Paper Trail: An Abundant Gore Vidal Collection Gets Archived

How a mess of papers becomes a priceless archive. —By Eugenia Williams

When Gore Vidal gave his manuscripts, notes, and letters to Harvard in 2002, Houghton Library—home to a number of noteworthy archives—so impressed the author that he bequeathed his entire $37 million estate to the university upon his death. As Vidal’s gift wends its way through the legal system (his half-sister has challenged his will), some of his papers sit in boxes waiting to be cataloged in the basement office of Houghton curator Leslie Morris. Here, Morris explains how a collection like Vidal’s makes the journey from boxes of stuff to a researchable archive.

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While the tax code once allowed living authors to claim a deduction for their donated archives, these days a Nobel laureate’s draft is worth no more to the IRS than the paper it’s printed on. This legal change has forced curators to purchase collections through dealers—driving prices up so high that even Harvard must sometimes pay in installments to afford them. Some authors might even occasion a fundraising effort, as was the case with John Updike, whose papers the university bought for an undisclosed sum in 2009.

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A good archive reflects its author’s inner life. Updike’s contains items that factored into his novels, including hospital pamphlets, postcards, and a bag of Keystone Corn Chips. Not everything makes the cut: “We do like to have some personal objects,” Morris says, but not all. “We don’t have room.”

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When an archive arrives at the library, Morris and her colleagues roughly sort it into boxes. Hence the present disordered state of Gore Vidal’s papers, which came to Harvard in nearly 400 cartons. Once an archive is cataloged, anything can happen. Warren Beatty was once spotted in the Houghton reading room hunched over the papers of Harvard alum John Reed, whom he played in Reds. But Morris says that researchers shouldn’t fear hunky actors: “It doesn’t happen here all that often, I have to say.”

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Just because someone gives Harvard his or her manuscripts free of charge doesn’t mean its libraries will accept them. Morris says that Houghton regularly rejects papers that don’t fit within its collections. So how do they decline them? “Gently.”

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