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History in Print: Harriet Walden and the New Yorker Records

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Harriet Walden may not be a household name. But for forty years she was, as former New Yorker magazine fiction editor William Maxwell wrote in a letter bemoaning her retirement, "the pin that [kept] the wheel attached to the axle" in her role as secretary and office manager at the New Yorker magazine.

Walden joined the New Yorker in 1944, as secretary to the magazine's infamous editor and founder, Harold Ross. She was replacing her husband William who went abroad to fight in the Second World War. She remained there until 1985. For thirty of these years she was the secretary to writer E. B. White and editor Katharine Sergeant White, who were married and often worked remotely from their farm in Blue Hill, Maine.

The Manuscripts and Archives Division was fortunate enough to acquire the Harriet Walden papers, which document her time at the New Yorker. Walden was adroit in administrative matters, and it was through her hands that a sizable portion of the magazine's records must have passed. It is worthwhile then to take a moment and reflect on what her papers tell us about the history of the New Yorker records and how they can be better used by researchers.

The New Yorker originally stored its old files in the basement of its offices on West 43rd Street. The basement was referred to as the "furnace room" by staff members, which gives some sense of what the environs were like in that subterranean netherworld. While many editorial and administrative staff members kept more current records in their offices, older files would inevitably be relegated to the basement. In 1970, Katharine White wrote to Walden that she had finalized the donation of her own papers to her alma mater Bryn Mawr College. With the future of her papers settled, White turned her attentions to the fate of the magazine's records, writing:

[S]ome day the scholars will be writing really good biographies of Ross, Thurber, White, et al plus histories of the New Yorker itself. I am absolutely shocked that the magazine hasn't even yet decided a repository library for its fascinating files. It was one of Ross's dearest projects but he didn't live to see it through.

Many editors and writers for the magazine never visited this literary morgue. In a 1972 letter from E. B. White to Walden, White writes, "I've never seen the basement of the New Yorker, but... it must be fun down there... You have been very kind to me, excavating all that strange and ghostly material." This excavation was orchestrated as E. B. White was compiling his letters for publication. While the records had been occasionally accessed - some files had been culled four years earlier for White's biographer Scott Elledge - for the most part they remained untouched.

Walden sent seven packets of letters to E. B. White, each with a small memorandum attached that listed where the letters had been found. These notes give an interesting peek into where the records were stored and how they were used. In four packets of letters between E. B. White and Ross, Walden found files in the 'Ross cabinets' in the office of editorial assistant Louis Forster; in a locked four-drawer cabinet in Room B in the basement; in the seven Ross boxes found near the ceiling in Room A, also in the basement; and from files simply called 'the Ross files', location unspecified. 

Of the two packets of staff communications, one packet was found in 'JAM's room' (John Angus McPhee perhaps) with a note that they were removed from the basement by business manager Harding Mason. The other packet was culled from the general editorial correspondence cabinets in the aforementioned basement Room A. Lastly, the seventh packet was from the files of Daise Terry, the Whites' former secretary.

These notes illustrate one important fact about the New Yorker records - a researcher interested in using the records to research a particular author should be prepared to look in more than one place in the collection. It is tempting to limit one's research to the general editorial correspondence. This series (Series III: Editorial Correspondence) does contain the bulk of material regarding authors, especially if researchers are limiting their examination of the finding aid to a keyword search. Following Walden's path in tracking down E. B. White's correspondence demonstrates that correspondence from (and memoranda about) an author can also be found in the files of various editors and administrators.

In 1972, Katharine White wrote Walden congratulating her on the task of so thoroughly compiling the letters for E. B. White and the second task of getting Milton Greenstein, the vice-president of the magazine, down to the basement. White writes:

Hurrah for you! If you got Milton into that basement and made him realize what the crumbling papers meant to us all, you are my heroine of the decade...Those files are so valuable for literary history, and to so many hundreds of people, that the New Yorker should rent a whole new floor if necessary in which to house them... Another solution would be to give the files to a University Library but this would mean they would have to be read first — and by whom?

Since the library acquired the New Yorker records in 1991, the strange and ghostly files of Ross, Thurber, White, et al were processed by archivists in the Manuscripts and Archives Division and then opened to the public. Researchers who are interested in using the records are encouraged to examine the finding aid, but they may also wish to take a page from Walden and go a bit deeper into the records.

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