Into the Archive

The published literature of anarchism is dauntingly large, and spread over a range of languages that few of us are comfortable in. Still, we chip away at the project of preserving, digitizing, translating and analyzing that literature, with a degree of success that is certainly heartening. Of course, the published literature of anarchism is far from the only body of work we have to deal with, and the recent digitization of a number of key anarchist archives has made it possible for many of us to delve directly into various manuscript collections without scraping together the funds for travel. Just as the general trend towards digital libraries has made a substantially deeper sort of research possible, even for those without a great deal of institutional access to information, these new initiatives open the way for individuals with not much more than time, curiosity and an internet connection to engage with the work of some of the major figures in our tradition in a remarkably intimate manner. In some cases, in fact, uneven progress in digitization and the scarcity of print resources means that the most accessible versions of some important texts are the handwritten manuscripts. But there are also whole books that never made it into print, and mountains of works in various stages of completion that contain real gems of anarchist thought.

Working on projects like the Bakunin Library and Proudhon Library, on book projects like Anarchies and Anarchisms and Anarchy and the Sex Question, and most recently while exploring Max Nettlau’s writings on anarchist strategy, I’ve benefited enormously from being able to access unpublished manuscript writings. As a translator, the only thing better than making a text available in English for the first time is to also be able to make it available in print form for the first time. But learning to use these newly digitized archives has required mastering a whole new set of skills, and their availability has rather dramatically raised the bar for basic research. In the case of Proudhon, for example, the digitization of the manuscript writings has made it impossible, or at least irresponsible, to simply speculate about the content and importance of certain writings, or about the fidelity of certain posthumous publications, since anyone who cares to check the relevant sources can now simply do so. It will take some time for enough people to take advantage of the Proudhon manuscripts for the basic narrative to change, but it seems inevitable that in some not too far-off time our shared understanding of his work will indeed shift and expand. Fortunately, in the case of Proudhon, there are really only a few key works that have been out of the reach of curious scholars—provided they read, or are willing to learn to read, French. There are, however, other cases where the number of manuscript writings, as compared to published writings, is much more substantial, and where our understanding of the individual writers is naturally much less complete.

Louise Michel is a prime example of a prominent figure in anarchist history whose work remains largely unknown in the English-speaking parts of the movement, in part because of lack of translation, but also because a very large number of her writings were never published in the first place. I have done a fair amount of research on Michel’s writings, and a number of translations, but when I first looked at the listings for the Louise Michel Papers at IISH I was surprised to find just how many manuscript writings exist that are barely even cataloged. There are hundreds of files, containing one or more texts, in various stages of completion, of lengths ranging from tiny fragments to works of substantial length. There have been some wonderful projects collecting some of the most interesting of these in print in French, but this is not a case, as with Proudhon, where a day’s work will at least give a researcher a good idea of what they have not seen. Nor is it even a case, as with the extensive Bakunin manuscripts, a case where there is at least a fairly complete listing of titles or first lines. Instead, we find nearly 150 files described simply as “Documents variés,” and a lot more with descriptions that are not a great deal clearer. In order to have a clear sense of Michel’s output, there is really little to do but wade in.

Fortunately, Louise Michel was a fascinating and often fine writer, even when she wrote under conditions, such as long stretches of exile and imprisonment, that did not lend themselves to careful editing, so the thought of simply picking a file and getting started inspires equal parts dread and excitement. In the end, I would like to at least have the necessary understanding to perhaps do a bit more ambitious work on Michel, down the road, when some other projects are completed, and there really isn’t any way to prepare for that but to start browsing through the archive. So my goal here is to document my explorations, and probably post the occasional transcription or translation. The posts will be a mix of bibliographical research, scholarly travelogue and text archiving. Progress will necessarily be slow and probably a bit haphazard. But hopefully the result will be a resource that others can use to reduce the difficulties of getting started with Louise Michel’s work.

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