Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Gravity's Rainbow Archive Screams Across The Sky

by Stephen J. Gertz

A screaming comes across the sky.
- Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow.
The most demanding novel anyone has ever written… [and] the most important work of fiction yet produced by any living writer - Bruce Allen, Library Journal, March 1, 1973.

A small archive of correspondence between novelist Thomas Pynchon and Bruce Allen, whose review of Gravity's Rainbow in the March 1, 1973 issue of Library Journal emitted the sparks to Pynchon's genius that would ignite an incandescent shower of praise, has come to market.

The archive includes a 200-word signed typed letter (carbon) from Allen to Pynchon effusively praising Gravity's Rainbow and referring him to Allen's review.

Two additional carbons of letters to Pynchon from Allen, dated late 1975 and mid- 1976 are included, as well as Allen's heavily annotated proof copy of Gravity's Rainbow used for his review and his copy of the book's first edition.

The centerpiece of the archive is Pynchon's 260-word response to Allen's initial letter on the author’s trademark graph paper, dated March 25, 1973, along with its envelope.

Pynchon acknowledges Allen’s praise gratefully (“Thank you for that really extravagant review of Gravity’s Rainbow. It was a good ego trip for me, and I guess it must’ve cheered up Viking’s advertising people too”). He goes on to agree, in principle, with Allen’s point that at $15 the hardcover is expensive (“...my feeling was that the whole fucking thing ought to be paperback”) and suggests Allen take it up with Viking, although he feels that Viking wasn’t as able to subsidize a project like Gravity’s Rainbow, as easily as say, Random House would have (“...to be fair, Viking is trying to survive as a smaller independent publisher...and it costs them more to put out a book than the biggies like Random House...Thanks for caring enough to write to Viking, anyhow”).

Then, forty years before the publishing world would be fractured by the rise of digital technology, Pynchon writes of the current state of publishing and the writer's place at the shallow end of the income stream.

"But till writers get their own publishing and distribution operation together, this 19th century dispensation wherein the Man gets to make off with 85-95% of the writer's earnings will go on prevailing, and all the talk is sort of academic.

The letter also provides a glimpse of the author’s thoughts on his place in the literary continuum at a critical juncture in his career and in the publishing industry. "If the book sells lousy they'll call it Viking's Folly, and if it sells good it will be a great enlightened Watershed In Publishing History or something…if anybody can predict…"

Pynchon manuscript and autograph material is legendarily scarce. According to ABPC, the only such Pynchon material to yet come to auction was a one-page signed letter dated 1981 refusing permission to write about and anthologize some of his early stories. It sold at Swann Galleries for $12,000 on April 23, 2009. The cache under notice, however, is a much more important and significant catch, offered by Glenn Horowitz Bookseller.

V., Pynchon's 1963 debut novel, showed things to come. George Plimpton, reviewing it in the New York Times declared Pynchon "a young writer of staggering promise."  The Crying of Lot 49, his 1966 short novel, received decent notices but was, as far as Pynchon was concerned, a failure. Ten years after V., Gravity's Rainbow delivered on the promise, elevating Pynchon to the modern pantheon of novelists.

Above, something you scarcely, if ever, see: the highly private and reclusive Pynchon's autograph signature, the earliest dated yet to appear in the market, as far as I've been able to determine. It closes his last paragraph, which ends with a four-word summary that is almost cosmically amusing in retrospect:

“We’ll see what happens.”

All images courtesy of Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, with our thanks.

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