The news that Norman Mailer's papers sold to the University of Texas for US$2.5-million excited two groups of professionals: the archivists who maintain manuscript collections and the authors who deposit with libraries the detritus of their lives.
If the price was high even by Texas standards, the extent of Mailer's records was even more astonishing. He sent off nearly 500 boxes, weighing some 20,000 pounds, filled with material that reached back to his 1920s childhood. Fanny Schneider Mailer was a proud memorabilia-saver, a mother who will be admired by generations of archivists and researchers yet unborn.
The US$2.5-million will no doubt be welcome in the Mailer household, where the word "alimony" retains its terrifying power, but it's probably no more heartening than the US$3,000 Leonard Cohen received from the University of Toronto 45 years ago. Cohen was not yet a singer or novelist, just a good poet with no money and a flair for titles, such as Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956). But he delivered. He sent poetry manuscripts, galley proofs, letters from McClelland and Stewart, a CBC contract for a 30-minute program and anything else he could find. The $3,000 he received covered his expenses for a year on Hydra, his favourite Greek island.
Like most universities, Toronto can no longer pay for manuscripts. But Cohen and many others donate their files in return for a tax credit that can be spread, if desired, over several years. This means that collections at several big universities, notably McMaster, Calgary and Toronto, continue to grow.
The University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library is currently celebrating its collection with an exhibition called Canlit without Covers: Recent Acquisitions of Canadian Literary Manuscripts, which runs till Sept. 2. (This afternoon at 5, as part of the celebration, Rosemary Sullivan and other participants in the University of Toronto creative writing program will read their work.)
Guided by Anne Dondertman's expertly edited catalogue, visitors can see the detailed outline Eric Wright wrote for The Death of a Hired Man, Cohen's suggested (and rejected) jacket design for Death of a Lady's Man, one of many drafts Dennis Lee wrote for his speech accepting a lifetime-achievement award and a record from Beverley Slopen, Howard Engel's agent, showing what countries have published his books and which movie, TV and radio rights have been sold.
One case holds Joseph Skvorecky's correspondence with William Styron about the Czech translation of Styron's The Long March, alongside a manuscript passage from Paul Wilson's English translation of Skvorecky's The Engineer of Human Souls. There's an accompanying note from Skvorecky explaining that in his novel "The Canadian Czechs all speak Canadian Czech," a language slightly different from the one they spoke back home.
Literary archivists can explain the value of the fragments they care for. Anyone in the world who studies Bertrand Russell visits his papers at McMaster, and anyone researching Margaret Atwood goes to the Thomas Fisher, which last summer welcomed four Atwood scholars from Japan alone.
Ever since universities began gathering fragments saved by living authors, the question of excessive self-regard has occasionally reared its head. If a young and little-known writer creates a private archive, believing that some university will eventually want it, does that reveal vanity?
Of course it does. But since all writers are vain (otherwise they wouldn't be writers), the answer hardly matters. On the other hand, concocted archives raise a more piquant question, one that would occur only to someone with a devious turn of mind, such as a writer: Do unscrupulous authors cook up extra material to make their papers more valuable to a university?
That notion was nicely developed by Mordecai Richler in St. Urbain's Horseman in 1971, not long after Texas began shipping great sums of money to impoverished British authors for the secret records of their lives. Richler describes a London writer who decides, while preparing his papers for sale, that what he has is too sparse and ordinary to bring a good price. He conspires with Richler's hero, Jake Hersh, to invent an exchange of letters apparently revealing that the two men (both thought to be heterosexuals) were once lovers; late in the novel a scholar uncovers the letters in the library and makes them public just as Jake, in the great crisis of his life, faces a criminal charge involving sexual misconduct. But do real university archives contain similar bogus material? About all we know for sure is that no one has been caught.
The Thomas Fisher exhibition does, however, contain evidence of a literary hoax. It provides the details of the trick played in 1988 by Crad Kilodney, a Toronto poet who was then known as the only author who made a living by selling his own self-published books, one copy at a time, on the street (he also claimed to have been voted one of the "5,000 best Toronto writers not living anywhere near the Annex").
To demonstrate how carelessly book publishers evaluated material submitted by unknown writers, he typed out a series of already published Irving Layton poems and submitted them as original work under the name Herman Mlunga Mbongo. Most publishers immediately rejected the manuscript, and if they noted the plagiarism they didn't mention it. But Michael Harris of Vehicule Press wrote: "Irving Layton, to whom I showed your manuscript, was as delighted as I was to see how useful his poems still are."
Atwood has given the university a particularly rich archive, including a note in which she reports that Oryx and Crake appeared to her almost in its entirety while she was bird-watching in Australia. She has also recently donated a lengthy manuscript of a novel that never worked and was abandoned, but eventually became what she calls "the Ur manuscript from which both Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin arose."
Atwood's admirers will be charmed to know how early she prepared for her life as a published author. In 1954, as a 15-year-old high-school student, she set out to create a handwritten one-copy book, A Trip to Nova Scotia. She completed only the first page of the introduction, to which she added an illustration. She also produced that equally essential element of a published work, the copyright page. It says: "Copyright 1954. Atwood and Co., Publishers. 1st Edition -- Sept, 1954. Authorised Edition. U.S. pat pending."