My mother, Blanche Chenery Perrin, was a moderately successful writer. It's what I am, too. So's my older daughter. Runs in the family.
After a very late start -- my mother was 56 when her first book came out -- she got seven books published. One of her young adult novels, Born to Race, did well enough to be translated into French and to stay in print in the United States for 26 years. But none is in print now.
About three weeks after her death, I received an unexpected letter. It came from an acquisitions librarian at the University of Oregon, a man named Bob. "Dear Noel," he wrote. "I wonder if you have given any thought as to where to place your mother's papers. She made a significant contribution to American literature, and we would be glad to add them to our manuscript collection. Cordially, Bob," he signed it.
Clearly here was a man who kept up with obituaries. My mother's had mentioned that she'd published a number of books, several of them set in the world of horse racing. It said nothing about her being a significant contributor to American literature, which she was not. She would have been the first to scoff at such a claim.
As it happened, I had been giving thought to -- not her papers exactly, because "papers" were not yet a concept I had -- but to the sizable quantity of unpublished work she left behind.
One book-length manuscript was a biography of Capt. Sally Tompkins, a 19th-century relative of my mother's, and a Civil War vet. A decidedly unusual Civil War vet. Capt. Tompkins was the only woman to hold a commission in either Civil War army, the Confederate or the Union.
It came about thus. Soon after the war began, Miss Sally Tompkins, age 30 and well-to-do, opened a private hospital in Richmond, where she cared for sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. The Confederate bureaucracy was on the point of closing it. They felt that all soldiers should be treated in official military hospitals, even though Sally Tompkins's hospital had a higher recovery rate than any of the army ones.
At the last minute Jefferson Davis intervened. With a stroke of his pen President Davis made her official. He commissioned her a captain of cavalry, CSA.
Why cavalry? I mustn't digress too far, but the reason is worth learning. Confederate cavalry officers got higher pay than other officers of the same rank -- sort of like the flight pay that present-day Air Force pilots get. It was Davis's way of giving a little bit of government funding to the hospital. Capt. Tompkins did not, however, draw one cent of the pay to which she was now entitled. "I accepted the above commission," she wrote in a note that survives. "But I would not allow my name to be placed upon the pay roll of the army."
The second manuscript was a memoir of my mother's poverty-stricken childhood in Virginia nearly a century ago, at a time when very few Southerners were declining to accept whatever meager pay they earned. And the third, very thick, was her most ambitious adult novel. The three of them made a hefty stack.
What to do with these poor orphans? They weren't unpublished for lack of trying. The book she called "Captain Sally" was a noble failure for two reasons. First, there just wasn't enough material. If Sally left a trove of papers, my mother couldn't find it. Second, the book lacked even the slightest love interest. No handsome wounded major won Sally's heart, nor, more dramatically, did any dashing private from Alabama arrive for whose love she might be tempted to cross Southern class lines. My mother, who had a passion for truth, wasn't about to invent romantic episodes.
As for the ambitious novel, it had been rejected by 14 publishers, as I knew from one of the thick folders of correspondence I found in her workroom. The memoir? Too honest about the behavior and beliefs of both blacks and whites in rural Virginia in the early years of this century.
It seemed heartless just to throw out a thousand pages of manuscript, the work of a decade. And it seemed pointless to rescue them if "rescue" meant no more than my taking them home and putting them in a drawer in my workroom, right on top of my own pile of rejects. But until Bob's letter came, I hadn't perceived that there was any third option.
Bob's letter was thus wonderfully welcome. What a happy thought! I could give my mother's poor rejects a lasting, almost an eternal home in the Special Collections division of a university library. The perfect solution.
But I didn't immediately pack everything up and send it off to Oregon. The more I considered, the less I thought it would be my mother's first choice. Though she married a Yankee, and though she lived most of her adult life in New York and its suburbs, my mother remained intensely Virginian, even parochially so. I never heard her speak of Oregon at all, but I often did hear her jeer at California, where she thought both people and plants grew too large. Another objection: I also thought that if she could read Bob's letter, she would be put off by the perky signature.
What would really please her, I decided, would be to have her papers sent down to her native state, where her ashes already were. (In a churchyard in Hanover County, next to my father's ashes.) Bob's letter might just make this possible. Competition excites almost everybody: basketball coaches out recruiting, car dealers dropping price because the customer already has a great offer from Honda, librarians busy acquiring.
My mother had gone for two years to Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va. I wrote to its librarian, offering her my mother's papers, and enclosing a copy of Bob's letter as bait. Bob himself I didn't answer at all. Rude, yes, but I wanted to keep him in reserve in case Randolph-Macon sensibly declined.
Randolph-Macon did decline. I got a very nice letter from the librarian, saying she must regretfully refuse, because they did not have either a manuscript collection or a curator. What they did have, she said, was a collection of books by Virginia women, and they lacked two of my mother's. Could I supply them? You bet. I mailed them the next day.
A few days later I got a follow-up letter from Bob, urging prompt action. But I still didn't answer, though still keeping him in reserve. I had decided to try what some Virginians still call "The University" -- the one of Virginia, that is. By now I was well aware that The University has the papers of lots of people who actually did make a significant contribution to American literature. Faulkner, for example. Even with Bob for bait, I was quite prepared to be rejected.
But I wasn't. Edmund Berkeley of the Alderman Library at The University wrote me a cheerful note, saying to send the manuscripts along. I joyfully did.
And then I was astonishingly rude, at least for someone who is half-Virginian. I finally wrote to Bob. I thanked him effusively for his offer but said her papers were going to her native state, to the University of Virginia. It would never have occurred to me to place them in a library, I told Bob, without his wonderful letter; the happy ending was entirely due to him. As the Yankee half of me well knows, rubbing it in.
There is one more thing to add. My mother died and her papers went to The University over 20 years ago. How many people have consulted them since? None at all. Not one graduate student in search of a thesis topic. Not even a racing reporter, drawn by the fact that the stud farm in Born to Race was based on the real one owned by her brother, Christopher Tompkins Chenery; he bred Secretariat there.
Oh, well. The library of Dartmouth College has had some of my papers for a decade. Exactly one outside researcher has looked at them. Maybe my daughter, who writes science fiction, will be the one whose papers get consulted. Maybe my mother and I will do better in the next millennium. But I wouldn't bet the farm on it.
Noel Perrin is the author of numerous books, among them "Second Person Rural." He lives on a farm in New Hampshire.