Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Princess Elizabeth at her Coming of Age Address

Biographical films about famous people keep cropping up on Netflix, because the venue is so well-suited to the genre, esp. the bios that are too long to be one movie and too short to be a year-long “show.”  The times are forcing us all to search history for survival clues.  We are searching for arete.  If the film about the Trump generations from the first German immigrant patriarch to the present scandal had been seen before the election, not even Putin could have made a difference.  (These movies are all on Netflix.)

But more interesting to me is the series called “The Royal House of Windsor” which begins with the WWI necessity of finding the name “Windsor” to replace the actual German names and heritage of the “English” king.  There are six chapters to this story.  The theme is survival of the English throne.  It unfolds within and throughout the larger world dynamics, so that it’s not just the story of one family.

The first chapter is particularly interesting because it includes an overview of newly released letters from the archives of the Queen.  The archives of private communication is another theme and phenomenon of our times, which makes Banting’s idea of an archive as a literary genre particularly useful.  Much of this archive is handwritten letters between relatives, spouses, and quasi-officials trying to solve problems like finding a new surname to “found” a new dynasty.   Family interests clash with political necessities.  There is treachery.  Of course, it's all imaginary — the people stay the same, the fantasies shift.  The film intersperses closeups of pen nibs inscribing words onto heavy paper, the pens becoming more modern over time.  It gives us photographs of the actual letters.  These are educated people who write well, but that’s not a requirement for archiving.

Manhunt,” the fictionalized version of the Unabomber’s story, uses occasional shots of relevant documents, mixes archives — which are real and original — with “story” to lend it authenticity.  The Unabomber’s world was mostly print, so the approach works well.  Anyway, Evidence is a kind of archive, so the masses of materials that become legal boxes of case files on CSI shows could be seen as a multi-author literary event.

Native Americans who come from oral cultures where the archives are within the people, nevertheless have sometimes discovered that exploring the “settler” (the Canadian term for Euros) archives can be useful.  A powerful example is Adolf Hungry Wolf’s aggregation of document texts, photos, and comment in the four volume Good Medicine books.  Bob Scriver’s lesser collection of photos and comment in his book, “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” is an archive because an inventory is a kind of archive.  Paul Seseequasis’ coming book of photos of Northern indigenous people between the world wars and earlier is possible in part because of foto archives at places like the University of Lethbridge, which holds all of the Magee photos of Blackfeet.  

Purely epistolary books — collections of correspondence — is an established literary category, a kind of archive.  There are famous exchanges between close friends or lovers.  Robert Bigart’s “Letters from the Rocky Mountain Indian Missions”  (the Letters of Father Philip Rappagliosi) ought to be an entering wedge into the huge body of communications between early missionaries and Rome.  It includes sent-along artifacts and is almost entirely unexplored, at least partly because they are in French, Spanish, Latin, even German, and there are few scholars with the language skills to translate them.  The attention of the tribal people has been concentrated on learning their tribal languages and on critiquing the provenance of authors.  Perhaps this Pope will assign scholars to making archives available to the people they are about.

It was searching the federal archives of bookkeeping and correspondence about tribal trusts that finally yielded to the persistence of Eloise Cobell and her team.  There are still undigested archives in local places like the Museum of the Plains Indian.  It has been more usual for them to be burned or bloodied than to be searched for history and story.  Paul Rosier made excellent use of archived documents in “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954”.

We seem to be in a time of archive opening like the records of the investigation into JFK’s assassination.  And also the creation of new archives: the Paradise Papers is only one “docu-dump” that will surrender literary interpretation and background for many years to come.  But all these accumulations are not written to be literary achievements — most are simply facts, or words in search of persuasion.

It takes a particular kind of curiosity and willingness to suspend judgment to usefully investigate a writer’s or artist’s archives that include plans over time, preparations and predilections.  Shifting to the other side of the equation, I wonder what I should save.  I’m about to throw out ten years of sermons.  I have no illusions that they are valuable.  Ten years ago I would have saved all the records of the UU Montana Ministry, not that they were very significant, but I thought they would at least be of interest to UU’s.  Now I know better.  Inquiries never got answers.  The issues now are totally different and they are not issues that appeal to me.  None of the players are people I know.

An archive can be a reminder that no one is frozen in time, one style, one interest, one issue.  And yet there is often a continuity that runs through them, like a string through pearls.  (One HOPES they’re pearls, bearing in mind that those gems are an accumulation of nacre meant to ease an irritation.)

But things don’t always go well, esp. when editors are involved.  “Archiving” can become censoring, esp. if conventions of propriety have changed or if “cleaning up” implies greater profit.  The enraged responses linked below mark what happens when beloved writing is wrenched around.

I used to worry when I was “correcting” student papers in Browning, whether I was muffling vital voices, maybe even espaliering what ought to be freely flowering trees.  

But I still don’t know what I think about finding out, because of archived letters, that Queen Elizabeth’s very moving and “nunlike” pledge to serve the people, given at her coming of age speech when she was 21, was actually written by a professional male journalist, aged 51.  She DID keep the pledge.  But archived film gives a glimpse behind the scene.

Here she is.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUlToHE_27U

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