The Challenges of Exhibiting Manuscripts

9256404614_622b8a2963_zLiterary manuscripts often lend themselves more to quiet and considered study than being displayed in a public space. Reading, for most people, is a solitary and thoughtful activity, usually undertaken in a comfortable chair, not standing in a public exhibition space jostling with other visitors. Manuscripts, unlike paintings or historical objects, are not just physical artefacts, they contain a plenitude of words and meanings that can be an overwhelming prospect for the museum visitor. As Jeff Cowton, curator at the Wordsworth Trust, writes, ‘To the initiated, a row of a favourite author’s manuscripts is something to dream of; to the uninitiated, such a display may fail to inspire even a wish to learn more’. To make those uninitiated connect with manuscripts and leave enlightened is the chief challenge of the literary exhibition. Continue reading


The Power of Revision

W.H. AudenThe study of manuscripts reveals many things about an author’s work, but the revisions the author made on the rough draft can be especially telling. William Wordsworth took the art of revision very seriously, spending over 50 years perfecting his longest poem, The Prelude (1799-1850), fragments of which can be seen in letters, notebooks and other manuscripts in the holdings of the Wordsworth Trust. Revisions and omission in later drafts reveal Wordsworth’s changing emphases and political views. Continue reading

Thoughts on Assembling a Literary Archive

A literary archive should not be viewed as a full and unadulterated view into the mind of the author. The act of assembling the archive, choosing what exactly is put into the archive, creates only a fractured, often stage-directed, image of authors and their work. A good example of this is the David Foster Wallace archive, assembled by Karen Green and Bonnie Nadell (his widow and agent respectively). The archive, as bought by the Harry Ransom Center, is carefully presented: there is little personal correspondence, no journals or other documents relating to Wallace’s intimate and private life. The archive concentrates on the work: typescripts, notebooks, rough drafts, the occasional scribbling of nascent ideas. Similarly, only items from Wallace’s library that he annotated were put into the archive, meaning only a slight fragment of Wallace’s literary life can be determined. Continue reading

The Meaningful Magic of Manuscripts

Earthly Powers ManuscriptIn his 1979 lecture to the Manuscripts Group of the Standing Conference of National and University Libraries (SCONUL), Philip Larkin described the two types of value of a literary manuscript: ‘the magical value and the meaningful value. The magical value is the older, more universal: this is the paper he wrote on, these are the words as he wrote them […] The meaningful value is of much more recent origin, and is the degree to which a manuscript helps to enlarge our knowledge and understanding of a writer’s work’. Manuscripts gain these values from myriad sources, from their textual content to their physical, tactile nature and even their journey through history. Continue reading