the historical novelist's heart beats faster

There are multiple articles out there that will give you the facts on this bit of news: the American Communist Party has donated its entire historical collection to the NYU libraries.

And so what, you’re wondering. The NYT article puts a more story-teller-ish spin on this:

The songwriter, labor organizer and folk hero Joe Hill has been the subject of poems, songs, an opera, books and movies. His will, written in verse the night before a Utah firing squad executed him in 1915 and later put to music, became part of the labor movement’s soundtrack. Now the original copy of that penciled will is among the unexpected historical gems unearthed from a vast collection of papers and photographs never before seen publicly that the Communist Party USA has donated to New York University.

The cache contains decades of party history including founding documents, secret code words, stacks of personal letters, smuggled directives from Moscow, Lenin buttons, photographs and stern commands about how good party members should behave (no charity work, for instance, to distract them from their revolutionary duties).

I heard a longer report about this on NPR and the archivist was beside himself with excitement. He told stories about pulling a small box out from under a desk (the party gave him complete access to their offices) and finding Joe Hill’s will.

Something like this really is an embarrassment of riches. If you have any interest in New York in the 1920s, this goldmine has your name on it. If you wanted to write a novel with the McCarthy hearings as a backdrop, this collection would give you a lot of material to work with.

Of course it’s going to take them years to catalog it all. I know they are getting dozens of requests every day from historians of all kinds, and access it going to be difficult for a while. I’ll be watching as they begin to make materials available. I’ve got my eye on that stack of personal letters.

5 Replies to “the historical novelist's heart beats faster”

  1. That line about the ‘stern directives to be good’ reminded me of Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series and her protagonist, Martha Quest’s involvement with the communists. Made me think as I do about Dunnett’s work, that I wish I could walk around in Europe for a little bit, now that my imagination is enriched with stories from the place. Reading a work of fiction, then experiencing the reality it was based on is just something else.

    It can only help keep us in touch with our humanity to have storytellers fabricate and weave reality into the works – I love it.

  2. Pam — I know just what you mean. We spent our honeymoon in Dorset, mostly because I wanted to see some places that featured large in novels I love. We stayed in Lyme Regis, and that first mornin we walked down to the harbor and along the cobb, as it’s called. I got goosebumps walking down the steps where Louisa falls and strikes her head (Austen’s Persuasion) and then we spent a couple days roaming around Dorset to see the various places Hardy describes in his novels.

    It’s a long term goal of mine to go to Bruges so I can relive Niccolo’s first set of advenures. And of course Trebizond. And Cyprus.

  3. Ooh – Trebizond. I’m with you on all of those trips.

    I felt similarly when reading about New York City in your Wilderness novels. And the Lake Champlain area reminded me of a family road trip, loong time ago by motor home, through Vermont, Maine and across the Lake on a ferry to get back into Canada somehow. Just snippets of memory, sparked by your descriptions of the landscape.

  4. And my librarian’s heart beats faster at the notion of being the one to catalogue and preserve those letters and papers …

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