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Charles R. Larson on African literature

By Alicia Dietrich

Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.

This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.

How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.

Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.

One-day discount on membership

By Christine Lee

Join today for 50% off an Individual membership to the Harry Ransom Center!

Through Groupon, purchase a one-year Individual membership for $25 (regularly $50) or buy two Groupons for a one-year Dual membership (regularly $90).

Join now on Thursday, October 7.

Members of the Harry Ransom Center enjoy exhibition openings, events with the Director, complimentary parking at select events, private exhibition and collection tours, and the latest news of acquisitions, programs, and more. Our members receive a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the cultural wonders we keep secure for the future.

We invite you to join today to experience all that the Ransom Center has to offer.

Restrictions: Offer valid on Thursday, October 7. Only valid for individual and dual level memberships. Once purchased, you must redeem the Groupon online by Friday, January 14, 2011. Members will receive benefits for one year, starting from the date of activation. Current or lapsed members may not use to renew. For new memberships only.

Through Lewis Carroll’s Looking Glass

By Courtney Reed

Lewis Carroll is synonymous with Alice in Wonderland, his 1865 novel of nonsensical imagination that cemented his reputation as a visionary author and captured the hearts of children and adults alike. Carroll’s literary creation, immortalized through Disney movies, is well known. What is less known, however, is Carroll’s life as an avid photographer.

Carroll’s forgotten hobby was not rediscovered until 1949, 50 years after his death, when collector Helmut Gernsheim was offered an original album of photographs taken by Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Dodgson, of course, was the same man who published under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll. Gernsheim poured his energy into discovering more of the photographer, “for quite frankly” as Gernsheim recalled “until then, Lewis Carroll, photographer, had been a stranger to me.”

“I consulted the leading histories of photography and studied the photographic literature of the last century for information,”‘ wrote Gernsheim in his book Lewis Carroll, Photographer. “I sought it with thimbles, I sought it with care, I pursued it with forks and hope, but Dodgson’s name and his pseudonym remained as elusive as the Snark.”

Gernsheim sent his wife to compare the distinctive purple ink and handwriting in the album with Lewis Carroll manuscripts in the British Museum. After a meticulous search, Gernsehim contacted Dodgson’s living descendants, historians, and photographic subjects. The Gernsheims were able to track down and acquire four more albums for their collection, which are now part of the Ransom Center’s collections.

The rediscovery of an essentially forgotten nineteenth-century photographer introduced novel and entirely visual insights of the renowned author and eventually led to Gernsheim’s publication Lewis Carroll, Photographer.

Dodgson pursued photography for 24 years between 1856 and 1880. The album was Dodgson’s chosen medium to present and preserve his photographs of family and friends. Like most photographers of his day, Dodgson used the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes.

The complicated process involved setting up a cumbersome tripod camera and posing the sitter in an aesthetically sensitive manner. Dodgson always took great aims to ensure a relaxed atmosphere, which was not an easy task because posing for extended periods of time tended to produce static, formalized portraits. Next, the photographer would coat and sensitize a plate of glass in a makeshift darkroom. Then, the photographer would quickly transport the light-sensitive “wet plate” to the camera and make an exposure upon it. Finally, he would return to the darkroom to promptly develop and fix the exposure before the plate could dry to complete the negative process.

Dodgson favored the albumen print, which allowed the dried wet collodion negatives to be placed in contact with sensitized paper surface and printed. A binding solution composed of processed egg whites held light-sensitive silver salts onto the coated surface of a thin sheet of paper and resulted in lustrous prints with broad tonal ranges.

Though only a hobby, Dodgson demonstrated genuine skill while utilizing the wet collodion negative processes and the corresponding positive albumen print processes, both of which required patience and dexterity to master. Dodgson’s skill is easily visible in his photographs, which convey a broad range of emotions.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Before and After: A Henry Peach Robinson photograph

By Alicia Dietrich

Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
Before: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.
After: Henry Peach Robinson, 'Bringing Home the May,' ca. 1862-1863. Albumen print.

“Before and After” goes behind the scenes with the the Ransom Center’s conservation department. The most recent installment highlighted work that Head of Photograph Conservation Barbara Brown completed on the Henry Peach Robinson photograph “Bringing Home the May,” taken ca. 1862–1863.

Learn more about how the photograph was repaired and re-mounted.

Some of Robinson’s work is on view in the current exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection.