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 under-appreciated 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.
One selected, Special Collections 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—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 foresight 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.
The letters, notebooks, drafts, and other archival material of writers can provide invaluable insight into the creative process behind literary masterpieces. To help students and other researchers discover these materials, we have compiled introductions to many of the poets, playwrights, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers (or in some cases, a combination thereof) for whom we hold major archival collections, and/or significant holdings.