Do we have the right to read, discuss and analyze the personal papers of famous writers, often who have died? I think about this a lot because I am as curious (nosy) as I am uncomfortable with the idea of intellectually traipsing through a writer’s personal papers. In Slate last week, Katie Roiphe wrote about David Foster Wallace’s syllabus. Her article wasn’t particularly noteworthy but I was reminded of how often writers write about DFW and, increasingly, draw from his personal papers. Who knows how many hundreds, if not thousands of articles have been written about the man, the writer, and the scholar, each one trying to offer some kind of new insight into the man and his work. Certainly, there’s a lot to be learned from most things related to DFW including his syllabi. He had a unique, at times incisive approach to communicating to his students the material that would be covered in his courses as well as his general expectations of students in his classes. At the same time, as a teacher, I shudder to imagine anyone reading too much into my syllabi because I know how the sausage gets made.
Syllabi are not private documents but they are not exactly public documents either. Teachers create syllabi to give students a sense of a course’s material and to outline formal policies, often mandated by the university (disability services, sexual harassment, plagiarism, grading, attendance, etc.). The audience for a syllabus is limited and focused as is the amount of information a syllabus can realistically communicate. Studying a syllabus for deep and significant meaning often involves studying a document a teacher created the weekend before a new semester starts. This is not to say teachers are careless about their syllabi or that DFW was anything but meticulous in drafting his own syllabi, but like most people, teachers are as prone to procrastination as anyone else. Sometimes a syllabus is just… a syllabus.
The DFW archives at the University of Texas include books from DFW’s library and the marginalia within. I now know that on Page 54 of Carrie, he wrote, “VICTIM,” and “Closet as symbol,” and underlined a passage toward the bottom of the page. He wrote with a red marker, a felt tip pen I think. This doesn’t really mean anything to me but it is satisfying to that curious (nosy) part of me to see how a famous writer read and made notes. If you visit the Ransom Center in person, you can access a much greater selection of DFW’s personal papers and a selection of books from his personal library. Certainly, his estate authorized the sale of DFW’s papers but I still think about how these artifacts, the marginalia in these books were not necessarily created for an audience beyond the writer himself and how the syllabi weren’t created for an audience beyond his students. I wonder what it must mean to be so culturally significant that people care enough to obsess over the ephemera from your life. I wonder if it’s right to write about the private papers and private thoughts of famous dead writers. We know all about what James Joyce had to say to Nora when they exchanged “filthy” letters (” My prick was stuck in you for hours, fucking in and out under your upturned rump,” and so on). It’s dirtily delightful to know these intimacies but we are only privy to them because they were written by Joyce. His fame supersedes his right to privacy, Nora’s right to privacy. That is the cost of fame, even if the height of that fame comes posthumously.
Most writers would probably think twice if they thought their personal papers would someday be revealed to the world.
Why are we so insatiably curious about the personal papers of famous writers? DFW is but one of many writers whose personal papers are now part of an important library collection. Is the value of perserving such collections more important than the value of a writer’s privacy? Somewhere, there exists a random note written on a napkin by a writer who is not yet famous but someday will be. Even farther into the future, someone will study that napkin in a fancy library and assign all kinds of meaning to it. That is fascinating and terrifying and a little absurd.