January 5, 2017

Jonathan Lethem papers, drawings of cats vomiting, and other oddities sold to Yale University


800px-Jonathan_Lethem_2011_NBCC_2012_Shankbone_2Yale University’s recently reopened Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library has acquired papers and assorted oddities from Motherless Brooklyn writer (and forthcoming Melville House authorJonathan Lethem, reports Jennifer Schuessler of the New York Times.

The collection was sold by Lethem through the Manhattan book dealer Glenn Horowitz for an undisclosed amount and contains the expected—papers that relate to Lethem’s novels and his writing process—as well as the unexpected: fun, funky ephemera from his Brooklyn upbringing in the seventies and beyond.

Such unexpected oddities include a prop Times Square subway sign used on the set of The Warriors, a movie that was filmed in part in the writer’s childhood subway stop, Hoyt-Schermerhorn. (Shooting there, Lethem tells Schuessler, “seemed absurd. I remember thinking that no one would see or hear about this movie. Nothing that anyone was shooting in my neighborhood could possibly be important.”)

In exploring the collection, one will also discover several issues of “Fig-Leaf Man,” a comic young Lethem created about a man’s attempt to start a nudist colony in Alaska; a diary he kept in an attempt to “externalize his superego”; various letters to and from writers such as Donna Tartt, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, and Ursula K. Le Guin; and, of course, thousands of drawings of vomiting cats. Lethem explains himself in the New York Times:

For about 15 years, every time I had a really good dance party that went late, with people lolling around drunk and exhausted, at about 2 a.m., I would hand out paper and ask everyone to draw a vomiting cat… I ended up with an incredibly thick file of drawings, some by people who went on to be published cartoonists and writers.

Taken together, the collection depicts a hungry, thoughtful mind, one that shies away from taking itself too seriously and finds inspiration in unexpected places. It’s a carnival of pop culture, neuroses, late-night laughs, and literary passion — something Lethem’s never short on.



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.