Once again The New York Times has beaten me to an interesting article idea—sort of. If you read the recent profile of Glenn Horowitz, rare book and manuscript dealer, you’re already somewhat familiar with the topic I’ve chosen to write about this month. When I thought of the “mysteries” theme, it had absolutely nothing to do with mystery novels, as I have to admit, I’m not much of a fan. I am a fan of the mysteries inherent in the world of literature at large, and one of the biggest mysteries for me is that of authors’ papers.
The word papers—simple enough—doesn’t do justice to the phenomenon at hand. I have papers, you have papers, everyone has papers. My bedroom is a haven for papers with stacks of them piled in every corner, on every flat surface, riddled with dust and leaning dangerously this way or that. While I realize I’m not painting a flattering picture of my living space, the point is, papers generally aren’t special. My papers consist of a number of types—varying in importance and purpose. I have drafts of essays, phone numbers jotted on tiny torn sheets, notes to myself, notes to others that never found their way to the addressee, letters from friends, drafts of query letters for publication, typewritten research notes, journal upon journal (also of varying types…personal journals, sketchbooks, a “bullshit book” where I keep ideas for art pieces, essays, short stories, and those novels that never seem to come to fruition). And herein lies the secrets to authors’ papers. They have many of the same papers we, the normal people, do, but their novels, short stories, poems, and essays do come to fruition. And…voila!...people care.
I was first introduced to the idea of archiving authors’ papers in a Research Methods class in my first semester as a graduate student, and I’ve been fascinated ever since. The professor of the course introduced us to the wonders of archival research and gave a brief introduction to the holdings of various universities. As The New York Times so aptly points out, “When writers die, their work lives on—and goes to Texas.” And I couldn’t have said it any better myself. The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin is a veritable Fort Knox of author archives, and while I haven’t had the privilege of visiting, I could! Or you could! A valid government- or university-issued photo I.D. is your ticket to hunt through your favorite author’s papers.
“Papers” can constitute a wide range of materials. For instance, the Ransom Center has papers from a staggering range of authors, artists and other luminaries including Alice Adams, Julian Barnes, e.e. cummings, Don Delillo, George Eliot, Carson McCullers, Anne Sexton, and so many others that I couldn’t possibly share them all. However, I assure you that they were all equally impressive and made me squirm in my seat as I read the list.
To use e.e. cummings as an example, his papers are split into three categories, The Works, The Letters, and The Miscellaneous. All in all, the e.e. cummings holdings equal twelve boxes (4 linear feet), eight galley folders, and eight oversize folders. But, to further whet your appetite, let’s talk trash. What’s in the eight boxes? Here’s a sample from the Ransom Center website:
The Works series contains drafts of several collections of verse as well as individual poems. The editing of Poems: 1923-1954 is particularly well represented in both typed manuscript and galley format. There are also essays written by Cummings for college exams and two notebooks with notes and poetry fragments.
The Letters series is mostly composed of single letters to various people, with the exception of Howard L. Nelson, with whom Cummings maintained a lively correspondence concerning books, poets, and fatherhood over a 22 year period. The Recipient series contains letters from admirers, publishers, and friends, including Merle Armitage, Robert Bly, Hart Crane, Judson Crews, Foster Damon, John Dos Passos, Harvard University, Amy Lowell, Stewart Mitchell, Marianne Moore, Marion Morehouse, Charles Norman, James Purdy, Stephen Spender, Samuel Ward, and Louis Zukofsky.
The Miscellaneous series is largely composed of notes from Cummings' school days, some elementary, but mostly collegiate. Most of these are pre-printed items and lecture notes, rather than original material. Additionally, a large number of letters sent to Marion Morehouse by several individuals, most of them written after Cummings' death, are present, along with quite a few letters to Charles Norman. Other miscellany includes manuscripts by other authors, a copy of Cummings' birth certificate, musical scores, and photostats of an advertisement series.
The nature of the material, both official and unofficial, staggers me. For an ardent bibliophile laying hands on a favorite author’s manuscripts or grocery list is like touching Moses’s stone tablets. Or maybe more like ruffling through an author’s underwear drawer; it offers the distinct possibility of finding something hidden and treasured, but it’s also more than a little creepy.
While the Times profile focused largely on the business of buying and selling authors’ papers, I couldn’t be less interested. Sure, it’s interesting—a sensational business full of a fair amount of mystery and intrigue—but I’ll certainly never have any contact with the business of author archives, and I’m simply more interested in thinking about them as artifacts. I assume any author, if they stop to give it a thought, would find the idea of an archive of their own materials either supremely tantalizing or supremely unsettling. Certainly the idea that an author is interesting or treasured enough to warrant the archiving of their manuscripts (and old dry cleaning receipts) is flattering, but would you want your effects open for research? If an author is dead, it probably doesn’t matter to them anymore (one assumes). If there’s something potentially embarrassing or scandalous the family might take the brunt. In any case, there are certainly options for having materials sealed until the author’s death or a family member’s death. In the case of Anne Sexton, an entry on her Ransom Center access page reads,
Open for research, except for one oversize box of tapes and diaries, which are sealed until Alfred Muller Sexton's death or until explicit permission for use is given by the Sexton family.
I wonder what’s in there? Certainly the answers to all of life’s questions, I’m almost certain.
As intriguing as “papers” are, one has to ask what will become of such things in the digital age? While some authors—Paul Auster, for one—hold fast to the tried and true typewriter method, punching out manuscripts one rusty key at a time, a much larger number of authors have given in to the allure of the much quieter, more efficient computer as a means to create their masterpieces. Where an author might’ve once communicated with her fellow writerly pals through long, handwritten letters, e-mail has stepped in to take their place. Will papers disappear?
If they’re devoted paper hoarders like myself…no. While I am certainly a slave to my computer, I’m also zealous about drafts. Drafts of essays, drafts of letters, drafts of book chapters. If I’m going to read and revise anything over five pages, I have to print a draft, mark it all up until it bleeds, and go back to the laptop with the evidence at my side. While no one is brandishing a checkbook to get hold of my papers, I can only hope that the bulk of my favorite authors—whose papers I’d eventually love to swim in—feel the same way and practice a similar method of drafting.
Authors’ papers are certainly a mystery and a treasure, but as I mentioned earlier, we all have papers. So, the next time you get ready to toss out that stack leaning lazily in the corner, perhaps think of what it would be like to leave behind your own archive of papers. What would you want to divulge? What would make you blush madly if it were revealed? Who would dive headlong into your archive? And perhaps avoid the urge to throw them away or digitize them because there’s something mysterious, wonderful and eternal about papers.
Visit the Ransom Center online HERE.