The most interesting piece I read in the Times last week—excluding the profile in which Reykjavik’s new mayor said that he would rule out as a coalition partner “any party whose members had not seen all five seasons of ‘The Wire’”—was Book Review editor (and TNR contributor) Sam Tanenhaus’s 2,500-word exploration of John Updike’s archive. Tanenhaus reports that Updike, who died about a year and a half ago at age 76, left an enormous cache of papers “fashioned as meticulously as one of his lathe-turned sentences.” Now at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, it is closed to the public until archivists have had a chance to catalog its 170 boxes—which they estimate will take about two years. In the meantime, Tanenhaus got a sneak peek, and writes that the files, which occupy an aisle and a half worth of shelves, “hold the keys to Updike’s literary universe.” They include manuscript drafts in pencil and typescript, photocopied pages of research material, and hundreds of letters Updike wrote to his parents that chronicle nearly 20 years of his life.
Just about any person fascinated by books has felt the seductive pull of the writer’s archive. Human beings love creation stories, and that’s what the researcher hopes to discover: to witness, in retrospect, the birth of a masterpiece. Literature itself is full of these fantasies, from the stack of letters that obsess the narrator of James’s The Aspern Papers to the revelatory discovery about a famous poet’s private life made by a young researcher in the first pages of A.S. Byatt’s Possession. Tanenhaus writes excitedly of the trove of materials that went into the making of Rabbit at Rest: snapshots of storefronts in a Pennsylvania town, photocopies of pages from medical books on heart disease, a memo from a researcher on sales practices at Toyota dealers, a list of basketball moves. There’s even the wrapper from a Planters Peanut Bar, “as lovingly preserved as a pressed autumn leaf,” which Tanenhaus imagines Updike using to come up with the novel’s vivid description of Rabbit dumping the “sweet crumbs out of the wrapper into his palm and with his tongue lick[ing] them all up like an anteater”—one of those actions we’ve all done but would be at pains to describe.
But if these are the keys to a literary universe, where are the locks? None of us, presented with this miscellany of sources, could sit down and write the Rabbit novels. What they actually reveal is how mysterious the essential act of creation is. You might as well gather together Picasso’s paint jars, canvas, and easel and try to reconstruct Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, or imagine a ballet by looking at the music, costumes, shoes. What’s missing is the alchemy that takes an assortment of random objects and transforms them into a work of art. And that process leaves no trace.
What’s more, the archive offers an illusion of completeness not entirely different from the way the novel itself offers an illusion of reality. All those boxes, their contents neatly filed and numbered and alphabetized, in all their exquisite order! But anyone who has spent time poking through a writer’s archive—and I have been doing a bit of this myself lately—will realize that the apparent intactness masks what is not there. The letters that got torn up, the drafts that were burned—if you’re lucky, there are hints of these in other documents, so that you can agonize in frustration over what was lost. But for all the diary entries and recipes and Christmas cards that your subject saved, there might have been an equal number that he or she threw away. And perhaps rightly so. Even the most dogged researcher, poring over pages after page of publisher’s correspondence (“Enclosed please find your royalty statement for the period January through June 1951 …”) and similar monotony, will remember why this stuff is called ephemera. In 170 boxes of stuff, is there really nothing that Updike could have parted with? A judicious edit of the archives would make it easier to find those documents with true literary value.
Soon, of course, it is the archive itself that will be ephemeral. Adam Begley, Updike’s biographer, writes that his archive “may be the last great paper trail.” Which of the young writers at work today—the New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” for instance—print out their emails for the sake of posterity? What will the “miscellany” file hold for a writer who keeps all his or her appointments on a PDA? (There is a certain undeniable amusement to going through the ancient datebook of a famous person.) Writers’ archives will no doubt continue to exist, but in far different form: perhaps someday a researcher in a manuscript reading room will be offered not a shelf full of musty cartons but his or her subject’s ancient laptop, complete with virtual sticky notes, Web bookmarks, and probably porn.
But the computer discourages the keeping of archives, at least in their traditional form. If Updike had been working in Word, he might have left no trace of the numerous emendations to the opening airport scene of Rabbit at Rest, which Tanenhaus carefully chronicles. (The pun of “terminal air-conditioning” came in a rewrite, we learn.) That medical information he photocopied could now be taken care of with a glance at Wikipedia. Is this a disaster? For biographers and the editors of variorum editions, perhaps—not to mention all the archivists who currently guard the flame. But the rest of us are unlikely to register a dip in the atmospheric pressure. And it could well lead to a useful conversation about how much all this stuff is actually worth—and how much time, money, and effort ought to be expended in preserving it. In the meantime: Novelists of the world, throw out your Planters Peanut Bar Milky Way candy bar wrappers.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.