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. There are pieces that have been missed, such as the odd page of intimate diary, or the marginalia that references biographical detail such as love affairs.

There are, however, archives that are the complete opposite of this mannered presentation. The archive at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation is a treasure-trove of manuscripts, doodles, notebooks, sheet music, hours of audio recordings, a vast library of Burgess’s books, various bills and contracts, photographs and slides, furniture, artwork, musical instruments, typewriters, even Burgess’s cigars and bottles of wine.

A literary archive can go through several stages of construction. Writing about Keats’s manuscripts, Stephen Hebron details the long and complex way the poets archive came into being. He writes, ‘When Keats died, his literary manuscripts were thus widely dispersed among family and friends’. This caused problems when, soon after Keats’s death, the owners of these manuscripts began squabbling over a proposed biography. As time passed, the manuscripts were variously sold or gifted to Keats scholars and biographers such as Richard Monckton Milnes, who published Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats in 1848. Milnes’s book was instrumental in Keats’s popularity throughout the nineteenth century.

Through the various attempts to assemble a Keats archive, the role of Keats secret lover Fanny Brawne was obscured, Keats’s love letters to her only referred to euphemistically until Harry Buxton Foreman bought and published the letters in 1878. From there, the archive continued to be constructed and interpreted by several different people, eventually ending up in the hands of poet and Keats aficionado Amy Lowell. She was an avid collector of Keats work and, on her death in 1925, bequeathed what had become the largest collection of Keats’s papers to the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

NPG 194; John Keats by William Hilton, after  Joseph SevernThe journey of literary manuscripts, and the people who take a role in curating their collection, becomes part of the story of an author’s work. The events leading to the collection of an archive can go some way to help explain the fragmentary nature of the manuscripts contained within, particularly with still-living or recently dead authors whose papers may contain such things as telephone numbers, email addresses and scandalous or legally troubling statements.

For Philip Larkin, how manuscripts were collected was important. He would have perhaps been troubled that Keats’s manuscripts were largely collected in America, despite Amy Lowell’s good intentions. He writes, ‘On the whole I remain convinced that the best place for a writer’s papers is in one of the libraries of his own country. I think they are more likely to be studied there, and studied with greater understanding; I think they are more likely to grow there by the addition of further related collections from his family and friends’.

Regardless of Larkin’s reservations, there are many archives worldwide undertaking important preservation work on the archives of authors. For the English Literary Heritage Project, it will be important to determine how collected manuscripts can be displayed to a wide audience, and to increase this understanding while not losing the manuscripts’ meaning. In the long term, the story of a collection will incorporate further digital curation and exhibition, and perhaps new ways of looking at the manuscripts and other literary objects contained within.