The surprising fate of David Markson’s library (which wasn’t actually that surprising)

[Boston Globe]

This Sunday, in the Boston Globe‘s “Ideas” section, I’ve got a story on the fate of authors’ personal libraries — the books they owned, annotated, and probably threw against the wall in frustration. One of my story’s main points is that these libraries get far fewer resources than they should, and a corollary to this is that they get far less media attention, too. (I suspect the reason, in both cases, stems from our cultural obsession with The Author, alone and inspired: it’s why we save Norman Mailer’s ceremonial key to the city of Miami, but not his books.) Still, if you want to learn more about this subject, I’d recommend this Harper’s essay on Updike’s books (along with this slideshow); this New Yorker story on the Harry Ransom Center; the Ransom Center’s own info on David Foster Wallace’s books; and this Atlantic essay on Hitler’s library.

My story touches on tons of iconic authors — Wallace, Updike, Mailer, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Herman Melville — but it starts with a cult one: David Markson. A few weeks ago, Markson’s library was anonymously scattered throughout The Strand, New York’s biggest independent bookstore, and Markson’s devoted fans have been trying to put it back together digitally. (See here and here for examples.) I’ll include some insidery stuff on Markson at the end of this post, but first I want to tell the full story behind Melville’s library. I didn’t have the space to do this in the Globe, but its fate is fascinating and complicated and even affecting. What’s true of Melville’s books is true of each author mentioned in my story, plus a whole lot more besides.

*  *  *


Melville died in 1891, a frustrated and largely forgotten writer. His estate inventory noted some “personal books numbering about 1,000 volumes” and priced them at $600. Melville’s widow, Elizabeth, kept a few and sold the rest to New York City book dealers. (She never made a list of the books, and Merton Sealts, whose Melville’s Reading is my source for much of this, could establish only 390 of the books Melville owned.) One of Melville’s granddaughters would later recall that, when it came time to winnow down his library, Elizabeth and the rest of the family decided to save the smallest books so they could save more of them. Some family members ended up willing their copies of Melville’s books to Harvard’s Houghton Library, others to the New York Public Library.

If the whole thing sounds frustratingly slapdash, that’s because it was. In the first edition of Melville’s Reading, Sealts lamented that, while Melville clearly knew Plato and Milton, “no one has located his set of Plato or copy of Paradise Lost.” This statement is no longer true — once the Melville revival kicked in,  more books started popping up and getting auctioned for obscene amounts — but it still gets at the problems with how we handle the libraries of contemporary authors, at least for as long as they remain contemporary.

And yet Melville’s books did matter to his family. One of the titles Elizabeth kept — and one of the titles that survived — is Isaac Disraeli’s The Literary Character. There, in 1895, four years after her husband’s death, Elizabeth marked and initialed the following quotation from another author’s wife:

My ideas of my husband . . . are so much associated with his books, that to part with them would be as it were breaking some of the last ties which still connect me with so beloved an object. The being in the midst of books he has been accustomed to read, and which contain his marks and notes, will still give him a sort of existence with me.

This calls to mind another marked passage, this one from David Markson’s copy of The Shorter Novels of Herman Melville. In fact, it’s the only passage Markson marked in the book’s 50-page biographical introduction:

[Melville] challenged the world with his genius, and the world defeated him by ignoring the challenge and starving him. He stopped writing because he had failed and because he had no choice but to accept the world’s terms: there is no mystery here. This was not insanity, but common sense.

*  *  *

So, back to Markson. When John Updike got rid of some books, the Boston Globe broke the news — the headline: “With little fanfare, Updike bids books adieu” — and an AP story about it snaked around the country. When David Markson got rid of some books, he mentioned it in an interview with Bookslut — and not even his fans noticed.  “I’ve sold off quite a few in the last ten years or so, just for breathing space,” Markson said. “And in all honesty, I’ve been very tempted lately to dump the whole lot of them.”  The interviewer asked Markson if the books were worth any money. “No, virtually none,” he replied. “If you look closely you’ll see that they’re all worn and faded — well, I’ve never kept dust jackets — plus, they’re written-in and whatnot. A lot of the spines are even so tattered that they’re scotch-taped to hold them on.”

