How Janet Malcolm Created Her Own Personal Archive

From The Literary Hub:

Stepping into Janet Malcolm’s home overlooking Gramercy Park was like entering an alternate version of New York City, the kind one might have read about in a childhood chapter book. The ceilings were double height, the lighting was warm and soft. The art adorning the walls was attractive, but the pièce de rèsistance was Malcolm’s library.

Books covered the walls of her soaring living room, with a wooden ladder tucked in the corner to offer easy access. The collection was organized by genre: photography, biography, criticism. Books by friends got their own shelf by the door, perhaps to ensure that good company was never far beyond reach.

This was where Malcolm and I met for the first time when, in the waning days of the summer of 2019, she invited me over for tea. I had just completed my own research project on her life and work. Surrounded by  Malcolm’s home library, we discussed my time in her papers.

At one point, Malcolm got up to grab a photograph of her elementary school class at the top of the Empire State Building. She had been telling me about a series of essays she was starting to tinker with, short reflections on old pictures. She was not sure what she wanted to do with them but her editor thought they would make a good collection. In this photograph, the children of P.S. 82 were smiley and windswept, no older than nine or ten. She asked me if I could pick her out of the lineup. Of course I could: small frame, unmistakable grin, third from the left in the front. This is the kind of intimacy built by time spent in an archive.

. . . .

Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory, Malcolm’s final book-length work, which was published posthumously in January 2023. On the surface, these essays are a radical departure from everything else Malcolm wrote over the course of her career: they concern people, places, and items that populated her younger life, rather than subjects from which she could purport to maintain some degree of journalistic remove.

But the choice to root her recollections in printed images was a calculated one. By starting with her own archive, Malcolm created the opportunity to write from a vantage point more akin to that of her earlier work, to keep her readers ever at arm’s length.

These essays are a radical departure from everything else Malcolm wrote over the course of her career: they concern people, places, and items that populated her younger life.

Prior to her death at 86 in 2021, Malcolm had long been a towering figure in American journalism. She had earned a reputation for penning biting criticism and novelistic reporting. Whole issues of the New Yorker were devoted to her deep dives. But despite her robust literary credentials, she was wary of becoming a celebrity in her own right. For much of her storied career, Malcolm seemed to shun any work that might resemble autobiography, or really expose her true self to her audience at all.

After Jeffrey Masson, Sanskrit scholar, psychoanalyst, and the subject of In the Freud Archives, sued Malcolm for libel in 1984, tarnishing her image even though she won the suit, she retreated almost entirely from the public eye. She did not pose for photos. She hardly ever made appearances: for a rare public event in the spring of 2012, she insisted on reading aloud from a pre-written and edited script rather than speak off-the-cuff. She postured in her writing as someone terrifyingly and unapproachably sharp, never missing an opportunity to remind her readers of “the fiction—on which all autobiographical writing is poised—that the person writing and the person being written about are a single seamless entity.”

Her work over the final decade of her life, though, tells a different story. In 2010, she published her first piece hinting at a change of heart, a short essay for the New York Review of Books titled “Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography.” At the time, any intimation of a memoir in the works would have taken devoted readers by surprise. There, she’d remarked, “I cannot write about myself as I write about the people I have written about as a journalist. [These people] have posed for me and I have drawn their portraits. No one is dictating to me or posing for me now.” But in the years following the publication of this essay she did find a way to write about herself more directly. The people smiling at the camera in her personal photographs became the ones sitting for her last set of portraits.

It’s hardly coincidental that Malcolm was organizing her own archive around the same time that she began to explore writing about her life. In 2013, she sent her first shipment—59 boxes of assorted detritus—up to New Haven, where they would live at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. To say that Malcolm organized her papers would be a stretch. In some cases, she simply emptied the contents of her filing cabinets into cardboard boxes. But elsewhere, she annotated letters and folders, leaving easter eggs and reminders for any future researcher that she was thinking carefully about what to include in her archive and, more importantly, what to leave out.

In 2020, she sent a second installment of materials, bringing the total number of boxes in her archive to around a hundred. This project punctuated the final decade of her career. As she built this collection during these years, her aversion to writing about herself, or engaging with her own legacy at all, slowly gave way to something closer to ambivalence.It’s hardly coincidental that Malcolm was organizing her own archive around the same time that she began to explore writing about her life.

Malcolm published the first of what would become the Still Pictures essays, “Six Glimpses of the Past,” in the New Yorker in the fall of 2018. A sequence of short reflections on family photos, the piece began with a snapshot of the writer as a little girl wearing t-strap sandals and a polka-dotted bucket hat and beaming at someone beyond the frame. But Malcolm was careful to remind her readers that just because she was sharing this photograph didn’t mean she was getting personal.

Regarding the picture, Malcolm wrote, “I say ‘my’ age, but I don’t think of the child as me. No feeling of identification stirs as I look at her round face and thin arms and her incongruously assertive pose.” The little girl posing in the picture and the woman writing about her were hardly the same person at all. This was the same perspective she employed to write about a family therapy session from the other side of a one-way mirror, or Sylvia Plath through five other biographies of her, only this time there was no denying that she was much closer to the content. The material was brand new, and the perspective was quintessentially Malcolm.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub