“Please return this set with your corrections marked thereon”

February 22nd, 2011 by Catherine Fisher

In the process of adding to the Miriam Colwell Collection three publisher’s copies of her typewritten book manuscripts, I was drawn in by the array of red pencil marks, cryptic editorial notations, official publisher’s time stamps and layout designs scattered across the pages of these novels. Created in 1945, 1946 and 1955, the thick stacks of loose sheets are yellowed with age, dented at the edges, and rich with the behind-the-scenes story of the process of bringing manuscript to book. Wind Off the Water, Day of the Trumpet and Young take place in the Maine Colwell knows and conveys well, and the text written in the dialect of the state’s Downeast environs contrasts provocatively with the red pencil marginalia in the language of editorial mark-up. Already I’m hooked and want to make sense of each and every authoritative notation.


A peek behind the publishing curtain such as this reminds me that we have not only such a wealth of product by our authors, but that we have valuable artifacts that bring to life their process for us as well. In addition to personal items such as letters and photographs that tell us about the author’s life and character, we are also keepers of many documents that can tell us about the various steps to publishing a book, play or other literary creation. Scribbled notes with germs of ideas, first/second/third drafts with edits, publishing contracts, design layouts, documents detailing royalties and other compensation, publicity and review clippings, and correspondence between author and agent, and author and editor all can add to our experience of a published work.

Over my next few blog posts, I’d like to dig into the Collection to pull out clues as to how various authors of different eras navigated the publishing process in all of its twists and turns. Exploring Colwell’s mid-twentieth century examples seems a great way to learn about the editing end of book production at that time.

Leafing through these three different manuscripts, I begin to understand that two are at the very first stage of the publishing process, “setting copies,” they seem to be called. Both look to be the earliest copies given by the author to the publisher for typesetting, raw with pencil-sketched imaginings of the front pages, marked lightly with a copy editor’s red pencil marks. A few of the Wind Off the Water pages bear an official date and time stamp of the Stratford Press copy department on their blank verso sides. Coming across such a stamp brings us right into the flow of the process; someone hand-marked this page at that stage before sending it on to the next step in production. Another artifact from the internal workings is a letter from Ballantine Books that accompanied the return of the “setting copy” of Young to Colwell. Mostly likely, this was a welcome signal to the author that things were moving forward.

Day of the Trumpet, on the other hand, is a printer’s copy of the manuscript. Atop the first page of this version is a large block of text stamped in red. It reads, “The Haddon Craftsmen/Scranton, PA./Printer’s Proof/Please return this set with your corrections marked thereon/Sep 11 1946.” From this I learn that Random House, the publisher in New York, sent this manuscript out to Haddon Craftsmen in Pennsylvania to be typeset and perhaps printed and bound. And similarly to Wind, some pages have been officially marked “received” on the backside with a time and date stamp, this time by the printing department. Again, by each of these stamps we are brought into immediate relationship with one moment in Day of the Trumpet’s journey to publication.

The printer’s copy of Trumpet is accompanied by beautifully typeset title, dedication, contents and “Final OK Sample” chapter pages. These show just how the pages will look in the end.

I notice that a number, 32909, has been stamped in red ink or handwritten on every one of the 370 or so sheets in the stack. At first I think that Colwell’s book has been given an ID so that if a page becomes separated from the pile in the busy publishing house they can tuck it safely back in where it belongs. But then I notice that one little title page sketch for Wind Off the Water also bears the number “32909.” So, is 32909 an ID number for Colwell? Or the manufacturer’s number for the publisher? Hard to tell.

What intrigues me most, however, are the sketches for the various pieces of front matter for each book – the title, contents, dedication and copyright pages. So many of these are hand-designed and carefully colored with hand-written instructions as to typeface, size, leading, and layout. Were these pages created by Colwell herself? Or could it have been the practice of the publishing house to sketch out a design by hand in this way? The corresponding finished pages match these sketches nearly exactly. I love to imagine Colwell herself putting to paper the vision of the book as seen in her mind’s eye, and hope to ask her about these special pages one day soon.

Miriam Colwell still lives in Prospect Harbor, in the large farmhouse where she was born. I confess that my peek into the production process of her books conjured certain romantic scenarios in my mind. I couldn’t help writing my own imaginary story of a congenial working relationship between a young author and her publisher. Perhaps there were trips from the fishing village in Maine to New York to meet with editors at Random House or Ballantine, their offices high-up and well-furnished in the style of the forties and fifties. There the twenty-four year-old author would confidently express her vision for each aspect of the final product, and perhaps they would go out to lunch afterward to celebrate. At the same time, I imagined Colwell at home in Prospect Harbor, working as the youngest postmaster in the country and perhaps sharing with residents coming for their mail her updates on the publishing of her latest novel. Or rather, did she keep it low-key, between herself and her partner Chenoweth Hall, until the boxes of freshly-printed books arrived? I also saw her at home at her desk with her printer’s copy, preparing to return it to the publisher with her “corrections marked thereon,” as directed.

I’d like to know what the process was truly like for her. Was the editing helpful? Hurtful? Did she do it all by mail, or did she travel? How did she connect with the publishers in the first place? Did the books come out as she had hoped? Did she enjoy the journey of bringing these manuscripts to market as much as she enjoyed writing them?

Dear May Sarton

February 9th, 2011 by Cathleen Miller

Inspired by a researcher’s request for images of some correspondence with May Sarton, I decided to dig in a bit to our small, but significant collection of Sarton’s photographs, correspondence, poems, and books.

Dorothy Healy, who was the Maine Women Writers Collection curator, carried on a warm, yet primarily professional, correspondence with May Sarton from 1974-1985.  Many of their letters contain personal updates, but most of them focus on Sarton’s presentations at Westbrook College.  One letter, early in their correspondence, jumped out at me as I leafed through the folder of letters and cards because of the intensely personal information that Dorothy Healy shared with May Sarton.

The letter begins with a flattering paragraph about Sarton’s appearance on “‘the Today Show” that morning, but quickly moves to an apology for the two month lapse in her response to an earlier letter.   Dorothy writes, “I am not usually this tardy in my correspondence, but I have been slowed down by a great personal tragedy in our family.  On March 19th our youngest child (we have two sons and a daughter) took his own life.  Tom, who had just turned 26, had been living in San Francisco, painting and writing and trying to find his way in this world which was so alien to him…. My heart aches and I know now that the grief will always be there, rising to the surface of my mind whenever I am not occupied….I am writing you all this because you are a poet and because I want to tell you how much ‘What the Old Man Said–‘ in your reading this morning touched me.  I wished too that Tom ‘did not despair’ but the young are so vulnerable.”

I am struck by the way that Dorothy chose to reveal herself to Sarton.  They had exchanged a few letters prior, but were nearly unknown to one another.  Later, of course, Dorothy Healy became a friend of May Sarton’s and brought her to Westbrook College many times, hosting dinners at her house and introducing Sarton to all of the brightest people she knew at Westbrook.

Many others were moved in the same way by Sarton’s work to reveal themselves and to reach out to a woman who had a reputation for enjoying her solitude.  As I think about Sarton’s journals, and how bold they were for their time, I see her as one of our most compelling modern memoirists.  She put her life out there for others, revealing her private thoughts and fears, and her audience responded enthusiastically.

Consider this selection from Journal of a Solitude:  “February 9th…And it is the same inside me–violent mood-swings.  … I feel myself sucked down into the quicksand that isolation sometimes creates, a sense of drowning, of being literally engulfed.  When it comes to the important things one is always alone, and it may be that the virtue or possible insight I get from being so obviously alone–being physically and in every way absolutely alone much of the time–is a way into the universal state of man.  The way in which one handles this absolute aloneness is the way in which one grows up …. At what price would total independence be bought?”  To write these words, to admit despair and moodiness, was a brave act for a woman in the early seventies.  I think that Sarton’s journals spoke to so many people who were not able to voice these feelings themselves.

Certainly, Dorothy Healy’s private grief was kept largely to herself.  She was known around Westbrook as a woman who would make you feel utterly at home and welcome; a woman who was charming, strong, and brilliant; a woman who did not let people know about her own illness until she could no longer hide it.  I read her letter to Sarton after the tragic death of her son and was amazed at how quickly she moved back into her role as lover of literature, curator of a literary collection, and supporter of women writers.  In the end, I found myself feeling sadness for Dorothy that she did not get a longer response from Sarton to such a private and heartfelt letter.  Sarton’s response was not unkind, and acknowledged Dorothy’s loss, but ended in an apologetic rush to move on to the next project for the day.  Their correspondence becomes warm and friendly over the years, offering evidence of how years deepen connections.

Also included in the Sarton papers are drafts of poems; photo albums from Sarton’s youth through her old age; and thousands of books from her library, many of which include inserted letters, clippings, and other memorabilia.  You can find out more about this collection in the finding aid on our featured writers page.