January 9, 2013
Timothy Leary’s Nintendo Power Glove and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s old socks
by Sal Robinson
Holy laundry list, Batman! Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Ken Lopez, a bookseller who also deals in literary miscellany. And we mean by this the deeply, deeply miscellaneous: boxes of paper of any kind, from manuscripts to shopping lists to all those other pieces of paper most of us, including authors, usually pitch. And not just paper. Research libraries are collecting all kinds of things these days. From the article:
The Green Library at Stanford University houses William Saroyan’s mustache clippings. Timothy Leary’s Nintendo Power Glove has been acquired by the New York Public Library. At the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas at Austin, Norman Mailer’s bar mitzvah speech is preserved in perpetuity.
While some may question the relevance of Saroyan’s mustache clippings to future PhD theses (but you never know — vital future discoveries about mustache clipping techniques must not be impeded by the reluctance of current-day philistine electric-razor groomers who don’t know a clip from a snip), objects that seem incidental to the study of an author’s work can come to seem, with time, a link to an increasingly remote human being who once wrote books (viz Samuel Johnson’s hair). And so the relic business lives on, and overlaps in ways both surprising and productive with more conservative literary collections.
The sales of literary miscellany have burgeoned since a change in the tax code in 1969, Barry Newman, author of the WSJ article, says:
In 1969, Congress ended tax deductions for creators of their own gifts. Richard Nixon signed the law and, in donating his papers, ran afoul of it himself when his advisers tried to claim a deduction after the law took effect. Dozens of libraries with big budgets have since been bidding up the stashes in authorial attics.
Many of the collections end up at the Ransom Center these days, as detailed in a toothsome profile of director Thomas Staley in the New Yorker in 2007 by D.T. Max. Staley’s acquisitions tend more to the traditional — letters, drafts, first editions — but …
Some archives arrive at the Ransom in a comically filthy state: when the conservation department opened Isaac Bashevis Singer’s boxes, a half-eaten sandwich and some old socks fell out.
The Ransom is now the home of David Foster Wallace’s archives, used by Max for his biography of Wallace, though it doesn’t sound like there are any bandannas in there, alas. These collections are also put to use in possibly unanticipated ways: Newman writes that after Salman Rushdie donated 200 boxes of material to Emory University in 2006, the university’s archivists put them in order. Then Rushdie used the newly organized papers to write his memoir Joseph Anton, which does seem like a neat little “have your cake and eat it” situation. Or should it be “have your cake, eat half, and sell the rest”?
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.