The Instability of the Archive

Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: An Archive of Writing

Carrie Smith, 21 February 2017, CEIR Seminar Series

Birthday LettersIn the second paper of the 2017 Centre of Editorial and Intertextual Research Seminar Series, Dr Carrie Smith, a lecturer here at Cardiff University, used the manuscript drafts of Ted Hughes’ final full-length collection, Birthday Letters (1998), to suggest that the collection itself becomes a poetic archive. Drawing on her soon-to-be-completed monograph, Smith argued that from its opening poem, Birthday Letters presents us with accounts of documents that cement the collection in the texture of real life.

Smith began her paper by discussing how archives are organised. Focusing specifically on the British Library and Emory University Library (the latter holds the private library of Ted Hughes), Smith argued that these spaces are usually perceived to be ‘neutral’ in their layout. However, as Smith pointed out, the archive offers a ‘promiscuity of meanings’ because it exists on the border between excision and excess, the limited and the unlimited. [1] While archives attempt to reserve the past, Smith in her discussion of Birthday Letters revealed that they are inherently unstable. Human decision is involved in how a collection is organised, leading to questions of whether it should be user-friendly (as in the British Library), or if it should respect the original order of the material (as in Emory University Library)? And does either way influence our understanding of the documents? Given these variations, Smith suggested that the archive must be read as a document in itself. (more…)

Visiting Speaker, 4 Apr 2017: Lise Jaillant on Modernism and publishing

Lise Jaillant (Loughborough University) will be presenting her paper, ‘“Modernist” Publishers, Publishers of “Modernism”’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 4 April 2017. The talk will take place in the Cardiff University’s John Percival Building, Room 2.48, and will be followed by a wine reception.

2016.07.jaillantCommercial publishers are nearly invisible in New Modernist Studies. There is no history of Random House, no history of Harcourt Brace and no history of Faber & Faber. One reason for this invisibility is that commercial firms published a wide range of texts—what we now see as ‘Modernism’ was issued alongside ‘popular’ texts. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Phoenix Library published Wyndham Lewis’s first novel Tarr but also popular novels and even a cookery book. Since difficult ‘Modernist’ texts continue to dominate our understanding of early twentieth-century literature, we tend to neglect these publishing enterprises or to study only the tiny portion of their activities that relates to ‘Modernism’.

This talk will address two points: 1) why so few modernist scholars have studied commercial publishers (unlike Victorianists, who have long been interested in book publishers and their impact on the literary text); 2) what we can do to expand the sub-field of Modernist Print Culture, building on existing work in periodical studies and strengthening our relationship with scholars of book history. In this context, ‘Modernist’ would be synonymous with ‘Early Twentieth Century’ to include all kinds of texts published at that time. The conclusion will present Lise’s digital map of publishers in New York in the 1920s, part of a chapter forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. (more…)

CEIR Speaker, 21 Feb 2017: Carrie Smith on Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters

Carrie Smith (Cardiff University) will be presenting her paper, ‘Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: An Archive of Writing’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 21 February 2017. The talk will take place in the Cardiff University’s John Percival Building, Room 2.48, and will be followed by a wine reception.

2016-05-smithThis paper will consider the manuscript drafts of British poet Ted Hughes’s final full-length collection Birthday Letters (1998). It will suggest that the proliferation of reported documents, photographs, journal entries and letters in the published collection is a result of Hughes’s re-encounter with these items when sorting through his late wife Sylvia Plath’s, and later his own, papers for sale. As a result Birthday Letters itself becomes a poetic archive curated by Hughes. From the opening poem, we are presented with accounts of documents that root the collection in the texture of real life. The collection works to preserve what will be lost when the papers are archived after his death; the memory-context of these photographs, drafts and objects. Hughes also provides incorrect biographical details throughout the collection. The substitution of an easily-checkable detail suggests that Hughes is creating a poetic archive of items that cannot be trusted; implying that poetry must always be questioned when mined for biography. The process of shaping his archive and literary legacy informs the collection’s focus on the fallibility of memory and the potential for documents and objects to deceive. The archive of papers tries to preserve the past, even as the arranging and destroying of the papers alters it; similarly in Birthday Letters, Hughes represents the past in poetry by using concrete items. He performs a synthesising of these items, akin to a researcher, by finding patterns in the papers. As this paper will show, the drafts of Birthday Letters form an archive of writing, placing the indeterminacy of the many variants of the manuscript page alongside the doubt over how to record a shared life in poetry.

Magic, Meaning and Manuscripts

Six Notebooks in Search of an Editor: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy

Andrew Nash, 26 Apr 2016, CEIR Seminar Series

Claiming that he has no critical authority in the field of Samuel Beckett, Dr Andrew Nash (University of Reading) confessed that his paper would shed no new light on Beckett’s writings. The paper was, instead, a thought-provoking account of the changes taking place in manuscript research, the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the manuscript, and the technological conditions (writing instruments and papers) that influence literary production. Nash’s research also provided the centre with an invaluable insight into the status of the modern literary manuscript as an artefact of considerable commercial value, and, in the case of Beckett’s Murphy notebooks, the ways in which the commercial and the scholarly are indelibly intertwined.


Professor Carl Phelpstead introduces Dr Andrew Nash

In July 2013, the University of Reading successfully purchased at auction six manuscript notebooks, detailing the composition of Beckett’s first novel Murphy (1938). Justifying their bid of £950,000, the University maintained that the acquisition of the manuscript would solidify its reputation as a central archival resource for Beckett’s work, and attract more scholars and researchers to Reading. (more…)

Visiting Speaker, 26 Apr 2016: Andrew Nash on Samuel Beckett’s Murphy Notebooks

Andrew Nash (University of Reading) will be presenting his paper, ‘Six Notebooks in Search of an Editor: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy’, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, 26 April 2016. The talk will take place in the Cardiff University’s John Percival Building, Room 4.43, and will be followed by a wine reception.

2015.08.nashIn 2013 the University of Reading was unexpectedly successful in acquiring at auction six manuscript notebooks which had for almost eighty years remained in private hands. The notebooks were those in which Samuel Beckett had written, over some ten months between August 1935 and June 1936, the first draft of what was finally to emerge in 1938 as his first published novel, Murphy. This talk will outline the unusual provenance history of this literary manuscript and discuss the status of the notebooks as commercialised, heritage and research objects. It will reflect on the experience of helping to transcribe and edit the notebooks, examining their distinctive material features which shed important new light on Beckett’s composition process and on the ‘archaeology’ of modern literary manuscripts more generally. (more…)