Counsel Maurice McCabe encouraged her to put it together. Once begun, she admits, “the book itself opened many a door.”

Gilpin portraits of Navajos have appeared in American Heritage, and she did several of the illustrations for Oliver LaFarge’s The American Indian.

Miss Gilpin has appeared in more than a dozen national magazines and has exhibited in as many cities throughout the country. She was the first photographer to exhibit in the San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts. Her one [person] show has appeared in the Library of Congress. She has exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History.

But her synthesis of more than 30 years of association with the people of the Desert is embodied in her new book The Enduring Navajo. I’m sure it is anxiously awaited by all of us here.”

I might add that the collection of photographs now being shown on the second floor gallery of the dining hall in this building will give you an excellent preview of what the book will be like.

Unquestionably Laura Gilpin is one of the great photographers of America, especially of its Southwestern scene. But, to those of us who have gotten to know her well here in Santa Fe there is another quality that stands out eminently. And that is her steadfast loyalty and courage. Not only on behalf of her friends but also to causes needing her wisdom and support. To mention only one, the Indian Arts Fund, responsible for having assembled one of the greatest collections of post-Spanish Indian pottery, blankets and jewelry in the world, found itself in need of leadership in the last few years if it were to perform its potential educational function. Laura Gilpin, at great sacrifice of personal time and energy, stepped in and skillfully led it through a difficult period.

Laura Gilpin: St. John’s College feels itself honored to present you this token of its admiration for your magnificent records of fifty years of great photography.

John Meem describes this “token” in a personal note to Lewis Thompson as a “silver tray.” While no image of this tray exists, the College’s gesture of appreciation plainly cemented the relation between Ms. Gilpin and St. John’s, which was to continue until her death in 1979. On October 3, 1969, Laura Gilpin was one of several featured speakers at a Book and Author Luncheon at La Fonda, sponsored by the St. John’s College Friends of the Library Committee. This appearance occasioned a follow-up note from Richard Weigle:

October 9, 1969

My dear Laura,

Thank you so much for appearing on the platform at the Book and Author Luncheon last Friday. You were truly the star of the day, and all of us in Santa Fe are very proud to claim you…

Most sincerely, Dick

And, a few months later:

December 7, 1969

Dear Laura:

As 1969 draws to a close, my thoughts turn back to the unusually successful series of Book & Author Luncheons which our library committee sponsored. I welcome the opportunity to write and express once again the College’s deep appreciation for your participation in the October luncheon. You gave great pleasure to many people from the Santa Fe community and to many of us in the College. I hope that you will come to the College as often as you can, use our library and our bookstore, and attend lectures, concerts and Saturday night movies. You are always welcome here. I send best wishes to you for the Holiday Season.

Most sincerely,


The Enduring Navajo, published in 1968
Laura Gilpin’s signature in Meem Library’s copy

Two years later, in 1971, Laura had a second show on campus in the Peterson Art Gallery. It is in the archival photos from this show that the Meem Library’s feature Gilpin piece, a black and white print of Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs that hangs in our north staircase, is clearly identifiable. Exactly how this piece ultimately came into the College’s possession—whether by purchase or by donation from the artist herself—remains a mystery. What is clear is that Laura’s relationship with St. John’s continued through the eight years that remained until her death. In 1974 she donated the book Dwellers at the Source: Southwestern Indian Photographs of A. C. Vroman. In 1977 she was invited to serve on a committee of other friends of the College (among them Faith and John Meem and Alexander and Susan Girard) who were organizing a lecture to honor Santa Fe poet and translator Witter Bynner, another friend and benefactor of the Santa Fe campus during its infancy. And, on November 19, 1979, just 11 days before her death, Laura gave two additional prints to the College—one of a Navajo family and another of the actress Helen Freeman.

Renowned fellow photographer Barbara Morgan, Laura Gilpin, and Amanda Fowler (SF71) at Laura’s 1971 Peterson Student Center Gallery show
Visitors to the 1971 Laura Gilpin Peterson Gallery show
More Gilpin’s from the 1971 show
An image of petroglyphs on display at Gilpin’s 1971 Peterson Art Gallery show
The same Laura Gilpin petroglyph photograph as it appears in the Meem Library’s northeast staircase, where it has now hung for three decades

With her passing on November 30, 1979, the Southwest lost one of its finest photographic eyes and the College a staunch supporter, a neighbor, and a friend. And this might have been the end of the story, but for an additional apt, elegant, and at the time entirely unexpected postscript.

In July of 2000, the College and local Santa Fe communities joined together in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Faith and John Meem Library on our Santa Fe campus. Among the speakers that day were acting Santa Fe campus president James Carey, chair of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors Greg Curtis, Annapolis campus president Chris Nelson, Santa Fe Mayor Larry Delgado, and Tutor Janet Dougherty speaking on behalf of the Faculty. James Hedberg, Santa Fe class of 2000 and the recent recipient of the Walter S. Baird Prize for his Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony in E flat major, provided piano music. The praises of the Library were sung loudly and respect paid to the many donors who, a decade earlier, had worked together to turn an almost thirty-year vision for a dedicated campus library building into a reality.  

