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Modern Literature Collection and Manuscripts

Washington University's collections of manuscripts contain a broad range of materials dating from the 2nd century BC through the present. The largest group of materials is the Modern Literature Collection.

History of the Modern Literature Collection

Inaugurated in 1964, the Modern Literature Collection was created as an archive of the work of contemporary English and American writers who were considered critically underappreciated and whose reputations might grow further in the years to come. A committee of five writers associated with Washington University met to compile a list of potential acquisitions. Headed by the award-winning poet Mona Van Duyn, this panel was charged with both recommending and contacting a select group of authors.

Special Collections then set about acquiring manuscript materials, such as personal and editorial correspondence, publishers’ proofs, drafts, and ephemera, that reflected the writers’ compositional processes and provided biographical information. This strategy created a set of unique literary archives that now forms the core of the Modern Literature Collection.

The Department complemented this important body of papers with definitive collections of the published work of these authors—appearances in periodicals, first editions, later editions, copies corrected or inscribed by the author, and books containing contributions, translations, biographies, and critical studies—in order to create a research archive of print material to accompany the manuscripts. In a few cases, Special Collections even collected this printed matter for authors whose papers they were not able to acquire. The result is a multi-layered and broad-reaching collection that provides scholars with meaningful perspectives on the authors’ lives and work.

The work of forty-six writers, all but two of whom were then currently living, was reflected in the initial Modern Literature Collection. Today, the Collection’s list has grown to more than 175 authors, presses, and journals, with more than 125 of these represented by manuscript materials. The prescience and commitment of the original panel reaped great rewards, producing a set of printed and manuscript collections that are internationally recognized and accessed by scholars from around the globe.

Modern Literature Multimedia Collection

The Modern Literature Multimedia Collection comprises audio recordings of readings, lectures, interviews, and discussions by some of the most important writers of our era. More than five hundred recordings, from 1960 to the present, document events held by a wide variety of departments at Washington University; other recordings have come to Special Collections as part of authors’ papers acquired by the University.

All of the collection has been converted to digital formats for easier access and to reduce wear on the original materials. The recordings are currently available for on-site listening and, in some cases, may be loaned to researchers who cannot visit the University. Among the authors included in this important collection are John Barth, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, and Iris Murdoch.