Forget Boeheim, Pitino, Self, and Calipari and their mania for adolescent basketball talent. The key figure in the other March Madness is
Thomas F. Staley, Director of the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, where he is also Professor of English and holds The Harry Huntt Ransom Chair in Liberal Arts. Staley received a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pittsburgh.
Thanks to Dr. Thomas Staley, this blogger viewed the Gutenberg Bible in the art museum on the Collegium Excellens campus during the "victory lap" after the Ransom Center purchased one of the 48 extant copies of that extremely rare book. Dean Harry Huntt Ransom's vision (and Dr. Thomas Staley's chutzpah) have made the Ransom Center the Bibliothèque du Étoile Solitaire. If this is (fair & balanced) opus envy, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By D. T. Max
Tag Cloud of the following article
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the literary archive of the University of Texas at Austin, contains thirty-six million manuscript pages, five million photographs, a million books, and ten thousand objects, including a lock of Byron’s curly brown hair. It houses one of the forty-eight complete Gutenberg Bibles; a rare first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which Lewis Carroll and his illustrator, John Tenniel, thought poorly printed, and which they suppressed; one of Jack Kerouac’s spiral-bound journals for On the Road; and Ezra Pound’s copy of The Waste Land, in which Eliot scribbled his famous dedication: “For E. P., miglior fabbro, from T.S.E.” Putting a price on the collection would be impossible: What is the value of a first edition of Comus, containing corrections in Milton’s own hand? Or the manuscript for The Green Dwarf, a story that Charlotte Brontë wrote in minuscule lettering, to discourage adult eyes, and then made into a book for her siblings? Or the corrected proofs of Ulysses, on which James Joyce rewrote parts of the novel? The university insures the center’s archival holdings, as a whole, for a billion dollars.
The current director of the center is Thomas Staley. Seventy-one, and a modernist scholar by training, he is mercurial and hard-driving. Amid the silence of the center’s Reading Room, he often greets visiting scholars with a resonant slap on the back. In college, at a Jesuit school in Colorado, Staley pitched in a summer baseball league, specializing in a slow, sinking curve. His “crafty pitch,” as he calls it, was good enough to attract the attention of professional scouts. The Ransom Center, under Staley’s leadership, easily outmaneuvers rivals such as Yale, Harvard, and the British Library. It operates more like a college sports team, with Staley as the coach—an approach that fits the temperament of Texas. “People take a special pride here in winners,” Staley says. “They like success.” (After the Ransom bought its Gutenberg Bible, the center sent the Bible on a victory lap, displaying it at libraries, museums, and universities around the state.)
Staley works from behind an oak desk in a large office on the Ransom’s third floor. A bronze bust of Joyce, by Milton Hebald, is in the foyer. The bookshelves hold copies of Staley’s many scholarly publications; before becoming an archivist, he wrote studies of Dorothy Richardson, the first writer to use stream-of-consciousness narration in English, and of Jean Rhys, the author of Wide Sargasso Sea. He was a founder of the James Joyce Quarterly, and was its editor for twenty-six years. As you walk down the corridor leading to Staley’s office, you hear his cackling laugh.
He has coined several maxims about the acquisition of archives, including what he calls Staley’s Law: “Ten per cent of an archive represents ninety per cent of its value.” When he tells you about an archive that he is hoping to buy, he stops and purrs, “Oooh, it’s good, it’s very gooood,” his hill-country accent making him sound like a feline Lyndon Johnson. I recently went with him to a penthouse apartment in Miami, to look at a large archive of experimental poetry that had been collected by a pulmonologist, Marvin Sackner, and his wife, Ruth. Shortly after arriving, Staley pronounced it a “solid collection.” Upon examining some work in detail—the collection included the 1897 journal in which Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem “A Throw of the Dice” first appeared—he began to snuffle with excitement. After spending an hour with the archive, Staley declared it to be “one hell of a collection.” He told me this outside, so that the Sackners wouldn’t raise the price.
From his office in Austin, Staley keeps tabs on writers who interest him—e-mailing and writing to them about their plans for their papers. To him, the world is a map of treasures whose locations he already knows. His eyes are fixed equally on the aging British literary couple (who are moving to a smaller house, now that the children are grown) and the Pulitzer-nominated phenom (who thinks that his inclusion in the same archive as Graham Greene will help cement his stature). Staley can wait years for the right moment to make a bid. “It’s chess, not checkers,” he likes to say. “You have to think ahead.” Once, he put a woman he thought was dating Cormac McCarthy on the Ransom’s advisory board in the hope—vain, as it turned out—that it would prompt the reclusive author to sell his papers. Gene Cooke, an investor who is an old friend and tennis partner of Staley’s, says, “You can always tell if Tom’s ahead or not. When he’s winning, it’s Hopkins.” (Staley will recite The Windhover: “I caught this morning morning’s minion, kingdom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.”) “When he’s losing, it’s Milton.” (Staley likes to quote from L’Allegro: “Hence loathèd Melancholy, of Cerberus and blackest midnight born.”)