But it was the final speaker of the day whose generosity, in yet one more chapter in a long family tradition, brought Laura Gilpin around full circle at St. John’s. Thirty-four years before, John Meem had led a toast honoring Laura’s career on the occasion of her 50th anniversary show in the campus Art Gallery. Now, all these years later, Nancy Meem Wirth, the daughter of John and Faith Meem, presented to Meem Library portraits of each of her parents taken many years earlier by none other than Laura Gilpin herself. It is these same photos that for more than two decades now have hung in the library’s main reading space, keeping silent watch over an entire generation of campus readers.

Laura Gilpin photograph of John Meem, a donation to Meem Library from his daughter Nancy Meem Wirth
Laura Gilpin photograph of Faith Bemis Meem, a donation to Meem Library from her daughter Nancy Meem Wirth.

For those who would know like to learn more about Laura Gilpin’s life and legacy, we suggest the following short documentaries. The first was produced in 1986 by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which houses Gilpin’s photographic and literary archives. The second, a New Mexico PBS feature, was first broadcast in 2001 on KNME TV. Both offer archival footage of Laura herself, speaking in her own voice of her life and her art. Both hearken back to another time, one that lingers on not only here in New Mexico and in Santa Fe itself, but also on our own quiet campus, which owes both its existence and much of its beauty to that founding generation of distinctively talented and generous friends and benefactors.

The Meem Library’s Sculpture of Euclid Book I by Alumna Nichole Miller

Multimedia artist and St. John’s College alumna Nichole Miller (SF06, EC14) back in 2003 with her sculptural rendering of Euclid’s Elements, Book 1.

Amid the diverse collection of art works in Meem Library is a piece that is quintessentially St. John’s: a sculptural rendering of Book I of Euclid’s Elements sited in the very center of our main reading room. This striking work was the gift of multimedia artist and St. John’s College alumna Nichole Miller, a graduate of both the undergraduate (SF06) and Eastern Classics (EC14) programs. For current students and for the more than five decades worth of Santa Fe undergraduate and graduate alumni who have themselves had the personal experience of slowly working through and demonstrating the propositions of Book 1, the sculptural accomplishment of this work is clearly evident from their own first-hand knowledge of the intricate network of geometric relationships that lies behind it. This is because each proposition (the number and an image of which appears on its own individual block) is connected within the sculpture both to all of the propositions it relies on and also to all of the propositions that rely upon it.

In Nichole’s own words:

The three-dimensional flow chart of Euclid’s first book of propositions is based on the relationships of the propositions…The actual relationships between the propositions are indicated by the metal rods connecting them….The four additional rods (which are attached to the corners of the wooden base) do not have any significance other than their adding support to the structure….The levels are determined by calculating the quantity of relationships each proposition has with the others, building from the bottom of the flow chart to the top (those with the greatest number of relationships are at the bottom, progressing to those with the fewest at the top).

Not unsurprising for any who have pondered the creative and technical challenges that went into this piece’s creation is the suggestion by one mathematics scholar that this particular sculpture, completed in 2003, may in fact be the very first three-dimensional dependency graph ever made of Euclid’s Book 1.

Meem Library and Melissa Zink

Melissa Zink is a remarkable artist. Not only is she possessed of an array of great skills—painting, drawing, sculpture, collage and printmaking—but she uses them in ever fresh combinations that spring from an incredibly rich mind, a mind enchanted by books. It is books that for nearly thirty years have provided the central inspiration for her art. Her aim is to replicate what she thinks of as the book experience—that altered state of consciousness we enter when engrossed in a book. It’s a state that’s inflected by words and characters and plots, of course, but also by typefaces and papers, bindings and illustrations. (Stephen M. Parks in “Melissa Zink: Quiddities”, Taos Magazine, September 2005.)

As the Meem Library continues its 30th anniversary celebration, we look back to the year 2002, which marked the installation of a Library art work now familiar to a generation of our students, faculty, and alums: Melissa Zink’s An Environmental Study of 26 Characters. This sculpture, which hangs prominently on the east wall of the Library’s inner lobby, was a gift of Susan and Jeremy Shamos, long-time friends of the College and members of the St. John’s Board of Visitors and Governors.

Artist Melissa Zink flanked by the donors, long-time friends of the College and members of the College’s Board of Visitors and Governors Jeremy and Susan Shamos, at the installation ceremony in Meem Library on January 26, 2002.

According to Steve Parks, at whose Taos gallery Melissa Zink showed her work:

As an artist, Melissa Zink’s career got off to a rocky start. A shy but brilliant student, she was cowed in the 1950s by a prestigious art school into believing that if she didn’t produce abstract expressionism, she had no future as an artist. So for nearly 20 years she worked on the fringes of art—designing custom frames, operating a shop that specialized in embroidery and other crafts—while privately painting and drawing and thinking about art. Then, in her early 40s, fate interceded and introduced her to Nelson Zink. She divorced her first husband and married Nelson who soon after asked, “If you could be anything you wanted, what would it be?” Her response: “I want to be an artist.”

