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What’s in your desk?

By Kelsey Harmon

In 2008, John Fowles’s widow shipped to the Ransom Center 90 boxes of the writer’s manuscripts, books, and personal effects to be added to the author’s extensive papers, the bulk of which were acquired in 1991. Among the items received was Fowles’s writing desk, complete with its contents. On March 31, 2011—Fowles’s 85th birthday—the desk will be placed on display in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room, where it will remain for at least the next two years. It joins the desks of Edgar Allan Poe and Compton MacKenzie, which have been on display since the room opened to researchers in 2003. Fowles’s desk will be displayed with drawers open to reveal a selection of its fascinating contents.

As an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center, I was given the opportunity to sort through the desk and its contents in preparation for their display. The two-drawer desk is spartan and well-loved, its surface marred by cigarette burns, its left drawer marked with addresses and phone numbers in Fowles’s hand. The contents range from dried seeds and paleontology slides to a pair of brass knuckles. After spending an afternoon sifting through the desk’s contents, I was hooked. Who was this man who kept a pair of brass knuckles next to his slides of Ammonite-Spinokosmoceras?

Unfamiliar with Fowles’s work, I looked to The Magus for an introduction and saw echoes of Fowles’s desk and its contents throughout the novel. A handful of Greek coins in the left drawer recalled the novel’s setting on a Greek island, while one especially suspenseful scene in the first half of the novel reminded me of a mysterious, single black and gold die. As I became acquainted with Fowles’s other novels, I saw reflections of his writing in further items from his desk; among other things, the typewriter ribbon canisters stamped “Lyme Regis” recalled The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The contents of John Fowles’s desk, then, are at once material and literary. The Center’s John Fowles papers are rich with research opportunities, but the desk provides us with something more: a glimpse into the physical objects from the writer’s life that, at times, seem to coincide with moments from his many novels.

Some of the contents of the desk are mysterious and intriguing, and others, like the staples and empty eyeglass cases, are simply the vestiges of any ordinary man’s life. The entire contents of the desk are listed below. I’m still unsure as to whether or not any of Fowles’s novels can explain the brass knuckles, but I’ll keep reading in hopes of finding some clue.

The complete contents of John Fowles’s desk:

Two scraps of paper with appointment times, addresses, calculations, names, notes
Two invitations to “A Tribute to John Fowles, Patron of Town Mill” in Lyme Regis, Saturday 13 December 2003, 6–8 p.m.
Annotated photocopied pages from Fowles’s diary
Two copies of The Mail on Sunday, November 19, 2000, which includes an article written by Fowles about the planned development of the harbor in Lyme Regis
Newspaper clippings announcing the publication of Fowles’s book Lyme Worthies
Copy of an undated newspaper clipping regarding the publication of The Magus
Newspaper clipping, first of a two-part biographical article on Fowles
Two packs of printed self-adhesive address labels for Belmont House in Lyme Regis
Set of blue labels with white string ties
Envelope of photographs inscribed “Photos of Belmont, Lyme Regis, England, 1995”
Five eyeglass cases
Four pairs of eyeglasses
Prescription card from optometrist Guy Hayden
Fourteen typewriter ribbon canisters of various brands (six empty, three unopened, three containing dried seeds, and two containing used cartridges)
Small plastic bag with scrap of paper inscribed “JASPER”
Plant tag inscribed “EUPATORIUM LIGUSTRINUM”
Two paleontology slides from the Yorkshire Museum
Plastic bag of small reddish-white pebbles, stapled closed
Two blending pencils
Three colored pencils
Tin of pastels
Four pens (two fountain, one ballpoint, one felt-tip)
Five fountain-pen cartridges
Two small pencil sharpeners
Two boxes of staples
Loose staples
Two rubber bands
Three binder clips
Two six-inch plastic rulers
Blank notepad, white
Inkpad, black
Bottle of Liquid Paper
Box with Super Glue inside
Four sheets of round, multicolored stickers
Two packs of blank self-adhesive labels, white
Box of self-adhesive company seals, maroon
Paper fan
Seven coins (one Swedish, six Greek)
Small book of holiday gift tags
Pocket knife, Richards Sheffield brand
Medical scissors
Calculator operating manual, Ibico model 122S
Magnifying glass pouch, Magnabrite brand
Three wooden boxes of varying sizes and sources, containing rubber bands and gramophone needles
Descriptive leaflet for a “Handmade Scrimshaw” item
Case for Swatch brand Irony watch
Leather dice shaker
Two carved wooden letter openers
Two pipes
Brass knuckles
Sheet of paper (one side is bright yellow, the other is shiny gold)
Misprinted black die with gold dots
Two stones
Unidentified leaf
Three pieces of unidentified hardware, plastic and metal
Broken decorative piece, painted gold
Green twist tie
A single, white Tic-Tac candy

