Padraic and Mary Colum Papers

Among the many surprising finds in the Gotham Book Mart collection acquired by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in 2008 was a trove of papers of Irish literary figures Padraic and Mary Colum.  Padraic Colum (1881-1972) was a poet, playwright, novelist, biographer, and folklorist, known primarily for his collections of myths and folktales for children, his novels Castle Conquer and The Flying Swans, a volume of collected poetry, and several plays.  Mary Colum (nee Maguire) (1884-1957) was a literary critic known for her memoir, Life and the Dream, the posthumously published Our Friend James Joyce, as well as contributions to such magazines as Scribner’s, The Saturday Review of Literature, and The Forum, where she also served as literary editor.  Born in Ireland, both were associated with William Butler Yeats and other figures of the Irish Literary Revival of the early twentieth century.  Both were involved in the founding of The Irish Review, and Padraic Colum was involved in the founding of the Abbey Theatre.  The couple married in 1912 and moved to New York City in 1914.  Residing in the United States for the majority of their lives, Mary Colum taught literature at Columbia University beginning in 1941, while Padraic Colum served as president of the Poetry Society of America from 1938-1939 and as president of the James Joyce Society in the 1960s.

 

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Page from an early draft of Padraic Colum’s novel, The Flying Swans

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Two versions of “Briar Blossoms,” a poem by Padraic Colum.

The Colum collection contains materials that will be of interest to anyone interested in Irish literature and poetry, early twentieth century literary criticism, or the Colums themselves.  Much of Mary Colum’s correspondence is substantive and lively, and the correspondence files most notably contain more than twenty-five letters written to Mary Colum by the poet John Hall Wheelock while he was working at Scribner’s.  Series III and IV contain manuscripts and typescripts by both Mary and Padraic Colum, many of them containing handwritten marginal comments and corrections.  Series III also includes several sets of galley proofs of Mary Colum’s Life and the Dream, again often including marginal notes and corrections.  We were especially excited to uncover several boxes worth of bound notebooks containing early drafts of Padraic Colum’s The Flying Swans, various plays, and miscellaneous prose and poetry.  This material documents the writing process of both authors from original drafting through revisions and final touches.  In a few cases, different variations of a single poem can be traced from the original written form in a notebook to annotated typescript to final, published version.

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Padraic Colum’s earnings statement, 1966

Scholars and researchers not particularly interested in the Colums themselves will nonetheless find the collection of value.  As someone with an interest in the intersection of print and business history and the changing nature of authorship in the mid-20th century, I was most intrigued by the collection’s comprehensive financial and legal records covering Padraic Colum’s later decades.  While remembered as a leading poet and playwright of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Padraic Colum also found a (perhaps more reliable) source of income in his books for children.  As this earnings statement from 1966 shows, his royalties from Macmillan, the publisher of his children’s books, far outpaced his royalties from elsewhere.  He also supplemented royalties from his books with stock investments (in elevators, of all things), lecture honoraria, and the sale of some of his manuscripts to a special collections library in Binghamton.  The terms of his contracts and the respective royalties received on various works provide a detailed view of the economic realities of literary authorship in the mid- to late 20th century and the ongoing tension between the need to create literature and the need to produce for a marketplace of readers.

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