For the past week, I’ve spent an hour or two each day time-travelling. Mainly, I’ve been touring the mid-Twentieth Century courtesy of Fritz Leiber’s letters to his lifelong friend Franklin MacKnight, but I’ve also been visiting my personal past, trying to decipher my intentions when I first started transcribing and editing the letters.
The letters were a project that I undertook after my thesis. In those days, I still had hopes of an academic career, and MacKnight had just donated large mounds of papers to the University of Houston for its Leiber collection. Armed with the published version of my thesis on Leiber, Witches of the Mind, I persuaded the librarian to send me several thick folders full of material.
What I had really hoped to find were Leiber’s letters to his other lifelong friend, Harry Otto Fischer. According to Leiber himself, his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series had begun in an exchange of letters with Fischer in the early 1930s, and, from the quotes in his essay “Fafhrd and Me,” the letters promised to be richly inventive.
Unfortunately, if those letters have survived, no one has found them yet, and the few letters from Fischer that had survived proved banal.
But, MacKnight, I quickly found, had exchanged long letters with Leiber for sixty years, and carefully preserved most, if not all, of the letters he had received from Leiber. And, although, for much of that period, Leiber hadn’t returned the favor, what was preserved was still a rich correspondence.
My first job was to transcribe the photocopies – the University of Houston was so concerned about illegal copying that the photocopies it sent had vertical writing as a watermark that also thwarted legal copying like mine. Next was the annotation of the letters for a general audience than they were ever intended for.
It was slow going. First, Leiber died, and, having seen him on his death-bed, I didn’t feel like working on the project for about eighteen months. Then I left academia, and in the throes of establishing myself as a technical writer, I didn’t have much time for such a non-profitable project.
Still, I persevered. I had got into the mid-1950s, and even published some of my preliminary work in The New York Review of Science Fiction when my personal life exploded, and I had no time for anything else. And so the folders sat on the desk in the spare room, slowly fading in the sun for years.
Then, this fall, I received a copy of Benjamin Szumskyj’s collection of Leiber essays, to which I contributed. Through FaceBook, I got in touch with Arlynn Leiber Presser, Leiber’s grand-daughter. And, suddenly, it seemed time to return to the project.
Leaving a manuscript is always a sound way to get enough distance to edit it, and the years since I touched the project were more than enough for me to gain perspective on the work I had done so far. But I am no longer the person I was when I started the project, and, looking at my previous work, I often find myself thinking that the editor is a rather strange young man, with thought processes I no longer understand. I disagree with many of his choices, particularly about where to omit passages, and wonder about his judgment. What was he thinking? I keep asking, and then the slow machinery of memory rumbles into action and I vaguely recall the intents that were responsible for a particular piece of editing.
My collaborator in the past, I conclude, as a timid sort, far too nervous about causing anyone offense by my present standards. But no doubt I’m coarsened by several years of on-line journalism with its instant and often frank feedback.
Then there are the letters themselves. Inevitably, the letters are full of news of the world around them, both that of world events and of the science fiction community through the ages. Reading them and tracking down references, I feel a stronger sense than ever before of a history that is still in living memory – although not, for much of it, my living memory.
It’s a world where people worried about being drafted to fight a world war, and watched McCarthyism creep in. It’s a world where gender roles are strongly defined, where a steady job is everything and walking away from that – as Leiber did in the late 1950s – is an eccentric act. It’s a world where secretaries take dictation, and an interest in science fiction is a juvenile, perhaps subversive pastime. And through it all, the main vehicle for recording impressions is the typewriter – a machine that I am old enough to have learned to use, but which now seems an unbelievably clumsy device, as frequent xing out of phrases show in the transcripts.
Immersing myself in the letters and reading Leiber’s reactions to the events around him, I fell that I have a stronger sense of this recent history. In fact, when I break to make dinner, I almost feel that I have time-travelled, and have to shake myself to remind myself that what I’ve been reading isn’t decades old and not current at all.
So far, I’ve just managed to revise my previous work to my present standards. That still leaves me with thirty years’ worth of correspondence to work through. With luck, I hope to have a manuscript ready by the New Year.
I consider myself lucky to be editor of the letters. Quite aside from the fact that I’m working with the words of a great American fantasist, I suppose that we won’t get many of those exchanges in the future. Those of us who write long emails are a minority, and most people probably don’t preserve emails more than a few years. Nor are we as likely with emails to get reflexive responses developed over several days, or even a couple of weeks – the medium seems to place a premium on quick responses. I don’t regret the change in technology — I can’t imagine, for instance, returning to a typewriter after using a word processor — but the thought keeps occuring to me that I am editing a correspondence of a sort that is about to become extinct.
I can’t imagine any greater privilege.
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