Crying in the archives

The end of semester is nigh at Sydney University. Our jacaranda is in full bloom, finding a free desk in Fisher is near impossible, and no doubt the students’ (and perhaps the staff’s) collective caffeine intake has skyrocketed. In the frantic rush to finish off assessments it can be difficult to recall our naïve enthusiasm of the beginning of semester, let alone the ghosts of semesters past. Yet as I was doing some final research for my project yesterday I was vividly reminded of one of readings from the 3000-level unit I took last semester: ‘Crying in the archives’ by Curthoys and McGrath. It provided helpful guidance on doing archival research as well as reflecting on its pleasures and challenges (hence the title). Even more than being reminded of this article, I found myself living it.
My project chronicles the history of writers at Callan Park – from poets who were patients there when it was a mental asylum, to the present activities of the New South Wales Writers’ Centre. One of my subjects is Frank Webb, a renowned Australian poet who spent several years at the asylum as well as at other psychiatric institutions. While I’d thought my research was complete, I stumbled across a catalogue listing for a package of papers donated to the State Library by a friend of Webb’s after his death. Based on the dates listed, I didn’t think it would be very relevant for my project and it got pushed to the bottom of my research list. Yesterday, motivated by my need to see another source, I finally made the trip. And what a goldmine it was! After a lengthy process that made me feel like a true scholar – obtaining the fancy gold Special Collections library card, requesting the item from a wizened librarian who recommended various others sources for me to look into, and finding a free desk in the impressive Mitchell Library, I finally opened up the file.
Among letters written from other institutions, there were two from Webb’s time at Callan Park – one photocopied but the other an original letter addressed to a friend. I knew I’d hit the jackpot with that one letter alone, but it wasn’t until I read through them all that I realised the significance of what I’d found. Biographers have described Webb’s stay at Callan Park as particularly bleak, with him composing no poetry at all in that four years. I don’t know if they’ve read these letters, but the truth of their assessment bleeds out of those pages. He writes of the Communists that supposedly surrounded him, and seems worried to the point of paranoia about rumours that were apparently spreading about him outside the asylum walls. Webb claims that his friend’s previous letter was withheld from him by a nurse, and seems to trust only one person to faithfully deliver notes to him.
In other letters he is frank (ha!) about his unhappiness, but weaves this in among relatively cheerful responses to his friend’s recent trip overseas and tales of mutual acquaintances. It is only in the Callan Park letters that you get a sense of his overwhelming despair: “I have been unable to think of writing a poem, nor ever be able again to write whilst in this Hospital.” His utter despondency brought me to tears in the middle of the library. To be fair I cried last week because I saw a happy dog, so I’m not sure I can be trusted to accurately gauge emotional impact. But holding the very pages he wrote on, seeing the shape and slant of his handwriting, and reading his words to “Dear David” was a visceral and moving experience. Curthoys and McGrath were certainly right when they described the “joy and exhilaration” of encountering personal documents in the archive.
And don’t worry – I made sure those priceless documents were safely out of the path of my tears!