Sunday, July 24, 2016

Archiving Literary History, Then and Now

(post originally published October 20, 2012) 

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has become an amazing place. It serves as a hub for collaborative projects that span Harvard University, and all disciplines, from humanities to the sciences, are explored in a variety of symposia and events. I seem to be going there a lot lately. I missed the Julia Child celebration, but fortunately, all of the panel discussions are available online

This week, I attended an event hosted by Radcliffe and Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, entitled From Author’s Hand to Printer’s Mind: When and Why Do Literary Manuscripts Survive?—A Lecture and 20 Questions with Roger Chartier. I really didn’t know what to expect, except that it has to do with books, and of course I’ll attend any event about literature and publishing. The topic dovetailed nicely with the stellar Why Books? conference from two years ago and the Take Note conference. 

Roger Chartier spoke about archiving literary manuscripts, generally focusing on 1750 onward. Much has been lost before 1750, but he did discuss the Shakespeare folios and how literary historians try to piece together a biography of not only the author, but the works themselves, by collecting drafts, revisions, notes, letters, anecdotes, and anything that will help piece together the history of a play or novel. Much ado was given to the “genetic perspective” of a text—and the importance of being able to study the creative process. The various challenges of literature throughout history were also presented: the restrictive effects of the Licensing Act of 1737, which sought to control the content of plays. After a manuscript was approved, the printer had to send a copy back to the licensing office to ensure no offensive or seditious material made its way in. A major theme was authenticity. Interesting questions arose: in the nineteenth century, when serialized fiction was popular, there was a distinction between the individual chapters printed in the magazines and the final, collected novel. Charles Dickens had to be concerned about deadlines and space constraints for the serialized works—so when the entire story was compiled and he had the opportunity to revise, which is more “authentic,” the original pieces from the magazine, or the entire novel as he intended it to be in one piece? 

Out of the many topics that went deep into the realm of literary research, a common theme kept coming up: How does it relate to today’s method of archiving literature? Consider the popular writing software Scrivener. In it, I can make countless annotations, compile my research, keep a history of my revisions, all in one place. One need only archive my hard drive to compile a biography of my writing history. 

When someone posed the question about self-publishing, and how literature was “written for the general public, but is now written by the general public,” and is this democratization of publishing a good thing, I waited, poised to jump in to defend indie publishing. Not a single person spoke out against it. Roger Chartier even compared today’s indie publishing movement to the age before literary agents and big corporate interests. Robert Darnton, director of the Harvard Library, champions the Digital Public Library of America, spoke about copyright and how the laws are being used a foils by lobbying groups and has a negative impact on the digitalization of works. That could have been a symposia topic of its own. But it isn’t new. Authors such as Diderot and Milton railed against monopolies and what is truly in the best interest of the artist. 

All in all, it was a fascinating discussion. I was amazed at how much information was packed into two hours. My favorite bit was summing up an author’s creative work as a “unity of hand, heart, and mind.” And I’m glad to see the abundance of interest in preserving it as best as our society can.