During Staley’s two decades in the job, he has bought nearly a hundred literary collections—including papers of Jorge Luis Borges, John Osborne, Julian Barnes, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, Penelope Fitzgerald, John Fowles, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Don DeLillo—and, as he moves toward retirement, his buys are getting bigger. In 2003, Texas bought the Watergate papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for five million dollars. (A sealed file revealing the then secret identity of Deep Throat, Mark Felt, was deposited at a trustee’s office in Washington.) In 2005, Staley paid two and a half million dollars for the collection of Norman Mailer, which included twenty-five thousand of Mailer’s letters, along with the identification tags of his late poodle, Tibo. The archive—weighing twenty thousand pounds in all—came to the center in a tractor trailer. The New York book dealer Glenn Horowitz, who brokered the two deals, says of Staley, “He’s looking for projects that have a culminating quality to them.”
Staley has a gift for finding a way to buy archives that appeal to him. “I spend half my time raising money,” he says. Whereas most archives take years to amass the money for an acquisition, Staley lined up donors for the Mailer collection in a few months. “We are able to respond with alacrity to an offer,” Staley says. “A lot of things come to us because the owners know they will get a prompt answer. If we don’t want it, then they can try somewhere else.”
There is not much that other institutions can do when Texas is interested. After Osborne, Stoppard, Penelope Lively, and others sold their papers to Texas, the mass departure aroused alarm in Britain—a 2005 headline in the London Times proclaimed, “WRITERS UNITE TO FIGHT FLIGHT OF LITERARY PAPERS TO U.S.” To counter the Ransom Center, Britain’s national-heritage fund changed a rule prohibiting public money from being spent on material less than twenty years old; the exclusion was reduced to ten years. The change barely diminished the flow of work across the ocean, however. Staley does not have much sympathy for the aggrieved. Last year, at a conference at the British Library, Staley was asked about an essay in which the British poet laureate Andrew Motion argued that national treasures belonged in the nations that created them. He retorted, “Like the Elgin Marbles?”
Perhaps disingenuously, Staley asserts that the Ransom Center’s success is not primarily about money. “You know what matters most to writers?” Staley said. “It’s the care we expend on their manuscripts. That’s the most flattering thing. They just love it.” Staley bears more than a passing resemblance to Mortimer Cropper, the “sinewy” American curator in A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession (1990). Cropper, who works at a land-grant university in New Mexico, gleefully despoils England of its literary patrimony, promising writers to preserve their manuscripts with fetishistic care. As Cropper puts it, “They would join their fellows in perfect conditions—air pressure, humidity, light—our conditions of keeping and viewing are the best in the world.”
Most major archives, particularly those in Europe, grew great with the cultures they were a part of, organically forming a repository for a community of writers and scholars. That is not the case with the Texas collection. The center was the invention of an ambitious dean: Harry Huntt Ransom. In 1956, Ransom gave a talk in Austin to a group called the Philosophical Society of Texas. His subject was the poor state of the university’s book collections. At the time, the University of Texas was a good regional school with an excellent football team. Its library held the usual fare bought from rare-book collectors: fine bindings, travel arcana, books of local interest.
Ransom believed that one of the richest states in the country should have a book collection worthy of it. In his lecture, he proposed “that there be established somewhere in Texas—let’s say in the capital city—a center of our cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation.” Texas’s power brokers responded with money, and the university allowed Ransom to use some of its oil revenue for acquisitions. (Part of the university’s land lies on the Permian Basin.)
Ransom acquired books and manuscripts so rapidly that they piled up in the halls and stairwells. “G.T.T.”—Gone to Texas—became a recognized abbreviation in the rare-book business. He was also innovative. He bought the collections of the living or only recently dead—writers whom Harvard and Yale considered too green. Ransom, who earned the nickname the Great Acquisitor, not only bought these writers’ manuscripts and letters; he tried to gather everything from baby book to death mask. As a result, the center has Arthur Conan Doyle’s undershirts, Evelyn Waugh’s writing desk, a pair of beaded moccasins worn by D. H. Lawrence, Anne Sexton’s glasses, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish typewriter.
