BONES OF THE LION
SELLING THE GEORGE PLIMPTON PAPERS
At the end of a maze of narrow corridors on the sixth floor of a storage facility on the east side of Manhattan, John Payne, an archival appraiser from Texas, opens a padlocked metal door to reveal a corner room packed with more than a hundred archival boxes of papers once belonging to George Ames Plimpton. At 11” x 13”, with windows to the south and east (too high to see out of, but affording a dim illumination when the movement-activated lights time out), the room is the facility’s honeymoon suite and is about as large as the editorial office of the Paris Review, where Plimpton edited the magazine until his death two years ago at age seventy-six. Eight-foot metal shelves line the four walls, with three archival boxes side by side on the lower shelves, and up to three-box-high stacks on the top shelves. More boxes, along with two jumbo-sized Tupperware containers, are piled in the middle of the room. The only sound comes from the buzzing lights, and the rustle of someone two aisles over trying to make space for one more ugly painting. Standing at the threshold to this room, one registers an unsettling sense of trespass, as though having intruded on a king’s barrow.
Plimpton’s papers have not always enjoyed such a clean, climate-controlled existence. Until a few years ago, when a Paris Review intern was engaged to box them up and get them into some sort of order, the papers lived in a big dusty pile in the basement of Plimpton’s 72nd Street townhouse. After Plimpton’s death, his widow Sarah arranged to have the papers moved to their current location, where the danger of flooding, mildew, shoddy wiring, vandalism, and damage from vermin was significantly reduced. Now that everything was securely stored, the next task was to figure out what to do with it all. It’s the kind of difficult decision—informed equally by grief and expediency—that every widow or widower must face. But not every widow was married to a famous writer, among whose papers one could expect to find personal correspondence with the likes of Terry Southern, Marianne Moore, Jackie Onassis, and George H. W. Bush, among a host of others. Mrs. Plimpton’s primary option at this point would be to sell the material, either in bits and pieces, at auction, to private collectors, or as a whole to a research institution. In either case, it would first be necessary to estimate the archive’s worth.
The thought that there somewhere exists a dollar amount expressive of the material in this room might not, at first, seem all that unusual. Writers, after all, are always selling their work. But then this work—be it a novel, a play, or a work of nonfiction—is a prepared product, whereas archives are valuable precisely because they are not prepared. Vast and variegated, riddled with fascinating ephemera, compromising correspondence, and manuscript pages blooming with marginalia, archives document the middle ground between the public writer and the private one. Diaries and journals track everyday thoughts and observations, some of which relate to a work in progress, while others are given over to shopping lists and dental appointments. Incoming letters from other writers or artists reveal the personality clashes that lurk beneath artistic differences, as well as offer a broader picture of a writer’s milieu. Taken as a whole an archive has the power to undermine a literary reputation or else build one up.
In April 2004, Christie’s put up for auction a Hemingway letter to Ezra Pound featuring a deliciously cartoonish tirade on the virtues of bulls (“To me bulls ain’t exotic. They are normal. And such a goddam relief from all this horseshit about Art etc […] To hell with delicate studies of the American scene. Fuck the American scene. Fuck moers [sic], manners, customs all that horse shit. Let us have more and better fucking, fighting and bulls.”). In the end the letter sold for more than $43,000. A few notes by Kerouac, scrawled despairingly on the back of a Ballantine beer label as he waited in Flynn’s Bar for a lass named Celene (“I cannot be practical and I cannot die and I am an apprentice nihilist…. this, then, is hell. Oh Celene, come, come!”) are expected to bring upwards of $18,000. The amounts are baffling, and furthermore (the impassioned reader feels) irrelevant—for how can you put a price on such a singular artifact of literary sentiment?
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