British Library Acquires Pinter Papers

December 12, 2007

Harold Pinter’s literary archive has been “saved for the nation,” the British Library announced yesterday. In a statement, the library said it had paid slightly more than $2.25-million for the collection, which contains some 150 boxes of “manuscripts, scrapbooks, letters, photographs, programmes, and e-mails” from Mr. Pinter’s storied career as a playwright, screenwriter, and poet. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2005.

Highlights of the archive include “an exceedingly perceptive and enormously affectionate run of letters from Samuel Beckett,” the library said, as well as “a charming and highly amusing exchange of letters with Philip Larkin, and a draft of Pinter’s unpublished autobiographical memoir of his youth, ‘The Queen of All the Fairies.’”

“It is thrilling for the British Library to have acquired the archive of our greatest living playwright,” Jamie Andrews, head of the library’s division of modern literary manuscripts, said in the statement.

As the phrase “saved for the nation” suggests, Britons have long bemoaned the loss of their writers’ archives to well-financed foreign institutions like the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The Ransom Center holds the papers of many notable British writers, including Julian Barnes, Samuel Beckett, Christopher Isherwood, D.H. Lawrence, and Doris Lessing, this year’s Nobel laureate in literature.

Given Mr. Pinter’s well-known antipathy toward American policy, it was never likely that he would let his papers wind up on this side of the Atlantic. Nationalism aside, the sinking dollar has made it harder for American institutions to compete for prizes like the Pinter archive. But Thomas F. Staley, director of the Ransom Center, sounded cheerfully philosophical about the Pinter news.

“It is a natural for the British Library,” he told The Chronicle. “I hope that this is an indication that the library will be funded to be able to make the commitments to support the archives of their national literature.”

Mr. Staley has a homegrown acquisition to celebrate. The Ransom Center recently announced that it had bought the papers of the American novelist Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War classic The Things They Carried. —Jennifer Howard