by Aaron Rubinstein ‘01, Acting Head, Special Collections and University Archives
The two old, simple problems ever intertwined, Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled. By each successive age insoluble, pass’d on, To ours to-day—and we pass on the same. —Walt Whitman, “Life and Death”
It’s a rare person who is not only comfortable with the many incongruities and paradoxes of human existence, but thrives on them; who finds inspiration and, ultimately, peace in the uncategorizable and the unknowable. Robert S. Cox, Head of Special Collections and University Archives, who passed on May 11th, 2020, was an archivist who defied easy categorization.
When Rob arrived at UMass in 2004, he had already collected a veritable beaded necklace of degrees: a BA in geology, an MS in paleontology, an MFA in poetry, a master’s in library and information science, and an MA and a PhD in history. On the surface, it’s hard to reconcile the sciences and humanities, poetry and library science, but the thread that attached these beads was obvious to anyone who talked to Rob. Countless people who visited his office on the 25th floor of the W. E. B. Du Bois Library would emerge hours later having made connections with Rob, both personally and philosophically, that they had never thought possible before sitting down on his couch.
It’s no wonder that Rob was a scholar of the American Spiritualist movement. If communicating with the dead is indeed a paradox, it was an ever-fascinating one for him, not necessarily because of the phenomena expressed in the diverse array of narratives by and about spiritual mediums, but because of what it says about humanity and our connection to each other. Rob zeroed in on the concept of sympathy, a pillar of mid-19th-century philosophy that saw an intimate connection between mind, body, people, the cosmos, and souls living or dead. Many found this theory attractive as the country began to rupture in the lead-up to the American Civil War. Sympathy was the phenomenon that made it possible to communicate with the dead, and maybe even help us communicate among the living.
Rob collected these contradictions, finding them wherever he went, and plumbing them for their kernels of meaning. When he visited Brother David Steindl-Rast—a groundbreaking Benedictine monk who sought out true interfaith study and dialogue, uniting themes between Catholicism and Zen Buddhism, and whose papers came to SCUA in 2016—Rob was struck by the monk’s response to how seemingly contradictory religious beliefs could be in meaningful dialogue. “Monastic life is like digging into a well,” explained Brother David. “Over the years you dig deeper and deeper in your own understanding of things, until the day arrives that you reach the waters that connect us all.”
But, of course, it’s never that simple. According to Rob, Spiritualism, and the concept of sympathy, failed to be a truly transcendent force. After the Civil War, Spiritualists, like most whites, used their philosophies to build a new form of community that expelled and oppressed Blacks. As Rob wrote at the end of his book, Body and Soul: A Sympathetic History of American Spiritualism, sympathy became a “social power that underwrote the new political shape of the nation and that suggests that far more than sects or death, the American practice of race had emerged center stage.”
The legacy Rob leaves behind at UMass Amherst is profound. He brought all of his powers to bear on building a world-renowned center for social change collections and research. Rob is responsible for 75 percent of the 1500 collections in SCUA, one of the earliest—and now the largest—digital collections programs in an academic archives, the largest gift ever given to the university (the McCormack Papers, valued at more than $30 million), and countless other groundbreaking projects and high-profile collection acquisitions. This success came in large part from Rob’s own hard labor. He regularly worked 13-hour days, or longer, often getting to the office at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. He cherished doing the dirty work, calling himself a stock boy in an intellectual Kmart, and refused to take individual credit for SCUA’s achievements. Among the many meaningful contradictions of Rob was his passion for teaching—he taught courses on the history of religion in UMass Amherst’s history department and on archival theory and practice at Simmons University—and his refusal to be didactic or dogmatic. He insisted on being in the background but was still the center of gravity, or better yet, the current of a river, altering its surrounding landscape without power tools or dynamite.
Rob’s real legacy, however, is as much philosophical as it is tangible. Documenting the people engaged in social justice and movements to change the world in real and lasting ways was more than just a topic to Rob, it was a way of approaching our work. For Rob, activism can never be confined to a single movement but is a deeply interwoven fabric of people and ideas, movements, causes, faiths, and beliefs. As he wrote in a recent article in this magazine about the acquisition of the Daniel Ellsberg Papers, “If the holdings in the Libraries’ Special Collections have not already been called the Songs of Experience, they ought to be. SCUA’s focus on the history and experience of social change in America has led us to document a broad community of organizations and individuals enmeshed in the cause of improving the world, each using their particular understanding of justice, democracy, and civil society to create real change.”
Rob found a way to guide “the waters that connect us all” through SCUA. He fearlessly brought together people and ideas that no one had imagined existing in conversation into a single, rich, and vibrantly diverse trove of research collections. For anyone coming in contact with Rob and SCUA’s collections, it was impossible not to be changed by what they found. SCUA is not just about social change —it is social change. If anyone could make that history our future, it was Rob.
Introductory Remarks at the Radical Aliveness and BELONGING Symposium
by Rob Cox, September 2019
We’re here today, it’s an honorary October day, it’s a beautiful day: best month of the year in New England. It’s such a good month that it actually lasts eight weeks in New England, maybe a little bit more. On your way in you may have noticed it is a particularly living day: that there’s a lot of activity around campus, around the climate strike and all that. You may have seen some of that commotion, and the energy and the passion that have been pent up in this country for some time now, and that’s coming out in this climate strike among other things. There have been a lot of days in recent years, at least the last two years, when it may feel like we’re in a state of really, truly, unprecedented crisis in the world. Where forces of reaction and deceit are primed to overwhelm us. As a historian, I have to say that the current state of the nation feels like all that is warranted; it’s not unreasonable to be concerned. But as a historian, I’m not sure that there’s a particular feeling of crisis right now. Because the nation has been creating crisis since its very beginning. We’ve had genocide, we’ve had our original sin of enslavement: they’re an indelible part of our history, as are civil wars, and wars for empire, Jim Crow, Joe McCarthy, Watergate, and I could go on and on and on…. We’re a nation of crisis—and of crisis and in crisis. So the need for change is nothing new here either. But I think the opportunity we have for change, right now, has never been like this before. We very seldom in our history have had a moment where the opportunities for change are as great as they are now. We may be at a moment when people are finally receptive to listening, to hearing, and to acting. We may be nearing a time when we are receptive to the urging of spirit to listen, and to wait on the truth, and to act on a conscience. Like the points of an anvil crush carbon into a diamond, maybe oppression will create solidarities, and possibilities for a beautiful future.
Photo, top: Rob Cox and Brother David Steindl-Rast by ©Doug Menuez