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.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Anatomist's Archival Legacy

Bill Hayes, The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy (New York: Ballantine Books, 2008) is a stylish recounting of the creation of a medical textbook that has been in print continuously since its publication in 1858 (for example, 35 editions in the United States alone). Hayes moves about from explaining the collaboration of Henry Gray and his illustrator H. V. Carter in producing the text to Hayes’s personal experience in his year long lurking in a modern gross anatomy class. Those interested in archives will be interested in the book because of the author’s exploration into the modest amount of material left behind by Gray contrasted with the extraordinary evidence about Gray in the extensive pile of letters and diaries provided by Carter. As it turns out, Carter’s archives have been little tapped by historians of medicine and other scholars, and Hayes provides considerable commentary on his observations about the nature of diary writing.

At one point, as an example, Hayes wonders about why anyone who keeps a diary in any sort of honest fashion would want it available for others to read: “The attachment is not entirely logical; nor is sentimentality alone the motive. You come to anthropomorphize this extension of yourself. However raw the day, the diary absorbs every word, every ache or joy; its blank pages inviting ever more confession. Whether it is a gilded leather-bound volume or a simple file on your laptop, the idea of destroying the diary becomes increasingly unthinkable. It would be like throwing away pieces of flesh from your own body. Still, that’s only half the explanation. The truth is, when you’re writing a diary, a part of you hopes it will be read someday. At the very least, you are writing for the unique someone who will be the perfect reader, who will devour your sentences and understand: your future self” (p. 71). Hayes provides, along the way, a variety of assessments about Carter’s diary writing, including, of course, what he has to offer as insight into the activities of Gray and the production of the anatomy classic.

Hayes also relates his own experiences in visiting and reading archives and special collections and the nature of his quest for documentation about Gray and his book. It is the kind of reflection we usually do not see in a scholarly monograph, where archivists are thanked and archives enumerated but where little discussion is offered about the author’s archival research experiences. For example, as Hayes considers his search for documents concerning Gray, he muses, “Henry Gray is in a box somewhere, I keep telling myself. Somewhere he survives in a box of letters, personal papers, manuscripts, drafts, page proofs (something), stashed away in a basement, a mislabeled carton, a forgotten storeroom, a locked drawer (someplace), just waiting to be discovered. But the box eludes me still. My many inquiries to libraries, universities, and medical societies have resulted only in the most politely worded series of Nos” (p. 167). It is a sentiment shared, no doubt, by many researchers.

Thanks to Bob Riter, one of my doctoral students, for pointing out this book.