Diary

Zachary Leader

In February 1987, partly to finance the purchase of a larger house, Kingsley Amis sold his papers (483 catalogued items) to the Huntington Library in Southern California. Amis professed to hate ‘abroad’, but he was only intermittently a cultural nationalist. When Philip Larkin, in his capacity as librarian, canvassed him in 1960 for his views on the export of manuscripts, he received the usual robust reply:

I will sell any of my manuscripts to the highest bidder, assuming such bidder to be of reputable standing, and I have no feeling one way or the other about such bidder’s country of origin. It seems to me no more incongruous that the Tate Gallery should have a large collection of Monets (say) than that Buffalo University should have a collection of Robert Graves manuscripts (say). I view with unconcern the drift of British manuscripts to America, where our language is spoken and our literature studied.

So one must travel to California to read, for example, Amis’s several unpublished novels: the incomplete ‘Who Else Is Rank?’, written in 1944-45 with E. Frank Coles, a fellow officer in the Army Signals Corps; ‘The Legacy’, written in 1948-49, and ‘rejected by, I think, 14 publishers’ (its protagonist is ‘Kingsley Amis’, like the character ‘Martin Amis’ in Money); or the unfinished ‘Difficulties with Girls’, written in 1981-82 (a title retained for a quite different novel of 1988, the sequel to Take a Girl like You). One also has to come to the Huntington to read the letters (or many of them) that Amis received: several hundred from Robert Conquest, Anthony Powell, John Betjeman, Philip Larkin and others. These letters help supply the answers to niggling editorial puzzles: for example, the identity of ‘Bluebell’ (Conquest’s dog), or ‘engine driver Hunt’, from a passage in a letter reading ‘Praed, Hood, Gilbert – and engine driver Hunt’ (Hunt turns out to be a subject, not an author, of light verse, from the pseudonymous Conquest limerick beginning ‘A young engine driver called Hunt’), or the meaning of the abbreviations PWR, IWICSLMSK and BHQ (respectively, Pee-Wee Russell, ‘I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate’ and ‘Bastard Headquarters’, meaning God’s Heaven, or, more generally, the place where things go wrong or get fucked up, said in one letter to be located in France).

It cost the Huntington $90,000 to obtain the Amis archive and not everyone approved the purchase. The Huntington’s prime collections are from earlier periods. It possesses half the titles printed in England before 1641 and 95 per cent of all English plays and masques in one or more early editions. Its 18th-century holdings number over 30,000 items. It has a Gutenberg Bible, the Ellesmere Chaucer, the finest collection of early editions of Shakespeare’s works in the world, including four first Folios, and important holograph manuscripts by Swift, Pope, Gray, Fielding, Johnson, Goldsmith, Garrick, Blake, Burns, Shelley, Lamb, Charlotte Brontë and Dickens. Amis is hardly the only 20th-century writer represented here: the Library has significant Modernist holdings (Joyce, Yeats, Wallace Stevens – none of whom Amis had much time for), as well as extensive collections of Stevenson and Jack London, the latter represented by 131,000 items. It has also purchased the archive of the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, Amis’s second wife.

The Huntington’s Rare Book Room closes for an hour at noon and most of its readers stroll across the gardens to a shaded outdoor restaurant. Amis would barely recognise as lunch the meal most of us eat here: nobody drinks, nobody takes more than an hour, people leap up suddenly for strenuous walks. He might also find certain of the Medievalists, the Shakespeareans, the massed historians (of Colonial America, the English Bible, Early Modern Comedy, the Two-Party System, the Commercialisation of Contraception and so forth), a trifle narrow – though narrowness, the letters attest, can be found everywhere.

While the Huntington can be sniffy about the popular and the modern, like the rest of Southern California it takes the Academy Awards seriously. To begin with, it has its own Oscar, which appeared last week, as it does every year, on the morning of the great day, discreetly perched on the supervisor’s desk of the Ahmanson Reading Room, the Library’s inner sanctum. This Oscar was awarded to the screenwriter Sonia Levien (1880-1960), whose papers the Huntington owns. Levien was a story editor at Fox, MGM and Paramount, and her screenwriting credits include State Fair (1933), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1940), Quo Vadis? (1951) and Interrupted Melody (1955), for which she won the Academy Award. The Library also possesses the papers of Catherine Turney, another prominent screenwriter, whose good friend, 87-year-old Gloria Stuart, of Titanic fame, has been here for lunch. Turney wrote women’s pictures for Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ida Lupino, Rosalind Russell and Ann Sheridan, and her script helped Crawford win the Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945). She comes to the Library every day, which makes her, at 92, its oldest regular reader – and she’s better-looking than Stuart.