By 1970, the Texas collection had developed an emphasis on British modernism. It owned important manuscripts and ephemera from Samuel Beckett (his English translation of Waiting for Godot), Joyce (four signed copies of the first print run of Ulysses), Dylan Thomas (a manuscript of Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night), and Malcolm Lowry (a handwritten manuscript of Under the Volcano). Around this time, Philip Larkin published an essay in which he warned of “the likelihood of a situation wherein the manuscripts of every considerable British writer since 1850 are in American hands.”
But there was no going back. As the biggest buyer in the archives market, Ransom drove prices way up, and prominent authors began to expect money for their drafts and letters. “Your gift of archives... will cause a painful precedent,” Evelyn Waugh complained in a 1965 postcard to his brother Alec, who had given away his manuscripts to Boston University. “Most of your fellow-writers hope to support their declining years by sales to Texas.” In a similar vein, the British novelist Olivia Manning wrote to a friend, “I am sure you could, if you tried, get that money from Texas.... Those arrangements with Texas are very elastic & I have twice received sums long before they were due to arrive. Try & see if I am not right! Yes, how much I regret the mss. I destroyed in the past.”
In 1971, Ransom was forced to resign; he was brought down, in part, by complaints about the center’s excessive spending and its secrecy. He died in 1976. A period of decline ensued, until 1988, when a university search committee hired Staley. He was then at the University of Tulsa, where he had bought the archives of Edmund Wilson, the Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann, and Jean Rhys.
Staley was a natural collector. His mother “came from some means,” as he puts it, and his father’s family manufactured embalming fluid, among other chemicals. He grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the Texas accent comes and goes, depending on where he is and whom he’s talking to—and filled his bookshelves with Big Little storybooks. “I had a library when I was twelve, and I numbered it,” he says. “It was a giveaway, though I didn’t know it.” After college, he attended classes at Georgetown Law School; although he left after a few weeks, he couldn’t bear to throw away his textbooks.
At Texas, Staley quickly learned to avoid the mistake of his immediate predecessor, Decherd Turner, who focussed on the preservation of manuscripts. “Acquisitions are what people like,” he says. “They like to be a part of it.” Shortly after he took the job, Staley had his first big success. In 1988, one of his curators got word that the archives of Stuart Gilbert, who had been James Joyce’s translator and friend, might be for sale. Staley went to the senior administrators of the university—some of whom, he was convinced, did not know who Joyce was. “I said, ‘This is an opportunity for the University of Texas to get back in the game, in a big way.’ ” Gilbert’s widow wanted an offer up front. Staley took the gamble, paying her the full two hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars that she was asking, without examining the papers.
There were also legal hurdles. Gilbert was British, his widow French; they had been living in France. Staley feared that France, under its cultural-patrimony laws, might lay claim to the papers. To avoid litigation, Staley hired a bakery truck and had workers stuff the papers in it and drive it to the English Channel. “I said, ‘Look, a very good day to do it would be on Ascension Thursday. There might not be as many guards out.’ ” The strategy worked. Gilbert’s literary remains were loaded onto the Channel ferry; in London, they were repacked and shipped to Austin.
The archives were more than worth the price. They contained Gilbert’s unpublished diary, which provides an intimate portrait of how Joyce wrote Finnegans Wake. On January 1, 1930, Gilbert wrote, “At last J. J. has recommenced work on W. in P.”—the work in progress. “Five volumes of the Encyclopedia Brit. on his sofa. He has made a list of 30 towns. New York, Vienna, Budapest... Whenever I come to a name (of a street, suburb, park, etc.), I pause. J. thinks. If he can Anglicise the word, i.e., make a pun on it... the name or its deformation [are recorded in a] notebook. Thus ‘Slotspark’ (I think) at Christiania becomes Sluts’ park. He collects all queer names in this way and will soon have a notebook full of them.”
A student who was unpacking the Gilbert material for Staley found, as Staley puts it, “an odd thing.” It was a typewritten sheaf of onionskin pages with handwritten emendations: Joyce’s edit of the first chapter of Finnegans Wake. Any document with Joyce’s handwriting would be valuable, but these pages answered the question of how Finnegans Wake, parts of which had originally been published in the magazine Transition, assumed its final form. “No one knew how those changes had been made,” Staley says. “It was the missing link in the stemma.” He estimates the value of the pages at seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
Staley believes that the best archives have an internal coherence. He conceives of the Ransom collection as a group of “nodes,” a term he has borrowed from Finnegans Wake. The modernist node consists of Beckett, Joyce, Eliot, Pound, the Gilbert archive, some Woolf holdings, and hundreds of minor correspondence collections connected to the greats. There is also a twentieth-century-British-theatre node—John Osborne, Tom Stoppard, David Hare—and one devoted to Jewish-American fiction, featuring Isaac Bashevis Singer, James Salter, Bernard Malamud, Arthur Miller, and Norman Mailer. These nodes have yielded hundreds of scholarly works—from Diane Middlebrook’s biography Anne Sexton (1991), which relied on hundreds of unpublished poems at the Ransom Center to make a broader claim for Sexton’s talent, to R. W. B. Lewis’s Letters of Edith Wharton (1988), which offered definitive proof that Wharton had an affair in Paris with the journalist Morton Fullerton.
