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.

Literary manuscripts can offer insight into the composition of a work, can reveal the redrafting process and can illuminate hidden meanings as the author visibly hunts for the perfect way of expressing creative ideas. Yet, literary manuscripts do not offer a complete picture. As Lisa Stead writes, ‘Archives are incomplete sites of knowledge, necessarily fragmentary and changeable – subject to growth but also to diminishment and deconstruction’. As the status of the writer changes, so too does the meaning of the archive. A writer at the peak of scholarly interest may result in a growing archive, as new papers are discovered and added to the collection. But there is also loss to contend with: in 2007, for example, the archive of philosopher, lecturer and author Terence McKenna was lost in a fire, the only remaining fragment a tantalising catalogue of what it once contained.

The texts contained within a literary archive can reveal much about how a writer composed his famous works, despite their fragmentary nature. Scholars of manuscripts usually call these early drafts ‘the avant-texte’ or the text before it becomes ‘The Text’. The avant-texte can be seen as a map of the act of creation, an act which has no standard development. Avant-textes take different forms, depending on the writer: Jack Kerouac’s manuscript of On the Road (1957) is, famously, one long scroll of paper, words typed onto it in a seemingly endless bout of furious work, revision scrawled in the margins; Vladimir Nabokov’s are messy, handwritten index cards, fragmented blueprints to be dictated to his typist wife, Vera; and Anthony Burgess’s manuscript of Earthly Powers (1980) is neatly contained within several colour-coded folders. The redrafting processes evident in these manuscripts illuminate the creative thought of the respective authors. Kerouac’s novel has always been known as a thinly veiled autobiography (the manuscript contains the real names of his friends and traveling acquaintances), but Burgess’s manuscript reveals not only his struggle with coming up with a suitable title (The Affairs of Men, and The Prince of the Power of the Air were two in the running), but also that his protagonist Kenneth Toomey was a more overt literary portrait of Somerset Maugham.

The text of the work may, on the whole, be recognisable when compared to the finished, published text, but another aspect of the manuscript that can add to its interpretative value is marginalia. Whether idly doodling or writing memory-aids or other notes alongside the work, what an author puts in the margins of the manuscript can be very revealing. The marginalia on handwritten drafts of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest (1996), residing in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, contain a mixture of insights. There are many notes designed to keep Wallace on track as he composes long sections, but also notes about influences (Don DeLillo’s novels Americana and End Zone are referenced in certain sections) and other telling scrawls. At the end of a particularly long section, Wallace has written ‘THANK GOD’, suggesting the composition of his novel was intricately worked and torturous for the writer. Marginalia present valuable insights into a text’s composition, and for the literary scholar, they help build a fuller picture of both an author’s working life, their mind-set while completing their work and possible influences and creative directions that may be more subtle or camouflaged in the finished text.

Manuscript studies do not stop at the text. Larkin would categorise the physical manuscript as part of its magical value. This is what the author held in his hand, these are the marks of his quill or biro, here is his coffee ring or smudge of chocolate. This magical nature of a manuscript cannot be ignored, and one of the privileges of manuscript studies is that it feels like a direct communion with the writer, whether long dead or distant.

Palaeographical evidence not only reveals what the author wrote, but how it was written. The type of ink used, or even the writing implement, can link different fragments of text. Scruffy or scrawled handwriting could indicate that it was written at some speed, bold deletions could indicate decisive redrafting, or the layout of the writing on the page could hint at where and when the work was written. Wim Van-Mierlo uses William Wordsworth’s draft of The Prelude to explain this, a notebook in which the beginning of the poem appears on the last pages, moving backwards from the back cover, calling into question the poem’s original sequence and its intended length (if Wordsworth knew this would be a long poem, Van-Mierlo asks, why didn’t he turn the notebook upside down and continue forwards?). Wordsworth also turned his notebook sideways to write longer lines, indicating that the poem was written in fragments and pieced together on a future manuscript.

NPG 1857; William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert HaydonThe physicality of the manuscript can also include where, or in what, the text was written. For example, it matters that Wordsworth wrote drafts of The Prelude in portable notebooks as it indicates he did his writing while traveling or walking, not inside at a desk like John Keats, who wrote on individual sheets of paper. He would also inscribe his own poetry into published books and gift them to his friends. Fanny Brawne’s copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy is furnished with Keats’s sonnet ‘As Hermes once took to his feathers light’, showing that his poems were part of his relationships with the important people in his life.

Lisa Stead calls the study of manuscripts a ‘multisensory encounter’, something that transcends looking for meaning in the text and marginalia. Stead also raises the question of whether an archive can be ‘self-consciously constructed’ by the author, giving the example of the manuscripts of artist Pete Horobin/Marshall Anderson/Peter Haining (all one man), whose manuscripts have been bound ‘with the refashioned cloth of the artists own clothing’ and ‘material from tents used in the itinerant period of [his] life’. This careful construction gives the researcher a different experience, making the physical nature of the archive as artistically interpretative as the text within.

Larkin’s description of ‘the magical value and the meaningful value’ of literary manuscripts neatly describes the plenitude of useful and important ways they can be interpreted. The challenge, at least for the English Literary Heritage project, is communicating those interpretations in engaging and exciting ways, and strengthening the view that manuscripts and other literary objects are vital cultural artefacts.