Thomas Pynchon, Famously Private, Sells His Archive
For years, archival traces of the novelist Thomas Pynchon have been almost as rare as sightings of the man himself.
Only a handful of confirmed photos of him are known to exist. While letters by him sporadically pop up for sale, those that have surfaced in publicly accessible archives have tended to disappear from view just as quickly, following protests from the famously private author.
But now, the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., has acquired Pynchon’s literary archive, promising to open a window into the mind and methods of an author whose dense, erudite, playfully postmodern and often extremely long novels like “Gravity’s Rainbow” (760 pages) and “Against the Day” (1,085) have inspired serious scholarship, cultish devotion and wild-eyed conspiracy theories.
The archive includes 48 boxes — 70 linear feet, in archivist-speak — of material dating from the late 1950s to the 2020s. There are typescripts and drafts of all his published books, from “V.” (1963) to “Bleeding Edge” (2013). And there are copious research notes on the many, many subjects (World War II rocketry, postal history, 18th-century surveying) touched on in his encyclopedic novels.
But for all its richness, those hoping for a more intimate view of the man who twice made a cheeky cameo on “The Simpsons” with a paper bag over his head may be out of luck.
The archive includes correspondence relating to the publishing process, the library said, but no private letters or other personal material. And no, there are no photographs of Pynchon either.
Karla Nielsen, the library’s curator of literary collections, said the archive reflects how Pynchon, now 85, has approached his career.
“There’s been a real effort throughout his life to have the focus be on the work,” she said, when asked about negotiations with Pynchon and his family. “That was very similar to how they wanted the archive.”
This being Pynchon, the acquisition comes with a whiff of intrigue. The Huntington, unusually for the announcement of a major acquisition, declined to provide any images of the materials. (Less unusually, it also declined to give the purchase price.)
Those involved with the acquisition also declined to describe any particular items, or say whether they had spoken directly with Pynchon. Nor would they confirm longstanding rumors about his writing process (did he really write “Gravity’s Rainbow” on graph paper?) or say when, if ever, Pynchon — a onetime engineering major and keen observer of technology who also suggested it is OK to be a Luddite — abandoned his Olivetti Lettera 22 (which got a shout-out in “Inherent Vice”) and started using a word processor.
The Huntington, a private institution, has more than 11 million items in its collection, from treasures like a Gutenberg Bible and Shakespeare’s First Folio to contemporary photography. Its holdings in 20th century and contemporary literature include the papers of Hilary Mantel, Charles Bukowski, Eve Babitz and Octavia Butler.
Its palatial Beaux-Arts home surrounded by lush gardens represents a very different California from the seedy surf towns, hippie communes and sprawling subdivisions of Pynchon’s novels set in the state.
The acquisition was spearheaded by Nielsen, who several years ago wrote to Pynchon’s literary agent and wife, Melanie Jackson, making the Huntington’s case.
Yes, she played the California card, highlighting the library’s extensive holdings relating to the state. “There’s a logic to his archive coming to California,” she said.
Karen Lawrence, the Huntington’s president, and Sandra Brooke, the director of the library, were also involved in the effort, which for Lawrence (a James Joyce scholar) also meant tackling “Mason & Dixon,” Pynchon’s rollicking 1997 picaresque novel about the two surveyors who laid out what became the demarcation between North and South. (The Huntington owns an original copy of their map.)
The range and depth of the Huntington’s collections — which include substantial holdings in American history and the history of science — “resonates with the kind of complex, almost epic fiction that Pynchon writes,” Lawrence said.
In a news release, Jackson Pynchon, the writer’s son, who is described as having “compiled and represented the archive,” cited the appeal of the Huntington’s aerospace and mathematics holdings, as well as “their extraordinary map collection.”
“When we learned of the scale and rigor of their independent scholarly programs, which provide exceptional resources for academic research in the humanities, we were confident that the Pynchon archive had found its home,” he said. (The family, contacted by email, declined to comment further.)
Pynchon (pronounced pin-CHON), who was born in Glen Cove, N.Y., in 1937, has never been the subject of a full-fledged biography — a task that might defy even the most dogged sleuths.
Those seeking information about his life have mostly been limited to the introduction to “Slow Learner,” a 1984 collection revisiting short stories he wrote between 1959 and 1964, and a handful of published reminiscences from old friends and ex-friends (like Jules Siegel, author of a 1977 Playboy article titled “Who Is Thomas Pynchon … and Why Did He Take Off With My Wife?”).
As the writer Boris Kachka put it in a 2013 mini-biography published in New York magazine, “He’s said he wants to ‘keep scholars busy for several generations,’ but Pynchon academics, deprived of any scrap of history, find themselves turned into stalkers.”
In 1998, the Morgan Library in New York acquired a trove of more than 120 letters written to his first agent, Candida Donadio, between 1963 and 1982, a period when Pynchon moved from Mexico to California, from Texas to London, “trying to preserve his anonymity and privacy,” according to an article in The New York Times revealing the existence of the letters. But after Pynchon protested, the Morgan announced that the letters would be sealed until after his death.
Today, there is a smattering of Pynchon material accessible in archives like the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, including outlines and notes for an unfinished musical called “Minstrel Island,” which he started writing with a friend as an undergraduate at Cornell University.
And Pynchoniana does come to market occasionally. Last month, a small archive assembled by a reviewer of “Gravity’s Rainbow” — including a lone, 260-word letter by Pynchon — sold for around $18,000. Tom Congalton of Between the Covers Rare Books, who sold the material, said he had handled only about a half-dozen Pynchon letters in 35 years, mostly from the estates of deceased correspondents. “I think his living correspondents don’t want to tempt his ire,” he said.
The Huntington is likely to draw a flood of requests to access the Pynchon archive, which it says will be open to qualified researchers after processing, which it estimates will take a year.
“The kind of research this archive is going to support is advanced scholarship, literary scholarship,” Brooke said. And the archive, she added, “is not for the casual observer.”
“The published novels themselves take a lot of time to grapple with,” she said. “The drafts are even more complicated.”
As for whether biographers and journalists would be granted access, Brooke said, “We evaluate all requests on a case-by-case basis.”
Brooke declined to comment on whether Pynchon or his estate would have any role in approving access, or specify which parts of the archive might be sealed until Pynchon’s death, saying the terms of the sale agreement are private. (While authors and estates can deny permission to quote from copyrighted materials, they typically retain no right to determine who can or cannot view materials once they are open for research.)
Brooke emphasized what she said was the most important thing: that “a really substantial portion of the archive” would be available in Pynchon’s lifetime.
What the archive reveals — or not — will ultimately be determined by researchers. But Nielsen said that even a quick glance provides a sense of the intricate mechanics behind Pynchon’s dizzying world building.
“What I love about reading Thomas Pynchon is that, for all their density, his novels have a great speed,” she said. “Sometimes you feel like you’re on a roller coaster.”