Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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The Paper Chase

Illustration of various famous authors by Ian Pollock

Illustration by Ian Pollock

Photograph of George Soros

Photograph of George Soros

Libraries and universities are paying record prices for writers’ archives of manuscripts and letters - and driving up the cost of literary fame.

By Richard Cohen

Arthur Miller was in China directing Death of a Salesman when his house in Connecticut was gutted by fire. At the time his archival consultant, Andreas Brown, owner of New York City’s Gotham Book Mart, was imploring him to do something with his papers, housed in Miller’s nearby barn. “They’re perfectly safe,” Miller said. “I’ve got them in steel cabinets.” Brown explained that should the barn catch fire the files would simply combust. Miller agreed to go through his papers with Brown, deciding which should be rehoused, and where. They came to a small package done up in brown paper and sealed with wax. “What’s this?” asked Brown. Miller explained that it contained letters written to him by Marilyn Monroe before they married. “How many are here?” asked Brown. “Oh,” Miller guessed, “perhaps a hundred.”

The Monroe letters now reside in a bank strong box, in accordance with Miller’s wishes, and are likely to remain there for several years after his death. Although not for sale on the open market, they would be worth a considerable amount of money. The last significant Monroe letter to go on sale fetched $12,000; the Miller package could well fetch more than a quarter of a million dollars, as across the board the prices for literary archives are soaring. There was a time when Joseph Conrad sold two of his manuscripts for £15; T.S. Eliot gave a friend the manuscript of The Wasteland, arguably the greatest poem of the 20th century. But in 1994, the poet Allen Ginsberg’s extensive archives were sold to Stanford University for a reported $980,000, the largest sum to date for an archive of a then living author.

The deal was brokered by Ginsberg’s agent Andrew Wylie, who is famed for the book advances he has won for his authors, and Wylie hopes to more than double that sum this fall with what may be the biggest sale yet for a living author: Norman Mailer, whose archive, filling 400 cubic feet in a warehouse in Pennsylvania, comprises virtually everything Mailer has written. Started by Mailer’s mother in the late 1960s, it spans his career, from his bar mitzvah speech to more than 25,000 letters; the manuscripts of more than 40 books; film scripts, several of which have not been shot; hundreds of photographs, videotapes, and films; all his financial records; and at least one complete unpublished novel, written when Mailer was in college and titled No Percentage.

But the current boom in literary collections began not in the lunchrooms of the New York City publishing elite but in the English department at the University of Texas at Austin.

Harry Ransom first came to Austin as a part-time instructor in English in 1935, and by 1961 he was the university’s chancellor. As he climbed the academic ladder he pondered how he could put Texas on the map, and he urged the university to collect modern English and American literature. “Somebody should be paying more serious attention to the period since 1870,” he explained. “That will be our undertaking.” Manuscripts attract researchers and writers, which in turn attract students, conferences, exhibitions, and prestige. Ransom explained to the university’s trustees that the letters and manuscripts of writers most of them had never heard of would establish their university for all time. The budget was expansive, since the funds for book-buying came from on-campus oil wells. He would make Austin, as he put it, “a center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliotheque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation.” And today the Texas library, according to a recent New York Times ranking, is one of the top five in the world.

I found myself recently in the main manuscript room on the fifth floor of the Harry Ransom Center (as the library was inevitably christened), a vast building right in the middle of the university’s huge campus. The first draft of Lady Chatterley’s Lover lay open, in D.H. Lawrence’s clear copper-plate script, ready for my inspection. A few shelves along was Joseph Conrad’s handwritten Nigger of the Narcissus. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India was there in green ink, the writing becoming wilder in the fire of composition. Robert Lowell’s proofs were in a bound volume nearly a foot thick, emendations dipped to every page. Nearby, a scholar researching a biography of Tom Stoppard had discovered an early draft of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in which the duo, in England, make contact with King Lear. Several of Proust’s original manuscripts are there too, with hardly an inch of spare space on each page.

The power of the Harry Ransom Center is such that it now houses, in whole or in large part, the archives of Conrad, Lowell, Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Evelyn Waugh, Doris Lessing, and Samuel Beckett. Currently overseeing the collection is Thomas Staley, a 65-year-old Joyce specialist appointed director of the center in 1988. Engaging and energetic, Staley combines a scholar’s passion and knowledge with a keen head for business. According to one leading book dealer, “Most librarians faced with an asking price will say yes or no, but not negotiate. Only Staley will say ’Well, I want it, but I won’t pay that.’”

