Contents and Arrangement Expanded View

Collection Overview

Bell, Madison Smartt
Madison Smartt Bell Papers
Manuscripts Division
Permanent URL:
1940s-2021 (mostly 1986-2003)
85 boxes and 60 linear feet
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Boxes 1-85; B-001857


Madison Smartt Bell (1957-) is an American novelist best known for his trilogy of novels about Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, published between 1995 and 2004. His papers consist of writings, personal and professional correspondence, family documents, memorandum books, printed materials, and subject files, including drafts, galleys, and proofs for his novels, short stories, and other writings.

Collection Description & Creator Information

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of manuscripts, correspondence, family documents, and other papers of novelist Madison Smartt Bell. The earliest item in the collection is a datebook from the year 1979, the year of Bell's graduation from Princeton University. The manuscript material includes an early typescript of Bell's first novel Washington Square Ensemble (1983), as well as notebooks, drafts, galleys and proofs of Doctor Sleep (1993), All Souls' Rising (1995) and later works. Also included in the manuscript material are variants for an unpublished screenplay about an earthquake in California, entitled The Safety Net, drafts of articles and reviews, transcripts and/or cassettes of four interviews by Bell of others, and miscellaneous writings, fragments and notes, among which is a series of xeroxed images by printmaker Jean de la Fontaine with blurbs by Bell (unpublished?).

The bulk of the correspondence and of the collection is personal mail, dating from 1981 to 2011, organized chronologically and therein alphabetically, with separate folders for correspondents with the most numerous letters. Among his most frequent correspondents are his former Princeton creative writing teacher George Garrett, filmmaker Alexis Roshuk, fellow novelists Tom McGonigle, Jill McCorkle, and Elizabeth Moore, and students Amy Homes, Marcia Golub, Carolyn Chute, Ellen Geist, and Darcey Steinke. This series preserves everything from post-it notes and Christmas tags to post cards and full-length letters. There are also three boxes of business correspondence, including agent correspondence, dating from Bell's first exchanges with Jane Gelfman in 1981, and direct correspondence with editors and publishers. Ticknor and Fields is heavily represented, as the publisher that has brought out most of Bell's novels, though he later published with Harcourt Brace. The business correspondence also includes some drafts Bell kept of outgoing letters.

The family documents include an extensive family tree for the Smartt family, found loose among the correspondence, as well as Bell's birth certificate. The Papers of Other Persons series includes a typescript of fellow novelist Tom McGonigle's The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov (1986), as well as correspondence of Bell's wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires.

Additional materials received from the author following the original accession can be found in Series 7: Additional Papers, including manuscripts and correspondence related to his writings and other activities throughout the 1990s until 2021.


Organized by material type, with a series for accruals.

Collection Creator Biography:

Bell, Madison Smartt

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1957, Madison Smartt Bell was raised on a farm in Williamson County just outside Nashville. His father, an attorney, and his mother were friends with the Agrarian School of poets at Vanderbilt University, which included Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and John Crowe Ransom. Bell did not follow his parents to Vanderbilt but attended Princeton University instead, although as an undergraduate English major he did do independent research on the Agrarian School. While at Princeton Bell studied fiction-writing with George Garrett and received several prizes for his writing: the Ward Mathis Prize in 1977 for his short story, "Triptych;" the Class of 1870 Junior Prize in 1978; the Francis LeMoyne Page Award in 1978 for fiction writing; and the Class of 1859 Prize in 1979, the year in which he graduated summa cum laude.

