For more than 20 years, the small Western Massachusetts-based publisher Paris Press worked diligently to publish groundbreaking but overlooked literature by women, and to educate the public about that literature. The press as it once existed is now gone, but its mission to educate continues at Amherst College.
Early this year, the College’s Archives and Special Collections purchased some 80 boxes of manuscripts, correspondence and other documents spanning the life of the press.
According to Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections, this represents an exciting development in terms of teaching and diversity.
“In one fell swoop, we now have much more representation of women authors in the Archives than we’ve ever had before,” he says. “Part of our mission is to make the Archives, the contents of the Archives, reflect the diversity of the student body and faculty.”
“We’re always looking for ways that we can expand and build on the strengths we already have,” he says. Before acquiring the Paris Press documents, the Archives already held materials from other small presses, and manuscripts by many poets, including Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur ’42.
Earlier this year, Jan Freeman, founding director of Paris Press, announced that the Ashfield-based publisher was ceasing its current operation and would be taken over as an imprint of Wesleyan University Press, which has agreed to keep Paris’ 16 titles in print for the next decade.
Freeman started Paris Press in 1995 with the express purpose of reviving Muriel Rukeyser’s 1949 book The Life of Poetry, a meditation on the interconnected nature of poetry and other disciplines. The beloved volume had previously been out of print for years.
Over the next two decades, Freeman, with the assistance of interns from the community and the Five Colleges and the support of private and public foundations, published 15 more titles.
Most notably for Amherst, in 1998 Paris Press published Open Me Carefully, a selection of Dickinson’s letters to her neighbor and sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Dickinson, with commentary from editors Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith.
The Open Me Carefully papers were “what really put it over the top as a total no-brainer for us,” in terms of acquiring the collection, Kelly says.
The Paris Press collection features material documenting the book’s meticulous production. “It is a very complete record about how that book specifically came from being an idea in an author’s mind to a book that is now on the shelves of libraries around the world,” Kelly says.
Other treasures in the Paris Press collection include cover-art ideas and design mockups, original manuscripts, galleys, edited proofs, typesetters’ notes, indexers’ correspondence, and audio and video recordings of readings. There are also letters and emails from authors, reviewers and book review editors.
Some of the manuscripts were sent unsolicited to Paris Press and remain unpublished, Kelly says. “Who knows who’s in there? It might be somebody who sent a manuscript to them 15 years ago who’s now famous. We don’t know. That’s kind of the fun of archives.”
After Freeman shopped the collection around at various archives, Amherst seemed the right fit, allowing public access in an educational setting.
“There were other archives who expressed interest, but what I learned about archives is that often they have a particular focus,” says Freeman. “One was only interested in the business of the press, not in the production component of how to bring a book from a query letter to a finished book and to then educating the public about that book.”
“Mike expressed interest in everything that I consider valuable about Paris Press,” she adds. “That [Amherst] will be using the archives to educate students—I couldn't wish for anything more than that. That really just makes me so happy.”