Samuel Beckett, modernism, and the archive

This article seeks to introduce readers of NLvT to aspects of archival methodology as a helpful tool for the study of modernist authors and the modernist movement generally. Recent developments in Beckett Studies – where drafts and notes have been made increasingly available in the wake of James Knowlson’s 1996 biography, with more to come through the Samuel Beckett Digital Manuscript Project – illustrate such utility. Genetic analysis of Play and Watt suggests that new light may be shed on core modernist features, such as radical formal experimentation and the foregrounding of fragmentariness and the non-teleological, through study of the writing process. Genetic study, which examines the process of writing and surrounding documents in their own right and not simply as stages towards a ‘final’ text, was pioneered in the late 1970s. The article surveys this field, arguing that with digitalization it can only increase in importance, to the point where future readers will routinely refer to both online manuscript versions and published text. The article concludes by citing a few examples of how archival study of modernism as a movement can also help us understand its intellectual background more fully.

Keywords: Samuel Beckett, modernism, archive, genetic criticism