Selling My Papers

A life’s work out the door

Toms Baugis/Flickr
Toms Baugis/Flickr


The most gratifying event to have occurred this past year—my ambivalence about surrendering them aside—was selling my papers to Yale University’s Beinecke Library. The Beinecke is a prestigious repository of many distinguished writers’ papers, and to be accepted into that august company must mean I am a distinguished writer, too, no? But it was never a sure thing. Here is how it came about.

For years I had been hearing of people selling their papers, and often these writers were, in my humble judgment, no better practitioners of the literary art than I—indeed, in some cases, inferior! How did they do it? I wondered. I had as yet no urgency to place my papers, still feeling rather healthy and fit; but in due course I was approached by a bookseller who handled such transactions, which suddenly made it a concrete, attractive possibility. He contacted the New York Public Library, a logical place for my papers, given my lifelong involvement with the city of my birth, and two representatives from that estimable institution came to my house to examine the lot. Though I had never been scrupulously anal about archiving myself—one can either live one’s life or curate it, not both—I had managed to accumulate quite a heap over the years, simply by tossing papers, drafts, or memorabilia into filing cabinets and closets. In preparation for the librarians’ visit, I had laid out letters, manuscripts, and diaries on the kitchen table and in boxes all about the room. I tried to steer these two examiners, a man and woman, to what I thought might be juicy bits, but their blank emotionless faces (so like those of funders or oncologists, who don’t want to get your hopes up) gave away nothing, and after two hours of idly sifting through the records of a lifetime’s labor, they departed. Two hours! I had foolishly expected them to take several days to acquaint themselves with my oeuvre, or I should say the documentation surrounding it. I heard nothing back from the NYPL, and eventually had to pry loose from an inside contact that the librarians had passed on my offering. I gather they were going after bigger fish (Tom Wolfe, for instance).

My first agent, having gotten nowhere at this one attempt, made himself scarcer than a cat burglar, and I never heard from him again. A few years passed, and I found another bookseller-agent, who agreed to take me on. We approached Columbia University, an even more logical protector of my effects, since I had been an undergraduate at the school and was now a professor there. Should they decide to purchase my papers, I could be on hand to guide any scholars working on them to answer questions merely by walking across the quadrangle. A nice young woman came out to my house in Brooklyn, examined the haul for two or three hours (I knew the drill enough not to expect more), and said she would report back to her boss, smiling all the while. Several months passed, and again I heard nothing, until finally I phoned the woman and was told that regretfully they had decided to “pass.” Why? I demanded, astonished and resentful. This time it was not a matter of snaring bigger fish but of saving money. The budget for acquisitions was very tight, the essay was not going to be one of their areas of concentration, and anyway, they had decided to go with another nonfiction writer whose asking price was cheaper. I also got the impression that since I was an alumnus, the loyal thing expected of me was to donate my papers gratis to alma mater.

By now I had just about given up hope, but my new agent was not dismayed and decided to try Yale. An appointment was arranged leaving me enough time to sort through the mounds of papers and distribute them into various piles according to my sub-specialties: personal essay, literary criticism, film, architectural and urbanist writings, personal diaries from my teenage years onward, teaching diaries, letters from students, friends, lovers, and family members, audio tapes and DVDs of public appearances, novel manuscripts, poetry drafts … I had arranged everything in 35 cardboard cartons, with manila folders of important correspondence stacked on the kitchen table. My wife thought the handwritten scrawl by which I had marked the boxes’ contents with Sharpies was sloppy; no way, she said, would Yale ever buy my papers unless I relabeled everything more neatly, which I refused to do. The night before the librarians from the Beinecke were to arrive, my daughter, taking pity on me, rearranged the boxes as I slept in what she thought was a prettier display.

I came downstairs in the morning and inspected the boxy profusion which had taken over the parlor floor. By now I was starting to feel like a shmata salesman laying out the season’s dress line. I knew the spiel and would try to present myself as a Renaissance Man, active in various scenes: the Open Education movement, Writers in the Schools, the New York Film Festival, the resurgent essay, the New York School of Poetry scene, the antiwar movement, the Municipal Arts Society—if nothing else, a Witness to History. I thought it was a remarkably convincing archive, indisputably valuable to all who cared about belles lettres. And yet, I would not have been surprised to be turned down again. Such is the predicament of a midlist writer like myself, respected up to a point but not a Big Name.

The two women who came to my house seemed well-versed in my career and needed little salesmanship. They were both very pleasant and upbeat. One of them announced that the Beinecke was looking to strengthen their holdings in creative nonfiction. Vell, ladies, you have come to the vright place! I had cravenly isolated a pile of letters from Famous People, and steered them to that; but one woman, who, as luck would have it, cared deeply about education, was far less interested in them than in a box of teaching diaries, which she thought fairly rare. The other woman, who specialized in contemporary poetry, noted how many of my correspondents were already in the Beinecke collection, which would make for convenient cross-referencing. After staying three hours, they left, intimating that they would make a positive recommendation to purchase the archive at the next meeting. I might have to wait a few months before it came before the committee, but things looked good. As it happened, I waited only one week before learning they had met the respectable price my agent had set.

I now moved all the boxes down to the basement so as to restore the kitchen and living room to normal use. All 35 cartons would soon be leaving, bye-bye, my entire past, a life’s detritus, the snail’s trail of romances and crushes, hopes and betrayals, euphoria and disappointment, the starts of poems that came to nothing, the painstakingly typed and crossed-out prose drafts (pre-computer). I was outsourcing my memory to the Beinecke, and if I ever decided to write my autobiography, I would have to go to New Haven to revisit those carefully catalogued diaries and letters, requisitioning no more than four files at a time. I could then become a scholar grub, a monk working on the incunabula of my own experience.

I had already made the decision not to hold anything back. It would be madness, I felt, to try to separate out those passages that might be damaging to my reputation, either because they were mean-spirited, poorly written, or revelatory of some shameful behavior. Out of curiosity I started reading one of my old diaries in the basement, and was appalled at the pettiness and immaturity of the narrator. There were writers I greatly admired, such as Hardy, Dickens, Kafka, and Larkin, who had burned their papers rather than let them fall into the hands of malicious critics and prying biographers. But they possessed nobler characters than I. Fortunately, modesty precluded me from imagining there would be a rush of biographers competing to write my Life anytime soon. Thus I vacillated between worrying that the wrong secrets would get out and wondering if anyone would ever decide to work on my archive. Oh well, either way, let it all hang out.

When the guy from Yale arrived in his white panel truck, I opened the top latch on the basement and helped him load the boxes, which he lifted up to me. It took a whole morning. When he drove away, I was hit by a profound ache, immediately missing these proofs of having lived, which had always surrounded me protectively like a mosquito net. I felt utterly denuded. Talk about phantom limb! But I also felt enormous relief, just from getting these accumulated exertions out of the house. A burden was lifted from me; I could start all over again to accumulate the records of my folly.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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