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Tippa model typewriter made by Adler. This is one of three Fowles typewriters at the Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Bust documents creative process for sculpture of W. E. B. DuBois

By Alicia Dietrich

Plaster maquette of W. E. B. DuBois by Walker Hancock. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Plaster maquette of W. E. B. DuBois by Walker Hancock. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A plaster maquette of a bust of W. E. B. DuBois has been donated to the Harry Ransom Center. The bust, which was sculpted by Walker Hancock (1901–1998), documents a step in the creative process for the final marble sculpture, which resides in Memorial Hall at Harvard University.

A plaster maquette is a model for a finished sculpture that enables the artist to visualize and test shapes and ideas before producing a full-scale sculpture. (It’s analogous to a cartoon or sketch for a painter.)

The DuBois bust was commissioned in 1993 by the Harvard University president and fellows and the Department of Afro-American studies. DuBois was the co-founder of the NAACP and the first African-American student to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1895.

Walker Hancock was an American sculptor who was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1989 and the Medal of Freedom in 1990. His notable works include the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial (1950–1952) in Philadelphia and additions he created for the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., including Christ in Majesty (1972), the bas relief over the High Altar.

The plaster maquette was donated to the Ransom Center by Hancock’s daughter, Deanie Hancock French.

The Center holds busts of many writers, including Ezra Pound, James Joyce, T. E. Lawrence, Tom Stoppard, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and many more. Several busts can be seen in the lobby of the Ransom Center and in the reading room on the second floor.

Fellows Find: Not "The Well": Radclyffe Hall’s Unpublished Short Fiction

By Jana Funke


Dr. Jana Funke, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, U.K., visited the Ransom Center on a Hobby Family Foundation Fellowship in July and August 2010 to work on Radclyffe Hall’s short fiction. She is using the material she gathered for a monograph exploring the relationship between modernist sexualities and time. She is also preparing a critical edition of Hall’s unpublished works.

Radclyffe Hall is best known for her infamous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), with its bleak depiction of female sexual inversion—a sexological term that combines traits we might nowadays classify as lesbian and transgender. It might therefore come as a surprise that spending several weeks in the archive working on Hall was tremendous fun! The Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge papers at the Ransom Center offer many delightful surprises, such as a box filled with kennel club information, show clippings, and photographs of Hall’s prize-winning dogs. While going through the drafts of The Well, I also came across a notebook in which she lists the “contents of an invert’s pocket.” Apparently, the female invert would not leave the house without a letter from her present love, three snapshots of her last love, a powder box, and lipstick.

While my visit gave me the opportunity to survey the archival material more generally, I spent most of my time working on Hall’s short fiction. Hall only published one collection of short stories, Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934), but among her papers are more than 15 additional, mostly complete, unpublished stories, which were written in the 1910s and 1920s.

One group of unpublished works—including the unfinished novel The World—deal with the Great War. Whereas published texts like The Well or Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself focus on women’s experience of the war, the unpublished stories explore how men who were “unfit” to serve their country coped with the resulting sense of exclusion.

Other short stories deal with female experience; “The Modern Miss Thompson,” for instance, depicts the struggle for female autonomy and shows interesting parallels to Hall’s New Woman novel The Unlit Lamp (1924). Yet another set of stories provides insight into Hall’s engagement with religion, spirituality, and the supernatural. These texts deal with a range of subjects including the life of the medieval Saint Ethelflaeda, time travel, and mystic human-animal relationships.

The reasons why Hall did not publish more of these short stories are unclear. Hall’s notebooks reveal that she thought about publishing a larger number of short stories and sent a selection to her agent in 1924. We do not know why this publication did not materialize at the time. In her memoirs, Hall’s partner, Una Troubridge, suggests that by the time Hall was preparing the collection Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself in the early 1930s, she decided against including an earlier short story since it had “missed the boat.” It is possible that Hall felt her other short stories had also gone out of fashion by the time she was given the opportunity to publish them.

