Why some manuscripts end up in unpredictable places

By Julia Keller

Chicago Tribune

Some libraries have exactly what you'd expect them to have: Harvard University has the manuscripts of Walt Whitman, George Eliot and John Keats. But other literary manuscripts have ended up in less predictable places.

"We hear it all the time," said Rick Ewing, a librarian at the University of Wyoming, which has an extensive manuscript collection. "They say, 'Why Laramie (Wyoming)?'"

Wyoming's American Heritage Center is home to the manuscripts of William Dozier, the producer of the "Batman" TV series, including a draft of the pilot episode. The library also has the papers of Owen Wister, author of "The Virginian," Jack Benny, Barbara Stanwyck, David Niven, Hugh Downs and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.


"We had a director from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s named Gene Gressley," Ewing said. "He just started asking people for their manuscripts."

Ernest Hemingway and President Kennedy never met, said Megan Desnoyers, senior archivist at the John F. Kennedy Library. So how did Hemingway's manuscripts end up in the Boston facility?

It all began in 1962, Desnoyers said, when President Kennedy had a White House dinner for Nobel Prize winners. Hemingway had died in 1961, but his widow Mary attended. In the mid-1960s, when she had to decide where to donate the author's papers, she had tea with Jacqueline Kennedy. The latter suggested the late president's library, which opened in 1979.

"We have 90 percent of all the Hemingway manuscripts in the world," Desnoyer said. "We're one-stop shopping for Hemingway."

The University of Texas' Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center has the manuscripts of the novelist and comedian Steve Martin, along with the manuscripts of playwright David Hare, novelists John Fowles, Doris Lessing and Virginia Woolf, and poets Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats.

Determined to make his Austin library one of the world's finest, the late Ransom bought mountains of contemporary manuscripts in the 1960s and '70s.

"Yale and Harvard had all the manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries," Thomas Staley, the center's director, said. "So a young university, Ransom thought, should go after the 20th century."

The University of Chicago Library has several manuscripts of Saul Bellow, who once taught at the university, but it also has a manuscript copy of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" made by a scribe in the 1400s, said Jay Satterfield of the library's staff.


The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, has many of the manuscripts of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the "Little House on the Prairie" series. The collection was donated by Rose Wilder Lane, the author's daughter, who knew Hoover.

One of the largest and most extensive collections of 20th-century manuscripts is found at Boston University, where Howard Gotlieb, founder and director of the special collections department, has held court for four decades.

From Dame Edith Sitwell to S.J. Perelman, from D.H. Lawrence to Mary Astor, from Arthur C. Clarke to Dan Rather, Boston has the manuscripts of more than 2,000 individuals.

"I hear constantly, 'Why is this or that collection in Boston?' " said Gotlieb. "I say, 'Because I asked."'

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