To buy the Singer archive, in 1993, Staley got together a group of local Jews who wanted to see the papers brought to Austin. (“You mean you’re gonna get Singer out of New York?” one donor said. “I’m in!”) Singer saved all his drafts and notes and much of his correspondence—a hundred and eighty boxes of material. Size, Staley believes, is one sign of a great archive; in such cases, you can see the transformation of a work from idea to final form, following the process obliquely through letters written to the author during the time that he was writing the work. (Letters from an author rarely come as part of his or her archive, which is why “nodal collecting”—collecting the archives of both sender and recipient—is so appealing to Staley.)
For writers, the need to get rid of their papers is sometimes practical, sometimes sentimental. The British author Penelope Lively called Staley in 1995 and told him that rain was leaking through the roof of her London home. “Tom, I guess I’m ready to move on this,” she said. Staley bought her papers for fifty thousand dollars. In 1993, near the end of John Osborne’s life, his wife greeted Staley at their home, in Shropshire, and presented him with four neat stacks of material. “Here are the ex-wives!” she said. Don DeLillo recently sent me a fax explaining his decision to part with his papers: “I ran out of space and also felt, as one does at a certain age, that I was running out of time. I didn’t want to leave behind an enormous mess of papers for family members to deal with. Of course, I’ve since produced more paper—novel, play, essay, etc.—and so the cycle begins again.”
Staley’s literary expertise essentially stops with the nineteen-sixties, the final wave of modernism. Young assistants supply the knowledge that he lacks about current writing. Several years ago, his son, Tim, then an editor at the University of Texas Press, urged him to buy the DeLillo archive. An assistant in the publicity department, Travis Willmann, helped convince Staley that Russell Banks’s archive should have a home at the Ransom.
With the assistance of this group of young people, Staley has created what he calls the “post-fifties list”—a group of six hundred or so current writers whom the center monitors. The roster is divided into three parts: “We have the writers whose archives we’re trying to get—the A level,” Staley says. “Then there’s the B level—these would be writers where we would get their published material, first editions and so on. And then there’s the C level, where we would try to get first editions of their major work.” The C’s include Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen, and Dave Eggers. Some B’s: David Foster Wallace, J. D. Salinger, and J. M. Coetzee. Staley was reluctant to divulge the A’s, but he said that Ian McEwan was among them.
Staley’s conservatism extends beyond his literary taste. He does not want to place the Ransom’s archives online. He believes, quoting Matthew Arnold, that “the object as in itself it really is” can never be replaced by a digital reproduction. “Smell this,” he told me one time when I was in his office, as he picked up a manuscript box from the Edwardian British publisher Cecil Palmer. We inhaled the scent: tobacco, mold, dust. “See, there’s information in the smell, too,” he said.
The same month that Staley bought Norman Mailer’s archive, U.T. announced that the school would remove nearly a hundred thousand books from the undergraduate library to make way for “an information commons” of computer clusters. “That’s not us,” Staley said. I once asked Staley what role he saw the Ransom Center fulfilling fifty years from now, with its boxes of yellowing rough drafts typed out on manual typewriters and piles of letters written with fountain pens by candlelight. “There will be these bastions, whether the ruins of Athens or these archives, and they will be all the more valuable,” he said.
The Ransom is, in a sense, a collection of ruins. Staley recently paid Tom Stoppard two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars for sixty-two linear feet of his detritus, including a report card from 1944, when he was seven. (Stoppard was deemed “excellent” in literature.) At times, Staley’s value system seems perverse: the raw thought being prized over the polished expression. As Stoppard put it to Staley, “Most of what you want is what I want to throw out.” In an interview, Stoppard said of his archive, “I’m surprised that anyone wants it. I certainly do not put any value on it myself.” He continues to send his leavings to Staley, treating the Ransom like “an incinerator that doesn’t incinerate.” He added, “I have an out-tray, and, quite often, my secretary says, ‘What do we do with it?’ We agree that maybe Tom Staley would want it—God knows why.”