Returning to these texts almost a century after they were written, I found them anything but untimely. To be sure, the short stories confirm a certain image of Hall as an author with deeply conservative and often troubling national, racial, sexual, and class politics. However, my archival work also allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of Hall. Her unpublished work shows a writer keen to explore vastly different interests and stylistic approaches, and her investigation of questions of difference, outsiderism, and the struggle of belonging relates to scholarly concerns today. My time in the archive certainly did not present me with a radically new image of Hall, but it did allow me to explore a body of texts that is much more conflicted and less orthodox than I expected. I am very grateful to the Ransom Center, with its wonderful staff and sense of scholarly community, and the Hobby Family Foundation, for giving me this opportunity.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Broadcast journalism and radio-television-film major Isabella Ferraro, a student worker in the Ransom Center's art collection for the past two years, helps realign the flat files in the prints and drawings room. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Broadcast journalism and radio-television-film major Isabella Ferraro, a student worker in the Ransom Center's art collection for the past two years, helps realign the flat files in the prints and drawings room. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Author Renata Adler visits the Ransom Center and meets with Director Thomas F. Staley in his office. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Renata Adler visits the Ransom Center and meets with Director Thomas F. Staley in his office. Photo by Pete Smith.
Freshman Elizabeth Diaz, a student worker, assists in housing photographs, including this Julia Margaret Cameron image from the Gernsheim collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Freshman Elizabeth Diaz, a student worker, assists in housing photographs, including this Julia Margaret Cameron image from the Gernsheim collection. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Harry Houdini slideshow celebrates 137th birthday

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center owns a collection of materials related to magician Harry Houdini, whose 137th birthday is today. The above slideshow highlights some examples of materials in the collection.

Parts of the Houdini (1874-1926) collection pertain to the numerous magicians with whom Houdini cultivated personal relationships, but the focus of this collection is the life and career of Houdini himself. Manuscript material in the collection includes Houdini’s correspondence with magicians and writers; letters to his wife Bess, 1890s–1926; manuscript notes and revisions for A Magician among the Spirits (1924), along with Houdini’s annotated printed copy; and the correspondence of A. M. Wilson, editor of The Sphinx, 1905–1923. Houdini’s films are represented by the script for The Master Mystery (1918), news clippings and a press kit for The Man from Beyond (1922), and publicity photographs. His interest in spiritualism is documented by a newspaper clipping file on spiritualism, manuscript notebooks on spiritualism and theater, and history of magic scrapbooks, 1837–1910.

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





Elizabeth Taylor connections to Ransom Center holdings

By Courtney Reed

Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
Promotional still of Elizabeth Taylor from 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at the age of 79, has connections to the Ransom Center holdings, ranging from the Mel Gussow collection to the Ernest Lehman collection.

The former New York Times theater critic Mel Gussow, who died in 2005, wrote Elizabeth Taylor’s obituary. His obituary, with updated contributions from other reporters, was posthumously published today in the New York Times.

The Lehman collection, consisting of more than 2500 items, spans the forty year career of the screenwriter, novelist, short story writer, journalist, motion picture producer and director. Included in the collection are scripts, correspondence, photographs and other material from the production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which Lehman wrote the screen adaption and produced. The 1966 release of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Elizabeth Taylor her second Academy Award for her performance as a bitter faculty wife, Martha.

As a part of the Ransom Center’s Tennessee Williams Film Series, the Ransom Center will show Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), starring Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie “the Cat” on Thursday, June 23 at 7 p.m. Included in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams is an unidentified magazine clipping titled, Liz Plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Though Taylor did not fit Williams’s own idea of Maggie the Cat, Taylor is praised in the article for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

In the galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor

By Courtney Reed

Russell Banks's notes about his early experiences writing on a word processor.
Russell Banks's notes about his early experiences writing on a word processor.
Today it seems, with iPads and hybrid cars and 3-D blockbusters, technology advancements are, quite literally, right in our faces. Almost jaded by the constant onslaught, we expect constant development and easily adapt, rarely finding ourselves bewildered by new devices. This, however, was not always so.

American author Russell Banks’s 1989 novel Affliction, which in early drafts he titled “Dead of Winter,” was his first attempt to construct a work of fiction on a word processor. Used to typewriters or even plain pencil and paper, the word processor, with its editing capabilities such as formatting or spell check, offered a completely new experience.

In a page of typed notes on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, Banks reveals his early experiences using the word processor. He starts off by writing in all caps: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE.” Banks reflects on the “strange experience” and how the technology alters his outlook on the writing process.

For Banks, the word processor made it seem as if productivity was non-existent. He writes: “The simple mechanics of the task get in the way right now, but surely no more than the simple mechanics of pencil and paper. Since there is no object, no product on paper emerging as I go, there seems to be no activity. That’s the greatest difference at present. This is not quite thinking and not quite writing, either, but something in between—until printed.”

In the diary-like notes, Banks indulges himself with such observations “to work out how to use the thing to do the thing.” Those observations must have helped: Banks published Affliction in 1989, and it was later adapted into an award-winning film in 1997 by Paul Schrader, whose archive also resides at the Ransom Center.