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J. D. Salinger at the Harry Ransom Center

By Molly Schwartzburg

Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.
Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.

When Jerome David Salinger died in January, he had been dodging fans and journalists for more than 40 years. Salinger rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, an era of media expansion in which writers became celebrities, and in which celebrity itself could shape an entire literary career. Like many young writers, Salinger first embraced fame. But he soon came to despise it, famously retreating to small-town New Hampshire and refusing to publish after 1965, though he is rumored to have continued writing. One way he protected himself was by holding tightly to his copyright, refusing permission to publish the personal papers and manuscripts that surfaced over the decades.

The Harry Ransom Center is one of a handful of repositories that house small collections of J. D. Salinger manuscripts. Such collections have generally been sold or donated by the writer’s friends or colleagues, or have arrived at as part of the working files of a magazine that has published Salinger’s work. The Ransom Center’s collection contains letters and manuscripts sent by Salinger to his long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, who sold them to the Center through a dealer in 1968.

Salinger met Murray in the late 1930s, and over the course of more than two decades (1940–1963) wrote her a series of newsy, often funny letters that provide substantial information about his efforts to publish his stories in various magazines. Most of the letters were written early in his career and show Salinger maturing into a serious writer. They also reveal much of his witty, wry personality; Salinger inhabits various personae in his letters, composing with off-the-wall humor (including an in-joke about Salinger’s taste for Ovaltine) and sometimes signing the name of one of his own characters. He shares his thoughts about other writers—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway (whom he met in Paris during the war)—and exposes details about his relationships with three women: Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin), his first wife Sylvia, and his second wife Claire. Salinger enclosed stories with some letters, notably including draft fragments of the first published Holden Caulfield story, “I’m Crazy” (1945), and drafts and fragments of two unpublished works.

Though these materials have long been available to researchers, they remain unpublished and cannot be quoted in scholarly publications. There is little doubt that J. D. Salinger’s death will prompt renewed interest in his life and work among scholars and general readers alike, and we must wait to see how the literary estate will choose to proceed with permissions. In the last few weeks, many of Salinger’s friends and neighbors have spoken openly for the first time about their relationships with the writer, and their openness seems promising: New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross published snapshots and reminiscences of her long friendship with the writer in the magazine, while inhabitants of Cornish, New Hampshire, have eagerly described to journalists the (often marvelously creative) methods they devised to protect their neighbor from curious and unscrupulous visitors alike.

Librarians and archivists have a practical interest in gaining more information about Salinger; the current lack of information about much of his life and work limits our ability to describe the artifacts in our possession, such as books inscribed from Salinger to unidentified recipients and manuscript drafts whose place in the chain of composition cannot be identified without access to earlier and later versions. In the meantime, we continue to encourage those interested in searching the collection to visit the Ransom Center. Visitors to the Ransom Center can view a display of some of the items discussed above in our main lobby from February 26 to March 12. The opening of the display corresponds with “A Tribute to J. D. Salinger,” an event with readings of Salinger materials by Elizabeth Crane, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, and John Pipkin. This event is co-sponsored by American Short Fiction.

UT Students: Apply to participate in seminar with playwright, writer, and director David Mamet

By Danielle Sigler

Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe
Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe

The Harry Ransom Center is pleased to provide current University of Texas at Austin graduate and undergraduate students with the opportunity to join playwright, writer, and director David Mamet on “A Journey Towards Meaning.”

The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum, is home to David Mamet’s archive, which is open and available for use.

Mr. Mamet will meet with 10 students 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9 and 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10. Students must be available on both days in order to participate. The Ransom Center encourages students to consult with their professors before missing class to participate in this seminar.

Currently enrolled University of Texas at Austin students should submit no more than TWO LINES explaining why they should be chosen to mametseminar@gmail.com. Entries longer than two lines will not be considered.

Entries must be received by March 2, 2010. Selected students will be notified by March 4, 2010.

The Ransom Center cannot offer further guidance about entries.

Claude McKay and the "Making of Home to Harlem"

By Danielle Sigler

Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay (1889–1948) is probably best-known for his poem “If We Must Die.” McKay, however, also published three novels and a collection of short stories. His most popular novel, Home to Harlem (1928), grew out of a short story of the same name. He was encouraged in his work by his literary agent William Bradley, an American whose agency operated out of Paris. Claude McKay’s correspondence can be found in the Center’s William A. Bradley Literary Agency collection.

An optimistic McKay wrote to Bradley from Antibes, France in February 1927, “Everything is clear and I can see through the whole story to the end. I ought to have the thing done by the end of March.” However, a series of difficulties beset McKay and slowed his writing process. In mid-March, McKay’s friend Max Eastman was planning to return to the United States and to take his typewriter with him. McKay thought he might have to write long-hand, but on March 26 happily reported “The typewriter problem is almost solved” after he purchased a used typewriter for 550 francs. He noted, however, it “doesn’t work so well. I have already had to take it back to Nice twice…and now it is on the blink again.” In early April, McKay was still working on the manuscript and struggling through financial and creative challenges, writing to Bradley, “I am without any money and should be very obliged to you for sending me two hundred francs….. I got into an impasse for a week nearly and had to destroy everything I wrote. But I got out and am going along smoothly again.”

McKay continued to work, and by June the manuscript was complete. In February 1928, McKay finally received the publisher’s “dummy” of the book and had concerns about the dust jacket featuring an illustration by Aaron Douglas:

“I like the cover of the book & the color of the jacket but I don’t like the drawing. It looks so much like the stiff skeleton of a black ape. Has no life and one looking at it will naturally link it with Jake [the novel’s protagonist]. Covarrubias could have done something striking & sympathetic, but I suppose I should not grumble & criticize but be loyal and patriotic as the artist is a colored man.”

A week later he followed-up with Bradley:

“Yes, I think my first opinion about the cover was wrong. It is effective and grows on me. The Senegalese fellows at the café were enchanted with it at first sight. Maybe my plastic sense is a little corrupt and sentimental.”

Harper and Brothers released the book with the Aaron Douglas illustration and Home to Harlem went on to become a success, surprising even McKay who was tickled with its popularity “I see Home to Harlem like an impudent dog has nosed right in among the best sellers in New York!” The New York Times declared of McKay’s talent, “it is not a strained, a half-hearted or skimpy talent, but one that is eminently worth more play than one novel.” While McKay went on to write Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933), these novels failed to live up to the success of Home to Harlem.

 

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The "curiously" illustrated Moll Pitcher

By Alicia Dietrich

The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.

As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.

Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.

 

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