Beinecke Curator Nancy Kuhl Honored for Extraordinary Service to Biography

May 24, 2019

By Michael Morand

Nancy Kuhl, curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature, has been awarded the 2019 Biblio Award for Extraordinary Service to Biographers by the Biographers International Organization (BIO), which annually honors a librarian or archivist “who has made an exceptional contribution to the craft of biography.” She received the award at the opening reception for 2019 BIO Conference in New York City on May 17, 2019.

“We at BIO like to acknowledge not only outstanding biographers but also those whom we depend upon to do the work we do. Nancy Kuhl was a natural choice for our annual Biblio award,” according to Linda Leavell, a member of BIO’s board of directors. 

Leavell, an award-winning biographer of the poet Marianne Moore, added about Kuhl: “She brings enthusiasm to her work and made me feel welcome at the Beinecke Library when I spent several months there as a Ruth Stephan Fellow in 2014 and 2015. Those of us who work in literary biography are most grateful to Nancy and to the Beinecke Library for preserving and making available to scholars the archives we need to make our subjects come alive to scholars and to a broader audience.”

Justin Spring, another BIO board member, observed, “I’ve always been so touched and amazed by the diligence, intelligence, patience and perseverance of Beinecke Library curators” who “have been endlessly patient (and I might even say indulgent) of me over the years as I return to them over and over for guidance, direction, explanation and enlightenment in the Beinecke — both in person and via email.” 

Spring, the author of Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, designed the glass prize Kuhl and previous honorees received. Reflecting on the award ceremony, he noted that his colleagues in literary biography concur with his regard of Kuhl’s work “so it was a huge pleasure to see Nancy receive the attention and recognition she deserves. I wish there were more prizes on offer for such work. There ought to be.”

Thoughtful interlocutor and precise listener who is always cheerful, game, and a step ahead

“Nancy is a magician. A wing woman. A thoughtful interlocutor. A precise listener,” said Wendy Moffat, professor English at Dickinson College, biographer of E.M. Forster, and a Yale alumna. “Using her natural tools—wit, calm, capacious knowledge of her field and the collection, and imagination— she helped me unearth a long-lost uncatalogued collection in the Beinecke by consulting the LAST REMAINING CARD CATALOG.”

“She’s always cheerful, game, and a step ahead. And no one takes more pleasure in others’  success than she does,” Moffat added. “Now it’s our turn to celebrate her. We are all lucky to work with her. Huzzah on this well-deserved recognition.”

Back on campus, Karin Roffman in the Yale Department of English reflected, “There is a genuine reason that Nancy Kuhl is thanked profusely in the acknowledgments of so many books: she is incredibly knowledgeable, whip-smart and articulate, very funny and makes creative and extremely generous use of those gifts for everyone who does research at the Beinecke.”

Kuhl has collaborated with Roffman on many endeavors, including a master class on literary biography Roffman recently taught for graduate students, semester-long classes for undergraduates, and the recent “Biography Symposium: Three Conversations on Contemporary Biography,” held at the Beinecke Library. The symposium featured a number of writers whose works of biography drew from research at the library, including Emily Bernard, David Blight, Langdon Hammer, Adina Hoffman, T.J. Stiles, and Roffman herself, with subjects including John Ashbery, Hart Crane, George Armstrong Custer, Frederick Douglass, Ben Hecht, Nella Larsen, James Merrill, Allen Tate, Carl Van Vechten, and Edith Wharton.

At the time of the symposium, Kuhl commented on the vital relationship of the library and biographers: “The books by Hoffman, Blight, Hammer, Bernard, and Roffman—and countless others—expose our collections to a wide-range of curious readers who may themselves never conduct research on site. These books activate the collections for a wide audience and together with our many and varied public programs, events, and outreach efforts they make the dynamic collections we steward available broadly both now and for the future.”

A national center for the living art of American poetry … and biography!

Hammer also regularly teaches his Yale English courses in the Beinecke Library and frequently consults the archives for his own biographical and other scholarly writing. He commented, “Nancy Kuhl understands literary biography. She knows there is life in the writing she curates, just waiting to reveal itself. Maintaining Beinecke’s magnificent YCAL poetry archive, while growing it creatively, Nancy has made that revelation possible over and over again.”

Beinecke Library Director E.C. Schroeder celebrated Kuhl and her award: “Nancy Kuhl, as curator of poetry in the Yale Collection of American Literature, has established the Beinecke Library as a national center of the living art of American poetry. She has also been essential in building the library’s role as a national center of the living art of American biography.” 

“Nancy’s professional work is like the glass Biblio award designed by Justin Spring: clear and precise,” Schroeder said. “Her knowledge and expertise are vast, her mind truly contains multitudes. Moreover, her spirit of generosity and collaboration, her care and concern for students and scholars and public visitors, are abundant and radiant. All of us who have the joy of being her colleagues every day are delighted that she has received such marvelous public acknowledgement from the leading organization of biographers and biography.”