What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography
On the Uncertain Future Histories of Our Digital Selves
Sometime during the 1990s, Peter Matthiessen, the novelist, naturalist, and Zen roshi, swallowed his doubts and bought a personal computer. Matthiessen was born in 1927, and like many writers of his generation, he was fond of typewriters; he’d once carried one into remote Netherlands New Guinea on the Harvard-Peabody Expedition of 1961, typing up notes late into the night while a Kurelu boy hid from ghosts beneath his cot. But now, finally, it was time to go digital. The modern world demanded it.
The transition was not an easy one. “Jumps around too fast and many tricky things appear and/or happen without my instruction,” Matthiessen wrote in a list of tech-related grievances, as though the new machine was a misbehaving dog. The taskbar disappeared spontaneously. Resizing anything was baffling. “Clippy,” the digital assistant that came in the shape of a bug-eyed paperclip, harangued him without mercy.
Please forgive this tiny type. My computer makes its own decisions and suddenly reducing type size seems to be one of them.
Worse, I’m so illiterate that I don’t know how to fix this—yay! It’s just fixed itself, sort of: this type size is larger than I use, but it’s better.
I found this anguished note on a thumb drive dug out of a box by Maria Matthiessen, Peter’s wife of more than three decades. After Peter died in 2014, his hard drive was copied and saved, just as his physical papers had been preserved a few years earlier. I asked to see the contents of the drive because of a memoir he’d been working on at the end of his life, which I hoped would help me write his biography. When I plugged the drive into my own computer, I was confronted with nested folders, haphazardly arranged—or barely arranged—that contained 39,933 items.
Navigating around like a rat in a maze, I began to wonder about the implication of computers on the future of biography. Matthiessen is one of a growing number of public figures who have left behind a bifurcated archive: there are his computer files (his digital trace), and there is his physical collection (his paper trace), which is held at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. These two archives are remarkably different—by which I mean, the kind of information they present to a biographer, and the kind of challenges they pose, is not the same.
The Peter Matthiessen Papers are surely one of the most unusual literary archives in America. Filling more than 200 boxes, the collection contains the predictable remnants of a remarkably productive writing life: dozens of manuscripts, contracts, publication schedules, and travel itineraries. But it also contains a journal weathered by snow in the high Himalayas (raw material for The Snow Leopard). There are drawings of the Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize. A “Free Leonard Peltier” badge accompanies crayon drawings of Matthiessen that Peltier made in prison. An LSD diary is filled with Jung and Meister Eckhart. One typescript has a bullet hole in it. A cigar box is labeled “Bigfoot”; inside is a tuft of fur.
Last year, I began going through these boxes one at a time. I sat at a long desk in the Harry Ransom reading room and unfurled a scroll covered with notes about Carlos Castaneda. I leafed through onionskin drafts of Matthiessen’s experimental novel, Far Tortuga, its lines of Caribbean dialect scattered across the pages like the poetry of Mallarmé.
The aim of any biographer is to create a vivid portrait through the accumulation of unique details. You begin with dates because it offers an easy framework, then you augment the chronology with the color that made a person compellingly themselves. The value of a print collection in this undertaking is, however, more subtle than a reader might expect. Along with words on a page, meaning can be gleaned from other things: the cartoons that Matthiessen drew of himself as a sailor at Pearl Harbor, doodled on the reverse of a note to his girlfriend. Sometimes he also defaced letterheads (“U.S. Navy”) as an expression of his attitude towards authority. Keeping up with letter-writing was “a chore,” Matthiessen once complained to a friend, “and I do it disgracefully.” But the letters he did produce reveal all kinds of insights into his character and state of mind, not only through what these letters say, but through the way they say it, as physical marks on pieces of paper.
Manuscript edits are useful for similar reasons, particularly when you’re dealing with a writer who routinely cut his personal feelings from successive drafts:
I flew northfrom San Francisco to Eureka, California, and I must confess that on the airplane I was struck hard by the strange nature of my quest.
None of this exists in a digital archive. Everything on a computer is, being intangible, also more ephemeral. That may seem obvious to say, but the result for somebody like me can be profound. Matthiessen wrote numerous drafts of his two final novels (one published, one not) as well as the unfinished memoir. He duplicated files and renamed them. But then he would go back to earlier drafts and tinker in those, making cuts and additions; then he would save these as yet more duplicates, creating, in effect, simultaneous alternate timelines on a single project. On paper his writing process is relatively easy to follow; on computer, impossible.Matthiessen is one of a growing number of public figures who have left behind a bifurcated archive.
Furthermore, the only surviving emails I know of are the ones Matthiessen drafted in a Word document first. (He was a compulsive drafter.) A decade of more direct correspondence apparently vanished at the time of his death. Given how much we rely on old-fashioned letters to produce biographies, this should set off alarm bells given the subjects of future books (the Matthiessens of today) rely increasingly on emails, texts, Tweets, and Facebook messages—mediums of communication which are inherently fleeting, more like conversations than letters, and potentially inaccessible to historians.
Archivists are currently testing methods to try and prevent the loss of vital information. The Library of Congress saves selected tweets (though perhaps not enough), and some libraries are attempting to store entire “born digital” collections. This includes the Harry Ransom Center, which hired a digital archivist several years ago for exactly that purpose. But preserving original drives in their pristine state while also making reference copies available is “a lot of work and requires specialized software,” says Richard Watson, Head of Reference and Research Services. The process of extraction creates its own data, for instance, which must also be preserved. And there are no agreed-upon standards to guides institutions in this painstaking process. “It’s kind of a brave new world with born digital,” Watson says.
Nevertheless, no tool can account for the qualitative differences between physical and digital material. These differences will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories, just as using a different type of wood will change the appearance of a table. To produce the first four of his five-part biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Robert Caro worked with millions of hardcopy documents, most of which are housed at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin. What will a similarly detailed history of Obama look like, given the recent announcement that the Barack Obama Presidential Library will be fully digital?
Of course, there are also benefits to a digital archive, even in the case of a technology-adverse figure like Matthiessen. Thanks to his computer, I am able to see what he was listening to on an iPod Mini: Beethoven and Gregorian chants. And because digital files are easy to lose and difficult to fully erase, there are records I’ve unearthed that, being fiercely private, Peter might otherwise have chosen to omit from his physical archive: questions for his doctor after a bone biopsy revealed the acute myelogenous leukemia had returned.
In the last few months of his life, Peter’s hand became so unsteady that edits to a printed manuscript were virtually illegible. Still, he was able to keep typing on his computer. One of his final changes was made on March 15th, 2014—just three weeks before he died. He added a line to the top of his memoir notes: “ROUGH OUTLINE FOR A BIOGRAPHY (IF ANY).”