One day this spring, I flew to Austin to take a look at the Don DeLillo archive. The Bronx-born writer, whose papers Staley acquired in 2004 for half a million dollars, fits into the Ransom’s collection well: for one thing, DeLillo is part of a node of expansive American fiction that goes back to Philip Roth and forward to novelists such as Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, and David Foster Wallace; DeLillo has corresponded with all of these writers. DeLillo counts Joyce as an influence, so he connects to the modernist node. And he has kept engaging, detailed notebooks that shed light on the intellectual foundation of his novels. Most important, he writes on a manual typewriter, producing draft after draft of his work, allowing scholars a chance to see his creative mind at work.
The hundred and twenty-five boxes of the DeLillo collection are housed in a cavernous space in the Ransom’s basement which also serves as a way station for archival material still in shipping crates. In an archive, the analogy between an author’s literary and physical remains is inescapable. As I walked beneath the fluorescent lights and exposed pipes, looking for DeLillo, I ran my hands along Singer’s boxes, on metal shelves. Another room contained rejection letters from Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher. (In an internal memo, a Knopf editor said of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.”) I had been in Austin on the day, in 2005, that Norman Mailer took a tour of the archives. I followed him as the curators pointed to his future neighbors: Singer, Greene, DeLillo, C. P. Snow. Mailer, leaning heavily on two canes that supported his arthritic knees, fixed his eyes on the empty aisle before him. “It’s certainly appropriate,” he told Staley afterward. “We all wind up in boxes anyway.”
On the day of my recent visit, the conservators were reconstructing an old faux-leather address book of Mailer’s, ordering the loose pages and using bright white Japanese paper to mend a tear. (Styles in conservation change over the decades: the “invisible mend” has been replaced by techniques that allow the scholar to see the sutures.) Elsewhere, staff members were trying to salvage a producer’s box of Hollywood scripts; the bottom of the sheets had been nibbled away by cockroaches.
A conservator named Mary Baughman showed me around the basement. She had just placed ten Office Depot boxes from a local humorist in a hundred-square-foot freezer, to check for infestation. She inspected some bug traps. “There’s a spider,” she said. “And, ooh, there’s something larger—a silverfish.” She ordered the material to be “frozen to the center,” and asked me if I’d like to see the vermin collection she keeps in a small container. “It’s a morgue, not a zoo,” she said, pointing out the carcasses of various beetle species. “Some like protein. Some like starch. This is a dermestid.” 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.
Baughman had only good things to say about the condition of DeLillo’s manuscripts. When I pulled them off the metal shelves, they were eerily immaculate—embalmed in acid-free manila folders inside blue legal-sized boxes, each about the size of an accordion folder. I found them on a shelf next to two volumes of Walter de la Mare’s correspondence; Anthony Burgess was in the next row, James Agee in the row after that.
Archives are like books without indexes: you know in a general way if you’re interested in the subject, but there is no shortcut to finding out if what you’re really looking for is in there. Archivists produce what is called a “finding aid.” The finding aid is an overview of what an archive contains—drafts, letters, newspaper clippings, foreign contracts—but it does not detail what each item says, who is mentioned in it, or why it matters. Usually, the only person to have read the entirety of an archive is the author, and the authority on its contents is the scholar who has studied it the most. (In 1986, the British writer Stephen Spender, whose papers are at Austin, discovered a novel in manuscript that he had forgotten he’d written.)
The DeLillo finding aid shows which folder contains which draft of which novel, but not whether the draft is different in important ways from a previous one. It records that DeLillo’s 1972 novel End Zone originally bore the title The Self-Erasing Word, but you have to open the proper folder and look at the title page to see that it also had been called Modes of Disaster Technology. (The phrase appears in the book.) Similarly, the finding aid tells you that DeLillo’s original title for White Noise (1985) was Panasonic, but you have to burrow into his correspondence from 1984 to discover how upset DeLillo was when the Japanese electronics manufacturer that owns Panasonic declined his request to use the name. “Panasonic as a title is crucial for a number of reasons,” DeLillo wrote to his then editor, Elisabeth Sifton. He went on, “The novel is filled with the sounds of people’s voices, with sirens, loudspeakers, bullhorns, kitchen appliances, with radio and TV transmissions, with references to beams, rays, sound waves, etc.... Jack, listening to people talk on the telephone and musing on his own death, thinks ‘all sounds, all souls.’ (Page 369.) Again the notion of pan-sonus connected to a fear of death. There is still another instance in which Greek roots are important. Jack associates the god Pan with his fear of death.” The archive also contains two pages of other titles that DeLillo concocted—from All Souls and Ultrasonic to White Noise—written in jumpy capital letters.
