My first paying gig in New York started this semester: I was awarded a fellowship through school to act as a research assistant to a local writer, who’s working on a biography of the Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, she of the lupus and peacocks. The biographer himself was recently named by a local magazine one of New York’s “Fifty Most Beautiful People.” Rough, right? Yeah, keep feeling sorry for me.
I had one of those rare opportunities, the kind of errand that I suppose only a certain segment of the population would find thrilling. He asked me to go down to the Rare Manuscripts and Archives room at the main library, on 42nd Street, to check out some files on Flannery, and to write up a description of a certain document that he would like to discuss in a speech he’ll be giving soon at a conference on FOC (as I now call her. I’m like, all down with the biographer shorthand lingo. Yeah, step back.)
Access to this manuscript room is restricted; I had to bring two forms of identification down to the library, and then apply for two further forms of ID. Then I walked down the long middle aisle of the beautiful main reading room, to a little door at the end of the corridor, where I flashed my ID to get buzzed through the door. I had already followed the rules, and checked my coat, bag, and ink pens downstairs (only pencils allowed in the room.) Inside, I had to sign in, and check out, one at a time, boxes of files that I had paged and reserved in advance through email. The dim room was quiet, lined with two floors of glass-enclosed bookshelves, and a few dusty scholarly types bent over long desks bathed in lamp light, poring over brittle pages of manuscripts, handbills, and letters.
I chose a desk and settled in. Part of my research took me through some files from the offices of The New Yorker: mainly correspondence between editors and various authors about publication. Each box contained several folders, each folder labeled with a different author’s name, all arranged alphabetically.
Just before O’Connor was “Nabokov.” Uh, yeah, as in Vladimir Nabokov, as in Lolita, one of the greatest books ever written. As if I could resist poking through THAT folder. And inside was personal typewritten correspondence, from the fifties, between Nabokov and his editor, Katherine White, who was E.B. White’s wife. Along with various business correspondence, (”enclosed please find a check for your last story”) were actual rejection letters. Yes, my friends, Vladimir Nabokov was rejected from The New Yorker. Several times. In fact every folder I glanced through contained piles of rejection letters addressed to various authors, some more famous than others. Flannery herself had all four of the stories she sent to the magazine rejected. This is the kind of information I want to share with my fellow writers, as a twisted kind of encouragement.
Alright, maybe this isn’t such a turn-on to some of you. But then again, you don’t come here for pictures of shirtless twinks. Or at least I hope you don’t, because it would be a continual disappointment for you if you did. But the afternoon made me a bit euphoric, holding these pages in my hot little hands. Most thrilling to me were Nabokov’s little handwritten signatures: a single flourished “V”, with a small sketch of a butterfly (he had a thing about butterflies.) I think I was bitten with the biographer’s bug there. It was, for me, a quintessential New York moment, sitting in a remote corner of the main library, a room steeped in history and tradition, poring over documents that were decades old from authors whose books were on my own shelves back home. It was one of those moments that makes me a little wistful when I think about moving away, though lord knows there are manuscript collections at every university in the country.
Later, poking through some files in the collection of Yaddo, an artist colony where Flannery stayed while working on her first book, I came across some of her correspondence with Yaddo’s director. Many of the letters were written years after Flannery’s stay, as they became closer friends. In one letter Flannery describes current events in her small Georgia town: “Lately we have been treated to some parades by the Ku Klux Klan. They are all excited now about electing themselves a governor for the state. It’s too hot to burn a fiery cross, so they bring a portable one made with red electric light bulbs.”
Later, shortly before her death at the age of 39, she writes in a fragment of a letter about her declining health, and her need to keep writing: “Something in me dies when I can’t work.”
I scratched this down on a piece of paper with the pencil they’d loaned me, thinking, girl, I know what you mean.