Fulfilling another life-long dream, she and Nelson moved to Taos which she had visited as a young girl and remembered as a magical place. As she later wrote: “Taos is a community where art is important both economically and socially. I don’t think that it’s visible in my work, but that doesn’t indicate a lack of importance. Surrounded by beauty and nurtured by the culture, I have been able to concentrate on my inner landscape—because of all the gifts of this remarkable environment.”

Here she quickly established herself as a leading artist in the region. Her earliest work was enchanted, ceramic scenes that met with immediate success. But Zink was a restless artist, blessed with enormous skills, and soon she began combining painting and sculpture and later added collage, print-making and bronze sculpture to her arsenal of media. As she once said, “I divide artists into two categories, miners and explorers. The miners go deeper and deeper into a fairly narrow vein of subjects and techniques, while the explorers are looking for new and exciting ways to express themselves. I’m definitely an explorer.” Throughout her career, though, her primary source of inspiration was what she termed “the book experience,” and it ranged from literal story-telling to expressions of her nearly spiritual regard for words and typefaces, old, foxed papers, illustrations and bindings.

Zink’s early rejection of the Art Canons of the 1950s might well be regarded a blessing. It enabled her to find her own way, to create a totally original body of work, fueled by a most unusual passion, books. Her work, which is in major museum and private collections across the country, remains immensely popular and she is widely regarded as among the finest artists to come out of the Southwest in a generation. Personally and aesthetically, she’s been an inspiration to scores of younger women striving to be artists.

In 2000 she was awarded the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. At the awards presentation, she said: “To the observer, mine appears an ordinary enough existence with little to distinguish it from uncountable others. But an observer cannot know the journeys I’ve made, the lives I’ve lived, the intensities of joy and anguish I have experienced. Nor can that observer know how the everyday complexity of life shines with unfathomable beauty or how the difficulty of expressing that experience becomes overwhelming. That same observer has no way of knowing that I have found permanent shelter in a world constructed from the experience of words and pictures, a world full of marvels, terrors and delights that becomes more real from one day to the next. A world I hope to vanish into someday.” (Source: Steve Parks, Parks Gallery)

Two years later, at the January 26, 2002 installation ceremony for An Environmental Study of 26 Characters at Meem Library, Melissa made the following remarks:

Thank you, Susan and Jeremy. Thank you President Balkcom and the board, faculty and students of St. John’s for allowing me this presence in the heart of your college. To explain how deeply touched I am by this honor would be to dwell at excessive length on my own life, but I do need to say to you that when I see these Characters installed in this library, I can only utter a profound sigh of relief, of having at last found my way home.

I have been using the physical and intellectual matter of books in my work for a number of years, always searching for a better way to understand and communicate an intense love of letters, in the largest sense of the word.

In the fall of 2000, I began to understand the alphabet as an infinity and to see the anthropomorphizing of letters as a way to convey the infinite possibilities of our language. As it always is with satisfying ideas, the task seemed simple and self-evident. Although it wasn’t quite so simple as I imagined, my belief that the Characters could convey the wealth inherent in our alphabet never wavered.

Since the overarching idea propelling this work concerned the infinite possibilities of letters and words and thoughts, no particular symbolism applies to each character. The A could be Abraham or Arabian Nights or Aleph. L doesn’t equal dog, but the image could be associated with love and loyalty or laziness and lassitude. Every association leads to another, and with those associations, worlds can be built. What I hope I have made is both a game and a reminder. A game of associations and journeys into places real or imaginary and a reminder of the extraordinary, ultimately indescribable wealth of thought and image, the benign galaxies of possible combinations waiting to express thoughts yet unthought.

John Man, in his book Alpha and Beta, says: “To the many millions who use it routinely, the alphabet seems the essence of simplicity, as easy as ABC. But the sense of simplicity is deceptive, for the alphabet is a surface impression of hidden linguistic depths. Its few symbols are nothing compared to the complexity of sounds they represent, while those sounds merely hint at the complexity of language itself.

I hope that An Environmental Study of 26 Characters reminds viewers of the extraordinary marvel of language and the minds that use it and the worlds we occupy.

The story might have ended there, with the installation of this vast, mythical, Borgesian work within the Meem Library, a locale to which it is aptly suited. But there is also a quintessentially St. Johns-ian postscript.

Several years after the installation of this sculpture, Melissa Zink and St. John’s Tutor Eva Brann crossed paths in New Mexico. Quickly recognizing in one another kindred souls in their close age and their mutual passion for books and the written word, but separated by half a continent, Melissa and Eva struck up an epistolary friendship that continued until Melissa’s death in 2009. “With many people it takes years to become close friends,” Eva has said. “But Melissa and I became friends almost instantly.”

Following Melissa’s passing at the age of 77, Eva proposed to gallery owner Steve Parks, a longtime friend of Melissa’s, that he publish a small volume of their collected letters. This was printed and released in 2011 as Liberated Characters, described on the Parks Gallery website at the time as “a loving collection of the late artist’s correspondence with Eva Brann, a former Dean (1990-1997) and longest-serving tutor (1957-present) at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. The two had much in common, bonding over their mutual affection for literature and in the wondrous sharing of ideas.”