Some authors’ archives create a picture of the era in which they lived: Mailer’s papers are wide-ranging—political and social. DeLillo’s archives are narrow but pure. You sense, in his papers, that his life is work and thinking about work; even when he is somewhere else, his mind is still attached to his desk. Materials related to the composition of his twelve novels, his plays, and his stories take up ninety or so boxes—a high percentage of the whole. They underscore DeLillo’s commitment to what he called, in a Paris Review interview, “the slogging reality of the no-man’s-land of the long novel.” The archive also contains some seminal newspaper clippings, such as a 1982 account, from the Times, of a Missouri town contaminated by dioxin—one of the seeds for the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise.
As DeLillo matured as a writer, his detritus increased, and not just because his books got longer. Beginning with the manuscript of The Names, written in the early eighties, he began consistently to type each paragraph over and over, often on its own page, so that within a draft a paragraph may appear a dozen times on a dozen sheets, as he works it to his satisfaction. (The change occurs in Box 44, folders 1-3.) The process gives DeLillo’s drafts a highly deliberate pace, like a blind man tapping his way forward. It also confirms his appraisal of his own technique; in a 1997 letter to David Foster Wallace, he wrote that his prose is characterized by “a sensitivity to the actual appearance of words on a page, to letter-shapes and letter-combinations.” (DeLillo saved a copy of the letter.) He goes on, “At some point (in my writing life) I realized that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise you try to be, or I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like—then the better my chances of creating a deeper and more beautiful language.” (In his response, Wallace wrote, “I found your comments on the physical architecture of clauses and words and letters real interesting and yet identified with them not one whit. I think I’m maybe 100% aural. My eyesight’s really bad anyway.”)
The painstaking nature of DeLillo’s method can be seen in his drafts for Underworld (2001), which began as a novella, Pafko at the Wall, composed in 1991. He goes through a dozen pages to settle on the language of the opening two paragraphs, in which a Harlem teen-ager named Cotter Martin gets ready to jump the turnstile at the Polo Grounds to see the famous 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff game. The first page in the folder already captures the agitated mentality of a hurrying city: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. The longing to be here, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, is too hard to resist—this metropolis.” DeLillo breaks off and starts again: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom, the box of forty blank faces.” He pauses, then alters the image to “the box of forty mismatched heads.” He returns to his original riff: “It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom and it’s not a matter of midweek blues.” Then he drops “midweek blues,” but introduces the idea of melancholy in a lovely pair of sentences: “Most longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication.” He transforms these two sentences into one: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
Five years later, DeLillo turns to these words again, for the prologue to Underworld. He wants a new first paragraph to precede the earlier one. “Look at the kid with the empty pockets” becomes “Look at the kid with the lively eyes”; he then changes “lively eyes” to “glimmerglass eyes.” (Glimmerglass eyes? He amends it in pencil: “shine in his eyes.”) A few pages later, he returns to the image: “He speaks in your voice, American, and has a shine in his eyes that’s half hope, half fear.” DeLillo replaces the end of the sentence with the smoother “halfway hopeful.” After a few more tweaks, he has merged Bellow with Gershwin: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful. It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him—this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each. Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
In a letter to his agent, DeLillo calls one of his notebooks “exquisite scribblings.” For Underworld, DeLillo kept three sets of notes. First, there are loose bits of paper that the archivists have tucked into Mylar sleeves. (One piece is ripped from a supermarket bag; an idea struck DeLillo on his way home from shopping.) Many of these scraps contain aphorisms that ended up in the book: “All waste aspires to the condition of shit.” Then, there are pocket notebooks that DeLillo labelled with subject headings, such as “The Game” and “Black-and-White Ball.” Finally, there are two spiral-bound notebooks where DeLillo lets his consciousness expand. On one page, he writes, “The Factoids: Nobody knows whether they in fact exist.” Then, “By the end of the novel, it is suggested that everyone is a Factoid, a rumored version of himself.” He lets this thought unspool. “The existence of the Factoids explains everything from the Kennedy assassination onward—Vietnam, Watergate, etc. Did Factoids kill JFK? Or was JFK a Factoid—found out and murdered. Truman Capote’s Black-and-White ball (a factoid confection).”
DeLillo’s letters are often about business—negotiations over contracts, responses to translators—but a few of them provide insight into his austere approach to the literary life. One, in particular, is the kind of note that biographers long to stumble across. In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace wrote to him, “Because I tend both to think I’m uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff.... Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit.” DeLillo responded in November. “I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning,” he writes. “Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I’d get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different.... We die indoors, and alone, and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there’s no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that’s all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.”
One day last October, Tom Staley received a tip from a Canadian academic who had used the Ransom collection: a retired foreign correspondent named Bernard Diederich wanted to sell a hundred and thirty letters that Graham Greene had written to him. Diederich, who was born in New Zealand, was now living in Florida. Staley’s friend Gene Cooke has a home in Florida—so, one day in January, the two men got into Cooke’s gray Mercedes and headed down the South Dixie Highway. Staley had looked into Diederich’s role in Greene’s life and found that he was particularly close to Greene during the nineteen-sixties, when Greene was in Haiti researching his great novel The Comedians.
