(Originally posted on web: 10/07/2012)
Back in 1949 Eudora Welty wrote an essay entitled The Reading and Writing of Short Stories which, split into two pieces, appeared in the February and March issues of The Atlantic Monthly. I had come across the fact of its existence in Charles E. May’s book, New Short Story Theories. For someone like me, who is almost as addicted to writings about short stories as I am to short stories themselves, and who admires Welty as a short story writer, adding this article to my collection was a necessity. It did appear in an earlier edition of May‘s book, but I had the desire to hunt down the real thing. Therefore, one day, when I had been at the local university collecting papers for my real job, I sought out the shelves containing The Atlantic Monthly too. I eagerly withdrew the volume containing Welty’s article and flipped the pages until I found fifty three. Her essay was to begin on page fifty four, but that page had some sort of advertisement on it. I flipped back and forth, rechecked volume and page number, but to no avail – no Welty. I then took the time to look more closely. What was supposed to be page fifty four was really page fifty nine. I pressed opened the volume further and only then I could see the ragged line left by the paper as the article had been torn away. I withdrew the March volume. Same thing. Page forty five went straight to page fifty. I stood there, incredulous for a moment or two. One thought, among the many that went through my head and is actually printable was, why didn’t the idiot, if he wanted the original so badly, if it meant that much to him, at least have the foresight to bring a razor blade? Why risk ripping it to pieces?
Who would do such a thing? The obvious suspects were either a professor or student in the English department. Aside from the fact that this was a university library, they, almost exclusively, would believe it worth anything. Whoever it was though, had caved into the very vice that we adults endlessly scold children about: the temptation to posses rather than share. I don’t know why, I have no evidence, but I suspect this happened years ago. Welty had not produced much for many years prior to her death in 2001 and her Pulitzer had been awarded in 1973. I envision the purloined pages themselves resting, perhaps even forgotten, in some manila folder inside a stuffed filing cabinet, or box. A buried treasure perhaps to be found, years from now, by someone who won‘t recognize them for what they are and consign them to the trash, and from there to be finally and truly buried.
When I was a physics student I always loved that I could go to the library and search back into the past history of physics. More than once I sought out old papers, not just out of necessity, but for pleasure. What physicist wouldn’t want to see an original paper with the name A. Einstein at the top, even though he couldn’t read the German? Seeing them made the past, the history, the enterprise, more palpable – the real thing has a value beyond the mere content. Why else do people go to the art museum? But like the art lover who steals a painting, the thief can only view his treasure in private. Even for him the value has diminished.
As for me, plan B had to suffice. In a funk, I searched and found the earlier edition of May’s book and copied the article from there. But it was far from the same. In some way the character had been diminished. It was in fact, just words on paper.