Steve Parks himself passed away two years later, in 2013, and with his death and the closing of his gallery, this small volume went out of print and remains so to this day. The correspondence itself, however, still lives in the archives of the Greenfield Library on our Annapolis campus. The pages of it are rich with talk of books, talk of religion and politics, talk of youth and of time and of aging. They are also rich with the affection and respect of two women, each highly accomplished in her own domain, who recognize in their shared passion for books a commonality that embraces and transcends both.

In one telling passage Melissa writes to Eva:

I have made a nice position for you in my mind. Years ago I made a piece called Museum of the Mind and I portrayed myself scrabbling in broken bits and fragments. But you are indeed a Curator of the Museum of the Mind. I think, as I notice my own increasingly lazy brain, that it is critically important for there to be curators who will love and preserve our intellectual past. Perhaps I’ve come to feel this way because I’m so disturbed by what I perceive to be the loss of affection for anything that isn’t the newest rendition of whatever and the belief that breaking the rules is the only fun around. Most of the rules have been broken many times before, but who knows that? Anyway, I give you many gold and silver stars for having loved and protected what has formed the best of what we are today. N. [Melissa’s husband] reminds me from time to time that all babies are from the stone age and each infant must start the long climb anew.

In another letter, Eva writes to Melissa:

I think I know why you don’t date your letters: It’s to make time inessential. I wrote a whole book making the case wordily and lamely. You simply enact it.

The “Statement of the St. John’s College Program,” the defining articulation of our educational model, includes an oft-quoted line: “St. John’s College is persuaded that a genuine liberal education requires the study of great books—texts of words, symbols, notes, and pictures—because they are both timeless and timely.” This explicit recognition of the roots of the timely in the timeless— present in a great book but also in a work of great music or of great art, in a laboratory practicum or an act of translation, in an extended conversation or an extended correspondence, in a shared affection or a reluctant parting—lies at the deep heart of the St. John’s experience. And Melissa Zink’s sculpture, for two decades now a silent daily presence alongside the tens of thousands of books within our Library’s space, remains a timeless and timely homage to all of the vastnesses contained within them.

Luther Allan Weigle

Luther Allan Weigle, from the 1976 book The Glory Days: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle, compiled by Luther’s son, longtime St. John’s College President Richard Weigle. Used with permission of Friendship Press.

In St. John’s circles the name “Weigle” immediately evokes our own Richard Daniel Weigle, President of the College for thirty-one years and the man whose vision, energy, and dedication to our distinctive model of liberal arts education ultimately brought St. John’s College to Santa Fe. Dick Weigle, however, was not the only member of his family to leave a lasting mark upon the world of education and of great books. His father, Luther Allan Weigle, a prolific writer and professor of Philosophy who served for twenty-one years as Dean of Yale’s Divinity School, was a force in his own right, and an individual whose efforts on behalf of an influential translation of one particular work on our Program ought perhaps to be more widely known in our own community. 

Among the Meem Library’s primary mandates is to collect comprehensively English translations of all Program works. In the case of the Bible, a compendium of writings with roots in three distinct languages that was assembled in variously evolving forms over the course of more than a millennium, the perennial question so often raised at St. John’s of just which translation to read becomes especially complex, given the sprawling diversity of editions and options available on our Library’s shelves. Perhaps one distinguishing characteristic of our particular College is that here, in the course of both our Language Tutorials and our Seminars, we explicitly acknowledge that the questions arising around the issues of translation are themselves fundamental and deeply interesting and not merely incidental to the reading itself. With respect to the Bible, significant portions of which we read here in both our undergraduate and our liberal arts graduate programs, these questions become especially fraught, for the implications of translation can be momentous not only for seminar discussion but also for what finally stands as theological doctrine.

It was in this arena of Biblical translation that Luther Allan Weigle left his name most prominently in the annals of history. For nearly four decades Luther Weigle served as chair of a committee of scholars appointed by the National Council of Churches, which represented 44 different Protestant denominations, to draft a new translation of the Bible, a translation that in 1952 was published with much fanfare as the Revised Standard Version, a thorough revision of the American Standard Version of 1901 that was itself a revision of the King James Version first published in 1611. The rationale behind this new translation was clearly laid out by Weigle in his essay “The Revised Standard Version of the Bible”, as follows:

1. The King James Version was based upon a few late medieval manuscripts, and these, especially in the New Testament, contained the accumulated errors of many centuries of manuscript copying.

2. The previous seventy-five years has been an age of discoveries in the archaeology of the Near East and has afforded to scholars new knowledge of the history, geography, and cultures of Biblical lands and rich new resources for understanding the vocabulary, grammar, and idioms of the Biblical languages.

3. The seventeenth-century English of the King James Version is increasingly a barrier between it and the reader. The greatest problem is presented by the hundreds of English words that are still in constant use but now convey a different meaning from that which they had in the King James Version. These words were accurate translations of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures in 1611 but had become misleading.

4. The general excellence of the King James Version as “the noblest monument of English prose” must not blind us to the fact that it contains a substantial number of errors in translation, some infelicities of expression, and some renderings that are ambiguous or obscure.

