Undergraduate mines Yale archives for insight into journalist Janet Malcolm

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Journalist Janet Malcolm wrote an email in March 2004 to scholars Ulla Dydo, Edward Burns, and William Rice recounting a recent trip to Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where she was exploring the archives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.

Malcolm, who was working on a book about the famous couple, mentioned that she had examined Stein’s notebooks, including “a large notebook in which she wrote (in ink) her first beginning of “The Making of Americans,” the pioneering modernist’s vast and challenging 1925 novel.

It’s an amazing experience,” Malcolm wrote to the three scholars, who were sources for her book “Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice,” which was published in 2007 by Yale University Press.

Today, Malcolm’s archives reside at the Beinecke Library, which acquired them in 2013. Her papers provided the basis for “The Courtroom, The Couch, and The Archive: Janet Malcolm’s Journalism,” a new exhibit on view at Sterling Memorial Library through Oct. 6. Eve Sneider ’19 curated the exhibit, which occupies five cases in the library’s Lawrence Exhibit Corridor.

Malcolm, a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1963 and author of a dozen books, was the subject of Sneider’s senior essay for the Department of American Studies.

Sneider said she was thinking of potential thesis subjects at the end of last school year when Nancy Kuhl, the curator of poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature, mentioned to her that Malcolm’s archives are housed at the library.

I thought it would be cool to work with papers that live at Yale,” Sneider said, adding that several of her professors had suggested she read Malcolm’s work. “I’m interested in journalism and non-fiction writing, and she wrote a lot about psychoanalysis, which has always been a pet fascination of mine.”

The project took a “tidy” path from idea to thesis to exhibit, she explained.

Last fall, she took “Poetry and Objects,” a course taught by Karin Roffman, a lecturer in the Department of English and Sneider’s thesis adviser. The class, which met alternately at the Beinecke Library and the Yale University Art Gallery, helped Sneider to appreciate the physical experience of working with archives and museum objects. She learned of the Yale Library’s senior-exhibit program, which gives undergraduates the opportunity to plan and mount a professional-quality exhibit based on their senior-essay research using materials from the library’s collections. It seemed like a natural extension of her thesis and a good opportunity to comb through a famous journalist’s papers, Sneider said.

The research process was really fun. Whenever it started to get monotonous, I would discover something that was completely unexpected,” she said. “It definitely required a willingness to get a little lost, but it was such a treat. The Beinecke is incredible.”

The exhibit’s title references three spaces that have provided forums for Malcolm’s work: the courthouse, the psychoanalyst’s office, and the archives of prominent people.

Those are what I view as the three main spaces Malcolm is interested in,” she said. “All three are spaces where one person is telling a story for someone else: In a courtroom, a lawyer is telling a story for their client; in a psychoanalyst’s office, the psychoanalyst is trying to create meaning out of their patient’s observations; and in an archive, the biographer is trying to craft a streamlined narrative out of a mass of their subject’s papers.”

The exhibit opens with items from Malcolm’s youth and early career. She was born Jana Wienerova in Prague in 1934 and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was five. She attended the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan and the University of Michigan, where she edited The Gargoyle, the campus’ humor magazine. Her college transcript is displayed along with a page from an issue of The Gargoyle that parodied The New Yorker.

A black-and-white photograph shows Malcolm standing on a rooftop the summer before she went to college. The photo accompanied a note that Malcolm had received from a high-school friend. Sneider said she discovered both in a folder labeled “unanswered mail.” (Items on view are facsimiles of materials from the Beinecke Library and the Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department.)

The “courtroom” section covers Malcolm’s landmark 1990 book, “The Journalist and the Murderer,” which explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It recounts the story of journalist Joe McGinniss, who was sued by Jeffrey MacDonald, the subject of the writer’s 1983 true-crime bestseller, “Fatal Vision.” The two men had become close while McGinniss wrote the book, which MacDonald expected would vindicate him of killing his family. MacDonald was shocked when the book portrayed him as a murderous sociopath, and he sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract. (The case was settled out of court in 1987.)

