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Desecrating a literary grave

Recently, I’ve been spending more time than usual scanning bookshelves for volumes where juicy adjectival promises, like ‘Complete,’ or the alluring evidence of ‘Letters’ figure into the title and thus suggest to me, in their assumed breadth, the quotable fury that will ignite my paltry insights into “What did Marianne Moore mean, ‘Literature is a phase of Life” or “How serious was Oscar Wilde about a ‘religion of aesthetics’?” One finds plenty of little bits in the “Complete Letters” or the “Collected Works,” not always as consistently brilliant as I might hope, or especially helpful for essay writing, things get utterly utilitarian at times, but that reminder, in itself can be pleasant as well. Paging through The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore, this tidbit felt especially like personalized words of encouragement from beyond the grave:

“I am proud of Kenyon College, Mr. Ransom, and each of you.”

But as I’m paging along, stumbling upon innocent (and sometimes not so) bits and blurbs, I’m reminded of a silly little fantasy angst that’s flitted into my mind from time to time: What if I become historical?

And, for that matter, what about you? Maybe to you, this isn’t a problem, it just hasn’t occurred to you and you think I’m just being silly. Or, maybe you’re looking forward to it, counting on the day when someone will want to take your picture and quote you, endlessly, and then save it all in a big hardbound book. Well, you’re probably right not to worry. You usually are. Grounded in the quiet cathedral of statistics, this worry, the possibility that you or I will become historically important, is slim to none, right?

Yes, we’ll use words everyday. We’ll write stuff, lots of stuff, letters, poems, essays, grocery lists, emails, the odd manifesto or two, a twitter here, a wall post there, but in all probability, when we’re no longer writing (that is to say, when we make our way to that great reading room in the sky, or just get re’shelved,’ so to speak) all those thousands of words will fade, likely at a similar rate of decay as us.

But what if they don’t? What if you do something so awesome that even that grocery list (bleach, Vogue, cat food, bananas, card for Grace, bottle of wine for Sal) you wrote last Thursday becomes an archival treasure, preserved obsessively for as long as some slice of humanity continues to find you important? Maybe this sounds crazy, impossible even, but you have to admit, we, us kooky human beings, do this stuff all the time. And we do it really well when we want to, to an almost perverse degree.

One can track the love notes of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein down to teeny, tiny scraps (one can imagine it written on the reverse of some draft of Tender Buttons or a letter to Picasso, approving his decision to give her three breasts and two noses) or follow the correspondence of Keats and Fanny Brawne (Oscar Wilde wasn’t at ease with this practice either, of course, its not difficult to assume why) or just pick up any other surprising assortment of intimate or embarassing or just simply trivial linguistic bits from any of your favorite (or least favorite–these books are ripe with ammunition) authors or otherwise historical figures just by casually browsing any bookstore, library or especially literary corner of the internet.

Reading these kinds of things, I feel a kind of guilt and a sort of vain self-consciousness. Not only do I worry about the fact I certainly would be embarassed if my writing ended up on mass display, but recognize that I am peering through a keyhole at an unintentional show (the literary primal scene). For as much as writing is about considering one’s audience, I’m sure our readership was not what Wilde, Keats, Stein, Woolf or any of the others had in mind when they were penning these little, non-canonical bits (sometimes they likely weren’t even meant to be read ever, how safe is your diary, right now?). They weren’t intended for ‘readership,’ as we democratically regard it today, to exist in every way as public figures, like literary Paris Hilton’s, where the admiring public has a right to whatever they can get their hands on. But, no matter, here we are, reading them, with little apparent shame, effectively desecrating a literary grave. Picking over the literary (dirty) laundry.

So what if? What if you stumble onto historical fame? Are you chill with your email history being turned over to the possibly mercenary archivist at Midsouthwestern Excelsior State University, ‘in honor of your memory’? Cause we don’t write letters anymore, not really, the ‘Complete Letters of [insert your name here]’, the ‘Collected Everything’ of the future will be assembled from a myriad of electronic records, hard drives sold and sorted by the highest bidder. Google, Facebook, and all their friends, have made it perfectly clear that whatever we’ve put into them, isn’t really as ours as it may seem to us. Right now, they’re only using it for market research, but that’s only because you haven’t invented time travel…yet. There’s a reason Presidents don’t use email and Barack had to part with his Blackberry when he won. At this very moment, we’re amassing a possible treasure trove of citations, so writer be warned. If you do end up writing the great 21st century novel or whatever the next century’s genre will be, I wouldn’t put celebrating your legacy with a big auction past them, not even for a megabyte.

But nobody, except for Andy Warhol, really plans on being historical, do they? And if we do, we probably keep that little idea to ourselves, it seems unfashionably narcissistic, and heaven forbid if we’re wrong. So of course, we just go on living, and suppose that the saving grace in all this is death itself. Right? Cause what will it matter how we’re remembered or who reads what, we’ll finally be asking Joyce what exactly he meant, or just pushing daisies, and the pleasure for us will have been in the writing, in the living, of all the little bits.