The fight for Arthur Miller’s archive

The battle over the late playwright’s manuscripts, private journals and other papers pitted two of the nation’s most prestigious archival institutions against each other. And it cracks a window onto the rarefied trade in writers’ papers.

Arthur Miller’s place in the pantheon of 20th-century American literature is secure. But his literary remains have been in limbo since his death in 2005.

More than 160 boxes of his manuscripts and other papers have been on deposit for decades at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin, uncataloged and all but inaccessible to scholars, pending a formal sale. Another cache — including some 8,000 pages of private journals — remained at his home in rural Connecticut, unexplored by anyone outside the intimate Miller circle.

Now, the Ransom Center has bought the entire archive for $2.7 million, after a discreet tug of war with the Miller estate, which tried to place the papers at Yale University despite the playwright’s apparent wishes that they rest in Texas.

That battle pitted two of the nation’s most prestigious, and deep-pocketed, archival institutions against each other, in a mini-drama mixing Milleresque high principle with more bare-knuckled competition. And it cracks a window onto the rarefied trade in writers’ papers, and the delicate calibrations of money, emotion and concern for posterity that determine where they ultimately come to rest.

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The Miller archive, comprising 322 linear feet of material, is certainly a rich one. It documents the whole of his public career, including the development of classic plays like “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible” and his showdown with the House Un-American Activities Committee and advocacy against censorship around the world.

There is also intensely personal material, including early family letters and drafts of an essay about the death of…

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