Correspondence I’m starting off this section with another shout-out to Kristen Whitbread, Mertz, and whoever else was gracious enough to sort and label Mertz’s prolific body of correspondence. I began by sorting the 42.5 linear feet of materials into the categories by which they were already labeled: Literary, Personal (though this technically combined two separate labels, Friends and Family, into one subseries), Fanmail and Fandom (the second half was my addition), and Business. The Fanmail and Fandom subseries was by far my favorite; I was deeply moved by how many women of all ages wrote to Mertz to thank her for creating heroines who actually reflected them, both physically and in their personalities. This section also had a wealth of fantastic stationery and a number of gifts from fans, including a homemade set of Amelia Peabody dolls and a painted clay faux-Egyptian piece.
Though there were some negative letters from fans who were angry or disappointed by plot choices or Mertz’s use of swear words, most of the irate correspondence came from Egyptologists who either disagreed with Mertz’s hypotheses or simply didn’t support a woman in the field, especially one with dissenting opinions and theories. One particularly unhinged correspondent, a self-proclaimed “anti-Egyptologist” who insisted on referring to Mertz as “Mrs. Richard R. Mertz,” was so outraged by Mertz’s discussion of the epic poem and drama in Red Land, Black Land that he began sending her thick packets of letters, clippings, poems, diagrams, screenplays, and suggested edits to her works. The increasingly hostile tone of these letters, which Mertz comments on in one of her only replies, highlight the difficulties and dangers of being an outspoken woman in Egyptology in the 1960’s, as well as the drawbacks of fame and the wide reach of her works.
I waffled on where to place the fandom-related material in the collection for quite a while before deciding to include it with the fanmail. While I’d considered making a dedicated “Fandom” subseries or series, it seemed more logical to keep it with the other fan materials, especially since there was a great deal of crossover between correspondence and fan-related content. For example, I noticed a substantial portion of the fanmail was from fans writing to subscribe to Mertz’s newsletter, MPM, so I decided to sort out these subscription/address change letters as they had a different research value than the rest of the fan letters. Some of the fanmail was also printed in the MPM newsletter, blurring the line even further as to where the material belonged.
The Personal subseries was another exciting and illuminating subseries to work through; it was fascinating to read how Mertz talked about her writing to fans versus how she discussed it with her fellow authors, though her sardonic humor remained a through line in both categories. A significant subset of the Personal correspondence was between Mertz and her friends in Egypt or in the Egyptology field, once again underlining the continued presence of Egypt in both her personal life and in her writings. I quickly realized that the sheer volume of correspondence between Mertz and Joan Hess, as well as between Mertz and Phyllis Whitney, warranted its separation from the rest of the chronologically sorted Personal correspondence. The cryptic messages between Joan Hess and Mertz, many of which were in the form of faxes, really highlighted how close and significant their friendship was, and the many doodles that accompanied the messages were consistently delightful. This also led me to the discovery of something called Sheep Wars, which (though I’m still fuzzy on the details, and Mertz herself said that she couldn’t remember how it started) was a sort of escalating prank war between the two friends that revolved around sheep. This included one signing the other up for a correspondence course on caring for sheep and the purchase of sheep lawn ornaments; “Shepherdess” was used as a term of endearment for one another.
Other Writings This series, which gathers all of Mertz’s writings that weren’t published novels, demonstrates the breadth of her skills and knowledge, from encyclopedia entries to book reviews. In a letter to the History Editor of the World Book Encyclopedia, for which she was reviewing entries on “Ancient Civilization” and “Pyramids,” she apologizes for the tardiness of her submissions due to the fact that she “felt she had to rewrite the two articles completely” because they were of less-than-satisfactory quality, both tonally and factually. This is both charming and demonstrative of her immense knowledge of the subject; the printed and bound copy of her dissertation also shows that she took well-deserved pride in both her writing and her Egyptology expertise. Her tributes to Joan Hess and Charlotte MacLeod illustrate how deeply she loved her friends and respected their craft.
Publicity and Appearances This was a tricky series to pin down; it was born when I found some general publicity that couldn’t be slotted into any of the published novel sub-subseries in the Mertz/Peters/Michaels series, such as ads for the entire Amelia Peabody series, as well as interviews and an abundance of folders labeled “accepted/denied/ignored”. These latter files consisted of invitations from various book clubs, institutions, libraries, and a myriad of other organizations and individuals for Mertz to speak, give an interview, or sign materials. It was difficult to untangle these invitations, which often included brochures and travel information if they were accepted, from the materials that I eventually labeled as “Travel” in the Financial and Legal series. The main division was how Mertz, Whitbread, and others had already sorted them; in addition, the materials that I put into the Travel folders were mostly receipts and itineraries, which aligned more with Financial and Legal materials, while the materials in the “Accepted” subseries of Publicity and Appearances were more conceptual and general information on the event itself. However, this series especially illustrates the artificiality of series/subseries divisions, as it’s impossible to neatly divide a human life into distinct categories without any overlap, as well as the subjectivity of archival decisions and the millions of minute choices that go into processing a collection. Some of my favorite items from this series could have also fit into the Fanmail and Fandom subseries in Correspondence, while the “marketing plan for new Elizabeth Peters book” obviously has a great deal of overlap with the Elizabeth Peters series, further underlining the nebulous boundaries of series divisions.
Financial and Legal This was the series where I fully came to appreciate how thoroughly Mertz retained records, both of her personal and professional endeavors. Between the boxes of receipts from 1976 through 2009 and the meticulously kept financial details in her daybooks, Mertz kept note of everything. While this can be read as a reflection of her personality or her awareness of the significance of her papers, it was also a reminder to me that writing was her profession as well as her craft; no matter how prolific and beloved she and her writings were (and they certainly were, as seen in the Fanmail and Fandom materials), she still had to make a living. The number of contracts and royalties with foreign publishers illustrates the widespread popularity of her work, as translation is not a small undertaking financially or labor-wise from the publisher’s point of view. I spent at least a full week alphabetizing the many boxes of royalty statements only to realize that the name on the statement was sometimes the agent through which the royalties were processed and not the publisher themselves (a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the statements were in languages I do not speak), which led to a frustrating amount of re-alphabetizing and shuffling of papers. The “Vet” folder, which mostly contained receipts and prescriptions for Mertz’s many pets, helped me to establish a chronology of her pets as well as determine several of their names while also being a very humanizing and grounding set of materials amidst the royalties’ representations of her worldwide popularity and fame.
Continued with Journey to the Center of the Mertz Part 3.