Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

David's Archives

We gain insights into the creation of personal archives from a variety of perspectives. Ken Dornstein, in his assessment of his brother David’s life, snuffed out in the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in late 1988, has ample occasion to comment on David’s personal archives. David Dornstein was not a typical compiler of personal archives; desiring to become a writer, he compiled notebooks, wrote diaries, and send lengthy letters, at various times in his brief life indicating that he wanted to write down everything he saw, experienced, and thought about. His brother digs into these voluminous documents first in order to write a book about David and then to reflect on his struggles to write such a book and to make any sense of this short life.

Throughout Ken Dornstein’s The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) we gain a sense of his brother’s creation of his own archives. “David had filled a great cardboard box with his notebooks and manuscripts,” his brother recounts. “He labeled it in thick Magic Marker: THE DAVE ARCHIVES” (p. 10). We see how Ken visualized his “literary estate,” “believing that a tragic early death would ensure his literary greatness. He wrote notes on in the margins of his notebooks ‘for the biographer’; he instructed his correspondents to ‘save this letter or you’ll be sorry.’ He imagined scholars trying to figure out the riddle of his life in light of his untimely death. He suggested topics for graduate student theses. . . . He pictured his friends poring over his pages to see what he had been working on all of those years, to look for their own names if nothing else” (p. 13). At one point David began to “keep a meticulous record of his artistic coming-to-be, a portrait of the artist as a young man, all the more interesting, he thought, for being written by the young man himself as his youth was actually unfolding” (p. 81). Perhaps these are indicators that writers, even failed ones, are not only self-conscious of their craft but are very aware of the need to produce their own literary estate in their manuscripts, correspondence, notes, and ephemera.

Dornstein reveals other characteristics of his brother’s personal papers, aspects that many archivists can relate to from their own work. For example, “In his letters, David had a habit of enclosing artifacts from his life, found objects, things lying around at the time he sealed the envelope: a box of cigarettes to show what he was smoking, clippings from the local newspapers to show what he was reading, condom wrappers, manufacturers’ inserts from spermicidal jellies” (p. 54). Archivists often have found such items and even more bizarre objects; I once found parts of a shattered collarbone in a letter describing a sailor’s wounds in the naval battle on Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

The author describes his struggles to make sense of his late brother’s papers, resolving a number of times to finish working through them, write his story, and “then put this stuff away for good” (p. 239). As Ken Dornstein candidly reveals this book is as much about himself as it is about his brother. He concludes the book with a letter to his brother, writing that “In some ways this whole project has been a struggle to get back to the present from wherever it was that I blasted off to after you died – a fall to earth just like yours, but with hope and possibility opening up as I near the ground, not closing off for good. I feel like I’ve been scratching and clawing my way back for years and I’m almost there” (p. 324). David’s archives provide the means for Ken to finish up with the death of his brother, and in his descriptions of reading the papers and musing over their eccentricities, we also discover something about why individuals and families hold onto old documents. They are markers, clues, signposts to the past, and they are the best we have as windows into our own past and a road to understanding that past.