Last week at lunch, much of the Oscar talk focused on Gordon Wood, Professor of History at Brown. Wood is here on a year’s fellowship to write Volume IV of the new Oxford History of the United Sates, but he has also spent the odd moment reflecting on Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, of Good Will Hunting. Wood’s interest in ‘Matt and Ben’ and their movie, which won the award this year for Best Original Screenplay, is confined to what is now probably its best-known scene (it was chosen as the film’s Best Picture clip, so 87 million people saw it on television in the US alone). This scene occurs in a bar in Cambridge, Mass. where the eponymous hero (played by Matt), a mathematical genius who has read many books but comes from the wrong side of the tracks, confronts a snooty Harvard graduate student named Clark:

CLARK: I was just hoping you could give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the early colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially of the southern colonies, could most aptly be characterised as agrarian precapitalist and …

Will, who at this point … is completely fed up, includes himself in the conversation.

WILL: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first-year grad student. You just finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until some time in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood about the pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilisation.

CLARK (taken aback): Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of …

WILL: Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth … You got that from Vickers’s Work in Essex County, was it pages 98 to 102, what? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarise the whole book for me?

This, of course, is ludicrous as dialogue, and the purest wish fulfilment, but it’s not quite, or wholly, gibberish. Good Will Hunting makes much of class distinctions. ‘In almost every scene,’ its director, Gus Van Sant, declares in an Introduction to the published screenplay, ‘there is the construction or observation of an educational class structure.’ The historical name-dropping could be said to reiterate the film’s theme.

Gordon Wood was pleased to be mentioned in the movie (while also dreaming forlornly of commissions and residuals), but what of its implicit or subliminal attack on historians who ‘drastically underestimate the impact of social distinctions’ and come from the Ivy League? ‘Not fair,’ is his unsurprising reply. Daniel Vickers says nothing at all about him on pages 98-102 of Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850 (1994), nor does he discuss class divisions on these pages. Wood, in fact, appears nowhere in the book, though Vickers several times cites William Wood, a 17th-century chronicler. Moreover, Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992) has lots to say about class hierarchy and the inequalities of wealth; it would be a gross misreading of its argument to say it undervalues social divisions. Wood’s larger view, however, is that such inaccuracies don’t matter much in this context. It’s a movie; all the audience is going to remember from the scene is that the hero is incredibly (implausibly or impossibly, I’d have said) well-read. Also, it’s good for impressing previously under-impressed relatives.

This is not the sort of line Ian Whitcomb takes about Titanic, the other great talking point at lunch last week. Whitcomb is British and the author of a dozen books, most of them written in the basement of the Huntington. He is also an actor, has produced music programmes on local public radio and plays the ukelele (seriously, at ragtime and jazz festivals). Because he’s written on ragtime, Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville and vintage dance music, Titanic hired him as its music consultant and he immediately began digging in the Library’s maritime archives and trawling through old newspapers. Whitcomb’s chief concern was that the ship’s musicians never played ‘Nearer My God to Thee’, as they are shown doing in both A Night to Remember and Titanic, but to his astonishment and fury, James Cameron, the film’s director, seems not to have cared. Whitcomb was asked to supply the music for ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ anyway. ‘There are three versions,’ he explained to me. ‘Since it was a British orchestra, I sent the English one: Cameron chose the American.’ The rumour that the song was played came from a woman who claims to have heard it while floating in a lifeboat; but no one else among the 705 survivors is reported to have heard it. And all eight musicians in the orchestra drowned, Wallace Hartley, leader of the White Star Orchestra, with his violin case strapped to his chest.

These details can be found in the 40-page booklet accompanying Whitcomb’s Titanic – Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage, a CD which claims to reproduce ‘what was really played aboard the ship’. Whitcomb wrote the booklet, produced the music, conducted the band and played piano, accordion and ukulele on several tracks. His is also the voice reciting Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the Loss of the Titanic)’, on the second track. That the CD has won a Grammy award has only marginally calmed his fury. This Grammy, for ‘Best Packaging’, honours the booklet’s text and design, including not only its many photographic and other illustrations, but the CD’s cover image, a picture postcard of the ship mailed from Southampton and postmarked 15 April 1912. Like all the images on the CD, it comes from the Huntington’s archives.

The Oscars themselves were held at an enormous auditorium in downtown LA, but I watched them on television with my mother, who lives here. She is a member of the Academy, and according to her friend Ric Robertson, the Academy’s Executive Director, I could have got a ticket, but I would have been about a mile or two from the stage. It did not seem to matter that I was reporting for the LRB. As for the show itself, it was interminable: three hours and forty-five minutes, not counting celebrity interviews on either end. My mother and I were exhausted after an hour. Nor were there many highlights. Someone thanked his parents ‘for giving me the freedom to dream’ (Amis would have liked that). Someone else thanked his wife, who ‘saved me in every way a person can be saved’ (which got one thinking). Dustin Hoffman was unbelievably boorish (making jokes about proctology and premature ejaculation). The venerable civil rights protester, Rosa Parks, appeared for some reason, to be interviewed by Joan Rivers. The only surprise came early: Gloria Stuart, seated front row centre, failed to win for Best Supporting Actress and had to spend the next three and a half hours watching everyone else from Titanic receive awards. Her friends at the Huntington were not pleased.