While Markson brought this up in other late interviews, no one thought to mention it in the uproar over his library’s dispersal at The Strand. As I detail in the Boston Globe, though, that’s clearly what Markson wanted for his books. Johanna Markson, his daughter, told me that sending his books to The Strand “was the one thing we could do for him — he would never let us do anything else.” (Johanna later corrected herself: Markson would ask her to find and print things off the Internet when the New York Public Library’s Reference Desk couldn’t locate what he needed.) Elaine Markson, David’s ex-wife and literary agent, told me that “he had an intensely close relationship with The Strand over the years — they were fabulous to him, and he wanted to do something for them.”

Elaine added that she and her children “were impressed by the outpouring online — we didn’t know. I don’t know that David did.” Fred Bass, The Strand’s owner, also seemed surprised. “To be frank with you, after all the media coverage I wish I had kept his books together,” Bass said. “But I didn’t realize the scope of it until I was nearly through with it, and by that time it was too late.” (Elaine said there will be a memorial service on October 7 at New York University, even though Markson didn’t want one; you can find more info here.)

Markson’s New York Times obituary stressed that he was both “a novelist well known largely to other novelists” and “a central figure in the Village writing scene.” As I reported this story, Markson’s personal connections kept coming up. Tom Staley, the director of the Ransom Center, remembered meeting Markson in New York long ago: “I met him as a kid, had a drink with him and Dylan Thomas.” Ralph Sipper, a book dealer and longtime friend of Markson’s, helped him sell his literary correspondence to make ends meet. There’s more on this in the Globe story, and another book dealer I quote there, John Wronoski, told me that, after reading Markson’s books, “for the first and only time I wrote a writer a note of appreciation.” A few years later, Wronoski helped Markson go through his papers and identify things that might be worth selling. “It wasn’t a large archive,” Wronoski recalls. “He didn’t have multiple drafts, and he wasn’t the kind of writer who developed lots and lots of ideas and then killed some of them. He had a clear idea of what he wanted to write, and then he wrote it.”

A few private individuals and some university libraries do have small Markson holdings. The University of British Columbia has some Markson letters relating to Malcolm Lowry. (Here’s the finding aid, a .pdf.) The University  of Delaware has some of Markson’s letters to Gilbert Sorrentino. Stanford University has some other Markson / Sorrentino letters and — even better — some Markson items in its extensive Dalkey Archive / Review of Contemporary Fiction collection. This latter material includes multiple typescripts of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, starting with an early draft titled Keeper of the Ghost. A Stanford librarian told me that the typescripts are not heavily annotated, but do come with some letters between Markson and his Dalkey Archive editor, Steven Moore.

You’ll notice that, in each of these instances, the Markson materials supplement the library’s preexisting collection. In other words, Markson is never the main draw. Increasingly, most libraries must focus their collecting — geographically, thematically, whatever — and Markson simply didn’t possess the star power to overcome these restrictions. As I mention at the end of the Globe story, the only real shot for a “David Markson papers” will come at a smaller library like Ohio State’s. Geoffrey Smith, head of Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, told me that “the Ransom Center can go out and get established writers, but we have always had to scout out and predict. We want those writers we think will be studied in 100 years.” (To get a sense of the field’s rise, see this Matthew Bruccoli essay, in which he describes arriving at Ohio State in 1961 and finding that its rare books room consisted of 100 titles and a “locked janitor’s closet.”)

The Ransom Center, which inaugurated our current archival arms race, keeps an internal list ranking around 600 living writers, a list it uses to determine its next targets. When I asked Staley about Markson’s place on this list, he diplomatically said that Markson was “on our list, but didn’t rise to the top.” I understand the frustration at Markson’s library being dispersed. But I also find it oddly inspiring that he was able to leverage the current literary economy in such a way that he could continue writing up to his death. Because Markson’s last books were his best.


10 thoughts on “The surprising fate of David Markson’s library (which wasn’t actually that surprising)

  1. Pingback: The Second Pass
  2. I just listened to tonight’s ATC piece on your Markson book from The Strand. About 50 years ago I bought a book in the basement there, that had the bookplate of Kenneth Roberts, a favorite author of mine at that time. This was one volume from a set of Mark Twain’s collected works, the volume that contained Twain’s essay on “The iterary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper.” The important feature of this volume is that that essay was heavily edited (I’m sure, by Roberts). Thus, we have Roberts on Twain’s literary offenses (and Roberts is merciless).

    I didn’t know what to do with this — I don’t think that Roberts is a major literary figure, however much I enjoyed his writings — until I heard this story. I would be glad to send this volume to you, and I would need your mailing address to do so.

    Best wishes,

    Joel Shimberg

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