Navigate / search

Insider’s Perspective: The Ransom Center in literature

By Harry Ransom Center

In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Ransom Center has published Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center, a richly illustrated chronicle of its history, which is available in the online store.  The following is an excerpt from Collecting the Imagination.


Because of its explosive growth, its reputation for scooping up the papers of English and American literary figures, and its location in the heart of Texas, a state known for outsized things, the Ransom Center has become somewhat legendary in some literary circles.

Sly references to it pop up in several novels. One thinks especially of A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), whose subplot involves Mortimer P. Cropper, Trustee of the Stant Collection at Robert Dale Owen University in Harmony City, New Mexico. Cropper befriends relatives of the Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash, hoping to get his hands on unpublished Ash letters and memorabilia buried with the author. His scheme is foiled when he is discovered rifling through the grave. The struggle of Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, two scholars who are the focus of the novel, to keep the papers in England is reminiscent of the strong opposition that developed in the 1970s to “the manuscript drain” of English literary heritage to America (especially Texas).


“A deranged university in Texas” offers the protagonist of Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus (1994) money for his papers. Briefly bemused by the request, the poet responds by forging “dozens of likely-looking rough drafts of my better-known poems” in different-colored inks.


Ed Sanders’s Fame & Love in New York (1980) features a character named Arthur J. Adamson, known as “Art Archives.”  A caricature of the major players in the field of literary archives, Art was “the first to bring ‘case officers’ into modern Archiveistics, many of them burnt-out intelligence agents, each of whom resided as a ‘desk officer’ responsible for a specific data-target, usually a living or recently deceased poet or novelist.”

Poet Albert Goldbarth highlighted some of the unlikely items housed in the Center’s collections in these lines excerpted from “Hunt,” published in Arts & Sciences: Poem (Ontario Review Press, 1986):

On the 5th floor of the U of Texas Special Collections Library
is the “vertical file”—miscellaneous
junk-cum-exotica storage.  What is it,
that asking for Leigh Hunt’s catalogued compendium
should encourage an offer of being toured through this
mess of lesser literary curio-detritus:

John Masefield’s teddybear “Bruno.” Two
cigarette butts of John Cowper Powys’s (June 7, 1939)
and a swatch of his hair.  “Cuttings from Shaw’s beard.”
Whitman’s hair (189092) and a gold pin
with a lock of hair at its heart.  [Gertrude] Stein’s
waistcoat.  Carson McCullers’s nightgown.  All,
both pellings at once: re-, com-.  Poe’s glasses.
The Coleridge family hair.  And Arthur Conan Doyle’s
cuesticks and golf clubs and hairbrush and
socks with a note: “The socks which were on
my Belovéd’s feet—put on by the nurse after
he had passed on—Which I took off and replaced
others with my own hands.”  I don’t want to know.

I want to know. Robinson Jeffers’s hair.  Poe’s hair
in a brooch “of spiral gold,” you can see it coiled
tensely inside like a watchspring.  Compton Mackenzie’s
rubber toilet cushion and kilt.  And “Clarence
E. Hemingway’s first 3 white hairs.”  Earle [sic] Stanley Gardner’s
brass knuckles and credit cards and his photographs
of 2 views of a skunk and his “Oriental bamboo sleeve gun
with blood-encrusted darts” and the tapes of him
learning Spanish.  This is all true.  And the hair, almost
always the hair, that most supremely voodooesque
of the body’s various flotsam mnemonics we pick up
tangled and bleached on an alien shore and with it recall
the whole life.  Hair.  A bottle village.
10,000 pencils, “you know.” Iron mice.


Courtesy of Albert Goldbarth and Ontario Review Press.

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

Leave a comment


email* (not published)