Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Not burning manuscripts: Patrick White

Australia, on the whole, doesn’t seem to have a particularly rich history of book burning, at least in terms of well-publicised events or dramatic losses. Indeed, recent discoveries would seem to confirm that the most infamous burning of an author’s manuscripts, when Sydney literary agent Barbara Mobbs burnt the papers of Nobel laureate Patrick White in Centennial Park, is a furphy.
White himself is known to have had a bit of a taste for literary cleansing, destroying a selection when he moved from Castle Hill to Centennial Park in the 1960s. In 1977 he cheerfully responded to a request from the National Library of Australia with the comment “I can’t let you have my papers because I don’t keep any. My manuscripts are destroyed as soon as the book is published and I put very little into notebooks, don’t keep my friends’ letters as I urge them not to keep mine.”
David Marr has been the most prominent guardian of White’s heritage, and in a 2006 article he remembered how the writer had similarly informed him not to “bother hunting for drafts and manuscripts. They’ve all gone into the pit.” As a result, it came as a bit of a shock for Marr and other keen White-fanciers, when it was revealed that an immense hoard of papers had been offered to the National Library of Australia by none other than Mobbs herself (see David Marr, ‘Patrick White’s return from the pit,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November, 2006).
Although Mobbs did reveal that she had culled the papers, there were still no fewer than 33 archive boxes left, stuffed with notebooks, annotated correspondence, even his scruffy old beret. Mobbs told reporters: “I couldn’t burn them in a blue fit.”

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