Georgia O’Keeffe was a tremendous reader – and while she might be more well known for collecting rocks and bones and shells – she also amassed an extraordinary library of over 3000 volumes of poetry and literature as well as books on art, history, politics, philosophy, psychology, and the natural world.
O’Keeffe called her library at her home in Abiquiu the Book Room.
Throughout their correspondence of over 30 years, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz exchanged more than 25000 letters. They also exchanged books. The first book that Stieglitz sent to Georgia was a copy of Goethe’s Faust. This was Stieglitz’s favorite novel and he claimed he would return to it once a year, every summer at Lake George –there were certain passages he would read over and over again. Here is the inscription he wrote on the copy he sent to O’Keeffe in 1916 – exactly 100 years ago:
“When I was nine, I discovered Faust. It gave me quiet then. I knew not why. But it gave me quiet. And I have lived since then – much & hard – & in consequence suffered so that I could not suffer anymore. Faust quieted me in such despairing moment – always – And as I grew it seemed to also grow. It is a Friend. Like the Lake. To one who, without knowing, has given me much at a time when I needed Faust + Lake. – 1916.”
During the early years of their correspondence, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz discovered that they shared a passion for literature and ideas. When O’Keeffe came down with the flu in Texas, he sent her The Letters of Van Gogh and wrote in the inscription:
“I read this volume when it came out in 1913…I want you to have the book…I’m glad you are following the doctor’s advice…To Georgia O’Keeffe – a little girl – from a very, very old man. –“291” Jan. 21 1918.”
After O’Keeffe moved to New York and became a part of Stieglitz’s world, their circle of friends included an number of important 20th century writers including DH Lawrence, Carl Sandburg. Sherwood Anderson, Jean Toomer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and others.
The last book Stieglitz sent to O’Keeffe was King Lear – he sent it in July 1945 when she was away for the summer in New Mexico. He pinned a note handwritten in pencil to page 175 of the text – Act V, Scene III, marking out lines in the scene he asked O’Keeffe to read – lines of Lear to his daughter Cordelia while they are in prison:
“We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage/When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,/And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,/And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh/At gilded butterflies, and her poor rogues/Talk of court news: and we’ll talk with them too, -/Who loses, and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;/And take upon’s the mystery of things,/As if we were God’s spies: ad we’ll wear out,/In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones/That ebb and flow by the moon.”
On his handwritten note pinned to this page, Stieglitz had written:
“This expression of Lear’s – this call, such a basic feeling of the gift of intimate living with one another. From an ill, old king. But the longing, the dreaming, go with the health.”
In every draft of a novel, there is material that inspires early writing of the story, but is often cut from later drafts, and may not be part of the final published work. In my notebooks for this novel, I wrote a scene of Georgia opening the package that contained King Lear, reading Stieglitz’s words pinned to that page, and feeling the full brunt of all that had transpired between them – the love, the loss, the damage, the desire which once seemed so vast, the betrayal. In this scene – which is no longer in the book – Georgia thinks to herself: “You have my forgiveness. But you are wrong on one count: the longing and the dreaming, those go on. Always.”
One of the thing I love most about Georgia O’Keeffe is her resolve. Her fierce determination to let her dreams shape her life. I feel that her relationship with Stieglitz and those years in New York were a kind of crucible for her – those were the years when came to understand what mattered to her most – what she would do, sacrifice, fight for, and endure in order to live a life integrally aligned with what she wanted and believed.
Other notable titles from the Book Room at Abqiuiu:
Ulysses by James Joyce
Tar by Sherwood Anderson
Haiku (4 Volumes) by R.H. Blyth
Confucius: A Drama in Two Acts by Sadakichi Hartmann
Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway
A Propos of Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Woods, Shore, Desert: A Notebook by Thomas Merton
Winter of Artifice by Anais Nin
The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura
The Psychology of the Unconscious by C.G. Jung
One Hundred Views of Fuji by Hokusai
Le Jardin des Supplices by Octave Mirabeau and Auguste Rodin
O’Keeffe’s Book Room also held several titles by Frank Lloyd Wright. O’Keeffe met Wright in the 1920s. She once referred to him as “one of my favorite people of our time.” In one of the volumes of his works she kept, An Autobiography, Book Six: Broadacre City, Wright had inscribed a note to O’Keeffe on the title page: Dear Georgia – Maybe this won’t interest you – but it’s to you anyway/Frank
*The quoted material above is from The Book Room: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Library in Abiquiu by Ruth E. Fine (Author), Elizabeth Glassman (Contributor), the catalogue from the exhibit at The Grolier Club, curated by Ruth Fine, Elizabeth Glassman, & Juan Hamilton