Upon its publication the Revised Standard Version was for the most part well-received, selling two-and-half million copies in its very first year. But it was also not without controversy, occasioning at least two actual book burnings (one in Ohio and one in North Carolina) by those who saw some of its translational choices as both “pro-Communist” and outrightly heretical. Much of this controversy centered on its rendering of Isaiah 7:14, which in the King James Version reads: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” The Revised Standard Version translates the original Hebrew word almah more literally as “a young woman,” which changes this same verse to the following: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Since this particular passage of Isaiah has often been read as prophesying the virgin birth of Jesus, this translational choice immediately put a spotlight on the Standard Bible Committee and on Luther Weigle himself, who pointed out that this translational correction in Isaiah did not in any way alter the Greek of the New Testament, in which the word “παρθένος” remains translated as “virgin.” Weigle, himself a Christian, thus remained a staunch defender and advocate of the accuracy of the RSV for the remainder of his days.

For those interested in learning more about the challenges of Biblical translation generally and the Revised Standard Version project specifically, the 1999 documentary “The Bible Under Fire,” in which Luther Weigle figures prominently, makes for a fascinating watch:

1999 documentary featuring Luther Allan Weigle

Luther Weigle, who over his many decades of teaching, Divinity School deanship, and chairmanship of the Standard Bible Committee authored more than a dozen books and more than a hundred articles on all manner of topics theological, remained vigorous and productive until his passing in 1976 at the age of 95. That very same year his son Richard, then just a few years from his own retirement as longtime president of St. John’s College, compiled a small volume of his father’s core writings which was published by Friendship Press under the title The Glory Years: From the Life of Luther Allan Weigle. This volume, two copies of which the Library owns, includes a detailed account and defense by Luther Weigle of the reasoning behind the Revised Standard Version and many of the specific translational choices the committee had ultimately made (the same account from which the above-quoted passage is drawn). In addition, it includes a poignant Foreword by Dick and two personal reminiscences by Dick’s two sisters, reflecting the three sibling’s deep pride in and affection for both of their parents.

The Meem Library collection also include several other titles with connections to Luther Weigle. Two of these, The Genesis Octapla: Eight English Versions of Genesis in the Tyndale-King James Tradition and The New Testament Octapla: Eight English Versions of the New Testament in the Tyndale-King James Tradition, were edited by Luther Weigle and include lengthy introductions by him, with one of our copies of the New Testament Octapla also signed by him. Each of these titles presents in parallel eight different historically significant English Biblical translations: the Tyndale (1530), Great Bible (1539), Geneva Bible (1560), Bishop’s Bible (1568), Douay (1609), King James (1611), and Revised Version (1881), culminating with the Revised Standard Version (1952) to which Luther had devoted so much of his own life. This parallel format allows for clear facing-page comparisons of the RSV’s specific translational choices with seven other translations spanning more than four centuries, providing a feast for both the scholarly and the simply curious.

Also in the Library’s collection is a copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary inscribed by Luther Weigle to his granddaughter (Dick Weigle’s daughter) Marta on November 25, 1969. This book came to the Meem Library following Marta’s passing in Santa Fe in 2018. Of particular interest is the original invoice from Blackwell’s, which remained tipped into the book; its date of May 24, 1955, suggests that this particular volume was likely Luther’s own personal copy for many years before he ultimately passed it along to his elder granddaughter as he neared his 90th year.

Marta, who attended the College in the Annapolis class of ’65 before going on to complete her undergraduate degree at Harvard, was later to find her own renown right here in New Mexico as both a professor of Anthropology and American Studies for forty years at the University of New Mexico and as a writer of numerous books on New Mexico history and folklore, along with several works on women and mythology. Richard’s younger daughter, Constance (“Connie”), was herself a member of the first graduating class at the Santa Fe campus, ultimately going on to attend the same Yale Divinity School at which her grandfather Luther had served as Dean for more than two decades.

Marta Weigle at the board in William Darkey’s Mathematics class
Constance (Connie) Weigle, SF68

Taken together, these several books connect three generations of one remarkable family of educators and scholars, a family whose name, like those of Barr and Buchanan, will be forever bound up with the name “St. John’s College” and with its Santa Fe campus.

The 1994 Meem Library “Books By Women Project”

Original Circulation Desk Poster for the 1994 Books by Women Project

As mentioned previously, the opening of the Meem Library in 1990 dramatically increased the campus’s library shelf space. Along with substantial Library acquisitions of Eastern texts during the early 1990s, in support of the College’s new Eastern Classics Master’s program, came a significant student-driven initiative, the 1994 Books by Women Project. Conceived by then-senior Heather Malcolm, the Books by Women Project sought donations from faculty, staff, students, and friends of the College with the goal of adding more books by women to our new library’s shelves. An article that appeared in the Fall 1994 issue of The St. John’s Reporter showcased this project and included the following interview with Ms. Malcolm:

How did the Books by Women Project get started?

