Dispatches | May 29, 2007
Prospecting for Literary Gold
Recently my wife Kris and I went to London to research “Found Text” possibilities for TMR. We intended to go to several plays and wander around happily between the British Library, the Tate, theaters, and so on. But it was cold and rainy for all but a couple of days. I got a cold (haven’t had one in three years) or possibly something worse, since it did require my going to a doctor, who after glancing at my throat and writing a prescription charged me 135 pounds ($270). I told her that she was being hard on an impecunious scholar. She smiled sweetly and said, “You can pay the secretary.”
Instead of wandering around freely, we trudged through the wet streets, back and forth to the library, where my only solace was the manuscripts we studied as potential found texts. It’s always difficult to explain to a manuscript librarian that you’re looking for an interesting, previously unpublished piece by a well-known author. Manuscript librarians are used to scholars and biographers studying one group of manuscripts or one subject. They’re aren’t used to gold prospectors who are looking among all sorts of documents—some of which are so valuable that one has to wear white gloves, sit at certain desks and keep all elements of the manuscript within a certain box and on a certain stand that they give you. Kris in a moment of excitement brought over a letter from Laurence Olivier to tell me how exciting the Olivier collection was. I looked at the letter, nodded my head and whispered, “That’s great,” at which point a librarian came storming across the room and so severely chastised Kristine for taking the letter out of the box that I was afraid the next step was incarceration. My poor wife sulked for a couple of hours.
Not that I blame him. Rare book librarians are looking out on a roomful of readers, many of whom are working with items that would be hard to put a price on—illuminated manuscripts from the 12th century and irreplaceable documents by the greats in history and literature.
I spent a lot of time reading the proceedings of London’s Ghost Club—a group of spiritualists who met from the late nineteenth century into the 1930s. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was hardly eccentric to believe in “spirits.” One of the accounts among their proceedings was a talk given by William Butler Yeats on his theory of history (among other things)—complete with a sketched model of the “widening gyres” that he wrote about in “The Second Coming.” There were also some interesting accounts of the appearances of the ghosts of dead wives and of spirits who presumably resided in certain houses; but, alas, after three days of sneezing over the Ghost Club I gave them up as the source of a possible found text.
Among the other things I read was an unpublished story by Charles Algernon Swinburne, unpublished probably because it was only fairly recently discovered. Alas, again, it was juvenilia—promising and even in places good but too convoluted.
Then it was on to Graham Greene’s recently acquired “lost” diary—written during his later years, when he was flying around South and Central America touting leftist causes. The problem with the diary is that it was written by an old man with a wobbly hold on both his pen and at times his mind. I also got an uncomfortable feeling from it that Greene’s “Leftist Christian” self-identity came from a peculiar kind of personal vanity rather than from a real understanding of what he was doing. So no-go, interesting though it should have been.
As for the three or four that we read and hope to publish, I have to save the details until we receive permission from their estates. Hints: Two are unpublished poems by two of the greatest contemporary English poets. Another is a beautifully written scene from a (somewhat famous) “lost novel” by one of the most important American poets of the same period. Finally, we uncovered an unpublished portrait of her father by one of the most influential Modern British novelists, who is claimed by some of her biographers to have been sexually abused by her brothers. Another hint: she didn’t like her father, either, according to this portrait.
We begin contacting estates today. Wish us luck.
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