Harry Mathews: man of mystery and lover of words and language

Self portrait

Self portrait

When I started working on his papers, I was not terribly familiar with Harry Mathews. What I knew was that Mathews was an author and the only American member of the French literary society, Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Oulipo) which roughly translates to “workshop of potential literature.”  Having finished the papers, I know more, although not so much as I normally do at the end of a collection.  Harry Mathews is a bit of a mystery and I think, possibly, he wants to be a mystery.

Manuscript notebook for My Life in CIA

Manuscript notebook for My Life in CIA

However, I now know that Harry Mathews (who was born in in 1930 and is best know for his books Conversions, Tlooth, Sinking of Odradek Stadium, the Journalist and My Life in CIA) loves language, words, and puzzles.  The first few boxes of materials I worked with were filled with corrected typescripts:  illuminating, I am sure, for a literary scholar, but not great for showing an author’s personality or soul.

Conversions

Not too long after, however, I hit gold with a bunch of handwritten notebooks containing drafts of Mathews’ prose and poetry.  HERE I found the real Harry Mathews–these drafts contained character names crossed out and replaced with new names, edits, word lists in the margins, drawings and sketches, etc.  Looking through these notebooks, I started to get a sense of how his impressive brain works.

Mask Process

Mask Process

I also came across an amazing document in a folder Mathews labeled “Mask Process.”  Over the years, Mathews taught a number of writing workshops and I am assuming that this exercise was part of a workshop.  He must have written it out for himself so that he could lead the workshop–it is not notes; instead it is a full narrative. In this document, Mathews describes how to prepare the mind and body for writing or getting into a creative mood.

Mask Process

Mask Process

So, while the Harry Mathews papers will probably be mostly useful to a literary scholar, it may also be useful to the frustrated creative spirit!  If you are suffering from writer’s block, come by and use the collection:  ask for box 20, folder 6 and put the “Mask Process” into practice.  If you write something brilliant, please make sure you give Harry Mathews some credit for unblocking your mind!

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