David Sedaris’ Back Pages, Before ‘SantaLand’ Made Him a Star

Posted December 10, 2018 3:29 p.m. EST

Events in David Sedaris’ early creative life might be dated with the abbreviation “B.C.” — Before Crumpet.

On Dec. 22, 1992, he was an obscure performance artist and aspiring writer supporting himself with odd jobs. Then NPR aired his reading of “SantaLand Diaries,” the sardonic account of his stint as a Macy’s Christmas elf named Crumpet that turned him into a seemingly instant literary star.

Sedaris has always mined his past for his stories, but in the past few years he has been in an even more retrospective mood. Last year he published “Theft By Finding,” a volume of excerpts from the voluminous diary he has kept since 1977, along with a “visual compendium” reproducing pages of the original books, in all their often handwritten, wildly collaged glory.

Now Sedaris has sold his archive to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale, where his manuscripts, drafts, notebooks and other scraps will be part of the library’s rich holdings relating to social satire from the likes of Garry Trudeau, Saul Steinberg, David Rakoff and Mark Twain.

The more than 150 volumes of Sedaris’ complete diaries will be off limits during his lifetime. (A second volume of excerpts is in the works.) But the archive contains some three dozen other handmade books from his prefame years that hint at their visual and tactile richness.

Timothy G. Young, curator of modern books and manuscripts at the Beinecke, said the archive showed the years of exploration it took Sedaris to become an “overnight” sensation.

“Today, his name is on marquees, but in the 1980s, he’s still searching for where he would land,” Young said. The early materials in the archive “show David’s amazing artistic breadth as it grew — from art-making, to performance, to writing.”

Sedaris, 61, said he cringed when he thought about people reading through his early, unpublished work and, eventually, his complete diary. But he also looked on the bright side.

“There’s no way I could have ever gotten into a place like Yale,” he said. “So it thrills me that horrible first drafts of stories I wrote when I was stoned got into an Ivy League school.”

We spoke with him about a sampling of items in the collection, including some that will be on display at the Beinecke until Dec. 21.

A Childhood Christmas

One of the earliest items in the archive speaks both to the holiday that made Sedaris famous and to his attraction to bookmaking: a book he made as a second-grader, with a class picture featuring a banner reading “Merry Christmas” pasted in.

“When my mother died, we each got a box of things pertaining to us,” Sedaris said. “I hadn’t seen the book since I did it. What was curious to me was how much it resembled a lot of the books I later made on my own. I hadn’t thought about it in 40 years, but you would think I’d set out to copy it.”

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Performance Artist

In the early 1980s, while dropping in and out of college, he dabbled in performance art, an experience he later satirized in his essay “12 Moments in the Life of the Artist,” included in the collection “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”

The keepsake booklet shown here was made for “Gilt by Association,” a piece he and Veronica Ruedrich performed in 1981 at the North Carolina Museum of Art. A news release included in the archive described it as “a collaborative effort combining Ruedrich’s skill as an equestrian and Sedaris’ ability as a gospel singer.”

Sedaris recalled the piece, which was performed in front of works by Botticelli, with an almost audible wince.

“It was so lame,” he said. “There was a lot of standing stock still, then pulling things out of a rubber boot while wearing little goggles. I often think of what I might do now. In that situation, I would pretend to be a docent, and just go from one painting to another, telling outlandish stories about them and making people laugh. But back then, it seemed like speaking a complete sentence was not an option. You had to be ‘artistic.'”

A for Effort

In 1984, Sedaris moved to Chicago and enrolled in the School of the Art Institute. He would often hand in his papers in the form of a handmade illustrated book, like one submitted for a class on contemporary photography. “As usual — superb!” the teacher wrote.

“I started on my papers the moment they were assigned,” Sedaris said. “I guarantee you nobody else did that. Maybe they gave me good grades because I had spirit.”

Raymond Carver Redux

In this period, Sedaris created handmade books that he sent to friends like letters, often pasting in found images, scraps of paper and other detritus he found on the streets.

At one point the school gave him a grant to create a series of unique editions of what he said was his first short story, “Atlas.” Each copy had a different cover, and came with a mock library card. The Beinecke had previously acquired a different copy from novelist James McManus, one of Sedaris’ teachers.

“I didn’t know this until recently, but Jim had said that it was the most hilarious parody of a Raymond Carver story he’d ever read,” Sedaris said. “I didn’t mean it as a parody of Carver, but I was so under his spell. I was being dead serious.”

Enter the Elf

In 1990, Sedaris moved to New York. He stopped making individual books and instead focused on his diary.

“When I left Chicago, the trash wasn’t as good,” he said. “So I just stopped doing it.”

The archive does include an important booklet of a kind from his early years in New York: his copy of the guide to proper elf behavior, from his time at Macy’s.

“It was a kind of before and after in a person’s life that I don’t think many people get,” Sedaris said of the response to the first broadcast of “SantaLand Diaries,” in 1992. “The biggest audience I’d ever been in front of was maybe 600 people, and suddenly it was 10 million. My phone just started ringing and ringing.”

Today, Sedaris’ queasily ironic take on the holiday is as much a fixture of the season as the cheerier sentiments of “A Christmas Carol” and “The Night Before Christmas.”

“It doesn’t matter what religion you are,” Sedaris said of the story’s staying power. “Everyone in America has to deal with Christmas.”