In 1983 Bell published his first book, a novel about drug dealers entitled Washington Square Ensemble, while living in the New York City area, also the setting of his second novel Waiting for the End of the World (1985), which deals with the New York City underworld and with terrorism. From the time of his graduation from Princeton Bell lived in New York City or the New York metropolitan area until moving to the Baltimore area in 1984 to teach in the Goucher College English Department. It is not, however, until his fifth novel Soldier's Joy (1989) that he consciously returns in his work to a specifically Southern setting and to the theme of racism. Soldier's Joy is about a professional banjo player in rural Tennessee who gets shot in a racial struggle involving a black preacher whom he and his fellow Vietnam-veteran friends are trying to protect. (Bell himself is a professional banjo player.) Although he continues to be eclectic in his choice of theme and setting, for a short time Bell wrote a column on Southern literature for Southern magazine and has contributed to several anthologies of specifically Southern fiction.

Bell has also traveled widely in England and Europe and has used that experience in novels such as the thriller Straight Cut (1986) and the more philosophical novel Doctor Sleep (1991), as well as in some of his shorter fiction (e.g., "Petit Cachou" in Barking Man and Other Stories, 1990).

In All Souls' Rising (1995), Bell turns to the genre of the historical novel and writes about race in late 18th century Haiti.

Bell received his M.A. from the creative writing program at Hollins College in Virginia in 1981. He has taught as a visiting writer at several workshops and summer programs as well as in the Iowa Writers' Workshop (1987-88) and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (1989). He and his wife, the poet Elizabeth Spires, who were married in 1985, have both held Guggenheim fellowships, allowing them each a year to pursue their writing careers uninterrupted by teaching duties. They have a daughter named Celia Doval Bell.

Madison Smartt Bell worked briefly in the publishing world in the New York area before he began his teaching career and has written about the difficulties young writers have breaking into the world of published fiction. He has helped many of his own students become published writers, among them Carolyn Chute, Hillary Johnson, Marcia Golub, Amy Homes, Wayne Johnson, Simon Black, Brooke Stevens, and Darcey Steinke.

Collection History


Purchased from the author in multiple accessions from 1994 to 2022 (AM 1995-13, AM 1995-15, AM 2005-38, AM 2016-34, AM 2022-043).


This collection comprises the papers of a living author. Thus, accruals are expected in five to ten-year increments.


No appraisal information is available.

Processing Information

This collection was processed by Margaret Sherry in 1996. Finding aid written by Margaret Sherry in 1996. Additional Papers list compiled by Karla Vecchia. Folder inventory for 2004 accession added by Hilde Creager 15' in 2013. Folder inventory for 2015 accession added by Fiona Bell 18' in 2015. Materials in the 2021 accrual were processed and described by Amy C. Vo in 2022, with appropriate updates to the finding aid.

Access & Use

Conditions Governing Access

The majority of the collection is open for research, with restrictions on the two folders of P.E.N./Faulkner correspondence in Subseries 7A, Box B-001857.

Conditions Governing Use

Single copies may be made for research purposes. To cite or publish quotations that fall within Fair Use, as defined under U. S. Copyright Law, no permission is required. For instances beyond Fair Use, it is the responsibility of the researcher to determine whether any permissions related to copyright, privacy, publicity, or any other rights are necessary for their intended use of the Library's materials, and to obtain all required permissions from any existing rights holders, if they have not already done so. Princeton University Library's Special Collections does not charge any permission or use fees for the publication of images of materials from our collections, nor does it require researchers to obtain its permission for said use. The department does request that its collections be properly cited and images credited. More detailed information can be found on the Copyright, Credit and Citations Guidelines page on our website. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us through the Ask Us! form.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

For preservation reasons, original analog and digital media may not be read or played back in the reading room. Users may visually inspect physical media but may not remove it from its enclosure. All analog audiovisual media must be digitized to preservation-quality standards prior to use. Audiovisual digitization requests are processed by an approved third-party vendor. Please note, the transfer time required can be as little as several weeks to as long as several months and there may be financial costs associated with the process. Requests should be directed through the Ask Us Form.

Credit this material:

Madison Smartt Bell Papers; Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library

Permanent URL:
Firestone Library
One Washington Road
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(609) 258-3184
Storage Note:
  • ReCAP (scarcpxm): Boxes 1-85; B-001857