Greene’s writing, popular in life, is coveted in death. Three major archives have his work: Boston College, Georgetown University, and the University of Texas. The last two, especially, compete for what little material remains in private hands. Staley, who had called Diederich promptly to arrange the Florida visit, was coming off two related successes. He had recently bought two hundred and fifteen letters of Greene’s, from a collector in Finland; in one of the letters, Greene writes that The Heart of the Matter is “one of my chief failures.” Staley had also acquired Greene’s F.B.I. file, from a British bookseller, which revealed, among other things, that real spies weren’t much more competent than the ones he made up in Our Man in Havana. (The agents confused Greene with a man named Thomas Graham Greene.)
Just south of Coral Gables, Staley and Cooke pulled off the road. At a café inside a Barnes & Noble bookstore, Staley sized up Diederich. “I want him to know how valuable this is for Greene and posterity,” he told Cooke. “One bad thing—he wants to give the money to a Jesuit school. He’s going to want real money.” Staley then took out a list of questions that he had written down: points that needed satisfying, if he was to make an offer. “You have to remember it’s not checkers, it’s chess,” he told me.
Greene, he went on, was in the habit of having his sister type his letters. If she had typed the ones sent to Diederich, they would be worth less. “The more the author’s involved, the better,” Staley explained. (Of greatest interest of all are handwritten letters; cross-outs illuminate the writer’s mind.) Greene also had a habit of writing very impersonal notes. He did not trust many people and gave little away to most correspondents. “ ‘Meet me for dinner’ is very different from ‘My work isn’t going well,’ ” Staley pointed out.
The period that Diederich’s letters covered—from the mid-sixties until 1991, the date of Greene’s death—is less well documented than others in Greene’s life. Diederich had stopped cöoperating with Greene’s most prominent biographer, Norman Sherry, after Sherry published the first volume of his three-part study, because he thought him unreliable and too focussed on Greene’s sex life. Diederich, Staley said, could be an important new source on Greene’s final decades.
Staley’s conversation with Diederich would help him figure out how well Diederich really knew Greene—giving context to the words on paper. “We’re going to be absolutely vacant,” Staley instructed Cooke. “We just want to ask him about Greene, Greene, and Greene.” Cooke promised that he would comply. “That’s why you’re wearing a green shirt,” he joked. Staley was dressed in a shiny cotton button-down, gray slacks, and loafers.
Diederich, who is eighty, lived in a house in Pinecrest. He met Staley and Cooke in the driveway and walked them past palm trees and orchids to his door. Inside, the hallways were covered with colorful Haitian art. “That’s my wife’s great-great grandfather,” Diederich said, pausing before an oil of Haiti’s second President, Jean-Pierre Boyer. The art did not interest Staley, and he barely suppressed his impatience. Diederich finally led him into his office. On one wall, there was a photograph of him and Greene from 1977; flanked by palm trees, they held highball glasses in their hands. Alcohol was a part of the dispute with Sherry, who had written that Diederich and Greene drank whiskey together in Panama. “Only local toffs would drink whiskey,” Diederich told me. “We drank rum.”
Diederich had thick white hair, a full beard, and the gravelly voice of Sean Connery. He would not be easy to manipulate. “Here they are,” he said, pushing two green folders across his large oak desk, toward Staley.
Staley has bought so many literary archives that he can practically gauge them by feel; when looking at one, he maintains a neutral face. He asked Diederich about Greene while flipping through the letters.
“When did you first meet Greene?”
“And this is your first letter—’65?”
“No, there are others I lost.”
“You lost them ...”
“We moved around a lot. When I was kicked out of Haiti, I never visited my office again. I went directly from my office to jail and from jail to the airport.”
Diederich told war stories, most of which centered on how much he and Greene liked to drink. Staley asked Diederich about rum punch, which prompted a long story about “the old guy César” at the Grand Hotel Oloffson, in Port-au-Prince, whom Greene thought made the best one. “It was a special rum punch with Haitian rum and orange juice, and a little bit of Myers. Graham loved his rum punch—tough stuff.” He told of a disastrous trip that he and Greene had taken to try to find the casket of Sir Francis Drake, who died off the coast of Panama in 1596. Panama’s strongman leader, Omar Torrijos, a friend of Greene’s, lent them a military helicopter, but the pilot took them to the wrong beach. Diederich chuckled at the memory. “Graham was very good company,” he said. Referring to claims that Greene was manic-depressive, he said, “The bipolar thing I could never understand, because all the years I knew him there was never any swing.”