I think it really happened because I got to the end of my senior year and realized I had been bothered for four years about the issue of women in the program but had never done anything about it. I realized part of the reason I hadn’t done anything is that there’s so much controversy over what can be done to remedy the problem, so I wanted to do something that was voluntary in terms of participation but that everybody would have access to. I figured if I couldn’t put a hundred books by women in the program I could at least put them in the library.

How did you solicit books?

Basically, I wrote letters to people I knew and my sister, Allison, designed the book plates. I talked to [Library Director and 1987 Santa Fe alumna] Inga Waite, and she set up a little display in the library. I also should thank my mom. She was really supportive throughout the whole thing and encouraged me when I felt like it was going to be an impossible project.

How many books have you acquired?

We have 110 books now and they’re still trickling in slowly.

What kind of books have been donated?

We got so many different kinds–poetry, biography, philosophy, a few history books by women. We got
some strange things like The Book of Women’s Firsts. I was impressed by the variety.

Did you ask for specific titles or categories?

I guess I really wanted the community to say what they thought was important, for one thing because books by women is uncharted territory. I actually made up a big list of books we might want, but people didn’t really end up using it. They seemed to have a book or books they really cared about that they wanted to donate.

What has the response been?

It’s been really interesting because it’s taken awhile for people to sort of catch on. As time has gone on people have warmed up to it. We ended up getting a lot more books than people thought we would.

Which books have you personally donated?

I’ve only donated a couple so far because I wanted to wait and see what was not there. I did donate Joyce Carol Oates and I will donate a hard cover copy of The Second Sex.

Do you think there is a place for women authors in the program?

I think it’s a myth that there aren’t really women who have been influential in our society, but I think they get lost and people forget about them. One of the reasons I did the project is that it might help lay the groundwork for future consideration of books by women. This year I gave my seminar a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It was the start of the women’s suffrage movement. I did it when we did the civil rights readings. It really fit in well and it was a short reading. My tutor, Mr. Taylor, was going to take it to the Instruction Committee. I think that’s one thing that could definitely be in there. I’d also like to see us stop switching the readings by women around so much because that makes it look like they’re interchangeable and not worthy of a permanent place on the program and that they’re actually there as a sort of lip-service to women. I’d also like to see people do more stuff in precepts.

Why do you see it as important to include more women in the program?

I think something like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own gives a perspective no male author could ever give us. That’s one reading that tells us what the silent half of the world might be thinking.

Do men and women think differently?

I don’t think we’ve talked about it enough to know.

This 1994 initiative ultimately yielded nearly two hundred and fifty titles for the new Library’s collection. Among the more than one hundred authors included across a broad spectrum of genres were Arendt, Atwood, Beauvoir, Byatt, Chicago, Chute, Dillard, Doerr, Faludi, Gilman, Giovanni, Gordimer, Hildegard of Bingen, Hrdy, Kingsolver, Lessing, Markham, Morrison, Munro, Murdoch, Parker, Plath, Porter, Sarton, Stein, Steinem, Tan, Walker, Weil, and Welty.

In the nearly three decades that have now passed since Ms. Malcolm’s graduation, the Library has increased its holdings by some twenty thousand volumes, representing literally thousands of authors across a myriad of genders, races, and ethnicities. For those who find the time, or make the time, for reading outside the prodigious demands of the Program, the Library stacks offer endless reading opportunity. Patrons browsing our stacks with a keen eye can still come across many of the very same volumes that first came to us as part of the Books by Women Project, with their original bookplates intact. This includes, for instance, the very first book received by the Library from this project, a Library of America edition of the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe donated by then-President of the Santa Fe campus John Agresto.

Also still on the shelves are titles donated by several longtime Santa Fe Tutors, including Linda Weiner Elmore, who passed away this last June, and recently retired Tutor Emerita Susan Stickney.

Further browsing also turns up the copy of Mary Wollstencraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women donated by Ms. Malcolm herself twenty-seven years ago.

And finally–included among these many original donations is one treasured volume that resides safely in the Library’s non-circulating Special Collections: a signed and inscribed copy of Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise, donated by then-freshman student Amy Filiatreau, of the Santa Fe class of 1997.

Ford K. Brown

Ford K. Brown

While the primary mission of the Meem Library is to support the College’s academic programs, the Library also maintains various peripheral collections dedicated to the general reading and archival interests of the campus and College community. Among these is a dedicated Faculty Collection, located in the Library’s formal Ault-Evers room and comprised solely of works authored by St. John’s College Faculty. While publication is not and never has been an expectation for our College’s tutors, whose primary duty always remains teaching, a significant number of faculty each year do publish. The Faculty Collection ensures the Library retains an archival copy of each such title, in addition to any copies that are catalogued for circulation in the general collection.

Due to its archival nature, the Faculty Collection includes certain volumes with particularly rich associations for the history of the College. One such volume is a 1961 edition of Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce, authored by Ford K. Brown.

