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Elsa Barker papers

Scope & content

The Elsa Barker papers provide a window into the early 20th century literary world on both sides of the Atlantic. Her poems, especially the one written for the Peary Expedition to the North Pole, were popular enough to be set to music. She was a founding member of the Poetry Society of America and the Progressive Stage Society. Her books by the Living Dead Man which she produced by automatic writing (the process or production of writing material that does not come from the conscious thoughts of the writer) were best sellers at the end of World War I. Her detective stories, which featured the debonair Dexter Drake, ran in popular magazines alongside articles by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Roberts Rhinehart. Barker corresponded with Ted Shawn, one of the founders of the modern dance movement, had a play produced in Boston and New York, studied psychology and psychoanalysis briefly with Jung and was a member of the Rosicrucian Order of Alpha et Omega. In short she was part of the major intellectual and emotional movements of the 1920's and 1930's.

The bulk of the collection is correspondence. Almost all of it is either to Elsa Barker or from her but there are a few letters to or from others. The letters are separated into two subseries: business correspondence and personal correspondence. The business letters are filed by firm or agent alphabetically with the exception of small batches filed by decade (1920-1930 for example) at the end. Anything to do with payment for stories, royalties, or editing has been considered business correspondence. The personal letters are filed by author's last name, if known, or the first name if the last is not known. There are two exceptions: one large folder of fan mail is filed under "F" and another large folder of correspondence on occultism is filed under "O". Many of the letters in both subseries are not originals, but copies on poor paper in very fragile condition. Nicknames are used for some of the salutations and signatures. Champa is Elsa Barker, Mamma is Alma Lloyd, one of Barker's early supporters and friends, and Tad or Tadpole is Alma's daughter, Estelle Lloyd, Barker's long-time student.

The second largest group of materials are the manuscripts. There are multiple copies of several of Barker's Dexter Drake mysteries published in The Book and Red Book magazines, a play, and chapters from several of her novels. The novels show more than a hint of her interest in the occult while the mysteries have some of the flavor of both Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers. Included in the manuscripts are the original English and a French translation of Barker's poem "The Frozen Grail" set to music as well as a German translation without music.

The third series consists of financial papers. There are items such as bank books, checks, and lists of furniture from the London apartment she left in storage. The personal papers series consist of items like a passport, biographical blurbs for books or encyclopedias and the copy of a legal document establishing the author as Elsa Barker rather than Elsie Barker or Elsie Gay.

Barker saved only a few of what must have been hundreds of book reviews and these are in the reviews series.