The Unseen Theft of America’s Literary History
There Are Thieves in the Archives, and We Don't Even Know It
When Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend John Crowe Ransom, the legendary editor of the Kenyon Review, in September 1955, it was to ask a favor. She wanted to use him as a reference for a Guggenheim fellowship—money she would put toward finally completing the novel she had been working on. “I mean to finish it if it takes me forever, which it appears to be doing.”
This was a common lament. Over and over, as she was sending him literary gold in the form of short stories—between 1953 and 1956 the Kenyon Review would publish four of her stories, all of which would earn the O. Henry Award and become part of the canon of American literature—she told him the novel eluded her. In this letter as in most she was smart, brief, humorous, and polite—and very concerned about the longer work. Kenyon had allowed her, she noted, to continue to write short stories; the Guggenheim would force her to finish the novel.
When this letter was listed for sale on eBay in the spring of 2000, the description mentioned none of this. It did note that, “Since A Good Man is Hard to Find was published in 1955 and The Violent Bear It Away did not appear until 1960, it’s difficult to determine which novel the author was working on at the time of the letter.” In fact, it is not difficult at all, since only one of those works is a novel—and, anyway, no novel unfinished in September would be published later that same year. Still, lack of fidelity to an author’s bibliography, or even basic common sense, rarely gets in the way of the sale of stolen cultural heritage items on the Internet, and that was true here, too. The letter, taken from the archives of the Kenyon Review, was sold for the tidy sum of $510; in a strange coincidence, it was bought by a businessman in a central Georgia town not very far from where it was written nearly half a century earlier.
The best that can be said for the looting of the Kenyon Review archives by David Breithaupt was that it could have been worse. As the nighttime supervisor of the Kenyon College library, he spent years stealing both from the general and special collections, including some really terrific rare books. But he did not discover until eight years after he started working there the roughly 800 plain-looking folders housed in beige file cabinets in the locked rare book stacks. In this mundane tomb was housed letters, notes, and manuscripts from a who’s who of mid-century fiction and poetry—Thomas Pynchon, Robert Penn Warren, W.H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Dylan Thomas, Bertolt Brecht, Boris Pasternak, William Carlos Williams, E.L. Doctorow, Ford Madox Ford, and scores of others. Predictably, this treasure-trove of unique literary history was a boon to a man already supporting his income with an online bookstore whose source material was the library. But quite aside from the monetary value of this cache, the tens of thousands of pages in the archive could also be handled, hung on a wall, or dangled in front of friends as literary street cred of the sort few others possessed. For both his bank account and personal esteem, this was the best thing that ever happened to Breithaupt.
Over the course of the months after he discovered the archive, he went, at first, tentatively through scores of files—stealing a Pynchon manuscript here, a Joyce Carol Oates letter there—before working his way up to taking the complete files of the likes of W.H. Auden, Norman Mailer, Dylan Thomas, Frank O’Connor and, of course, Flannery O’Connor. A later fingerprint analysis showed he’d had his hands on a bunch of file folders of people whose letters and manuscripts did not show up for sale on eBay nor were found in his house. That suggests that either he looked through these folders and did not find anything of interest, or that he did find things of interest and just did not list them on eBay. The scary thing, of course, is we simply do not know. For most of the items stolen from the Kenyon Review archives, they are not only gone, but it is as if they never existed.
This is a microcosm of the danger facing American archives. Because almost nothing is catalogued at the item-level, most of the unique material housed in these most important of repositories is particularly vulnerable to theft. When someone like Breithaupt steals a book, even a very old book, there is a catalog record that tells us it is missing—and likely some kind of duplicate copy somewhere else in the world. But when he steals a letter from Flannery O’Connor to John Crowe Ransom—unless that letter has been photocopied by another person—it basically ceases to exist. Not only do we not have the information in it, but we don’t even know that we don’t have the information in it.
Because the story of this country is written on the backs of single sheets of paper, the theft of archival material is nothing short of a disaster. Books, articles, long-form journalism, documentaries—all of our nonfiction, and a fair amount of our fiction relies in some way on what is in these archives. It is a fact drilled into students, and held sacrosanct by professional writers and historians, that primary research is the gold standard. The best nonfiction work is done not in wholesale quoting or paraphrasing of prior books, but in the steady accumulation of a narrative from single sheets of paper. The loss of even one or two of these can leave a gap in our collective memory.
That fact was explained to a federal judge by Robert Darnton during the sentencing phase for Daniel Spiegelman, a man who looted the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. Darnton noted that he had once found an unpublished letter by Jean-Paul Marat, the leader of the extreme Left during the French Revolution. It not only contained important information, but it placed Marat in Paris at a time when his biographers had put him in an English prison. “By itself, with a little exegesis, the document disproved a whole line of socialist hagiography.”
These are the sorts of things sitting untouched and undiscovered in archives all across this country—and they are constantly put at risk by men like David Breithaupt, who take them from us and sell them for cash.
Flannery O’Connor eventually ended her relationship with the Kenyon Review, for a reason we know only because of a letter in that file folder. On the second day of 1961, she wrote to Robie Macauley, the man who not only succeed Ransom at the journal but who had been her friend for a very long time. It was a missive O’Connor was loath to write. A few months earlier, the autumn issue featured her story “The Comforts of Home,” on the third page of which appeared a strange and unsettling sketch of a naked woman, front-facing, her hand over her eyes. O’Connor hated it, as did many of the people she knew—and not all of them, she noted wryly, old ladies. She felt the image lowered both the story and the magazine “which will not cease to be dull by becoming vulgar. I don’t know what you’ve gained by it but you’ve lost a contributor.” Still, she was polite, as always, and lighthearted even then: she closed by wishing him and his family a happy New Year and urged him to “quit trying to compete with Playboy.”
This letter ending her extraordinary relationship with the journal was stolen right along with the one that began it—a single line, sent to Ransom in December 1952, asking him if he would consider printing her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
This letter, as it happened, was also put up for sale on eBay in the spring of 2000. And it, too, piqued the interest of a man in central Georgia. But that man, Bill Richards, was the University Librarian at Georgia College & State University—O’Connor’s alma mater, and home to her collection of letters, manuscripts, and papers. Richards knew immediately the collection had to have it, so he put in a $500 bid. Then he got to thinking. The letter seemed familiar—and too good to be up for sale on the Internet. So he consulted a reference source, and the college’s own collection, and discovered the truth. Then he picked up the phone. The letter that began Flannery O’Connor relationship with the Kenyon Review archives was the one that signaled the end of David Breithaupt’s. She probably would have liked that.