Ford K. (Keeler) Brown holds a special place in the histories of both St. John’s College generally and the Santa Fe campus particularly. In 1937, when Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr took the reins of St. John’s and instituted the New Program the College still follows today, Ford Brown had already been a professor of English at the College for 12 years, since 1925. As described in Tutor J. Winfree Smith’s 1983 history of the New Program In Search for the Liberal College:

Shortly after becoming president, Barr had assembled in his office the incumbent faculty members who were in Annapolis that summer. This was before he has made any announcement to the press about the form and content of the curriculum. There were only about twenty-five faculty members in all. He explained to those assembled that there were three groups of the faculty: (1) those who would be interested in the program and teach successfully in it; (2) those who would be interested but who, for one reason or another, would find that they could not be successful teachers in the new curriculum; and (3) those who would not be at all interested and would prefer to leave and teach elsewhere. He promised help in finding employment for all those who might want to leave or might have to be dropped. There was nothing in the way of organized opposition from the faculty as there might have been in a college or university where there were strong departments…. Some of the faculty left right away, some stayed for a few years, and four continued to the end of their teaching careers: George Bingley, a mathematician; Ford Brown, a former Rhodes scholar and an authority on the Evangelicals in the Church of England; Richard Scofield, another Rhodes scholar who had previously taught art and English and very quickly proved the breadth of his interest and ability by the excellence of his teaching within the new program; and John Kieffer, in whom the program got a warm welcome because of his background in classical languages and literature.

As Winfree Smith indicates, Ford Brown continued on at the College for many years. After Richard Weigle assumed the presidency in 1949, Brown took the lead in the College’s adult education program, through which St. John’s tutors conducted seminars in Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, and Easton. Brown also appears in living color in the lecture segment (at the 12:40 mark) of the 1954 recruitment film “The St. John’s Story,” available on the College’s Digital Archives here.

Ford Brown’s influence was, however, not confined solely to the Annapolis campus. As the new Santa Fe campus of St. John’s prepared to open its doors in 1964, an initial roster of ten faculty was recommended by the two deans and the members of the Instruction Committee. Among this group of ten who would constitute the inaugural teaching slate for the new campus, now thirty-nine years after he had first arrived at St. John’s and twenty-seven years after serving as one of the New Program’s founding faculty in 1937, was Ford K. Brown. When the members of the Board, government officials, delegates from other institutions, and friends of the College converged on Santa Fe in October of 1964 for the formal dedication of the new campus, Ford Brown, as senior tutor on the Santa Fe faculty, served as marshall for the procession (and was described pointedly by Richard Weigle as “resplendent in the crimson and blue of his academic gown, for he had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.”)

Brown taught only that very first year in Santa Fe, but an anecdote Weigle relates in his history The Colonization of a College is indicative of the impression he made:

An incident during the spring of the College’s second year of operation illustrates the spirit which pervaded the campus at the time. Ford Brown, an Annapolis tutor, had come out for the first year of the Santa Fe campus. He had returned to the East in the summer of 1965 but was invited back to lecture on Thucydides in the spring of 1966. Students were delighted, so they formed a washboard band to greet him at the railroad station in Lamy, the stop nearest Santa Fe. As the train came to a halt and the porter opened the car door and set the steps for debarkation, the band struck up an appropriate tune, and cheers arose from the assembled students, many of whom had had Mr. Brown in seminar or tutorial. The porter was greatly impressed and turned to Mr. Brown. “Just who are you?” he inquired. Ford Brown was equal to the occasion. He drew himself up and replied, “I am the Secretary of Defense.” The students loved it.

Ford Brown had married in 1921, four years before he joined the faculty at St. John’s. Within a few years of his arrival at St. John’s his spouse, Zenith Jones Brown, had begun her own writing career, publishing crime fiction under two separate and simultaneous aliases (David Frome and Leslie Ford). Over the next 33 years she would publish several dozen books in the genre, at a rate of more than one a year. Ford, meanwhile, continued with the research and writing he had first begun with the assistance of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928, eventually publishing his own magnum opus, Fathers of the Victorians, in 1961. According to the New York Times:

The book recounts the national reform movement begun in England in the 1770s by a handful of men and women who were shocked at the moral conditions in England at the time, a national scene described by Dr. Brown as a “spectacle of horror, a nightmare of depravity, vice, sin and infidelity.” It received an honorable mention in the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize given by the American Historical Association for the best work on European history published by an American.

As mentioned above, among the books in the Meem Library’s Faculty Collection is a copy of this same Fathers of the Victorians, signed and inscribed to the library by Ford Brown on September 3, 1965.

Ford Brown continued to teach at the College through 1968, passing away in 1977 at the age of 82.

The Meem Library, Eastern Classics, and the Diamond Sutra

Cover of the 1995 Eastern Classics Catalogue

With the opening of the Meem Library in 1990, the Santa Fe campus’s library shelving space, which for twenty-six years had been severely limited by the lack of a dedicated library building, nearly doubled. Along with this new shelving space came both needs and opportunities to grow the Library’s collection.

