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To Keep or Not to Keep: Denis Johnson and his papers

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
As an avid reader of Denis Johnson’s work (I bought my first Playboy magazine to read Nobody Move in serial form), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go through his papers. Seeing Johnson speak at the 2008 Flair Symposium, “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, & Institutions,” had amplified, for me at least, the desire to know as much as one can about a favorite author. Flair’s intimate venue and Johnson’s candidness about his own archive gave mystique to his lost work and to what he has decided to save—for with Johnson, this decision is both deliberate and thoughtful. For those who weren’t there, here is a video of Johnson discussing his past habit of throwing away drafts and one of his more recent decisions to destroy a notebook, essentially censoring his own archive.

Two years after Flair, among the most exciting finds in Johnson’s papers were two pages of a draft of “Emergency,” a story from Jesus’ Son, which had been severely crumpled and then smoothed out to fit in a folder with other drafts of the story. One can only speculate as to why these pages were crumpled, but perhaps they are a testament to Johnson’s statement that, after hearing that poet Donald Justice received $17,000 for the drafts of one of his books, Johnson “went upstairs and emptied his wastebasket.” Scholars and fans alike will be grateful that he did.

There are treasures relating to his early life and even some drafts dated before 1992 (Johnson included a note with several stacks of floppy discs stating “These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992″). There is a binder of press clippings housed with a mother’s devotion in neat, plastic sleeves; letters, report cards, and other mementos of Johnson’s youth; a draft of the story “Happy Hour,” from Jesus’ Son, dated 9-26-1991, and another draft bearing the alternate title “Electric Child on Bad Fun”—a draft that proved to be quite different from its published form.

Johnson said that it was “liberating” to throw away drafts because they “were like skins [he] was shedding and leaving behind.” He adds that this process of shedding skins did more for him as an artist than his drafts could for a researcher. But after Johnson decided to save his skins, his awareness of his papers’ archival destination raises an issue new to the modern area: censorship. It’s hard to imagine Evelyn Waugh or Charlotte Bronte experiencing self-consciousness about writing in a journal because a scholar might someday read it and scoff, but many of today’s top authors are aware that placing their papers at libraries engages part of an important branch of scholarship (and occasionally comes with a pay-off). What does this self-awareness mean for them as artists and archivists, and what does it mean for the future of archives? I’m not one to speculate, but I expect that as more living writers place their archives at libraries, the nature of the archive will evolve, for better or worse.

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