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All Booked Up

Middlebury College's man of letters, Bob Buckeye, begins a new chapter


Published August 6, 2003 at 12:42 p.m.

I'm not sure what I expected to find when I went to meet Robert Buckeye, the recently retired Special Collections Librarian at Middlebury College's Starr Library, curator emeritus of the library's Abernethy Collection of American Literature, former director of the Abernethy Lecture Series, one-time college archivist, ex-instructor in modernist, contemporary and experimental writing, founder of the Friends of the Middlebury College Library, writer, editor, publisher, poet -- what am I leaving out?

For all his work with words, Buckeye remains one of Vermont's best-kept literary secrets. That's worked out well for Alex Aldrich, director of the Vermont Arts Council, where Buckeye is commencing his fourth year on the board of directors, this time as chair. "Being on the Arts Council board has allowed him to come out from whatever curtain he's operating behind -- you know, like the Wizard of Oz," Aldrich observes.

Buckeye, 64, is a legend on the Middlebury campus, though not, as yet, very far beyond it. His name alone -- Bob Buckeye -- conjures images of bullets, bandits and the O.K. Corral. He greeted me at the door of his East Middlebury home in a tight T-shirt, jeans and boots, wearing a stud earring and leaving me to wonder, while he made some coffee, if I hadn't at last met the librarian of my dreams. They're all gay, I said to myself, with more hope than inspiration. And if they're not, they should be.

Alas, this fantasy began to dissipate the minute Buckeye sat down on the sofa and mentioned something about his "ex-wives and girlfriends." It vanished entirely when I confronted his published fiction -- Pressure Drop, the first book Buckeye published under the imprint he founded in 2001, Amandla Publishing. A sample:

Today is Friday. Thursday yesterday. Wednesday the day before. Liz's hair against my skin, the shape of her earlobe to my fingers, the angle of her jaw, cheek. How earlier I lowered my head to her breast, flicked my tongue against her nipple, took it into my mouth, the nipple swelling, hardening, and I began to suck it, pulling it deeper into my mouth, her hand against the back of my head pulling me towards her, her breathing becoming heavier. Brilliant oranges and reds of plants and bushes outside the window here in Esperanza. The sun bright by midmorning. Liz rubs her cheek against my arm, scratches the bridge of her nose. No es tranquilo.

Buckeye will forgive my prurience, I hope, when he realizes that I've known a lot of librarians and not one of them has ever mentioned a woman's nipple to me. Amandla, the name of his publishing house, is Swahili for "We shall overcome." That's exactly what I had to do for the next hour and a half of our interview, while Buckeye discoursed on everything from the state of commercial publishing -- "dire" -- to the "rewarding friendships" he formed with his students over his 32-year tenure at Middlebury.

In a single breath, he talked about the "dialect" of academics and the "rich language" of postal workers; about Emerson, Melville, Thoreau and Casanova -- whose sage advice, "You fuck with soul," Buckeye seamlessly segued with a remark that a high percentage of Americans apparently believe we went to war with Iraq in order to eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

"Not only that," Buckeye continued, "but, according to the polls, 20 percent of these people think that chemical weapons were actually used against us in the fighting" -- an idea that can only have come from a centralized, "homogenized," profit-driven media, he suggests. I asked him if he thought people were stupider now than they used to be and he said no, that it was a question of "information" and the way it's delivered to the public.

"The best students at Middlebury are as good as students ever were," Buckeye insists, "even if they're brought to you by the Internet." A lot of them need nudging into the world of books, he admits, but it's not just kids who have changed in this sense. Libraries are different, too -- a fact Buckeye points out in his bicentennial treatise entitled "200 Years of the College Libraries." Like all good scholars, he gives credit where credit is due:

"In 1924," he writes, Spanish essayist and philosopher Jose "Ortega y Gasset argued in an address given to an international conference of librarians that the increasing proliferation of books had slowed the acquisition of knowledge, not increased it, as cars had snarled traffic in cities. In the Age of Information, one always needs more, and no library is large enough. There is increasing dependence upon the professional to guide one through fields one knows less and less about; and technology is seen to be the vehicle of our salvation."

In Buckeye's view, technology surely isn't the vehicle of salvation, but before you conclude he's some kind of Luddite, stuck in the Dewey Decimal System and the ancient card catalog, take a look at Amandla Publishing's list of titles, which is short but innovative and avant-garde. American literature was "once a river defined by clearly established banks," Buckeye explains, but it's now "an ocean with many streams in it."

After Buckeye's Pressure Drop, Amandla's second venture was daytrtment, by Vermonter Peter Gallo, a hybrid of text, art, language and images that Buckeye admits proved "difficult," even "impenetrable," for many people. The third was Quarry Road: Uncollected Essays and Reviews by the late Paul Metcalf, a great-grandson of Herman Melville, who was "linked to the Black Mountain School and Charles Olson." His work, Buckeye says, "sometimes had none of his own language in it," only "montage," "collage" and quotations from other people.

Now Buckeye's novel Notebook is out, and you get the feeling that Amandla will succeed just as this publisher-author intends it to -- "to provide some availability to works that would otherwise not be available."

You might say that providing obscure works to worthy readers was also Buckeye's role in Special Collections at Middlebury College. Humanities prof Stephen Donadio remembers the first time he saw Buckeye at work there, "many years ago," when he went to Starr Library to look at some of Henry David Thoreau's papers. "When I prepared to leave the library and returned the manuscripts to his care," Donadio recalls, "his manner was perfectly cordial, but I sensed a hint of skepticism in it, and an underlying question that he seemed to be asking in all but words: 'Is the interest that brings you here an academic interest, or are you really serious about this stuff?'"

The distinction is essential to Buckeye. In 2000, Middlebury's bicentennial year, he reproduced Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1845 Commencement Address to students at the College, in which Emerson, quoting the French statesman Talleyrand, challenged his audience to demand of the scholar, "Not, Is he rich? Is he committed? Is he well meaning? Has he this or that faculty? Is he of the movement? Is he of the establishment? But, Is he anybody? Does he stand for something?"

Clearly, Buckeye does. In that same year, 2000, he published a history of the Middlebury College staff -- not the faculty but the staff, "those at desks and on the line, those working outdoors and in front of computer screens." He also became a disc jockey on the college radio station, hosting weekly "vignettes" about Middlebury's history that were meant to be "both serious and casual." Buckeye called his program "Stale Air," in reference to National Public Radio's afternoon hit "Fresh Air." He tried to "point out ways in which the past is unlike the present, as well as those ways in which little has changed over time. What has gone around has come around," he says, and "it is important to know at least something of how we got where we are."

Which isn't to say Buckeye is stuck in the past. His students at Middlebury were often surprised to discover that he didn't like a lot of the books he assigned them to read. But he firmly believes "we are all in our own time," and that art can and must change.

Buckeye brings that same perspective to the Arts Council, which "needs to be fair to all of its forms and developments in the state," he says. "How does one support art across the board, from the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to the Lyndonville High School Band?"

Director Aldrich "couldn't be more pleased" that Buckeye is leading the VAC board. "We have three constituent groups. One is the individual artist. One is the presenting organization. And the third are the people who are changed with arts education," he says. "Most people come to the Arts Council from one of those constituency groups. Bob... sort of comes from all three.

"He's been one of a small handful of trustees who has made an all-out effort to understand the workings of the Arts Council as it currently is," Aldrich adds. "He almost approaches it as an academic exercise -- and I mean that in a nice way." Emerson would be proud.