A Fond Farewell to Manuscripts


(Essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review)


Last year, I attended the 50th anniversary exhibit of the Houghton Library, Harvard’s repository of rare books and manuscripts. Peering down into the cases, I found, among other things, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tidy rows of script for The House of the Seven Gables, the impetuous scrawl of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Herman Melville’s self-absorbed jottings for Moby Dick inside his copy of Shakespeare.

I was moved by what I saw, perhaps because in the physical particulars of a manuscript—the dot of an “i,” the cross of a “t,” the coffee stains and smears—I am somehow able to resurrect the writer himself. But there was another reason as well: the Houghton’s 50th anniversary, it occurred to me, might in some ways be its last. What would be on display for the 100t —Toni Morrison’s I.B.M. PC, Norman Mailer’s floppy disk?

The possibility isn’t as farfetched as it may sound. Three years ago, for an exhibit called “Literary Revision: The Inexact Science of Getting It Right,” the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale actually displayed William F. Buckley Jr.’s floppy disk of “Mongoose, R.I.P.” “It was kind of a joke,” says Christa Sammons, one of the Beinecke’s curators. And the Houghton has acquired the “manuscript” of Harold Brodkey’s novel, The Runaway Soul — nine boxes of computer printouts. All over the country, manuscripts are pouring into libraries in new shapes, sizes and textures: large floppy disks, small floppy disks, Post-It Notes, faxes, tapes — and endless rolls of perforated paper.

The situation has some people alarmed. Alice Birney, an American literature specialist at the Library of Congress, and her colleague, John Haynes, a 20th-century political specialist, worry about how they’re going to store and catalogue the manuscripts now pouring into their stacks “by the truckload.” But perhaps more pressing than the issue of storing and cataloguing these new manuscripts is whether or not one will even be able to gain access to them in the future. If, for example, the Beinecke Library wants to insure that our next generation of scholars will be able to use Mr. Buckley’s floppy disk for something more than a coffee coaster, they may need to preserve the software to run it. And not just the software, but all the obsolescent hardware as well. “It may be,” hazards Mr. Haynes, “that in the future we will have to become a technological museum to store the stuff.” Even if these technical problems are solved, a question remains: how will one go about piecing together history from the new manuscripts? What will replace the telltale handwriting, the process of revision—in short, the evidence of our daily existence?

“I’m rather gloomy about it,” admits Edmund Morris, a political scholar and biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. One can only imagine what would have become of the nearly 150,000 letters Roosevelt composed during his lifetime had they been sent through E-mail. Or, for that matter, our notion of the Civil War had Robert Gould Shaw phoned home instead. When asked how one might go about reconstructing contemporary history, Mr. Morris, who is now at work on a biography of Ronald Reagan, replied sotto voce: “The truth is, you don’t—the vacuums are everywhere.”

Clearly, letters have been hardest hit by this seismic shift in technology, but texts stand to lose as well. Soon, our very concept not only of what “text” is but what an “author” is will change inexorably. As the Houghton’s associate curator of manuscripts, Elizabeth Falsey, puts it, “Texts have authors. Information is anonymous.”

Nearly sixty years ago, in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin commented on the destruction of an art object’s “aura” by modern reproduction techniques like lithography, photography and film. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” he wrote, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and place, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Like many liberal thinkers before and after him, however, Benjamin could not help applauding the new technology. As he saw it, mechanical reproduction promised not only to liberate the art object from its primitive “ritual” value but also to disseminate this art to the masses. Yet Benjamin’s applause was ambivalent. A fervent collector of rare books and manuscripts, he could not quite keep his passion for such artifacts buried, even while celebrating their demise.

In the present language of debate about electronic technology, there is, just as there was in Benjamin’s day, the unmistakable syntax of politics, a verbal undertow of conflicting values. One hears echoes of Benjamin in Robert Coover, who wrote last year in these pages about the joys of “hypertext.” To Mr. Coover, “interested as ever in the subversion of the traditional bourgeois novel,” computer-generated manuscripts promise to liberate writers from what he calls the “tyranny of the line.” Yet even Mr. Coover wonders about what the future will bring: “How does one judge, analyze, write about a work that never reads the same way twice?”