As Diederich talked, Staley leafed through the letters, each in its own plastic sleeve. When Diederich digressed, and began to speak of his children and their own journalistic efforts, Staley quietly tapped his hand against his chair. He put a mint in his mouth and sucked on it hard. At one point, Staley’s cell phone rang. He took the call and left the room. “That was Bob Woodward,” he said pointedly, upon returning. The University of Texas, he told Diederich, was planning a symposium at the Ransom with Woodward and Bernstein. Diederich, who was once placed in solitary confinement by Papa Doc Duvalier for his reporting in Haiti, did not respond to this news.
Staley went back to listening and leafing. He noticed that all but one of the letters were typed, and that most of the letters from the sixties were missing. Diederich had correspondence mainly from the seventies and eighties—the period of Greene’s decline, when he wrote The Honorary Consul, Monsignor Quixote, and other lesser works. (“Graham loved The Honorary Consul,” Diederich pointed out.) For many biographers, however, decline is as interesting as anything else, and the letters were personal—rare for Greene’s later days. “So many of Greene’s letters are so guarded,” Staley told me later. “He saw the C.I.A. in everything, or MI6. These are not guarded. Diederich was a friend.” In one letter, Greene writes excitedly that his trip to Panama with Diederich has inspired a book: “I really believe a novel is emerging into my self-conscious.” And then disappointment: “I started the novel in Capri and wrote 6000 words but I am doubtful whether it will work.” In the final months of his life, the normally undemonstrative Greene, then eighty-six years old, sent Diederich a note asking for a visit. “I always felt bad about that,” Diederich told Staley. “But I had so much work.”
Greene’s opposition to American foreign policy is in the letters, too. In 1977, after the United States signed the treaty returning sovereignty over the Panama Canal to Panama, Greene predicted grim consequences for General Torrijos: “300 square miles and more of real estate plus a lot of money will be a big temptation to the bourgeoisie. They won’t like the idea of the general spending it on school meals, free milk and pleasure grounds for children. I think the general’s life might well be in danger.” Torrijos died four years later, when the airplane he was flying in crashed; Greene always believed that he was assassinated.
“These are great letters,” Staley finally told Diederich. “They are far more revealing than most letters he wrote to other people.” Staley decided that he wanted them, and asked Cooke and me to leave the room. He had already resolved to offer eighty-five thousand dollars, and to go as high as a hundred and thirty thousand if necessary. (The higher number amounted to a thousand dollars a letter, slightly higher than the going rate for Greene.) To make the bid, Staley had lined up a forty-thousand-dollar gift in Austin; the rest would come from the archive’s general fund.
He asked Diederich whether he had got the letters appraised or given any thought about their value. Diederich invited him to make him an offer—and added that Staley had a competitor. The director of acquisitions at Georgetown was coming to Pinecrest in a week.
Staley was nonplussed for a moment. He then reminded Diederich that Georgetown had given Norman Sherry—his nemesis—exclusive access to Greene’s letters in its collection. The arrangement had been controversial, even in Greene’s family. “You know the issues of them being in bed with Sherry,” Staley said. Diederich responded that he did. Staley then hinted that Diederich could publish his own memoir—rich in Greene reminiscences—under the Ransom Center’s imprint. (“That’s my kicker,” Staley told me.)
The two men continued their discussion, but Diederich was unwilling to commit, and Staley left without a deal. But he was confident that things would eventually go his way. “Georgetown doesn’t have that kind of money,” he said.
A few months passed. “Diederich? Oh, I’ll hear from him,” Staley assured me. In May, he did: Diederich sold the archive to him for just forty-nine thousand two hundred dollars. Staley’s comments about Georgetown and Sherry had clearly weighed on Diederich, and he even offered to throw in letters that Greene’s companion Yvonne Cloetta had written to him, if Staley promised to keep them out of Sherry’s hands. (Though Staley said that this would not be ethical, Diederich donated them anyway.) “Tom is a straight shooter and loves the letters he collects,” Diederich explained to me in an e-mail.
Staley was happy with his hoard. “The letters are good—first class!” he said, adding, “And I got them at a very good price.” He wasn’t sorry that he had used every trick he had to beat Georgetown; the Ransom now had a new treasure. “I’m shameless,” Staley had told me. “I’ll try anything.” Ω
[D. T. Max graduated from Harvard in 1984. He has been an editor at Washington Square Press, Houghton Mifflin, and The New York Observer. For the past eight years, he has reported mostly for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune. Max is the author of The Family That Couldn't Sleep (2006).]
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