The Providential Louise Bryant Papers

In my early days training for public services at Manuscripts and Archives, I was introduced to reprographics services by way of a researcher's request for material from the Louise Bryant Papers, MS 1840, a collection documenting the life of the American radical leftist writer known most famously for her first-hand reporting on the rise of Socialism in Russia during the 1917 October revolution.

I was given an hour or so make copies, and while I dutifully did so, I couldn’t help but be transfixed by what passed through my hands. I already had some familiarity with Bryant (even beyond seeing Reds), but once I surveyed her correspondence, her photographs, and her drawings, I really had a sense of who she was as a person -- all at once, I understood why researchers work with primary source materials. This, like Manuscripts and Archives’ receiving her papers unintentionally with the donation of the William C. Bullitt Papers, “in a single trunk … originally collected and saved by Bryant, not her daughter or Bullitt”, was a welcome revelation. MS 1840 has remained a personal favorite since.

Flash forward about six years to last week. A task had come to me that meant my necessarily perusing every folder of twenty-four boxes of Louise Bryant Papers. Once again reintroduced to her expressive, weird, and sometimes drunken drawings, I felt it was a prime opportunity to share them. One might consider them naive, sure, but many of them are quite funny (she’d been a political cartoonist prior to her storied work as a journalist) and allow us a privileged glimpse into some aspects of her character.

Another Great Victory for Democracy

I found that Bryant continued to draw throughout her life. During her various world-wide travels, she’d occasionally make a quick sketch of a location or of a person that she’d see to presumably later describe textually in an article or essay.

From Bryant’s journal, “Trip to Bokhara”, Jan-Feb 1921.

While many of her drawings are undated and unsigned, context provides clues that she continued to draw for pleasure late into her life, with a particular fondness for caricatures, women’s fashion, and social commentary.

Mr. Hoover in Repose

In 1924, Bryant gave birth to her daughter, Anne Moen Bullitt. In MS 1840’s Series III: Visual Artworks, comprising drawings in pencil, ink, and watercolor, one can find drawings by both Bryant and a young Bullitt individually, drawings that they made for each other, and even a paper doll that it appears they each had a hand in making. In looking at this material, I couldn’t help but think about the descriptor of the series in the finding aid, “While some of the artwork is signed by Bryant, much of it is unsigned and therefore might be the work of someone else.”

I then stumbled onto folder 9 in box 18 which contains a single sketchbook with very little writing. The drawing style here differs significantly from much of the other visual material in the collection: representational drawings are made loosely, with visible gesture lines, display confident, naturalistic shading and advanced pencil handling. Further, the book is composed almost entirely of landscapes.

I immediately considered another drawing I saw earlier in the collection, most likely pastel and gouache drawn on the inside of a previously published book cover; I’d thought it was a preliminary mockup for a book cover of William Bullitt’s 1926 satirical novel It’s Not Done and had noted its style, altogether different from Bryant's other work.

Drawn on the verso of the dust jacket of Knut Hamsun's novel, Benoni.

Via web search, I was able to determine that this image is either an homage to a Robert Minor illustration for "The Masses", or, however unlikely, a drawing by Minor himself. Further research led me to discover that Bryant, Bullitt, Minor, and others of “the Masses crowd” all lived near one another at Mt. Airy, New York. Could it be that the sketchbook of landscapes was the work of Minor, perhaps given to Bryant to eventually find its way into her trunk at the Bullitt home?

Robert Minor's cover for the July, 1916 issue of "The Masses".

Speculation, yes, but Minor’s published cartoons bear some stylistic parallels to the hand that composed the landscapes. Still, none of the cartoons attributed to him that I was able to find depict objects, plant life, or structures. I contacted Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library to enquire about their collection of the Robert Minor Papers, but as their finding aid suggests, the collection holds no drawings.

Alas, the hunt is stymied for now. I can only hope that further research bears out or dashes my admittedly wild assumptions -- either way, I'll know Louise Bryant a little better.