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” Malcolm’s book famously begins.

(When the book came out, Malcolm was involved in a lawsuit with a former subject, who had accused her of fabricating quotes that cast him in a negative light. She eventually won the case.) 

The exhibit includes Malcolm’s typed notes from her initial encounter with MacDonald at Federal Correctional Institution, Terminal Island, a prison located at the entrance of Los Angeles Harbor.

A copy of “The Journalist and the Murderer,” displayed alongside a page of of her notes from her research for the book.
A copy of “The Journalist and the Murderer,” Malcolm’s 1990 examination of journalistic ethics is displayed alongside a page of of her notes from her research for the book.

MacDonald was wearing a light blue short-sleeved cotton jump suit. Like a surgeon’s costume,” Malcolm wrote. “He’s very poised. He goodhumoredly suffered the handcuffs being taken off him — the handcuffs are put on between the cell and visiting room.” 

A page from a handwritten letter from MacDonald to Malcolm on the differences between fiction and nonfiction is on view with an unfinished and unsent letter from Malcolm to the convicted murderer.

I have finished and turned in my article,” she wrote in the abandoned letter, which is dated Jan. 13, 1989. “It will probably not appear for a few months. I don’t know if you will like it, hate it, or something in between.”

The next section of the exhibit, “The Couch,” examines Malcolm’s writing on psychoanalysis — a subject she has tackled often during her career. “The One-Way-Mirror,” her first deeply reported article for The New Yorker, concerned psychiatrist and analyst Salvador Minuchin and his family therapy practice in Philadelphia. In reporting the piece, which was published in 1978, Malcolm shadowed Minuchin and spent eight weeks observing the Brauns, a family in treatment, from behind a one-way mirror, according to the exhibit text.

In typed notes on display from her first visit to the clinic, Malcolm describes the clinic’s building as featuring “an atrium with large, healthy citrus trees,” and “cheerful modern rooms.”

We looked into various one-way mirror rooms,” she wrote. “In one a woman — who was staying there with her children — they have two suites where families stay — was folding childrens (sic) clothes. We could see her but she could not see us.”

The section on “The Archive” tracks the reporter’s research on Stein and Toklas. (Malcolm has also written books on Sylvia Plath and Anton Chekhov.) Items on display offer insight into Malcolm’s writing process and provide evidence of the self-doubt that can plague the writing life. 

How in the hell am I to write this book?” she jotted on a yellow Post It note attached to a photocopy of a page from another Stein scholar’s diary.  

There are mementos of her research trips to the Beinecke, including a Metro North train schedule, a call slip for a folder from the Stein papers, and a photocopy request form.

It was funny to put in a photo duplication request for her photo duplication request,” Sneider said.

The exhibit’s final section is drawn from Sneider’s experience working in Malcolm’s archive, which consists of 59 boxes of materials. Since Malcolm continues to write, her archive likely will not be fully catalogued for years, the exhibit text notes. As such, Sneider’s research involved a lot of digging and resulted in some fascinating discoveries, she said.

I really found myself looking for moments when you can see her mind at work,” Sneider said, pointing to an otherwise clean sheet on which Malcolm had repeatedly scrawled her name as though practicing her signature. 

Sneider found evidence of Malcolm preparing her archives — in a sense crafting her own narrative. An undated letter to the novelist Philip Roth, a one-time friend, bears a 2012 postscript from Malcolm.

What a ridiculous letter!” she wrote in pencil. “The man gives nothing. (Yes, except to literature.) He is completely selfish and manipulative. How taken in I was.”

Some of the most disorganized boxes yielded the most interesting discoveries, said Sneider.

I found her Czech birth certificate and certificate of American citizenship in a little envelope tied with a little ribbon in the middle of a box stuffed full of miscellaneous materials,” she said.

Sneider thanked Kuhl, Roffman, and Kerri Sancomb, the library’s exhibits production manager and coordinator of the student-exhibit program, for helping her translate her ideas into a visually appealing display.

Everyone was so helpful and their support meant so much to the project,” she said.