Under Staley the pace of the center’s acquisitions accelerated. It makes between 40 and 50 acquisitions a year, largely driven by the library’s need to satisfy the changing interests of its younger scholars. But even for Texas those purchases don’t come cheap. As late as the 1970s archive prices were relatively low, between $25,000 and $75,000, and then only for elderly, well-established authors, if not actually deceased ones. Most other authors had been cajoled into donating their archives, which could at one time be taken as tax write-offs, but in the early 1970s those tax breaks were eliminated so why not get some money up front?

That money, in U.S. dollars, is a source of anxiety in Britain, which is losing the archives of its major 20th-century authors to America. In 1997, for instance, even as the British Library paid £1.2 million for the complete archive of Laurence Olivier, negotiations were underway for a far more valuable prize. The papers of Britain’s then poet laureate, Ted Hughes, were acquired by the Emory Library in Atlanta for around $600,000. The papers were not even offered to any British institution. More recently, David Hare sold off his papers to Texas before be even knew that the British library had funds for buying living authors’ archives.

However, as biographer Michael Holroyd explains, “British libraries are not only greatly handicapped by the lack of money available but also by the enormous time it takes to get a decision.” Some of the delay is due to bureaucratic infighting, some to legislation. The Heritage Literary Fund, for instance, is unable to provide money to bid for any artist’s work less than 20 years old or for the archive of someone who is still living. Thus most contemporary archives are still landing in America, although in June the current British poet laureate, Andrew Motion, started a new campaign for tax breaks and new rules to support a fund to keep archives in Britain. There is Seamus Heaney’s main archive and the works of genre authors such as P.D. James and John Le Carre. Then there is T.S. Eliot’s archive, which rests with his widow Valerie; Anthony Powell’s, held by his two sons, who are mulling things over following his recent death; Henry Greene’s, particularly rewarding because of his range of friends; and William Golding’s. In each case the seller might wish the archive to remain in Britain, but the perception is still that America - and especially Austin - is where the money is.

Recently Holroyd and Staley appeared together on BBC radio and talked about modern archives, and Holroyd was asked what could be done to stop British papers leaving for America. He said that maybe the best move would be to offer Tom Staley a job in England. Staley laughed. He’d already been made several offers to leave Texas-and turned them all down. Money, he said, wasn’t the issue.

Of course, money isn’t the only reason authors part with their archives. One of the reasons Leon Uris gave his to Austin was that he supported the university’s football team. Samuel Beckett handed over priceless drafts in return for a packet of tea. (The drafts went to Jacob Schwartz, a dealer who was by profession a dentist. For this reason, and his ability to acquire other authors’ papers as well, Beckett dubbed Schwartz “The Great Extractor.” ) Most importantly, authors want to have some sense of where they stand in relation to posterity. As Staley puts it, “Literary reputations ebb and flow, yet the purchase of a living writer’s archive represents a contemporary ratification of a writer’s place in the literary canon. The investment by the library confirms, too, its belief that the writer will be studied in the future.”

Once an archive arrives, there can be surprises. Kenneth Tynan’s archive included a pair of Laurence Olivier’s trousers; Anthony Burgess’s had a square of James Joyce’s wallpaper. When Emory University went through Ted Hughes’s archive, it found fragments of Sylvia Plath’s lost novel Falcon Yard on the back of some early drafts of Hughes’s poems.

Some authors are not so fortunate in their archivists. In 1906 Dr. Frederick A. Cook took a photograph that made him famous. The photo buttressed Cook’s account of how he had braved avalanches and ice cliffs to make the first ascent of Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. “At last!” wrote Cook, “the soul-stirring task is crowned with victory. The top of the continent was under our feet.” Three years ago, however, a researcher discovered in Cook’s archives, deposited at Ohio State University, a negative that produced an uncropped version of the crucial photograph, showing that it had been taken 15,000 feet below the McKinley summit, at barely 5,000 feet above sea level. The photo was a hoax, one that might never have been uncovered had Cook not left Ohio his photographic negatives, but he had imposed no restrictions on what the library should make available.