For better or worse, manuscripts, like art objects, are rooted indelibly in time and place. In the hand, they tingle with specificity as surely and mysteriously as a lost appendage. But there is more than just nostalgia or “ritual” value to the aura manuscripts possess. The historian Robert Darnton, author of The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, has pieced together the life of an 18th-century print shop worker from a thumbprint of ink. In scraps of paper, he has found “underwear, sheets, bits of petticoats”—the whole vivid world of French working-class life.


To view the process of the hand as it moves across time and space is not just to extrapolate the entire body but the mind as well. And it is perhaps for this, most of all, that some of us return to manuscripts: for the simple thrill of gawking, like a tourist on Mount Vesuvius, at that molten source one calls creativity. “We see the author at work in his manuscript as nowhere else,” writes Rodney G. Dennis in his introduction to The Marks in the Fields, a collection of essays about the uses of manuscripts, “and the way we see this is by observing him making changes.”

Fortunate examples of such changes abound. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” was once, to judge by the manuscript, nearly the size of a book. And not a moment too soon did Vladimir Nabokov change the line, “She was thrilled with paroxysms of happiness” in the first English translation of Camera Obscura, retitled Laughter in the Dark.

Sometimes, however, the creative impulse goes awry. One of the saddest examples is Henry James’s revision of his early novel The American. Undertaken 30 years after its original publication, James’s revisions are a shock to the eye: bubble after bubble of black script swells the margins to bursting. On the page, these massive changes seem to reveal nothing so much as authorial rage, an intolerance of his younger self that borders on violation. The effort seems to have been in vain: in the end, most readers prefer the original.

In the future, such processes—author conversing with self, with others—may be lost. Even if a computer were to store a writer’s each and every draft, what it can’t store is precisely these juxtapositions of one hand against another, the subtle and necessary dialogues that take place between the lines of the creative process. On a PBS television special last year called “Millennium,” the host, David Maybury-Lewis, said, “Knowledge cuts up the world; wisdom makes it whole.” Mr. Maybury-Lewis’s words vividly call to mind those uttered by a certain Greek over 2,000 years ago as he warned a young disciple of the evils of the written word: “If men learn this,” says Socrates to Phaedrus, “it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. . . . What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance.”

Socrates’ words bear a warning as fit for our own time as it was for his. And yet these same words remind us of a consoling fact: every age mourns the loss of its own technology. Two millenniums after Plato’s oral culture had died out, the Renaissance elite bemoaned the loss of the written word to the printed one. And long after photography had made portraiture seem quaint, Benjamin mourned the passing of its aura. Today, Socrates’ argument against the written word seems, in the words of the classicist Eric Havelock, as “conservative and illogical” as my own for it.

In many ways, the manuscript is the most fragile and humble of human products. It is not, as some have said of the computer, the ultimate collage or a superhighway of information. One can’t click onto it with a mouse and get—as one soon will with the use of hypertexts—a multimedia presentation of all its allusions. More often than not, in fact, a manuscript page records but a tiny vicissitude of thought, a mind stepping across the mental rapids from one stone to another, in the eternal hope of getting somewhere.

And yet, looking at a manuscript page, one sees wholeness; one feels—if only momentarily—wise. Perhaps this is because the true beauty of a manuscript lies not so much in what it reveals as what it hides. Manuscripts, like art, contain a powerful core of mystery. How is it, after all, that I can thumb through the brittle pages of John Cheever’s Falconer and, by dint of smell, feel the author’s presence as surely as the blind feel a wall before they touch it? Somewhere in this mystery lies the mystery of our connectedness to others. Not literally — in the sense of shared bytes, modems or hypertexts — but spiritually, as in a shared, unspoken understanding: that paper crumbles, ink fades; that the bold handwriting of youth inevitably yields to the childish scrawl of old age. Soon, very soon, manuscripts seem to tell us, we will be nothing more than the papers—or printouts—we leave behind.