Undergrad Research: A Trip to the Archives in NYC

Note: this is the first of two installments about David’s archival research trip. The second will be published tomorrow.

This January I was fortunate enough to take a trip to New York City and conduct research at the New York Public Library for my honors thesis, “Making the Team: The Real and Fantastical Sporting Life of Jack Kerouac.”

Before the trip was even conceivable, though, I was in the midst of applying to graduate schools for the fall 2012 term. Graduate school has been an aspiration of mine since high school, and now, nearly five years later, I was finally applying and taking my first steps into a new tier of my academic career.

It was hard to convey to other people how terrified I felt in approaching such a critical moment in my life. As I completed each application, I grew anxious about submitting them. This was the first time that I was really taking a stand for myself and my future. Graduate school was part of the plan, but that plan was never set in stone. It was only what I had imagined for myself thus far. For the first time, I started to imagine different paths for my future that didn’t involve graduate school.

This isn’t a great mindset to have if you want your applications to express confidence, but these were the thoughts that ran through my head. As each application was submitted—four in total—it was as if my confidence in my plan was being cut short by every click of the “Submit Now” button. By the end, I was quite drained.

Returning to my thesis research, last semester I came across a short book written by Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, titled, Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats. The book was a basic introduction to Jack Kerouac’s fantasy sports materials housed in the Berg archives, which detailed Kerouac’s obsessive interest in creating horse-racing newssheets as an adolescent and maintaining his own fantasy baseball game for most of his life. I had only read about these interests briefly in his biographies and a few of his novels, but I had no idea how extensive they were in reality. The book spurred my hope to go to New York City and see Kerouac’s fantasy sports materials in person.

With the assistance of a generous COLA Honors financial award, I made plans to stay a week in Manhattan in mid-January and comb through the Berg Collection. It was to be my first taste of hands-on archival research. I was excited and anxious weeks before the trip, quite similar to my feelings when I submitted my graduate school applications. I would pore over the Kerouac finding aid on the Berg website, examining every box’s contents, reading every description, and thinking endlessly about how each item could support my thesis.

When the day finally came to fly out of Houston’s Hobby Airport, I wasn’t only worried about my thesis; I was worried about my future. If I can’t make it a few days in this archive, come back with the necessary information, survive a new city, how am I going to cut it in graduate school? I was mentally attacking myself and preparing myself for failure. I told myself, “You’re not going for fun, you’re going for work.” I imagined I had to be rigid and stern in my demeanor, firmly dedicated to being a “scholar,” or what my conception of a scholar was supposed to be. Never have I had the impression, of course, that the American Studies faculty here at UT are unemotional, stone-faced academics. Quite the contrary, they are some of the most engaging, talkative, intelligent and cool—yes, cool—people that I’ve ever encountered. So, how I came to believe that a scholar should be a stern stick-in-the-mud is beyond me, but that’s what I felt I had to be to make it through this experience.

It wasn’t until my plane descended into New York in the early evening—when I caught my first glimpse of the thousands of yellow-orange lights sparkling in the dark across the expansive city, the Brooklyn Bridge gently arching across the quiet flow of the water below, and the Empire State Building merely the size of a snow-globe sized replica of itself—that I realized I was about to land in one of the biggest cultural metropolises in the country and the world. Whatever feelings I had about not having fun and being a righteous fuddy-duddy were gone. I was in NEW YORK CITY.

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