This profile is part of a series of interviews chronicling the experiences of researchers who use The New York Public Library's collections for the development of their work.
The MacLeish Scholar Program gives ten rising high school seniors at the Hotchkiss School the chance to conduct literary archival research, undertake a longform creative writing project, and learn the arts of bookmaking. Students split each day between researching at special collections in New York City and working on their writing and books. The program, which is free for all participants regardless of need, is followed by a year-long course in which the students write 40-page theses based on their summer research.
Tell us about your research project.
Boris Branis: My research centers on John Milton’s influence on the Romantic poets, primarily William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and the Shelleys, as well as others in their circles.
Amber Bretz: As a MacLeish Scholar, I have oriented my research around the diachronic study of female literature, examining Mary Shelley and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to contextualize both the Romantic movement and Victorian literature. In addition to 19th-century female authors, I studied Ntozake Shange, a contemporary African-American feminist, who is a prolific playwright, novelist, and poet.
Amelia Kain: I’m researching Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and many other novels and short stories. Throughout the course of my research, my focus has shifted to include other writers that were also influential for Nabokov or those who he heavily analyzed, such as Leo Tolstoy and James Joyce.
Richie Mamam Nbiba: My research explores the place of Black female poets in the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement. I have explored the archives of Maya Angelou, Michele Wallace, Ann Petry, and Ntozake Shange.
Lauren Sonneborn: My research centers on two female authors: Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf. While they lived and wrote nearly a century apart, they both belonged to some of the foremost literary circles, an interesting parallel.
Awa Sowe: I am researching Robin Clarkson Hardy, a gay activist writer in the mid-1900s. I am also researching Queer education and activism in the late 1900s through publications and serials.
Celina Wang: I am researching on Hart Crane and James Baldwin's relationship with their own sexuality and identity as Queer writers.
Amelie Zhang: Rooted in my interests in international politics and ethics, my research project focuses on the connections between literature and political and philosophical thought. At the Berg, I’ve largely concentrated on Transcendentalism and political satire/fiction.
When did you first get the idea for your research project?
Boris Branis: I first read John Milton’s Paradise Lost when I was at home during the beginning of the COVID pandemic. I quickly fell in love with the text. Not only was this one of the most beautiful things I had ever read—the words were crafted with such mastery!—but it brought up constant debates: from theological questions of sin and free will to political questions of tyranny and self-governance.
Alex Cheng: I’ve always loved the idea of New York; as a poet and short-story writer, the city has always been a central part of my works. I am especially fascinated by the idea of loneliness when a whole city teeming with life surrounds you. This is why I landed on the Beats and the New York School as my research project—to gain a greater understanding of the city’s rich tradition of art, and how it has inspired artists before me.
Richie Mamam Nibiba: As a Black female poet myself, I saw my research as an opportunity to uncover more about those that paved the way for girls like me. I initially focused more closely on Maya Angelou and Ntozake Shange. I decided later to include two lesser-known but equally talented poets in order to broaden my scope.
Lauren Sonneborn: After reading her novel Orlando in English class this year, I fell in love with Virginia Woolf’s style. I was truly struck by the way she could bend language and syntax to be beautiful and meaningful, and I knew I wanted to read more—especially in relation to feminism, a theme that I nearly always track through novels.
Photo of diary page by Vladimir Nabokov. Copyright © by Vladimir Nabokov, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
What’s the most unexpected item you encountered in your research?
Amber Bretz: In the Pforzheimer Collection, I discovered The Swain, one of Mary Shelley’s commonplace books. As I sifted through, I found various drawings, fragmented stories and narratives that offered a nuanced perspective on her thinking.
Lucy Jervis: While looking at one of Vladimir Nabokov’s pocket diaries, I discovered a small slip of paper hidden inside the back cover. I am excited to figure out what lies inside!
Amelia Kain: Vladimir Nabokov doodles a lot. In the margins of at least a few pages in each miniature diary of his, he has doodled a small butterfly or person or chess problem.
Richie Mamam Nibiba: One of my favorite discoveries in the archives so far has been from the Ann Petry collection. Although she is famous for her literature, most of her poetry remained unpublished. I found a poem entitled “The Gift'' in her archive. To me, this poem speaks to Petry’s love for poetry and her use of the art form to express her intense emotions of love.
Describe how you approached your research.
Amber Bretz: I generated my research project through consultation with my English teacher, Dr. Blevins. We both agreed that a broad approach to archival research would give me the chance to explore various authors while remaining oriented around feminist history.
Awa Sowe: When I arrive at the library, I start looking through the folders and taking pictures of all that I find interesting or I think might help me with my research. I take pictures for forty-five minutes and then categorize these photos in my Google drive for fifteen minutes. I repeat this process while taking notes of the things I find the most important.
Celina Wang: As both James Baldwin and Hart Crane are New Yorkers, they interacted closely with the cultural, social, and economical aspects of the city and brought their own stories into the grand LGBTQ+ history in New York City. I hope to learn more about both their professional and personal lifestyles by looking at Crane’s poetry and Baldwin’s novels about bisexuality and interracial relationships.
How do you maintain your research momentum?
Lucy Jervis: I try to pace myself every day in the library, as I am there for around five hours most days. Whenever I begin to lose momentum, I remind myself how special it is to be conducting archival research on my favorite author. The doodles and humorous comments he made in his diaries always make me smile and give me the strength to continue researching.
Lauren Sonneborn: Whenever I start to feel disengaged or tired of whatever I am researching, I remind myself how amazing it is that I am touching papers that Woolf once touched and deciphering the handwriting of one of my literary heroes. It never fails to motivate and inspire me!
After a day of working/researching, what do you do to unwind?
Awa Sowe: I read in the evenings after each long day of work in the libraries. Currently, I’m reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor.
Amelie Zhang: Working in the archives involves a lot of reading and writing, which is why I try to unwind after researching by immersing myself back in nature and the world. (Thoreau would be proud!)
What tabs do you currently have open on your computer?
Alex Cheng: Poetry Foundation, my poetry journal, NBA draft predictions, TicketMaster to find tickets for a New York concert.
Is there anything you'd like to tell someone looking to get started?
Celina Wang: The first couple of days in the archives may seem overwhelming because you will feel like you can’t possibly process the materials that you have looked at during your time in the Library. However, a mind map has already started to form quietly in your head as you gather more and more evidence. You will get the full picture eventually: just immerse yourself into your time spent in the archives and trust the process.
Amelie Zhang: Embrace the intimidation and unknown of deep literary research. Working in reading rooms and reading rare texts from centuries ago can be really daunting, but seize the opportunity to explore your interests and passions in the archives, and relish the joy of learning and exploration.