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Beckett's Manuscripts in the Marketplace

From: Modernism/modernity
Volume 18, Number 4, November 2011
pp. 823-831 | 10.1353/mod.2011.0105

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In the spring of 1930, undoubtedly on the back of his drunken attendance at a soirée held two months earlier in honor of Joyce's forty-eighth birthday, Samuel Beckett told his friend Thomas McGreevy:

Aren't people shits? Signed photographs, signed books, signed menus. I suppose the Gilberts & Carduccis would feel honored if Joyce signed a piece of his used toilet paper.

Whilst literary archives have understandably baulked at used toilet paper, any material relating to Beckett and his work has, as with Joyce, become extremely desirable. The value of Beckett manuscripts and ephemera today is considerable, and while not necessarily studied, any piece of paper bearing Beckett's writing is preserved. This essay aims to explore how the archive of what S. E. Gontarski has called Beckett's "grey canon," that is to say his manuscripts, typescripts, and so forth, came into being. It is important to view this in the larger context of both the commercialization of literature and the arts in general, and also in terms of wider trends in the establishment of archives in the twentieth century. Finally, I will also take a look at Beckett's own attitude to his manuscripts and the archival marketplace. Like any other author, Beckett took an active interest in the legacy of his work, as well as the scholarship conducted on it.

Beckett's comments about the way in which any item bearing Joyce's signature was prized were made at a time when his own papers were hardly in demand. Indeed, it is undoubtedly a reflection of Beckett's sense of his own literary worth and the fact that he was hardly a widely published writer that few of his early manuscripts survive. For example, we have no manuscript material for More Pricks than Kicks. Leaving aside the extant creative notebooks, such as the "Dream" or the "Whoroscope" notebooks (both now held by the Beckett International Foundation in Reading) and the various notes on his reading, the earliest extant manuscripts of creative writing are the typescripts of the short story "Echo's Bones" (intended for inclusion in More Pricks than Kicks), versions of poems (in particular "Whoroscope"), and the Murphy notebooks. At the same time, one needs to remember that in the 1930s it was dealers and individual collectors rather than libraries or other public institutions which largely constituted the marketplace for modern or contemporary manuscripts. It is only in the 1950s that the modern archive really comes into being, and this mainly in the United States.

The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Austin, Texas, officially founded in 1957, is a good example of this trend. By the time the Center was established, the university itself already had a large collection of rare books and manuscripts, predominantly from the romantic period. However, it was the acquisition of the T. E. Hanley library in 1958, containing modern manuscripts by Joyce, Beckett, Lawrence, and so forth, which laid the foundation for a new approach—already discernible at other American university libraries—of collecting twentieth century books, magazines, and manuscripts. Hanley, when not collecting rare books and manuscripts, was a brick manufacturer, and his Beckett collection had been acquired through the dealer Jake Schwartz. As his debts mounted, Hanley was forced to sell his entire collection, and it was purchased by Austin for a seven-figure sum.

As is well known, Jake Schwartz was something of a charlatan, but one who had a good eye for business. Carlton Lake, a scholar and collector working at Austin, suggested in a 1987 article that Schwartz had been sending Beckett various gifts—in particular tea, later a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica—before increasingly pressing Beckett for original manuscripts, corrected typescripts, inscribed copies, and transcriptions of manuscripts, which he then sold on to Hanley, and later directly to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin. Between 1956 and 1961, Schwartz acquired a lot of material from Beckett at very modest prices and made a considerable profit from selling it on. Indeed, at the beginning Beckett—as he told John Kobler on 31 March, 1969—simply "bestowed (the word is not too strong)" manuscripts on the dealer. There is sufficient...

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