Archival Anecdotes III
by David Mason


The appraiser of an archive sees the subject’s biography before the biographer does. He sees the life in its primary form, the morass of paper and other evidence, before the skilled vision of the biographer extracts the meat of a life and turns it into a book. Warts and all are what the appraiser sees. And not just from that one source. Appraisers who do a lot of work in archives over a period get a cross-section of the whole literature and culture of a country. You can see much about a person’s life in the archive of others who knew them, maybe who worked with them, or competed with them, hated or loved them, or, without knowing them, had opinions on them. You might learn which musician is friends with what artist and which writer they both despise. You also learn of liaisons, open and secret, and learn, from letters and emails meant only for the eyes of their recipients, about secret hates, malice professional and personal; envy, the human vices we all own but try to keep secret. The appraiser learns early that secrecy and discretion are absolute, and as important, if unspoken, as that of the doctor or lawyer, psychiatrist or priest.

A well-known writer once introduced me to her friends at an event as “her appraiser,” adding, “He knows more about me than my gynecologist.” I laughed along with others at her sharp wit, but I didn’t respond.

For, of course, the appraiser comes upon much that surprises. This occurs more often than you might think, because people forget what they’d intended, but neglected, to destroy. Some years ago, coming upon evidence of a fairly ugly break-up between some very public people, I couldn’t believe the donor hadn’t put an embargo on it until everyone was safely dead; so I phoned him, introduced myself, and suggested he might like to do so.

As I had suspected he would be, he was astounded, “I thought that stuff went into the shredder years ago!” I told him that shredders were machines that should never be mentioned to booksellers and suggested that a fifty or hundred-year file-sealing period was more civilized. He agreed, and I alerted the archivist of the institution handling the archive. Only she and I know all the sordid contents of those files, and we’re not talking. But the evidence remains extant, safely waiting for posterity. One thing archivists, scholars, and booksellers know well is that a hundred years in history isn’t very long. Posterity is closer than you think; the safety valve is death.

History catches up with everything eventually and historical justice will catch up with everyone in time. If you have an enemy who is well-known and whose reputation is very different from what you know to be the real truth, do not despair; it will eventually all come out. We may be dead but the evidence is all carefully sorted and arranged, waiting patiently for some unborn scholar.

I have been engaged for some twenty-five years in accumulating anecdotal material on a writer I started disliking and have come to despise. I don’t keep your usual dossier, but I collect anecdotes and gossip. Not just from his own archive—for I haven’t appraised his papers for years—but mostly now from the archives of other writers, publishers, magazines: all the cultural sources that I see in my work. I have many anecdotes and considerable evidence of his nefarious activities: greed; dishonesty, both literary and literal. A pretty clear portrait of a sleazy career.

For example, I could give a detailed account, from several diverse sources, of his dishonesty, both professionally and personally. He used to borrow from the family of an important, deceased author personal copies of the author’s own books. He never returned them, but rather sold them to a colleague of mine, from whom I bought them. His papers contain pathetic evidence of the writer’s family’s unsuccessful attempts to retrieve their property over several years. The writer’s sister even appealed to other writers she knew who knew him, asking for their help. For years I would see letters to this man from his writer friends on her behalf. All ignored.

One extended attempt resulted in another writer breaking off a forty-year friendship with the man because he would neither comply nor admit he had sold the books, which, incidentally, were very valuable.

This man has no idea how easy it was for me to track these nefarious acts over the years, nor does he have any idea what all this evidence—probably far more widespread than he imagines, in archives all over the country—is going to do to his reputation a hundred years from now, when the history and the biographies get written.

I’ve also seen the many pathetic pleas for payment from writers he published but never paid.

At present, no one but me knows that all these shameful details portraying an ugly character are available. I know because I was looking. Posterity will know when the literary historians turn their attention to the subject.

This anecdote should be a very effective rebuttal to those many naysayers who like to denigrate the donation of writers’ papers to institutions for tax relief. These people have not thought it through and don’t know what real history the scholars will now have available. For what they don’t realize is that an archive provides a full picture of a life. Just as a layer of sediment provides the geologist and archaeologist with a cross-section of a period from which they can extract meaning from assorted and very different clues, so does a writer’s or scientist’s archive provide evidence for various other cultural events of their period, which might be completely peripheral to the subject’s life and career, but of immense importance to scholars of different disciplines. All of which points to the importance of the scholar who searches these archives. This, of course, further emphasizes why the archivist and bookseller must learn to be very careful about what they designate as irrelevant and worthy of the garbage.

I have seen thousands of examples. Many, many times over my forty years in archives I have found things—letters, comments, anecdotes—that fit perfectly with relevant details in someone else’s archive—often in a different discipline, perhaps in the papers of someone the subject didn’t even know. Many of these missing pieces of different puzzles will be found because of the cross-reference systems institutions now maintain. The good scholars will track them down.

Curiously, most of the com-plaints I have heard of the “ripoff to taxpayers” involved in the donation of writer’s archives have come from other writers, ones who, one is not surprised to find, have not had their papers solicited by an institution. It continues to confuse and hurt me to find that writers, a species I have always worshipped as superior beings—for they provide us with our dreams—are often just as mean-spirited and petty as everyone else. It’s sort of like the incredibly beautiful person who turns out to be as dumb as mud or despicably immoral.


Many magazines donate their working archives, including all submissions and rejections. Once, fifteen years ago, I was looking through the rejections of a literary journal and I came across an essay whose title so intrigued me that when I saw the editorial comment, “Pretty good, but not for us,” I read it. Its title was “My First Riot,” and so good was it that, thinking the man needed encouragement, I wrote him at his California prison telling him he had real talent and to persevere. “My First Riot” was a very funny piece about a prisoner who hadn’t been imprisoned long when a riot broke out and he didn’t yet know how to act so as not to be killed. He ended up hiding under a table because he didn’t know which side he was supposed to join. He answered my letter and we corresponded for fifteen years until his release a couple of months ago after serving almost twenty years. His crime was armed robbery. He was a road musician with his own band who graduated from grass and whisky to coke and smoking heroin. He eventually began robbing banks to feed his habit, which inevitably led to his capture and sentencing.

The catch was that all his robberies were committed with a water pistol (“Dave; I would never hurt anyone”). But when he was caught—after a two-hour chase by police through midtown San Diego, the water pistol didn’t mitigate his crime with the courts—he got twenty-five years. In all our years of letters and, later, telephone conversations, he never complained or blamed anyone but himself, his only repeated regret the grief he had caused his sons and his parents. Like Red in The Shawshank Redemption, he was the only guilty man in his prison. As an incidental aside: Shawshank isn’t just a great movie, it’s the all-time favourite movie, ever, in the prison systems.

During our correspondence I learned a lot about the horror of the US prison system, which, in California at least, seems to be composed of thousands and thousands of young men under thirty, most of whose crimes were caused by, or related to, drugs. And what horrendous things I’ve learned. As it happens, I own an early set of The Newgate Chronicles, and I assure you today is not that different from the occurrences in the eighteenth century—except the prisons today are cleaner.

And so goes the education of the bookseller.

And I get to say yet again: You paid for your education, I got paid to acquire mine.

It’s never-ending and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. And I believe the real profits from that education top yours no matter how much money you may have earned.

—From CNQ 110 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022)

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