The seeds of the first significant need appeared at nearly the same time as the Library’s construction, as Santa Fe faculty study groups began their focus on the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese texts that would soon become the foundation of the Graduate Institute’s Eastern Classics master’s program. Eastern Classics, or EC as it has come to be known here on campus, first began as a pilot program (the “Institute for the Study of Eastern Classics”) in 1992 and has run continuously as a St. John’s College graduate degree program since 1994. The history of the founding of Eastern Classics on the Santa Fe campus has been told many times through the years in various College publications available on the College’s Digital Archives, and most recently in a 2017 article by tutor and former Associate Dean of the Graduate Institute David McDonald. As tutor James Carey (Class of 1965), under whose deanship the early development of the Eastern Classics program occurred, has remarked:

How could we not be interested in what the human mind does when it has leisure and letters and it’s free from political persecution—what fundamental questions arise for it … and what form do they take, particularly if they’ve not been touched by Greece, or by Jerusalem? So the idea of looking at the thought of ancient India and ancient China was immensely appealing….

With the addition in the 1990s of an entirely new reading list rooted in great works of the East came a need for new core library acquisitions, including multiple class copies in a wide range of English translations for each reading, original language editions of these works, and texts and reference materials to support the program’s two new Language Tutorials in Sanskrit and Classical Chinese. As has so often been the case through the years at a College like our own, where the central place of books is undisputed, our alumni and friends quickly rallied on behalf of this new program and the Library’s collection. This included significant acquisitions funding during those early years from three members of the very same family, all of whom became EC graduates and advocates: Louise Heydt (EC95) and her son and daughter-in-law William (AN95, EC98) and Elizabeth (SF85, EC03) Rohrbach. Their joint efforts over the course of a full decade led to three crucial grants from the William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris Foundation that together were instrumental in building the Library’s Eastern holdings into the strong collection we now have today. It should also be noted that the College’s annual Rohrbach Memorial Lecture, which each year brings a guest scholar to the Santa Fe campus to speak on some topic related to the Eastern Classics, is funded in honor of this same William A. Rohrbach, who passed away suddenly in 2013. Now, nearly three decades since the beginning of the EC, two of our three staff librarians have themselves been through the campus’s Eastern Classics program, and the Library continues to expand its Eastern collections with additional primary and secondary literature, new translations, and supplementary works on Asian art, calligraphy, and other topics supporting our reading and understanding of these texts.

While the Eastern Classics program is sometimes viewed as a latecomer adjunct to our Liberal Arts programs, it is worth noting that the Western tradition owes to the East a debt of which many readers may be unaware. This debt lies not in the content of Western great works, but in the very medium of their survival and dissemination–in the actual technology behind the printed book as such. Physical books are, after all, the vehicles by which the texts we read at our College have made their journeys down through the millennia and centuries and decades and into our own hands today. If the existence of books as physical objects seems merely incidental to our questionings and reflections, it bears remembering that their physical existence is in fact the sine qua non of all our reading and discussion. The being of books, we must occasionally remind ourselves, lies not only in the ἐπιστήμη of those who wrote them; it is also literally bound up in the τέχνη of the mostly anonymous multitude who through the ages have printed, preserved and purveyed them.

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

Diamond Sutra, tr. Red Pine

Through this lens both our undergraduate and graduate Liberal Arts programs have deep roots in China, for it is to the Chinese that we owe the invention of that essential and now ubiquitous material all readers and book lovers have come to take for granted: paper. While the West continued to struggle with the fraught and limited media of papyrus and parchment and vellum up into the 11th century, the Chinese had already discovered the process of paper-making by the start of the Common Era, a full thousand years before. Initially used primarily as a convenient and pliable packing and wrapping material, by the third century paper had begun to be recognized for its value as a textual medium and soon became a powerful catalyst in the growth of China’s written culture. It was only through the paper-making process’s slow migration from the East westward through the Islamic world that paper as a technology finally reached and then began to take hold in Europe around the year 1100, leading to the ubiquity we know today.

Nor is it only for paper-making that the literary West owes a debt to the East, for printing as a means of efficiently duplicating texts also had its origins in China. Here, in the history of book-making, we actually find a direct connection to our own EC program, for it so happens that one of the seminal works on the Eastern Classics reading list, the Diamond (or Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā) Sutra, provides the text for the oldest complete dated printed book in existence. Printed by woodblock on paper sections subsequently connected into a five-meter long horizontal scroll, the renowned Dunhuang copy of the Diamond Sutra was unearthed from a sealed cave (known since as the Library Cave) in northwest China in 1900. With a colophon dating its production to May 11, 868, this copy had been interred with some forty thousand other manuscripts and artifacts sometime in the 11th century and then lost to time for nearly one thousand years. Acquired by the British Museum in 1907, it can now be viewed in high-resolution digital form on the British Library website as part of the International Dunhuang Project, a collaboration among institutions across several continents that seeks to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, and artifacts from Silk Road sites available worldwide on the Internet.

A brief and fascinating account by the British Library of the conservation of this early example of Chinese printing can be viewed here:

Finally, for those interested in exploring in more depth and detail the discovery and significance of the Dunhuang Diamond Sutra in the context of early book-making, we recommend the following talk by Susan Whitfield, Director of the International Dunhuang Project, given at the Getty Center in Los Angles in conjunction with the 2016 exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on the Silk Road, which brought this unique book to the United States for a brief period: