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A Fortunate Man

These uncertain, unprecedented times have given us all pause, so to speak. Even those of us who have the immense privilege of secure jobs, the relative safety of seclusion, and work that is, as we have recently learned to call it, non-essential, still have reason to wonder whether anything will ever again be like it was. As it always would be, we thought once, though we must now suspect that what was has become used to be. Everywhere we hear talk of lockdowns and opening up, of stopped clocks and new calendars, as if time and space really are one, with the needle spinning wildly.

Sometimes, though, we still get reminded of what hasn’t changed, what really matters. Funny, though, that losing a friend would be an occasion to recall permanence, what lies beyond both suffering and loss. And yet, as I reflect now—as so many are here at UMass, in the Five Colleges, and well beyond, given the web woven by every truly exceptional life—that is, for me at least, the first lesson of the premature passing of Rob S. Cox, archivist extraordinaire. For months now, across the world, we have numbered untimely deaths daily. It’s harsh, but Rob has perhaps given us a final gift, a salutary shock and reminder: we all die; this is not an exception, it’s our destiny.

We also know, or think we know, that the best of us often die young. So what, then, from such senseless, unreasonable events, can we possibly learn? In Rob’s case, it’s clear: some people do indeed take up their calling, and in doing so, they make our world, the world, better. I would even say, to echo John Berger, that Rob Cox was a fortunate man. He found his way in the world, he found work that needed doing, and he was exceptionally successful in achieving what he set out to do. Though he became director of Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts Amherst only in 2004, the notice posted by the UMass news office notes that roughly seventy-five percent of the materials in those archives was acquired under his watch. (One has to wonder, given this startling fact, what the University was doing during its 150-year history before Rob took the helm.) Even more to the point, Rob’s leadership gave UMass Special Collections both direction and identity:

Cox began strategically building on the university’s archival strengths in the history of social activism and organization, anchored by the papers of W.E.B. Du Bois. He recognized and fostered connections with activist communities, engaging individuals and groups in dialogue about the benefits of archiving their materials, from intentional communities and advocacy organizations, to disability and civil rights campaigns.

For obvious reasons, in building its archive, a state institution like the University of Massachusetts Amherst won’t always be able to compete successfully with overendowed private universities. What it can and should do, Rob recognized, is what the privates would never do, never even think to do. So that’s what he did, for us all.

I myself first met Rob shortly after I came on board as editor of the Massachusetts Review. Excepting, of course, the ongoing wisdom and counsel of founding editor Jules Chametzky, there has been nothing as instructive, or as daunting, as the art exhibition that Rob facilitated for the magazine’s fiftieth anniversary, curated by Pam Glaven, MR’s art director. Meanwhile, Pam’s daughter Lizzie Lenson, along with John Emil Vincent, was combing through the 49 boxes of MR archival materials in Special Collections, unearthing one treasure after another: a note from Langston Hughes to Jules, asking the editors to be straight with him—“I am not a ‘sensitive’ poet”—or that telegram from Paris—“Sartre says yes”—or the edits on the first page of the Kwame Ture essay “Toward Black Liberation,” showing its original title—“WHITEY, THE BLACK PANTHER’S GOIN’ GIT YOURE MOMMA.” In sum, archives are anything but dead letters. In this case, with the help of Pam, Lizzie, John and others, a true celebration sprung forth and spoke volumes about the Review’s radical history. For me, only beginning to get involved at that point, it made our mission clear: stepping up and continuing that legacy had to be our prime directive.

A recent coup, out of the many that Rob brought to the University, was last fall’s acquisition by UMass of the papers of Daniel Ellsberg. To celebrate that achievement, Ellsberg himself spent several days on campus in October, 2019, giving a series of talks that culminated in a packed house at the Campus Center Auditorium. There Rob gave, as he always did, an introduction that somehow simultaneously seemed on point, off-the-cuff, and simply brilliant.

As Ellsberg began his lecture that evening, he made a startling confession: despite his many years of government work, he had never participated in the federal pension plan. Knowing as much as anyone, in those hottest of Cold War years, about the position of the doomsday clock’s minute hand, the military analyst simply didn’t see the point. He didn’t expect to have a future. Given this situation, Ellsberg said, he wanted to thank the University of Massachusetts for its generosity in providing him with a retirement plan. Even scholars who use archives regularly, I suspect, are unlikely to appreciate fully the lesson such an anecdote reveals: archival acquisitions are inevitably wins for both donor and recipient; the archivist’s work is a rare sort of public service, with direct rewards for both the public and for those who are (or ought to be) public heroes.

During the decade or so of my work an editor, I had more than a few occasions to consult with Rob. Like him, I tend to err on the side of informality, so generally I’d just pop into his office with what was meant to be a quick question or two. But everyone who was lucky enough to know Rob can tell you what happened next: inevitably, no matter what he was working on, Rob would ask me to sit down, and we’d move in seconds from my official excuse for being there to a back story about whatever poster, photo, or papers happened to be sitting atop the pile on his desk, and from there to countless other things, each more intriguing than the last. Time would fly by until at some point we both had to flee, already late for whatever the next meeting was, because there’s always another meeting.

Until, of course, there isn’t. But that, in the end, is precisely why I want to insist that —despite the fact, of course, that he wasn’t allowed the Psalmic ten to add to his three score—Rob was indeed a fortunate man, just as we all were greatly fortunate to have had him among us. The thing about archives is, of course, that they last. The gifts of an archivist, particularly when that archivist is also a poet, are an eternal summer, giving life, not least of all his life, to us all.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review.


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