Salvaged papers shed light on Blanchot

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As a novelist, literary theorist, journalist and philosopher, Maurice Blanchot (1907–2003) had a profound impact on the thinking of dozens of philosophers, novelists, and writers. Until recently, however, it remained unclear how Blanchot’s thinking had evolved over his lifetime. A famously reclusive figure in the literary world, it was believed Blanchot had destroyed most of his personal papers before his death.

With the Houghton Library’s recent acquisition of corrected page proofs of Blanchot’s major 1969 work L’Entretien Infini (“The Infinite Conversation”), however, scholars should soon be able to shed new light on Blanchot’s changing political and literary attitudes.

The pages were salvaged from a rubbish bin by the husband of Blanchot’s long-time housekeeper, and contain numerous handwritten annotations by Blanchot, along with typewritten sheets inserted into the proofs – some of which consist of small slips taped over pages, while others are multiple pages in length.

The proofs, along with several other Blanchot manuscripts, came up for sale in March 2009. Hoping the material might find an institutional home where it could be preserved and made accessible to scholars, Smith Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and Professor of Comparative Literature Christy McDonald approached Leslie Morris, Houghton Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts with the idea of purchasing the items.

McDonald has already put the material to scholarly use, examining the pages for an article, co-authored by Morris, for “The Romance Sphere,” an online journal of Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. Written in the form of a dialog, the article traces the material’s provenance, and McDonald highlights three key changes Blanchot made to his original text.

The material is also attracting interest among scholars outside Harvard. Shortly after acquiring the proofs, Morris said, a Ph.D. candidate in the United Kingdom traveled to Houghton to examine the pages, and other researchers have studied them in Houghton’s reading room.