Most often, writers do impose restrictions. Christopher Isherwood’s archive has several diaries embargoed for 30 years; Georgia O’Keefe’s letters to her husband are embargoed until 2006; Martha Gellhorn’s entire archive is closed till 2024. But the opposite applies too. Samuel Beckett was alarmed to discover that a one-time close woman friend had offered his intimate letters to Austin, and he moved to stop their sale. He then learned that the woman was down on her luck and anxious to see her son properly educated. He got in touch with the university and said, “Buy the letters. And give her the very best price you can.”

Then there is the current situation with Knopf, one of the few American publishing houses that have given their archives to a library, depositing its papers at Austin. However, Knopf’s new owners recently decided to create an official archive themselves, and since they cannot get back what has already been given away, if they go ahead the archive will be split. Staley recently traveled to New York to discuss what the planned archive would cost in administrative and financial terms. “They plan to appoint a consultant to do a three month feasibility study,” he says. “I was able to tell them things they hadn’t considered. They may go ahead, of course, but I’m hopeful they’ll see the value of continuing with us.”

Overall the objective of writers and librarians alike is to create value: the value of a writer’s reputation and the value of the libraries’ holdings. Unlike book publishers, libraries are not looking to make a profit and hence may take a long time deciding whether a purchase is worthwhile. As the Huntington Library’s Sue Hodson says, “Who do we collect, and who not? The great risk we all take is, how can we possibly predict? It’s a gamble in every way.” Remarkably, the New York Public library took two years to acquire the archive of Vladimir Nabokov and even rebuffed the first approach by the author’s estate, but the library now regards the archive as one of the finest in its collection. Glenn Horowitz, a rare book dealer in New York who handled the Nabokov sale, says that most of the time “I feel like an 18th-century marriage broker in a shtetl, bringing the right two interested parties together.”

Established assessors are wary of literary agents like Wylie getting into the action. And yet it appears that some libraries are willing to deal with agents used to top-dollar advances. Shortly after the Ginsberg deal Wylie’s then London partner Gillon Aitken approached the newly appointed curator at the University of Tulsa library with the archive of V.S. Naipaul. The curator, who’d never made a purchase before, paid more than $500,000. Next Aitken proposed to sell Paul Theroux’s archive. One leading dealer Aitken consulted for advice told me, “Gillon came in and changed the whole methodology - or he tried to. He asked for a million dollars ­ for Theroux! A number of American libraries said they just wouldn’t talk to him again. I asked him how he’d reached that figure, and he simply said, ‘I made it up.’” Aitken confirms the story: “I thought it was a nice, round number.” No one bought the archive - and no one has yet. Theroux is now represented by Wylie.

For the Mailer archive, Wylie is reportedly asking $2.5 million, which would make the archive the most expensive ever. Andreas Brown acknowledges that there are institutions out there that might come up with the money. “But it would be poor judgment to do so without a professional appraisal.”

Years ago W H. Auden wrote of our “shameless, envious Age, when the Public will shell out more cash for/Notebooks and sketches that were never intended for them/Than for perfected works.” His working drafts now reside in an American library.

George Soros

Michael Kaufman is writing a biography of financier and philanthropist George Soros, to be published by Knopf in February 2002.

I was a foreign correspondent for the New York rimes in the mid 1980s, and my dissident friends told me about this remarkable and, at that time, very much unknown American who was funding all sorts of philanthropic projects. I came to know the workings of this international do-good operation and I realized how dramatic the things he was doing were, from creating radio stations for nomadic Mongols to building a university in Budapest.

He’s probably the most broadly and deeply engaged private citizen in the world. I don’t want to be dewy-eyed, but I can’t think of another person who hasn’t held public office who has had the impact he’s had. In Russia he’s entered the language: sorosovayt means to apply for a grant.

He says he would have preferred to have written a philosophical work that would last for centuries. And you say to yourself, “What is this guy talking about?” But he just wants to write something that is true. The fact is, though, that he can’t. He’s tried. When he was in his twenties, each day after he was done with his Wall Street job, he’d write. He was trying to explain how change occurs in the world, something to replace Marx and Hegel. He hasn’t shown it to many people, but it is a tour de force. He scorns it now. He says it’s banal. But to sit and have the patience to write that - this is not your everyday rich man.

-Reported by Nancy Beiles



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