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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.

U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin signs books after his reading at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin signs books after his reading at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
Robert Redford, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Mark Miller, Peter Baker, and Glenn Frankel discussed 'Could the media break a story like Watergate today?' on a panel presented by the Ransom Center and the LBJ Library and Museum. Photo by Pete Smith.
Robert Redford, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Mark Miller, Peter Baker, and Glenn Frankel discussed 'Could the media break a story like Watergate today?' on a panel presented by the Ransom Center and the LBJ Library and Museum. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg, center, leads an assessment for the upcoming exhibition 'Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg, center, leads an assessment for the upcoming exhibition 'Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.' Photo by Pete Smith.

In the galleries: The "Ruins of a Play" evolve into "The Glass Menagerie"

By Courtney Reed

'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
'The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play' (includes poem on front). Early draft of 'The Glass Menagerie.' Copyright ©2011 by the University of the South. Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. All rights reserved.
Most people know Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie as the least disguised and most deeply autobiographical of Williams’s plays, the positive reception of which elevated him to immediate celebrity. He was applauded as loudly for Menagerie as he was booed for his previous play Battle of Angels. Williams later described this “thrust into sudden prominence” as “the catastrophe of Success.”

Behind this accomplishment was a process that Williams had begun to master, that of transforming individual life experience into art. Place, family, hopes, dreams, and desperation converge in this “memory” play in ways that highlighted the universal qualities of individual experience and that changed the American theater. Theater audiences of the 1940s, fed on a steady diet of “realism and prosaic dialogue,” eagerly embraced Williams’s presentation of a “plastic theatre” that employed multi-media elements suggesting an allusion of reality. Combined with Williams’s poetic prose, it offered up a novel voice that continues to transport audiences into a private world of the human condition.

After his disastrous experience with the 1940 Boston production of Battle of Angels, Williams traveled around the country in near penury for two years before signing a promising but briefly held contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood. As Williams recalled: “From a $17.00 a week job as a movie usher I was suddenly shipped off to Hollywood where MGM paid me $250.00 a week. I saved enough money out of my six months there to keep me while I wrote The Glass Menagerie.”

Just prior to his arrival on the West Coast, his sister Rose was lobotomized. His anxiety and guilt over her fate may have impelled him to concentrate on completing The Glass Menagerie over other plays he was working on at the time.

On an early draft of The Glass Menagerie, then titled by a hesitant Williams, due to the negative reception of Battle of Angels, as The Gentleman Caller: Ruins of a Play, are various doodles of flowers and faces. The central point of the title page is a poem of Williams’s:

“A witch and her daughter
received a caller
A gentleman caller was he!
He sprinkled the daughter
with holy water
and dandled the witch on his knee!”

Williams was perhaps daydreaming about the uncertainty of this “play in ruins.” In a letter to the Texas-born director and producer, Margo Jones, Williams, still gun shy from his traumatic experience with Battle of Angels, writes about Eddie Dowling’s enthusiasm for The Glass Menagerie. Williams says he will keep his distance during rehearsals so “they won’t plague me so much about little changes that occur to them. . . You know how frightened I am of everybody! Especially people in the theatre.”

As we all know, the final product of The Glass Menagerie blasted Williams into stardom. He would later write masterpieces such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Lyle Leverich writes in Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams (1995) that “for the first thirty years of [Williams’s] life, he was living The Glass Menagerie, and it was from that traumatic experience that his masterpiece—this ‘little play,’ as Williams disdainfully called it—evolved.”

This manuscript can be seen in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

In the galleries: David Foster Wallace's affinity for grammar and usage

By Courtney Reed

David Foster Wallace, who was regarded by many as the best writer of his generation, was a talented essayist who was commissioned by several publications, from Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone and Gourmet, to write on topics as disparate as a luxury cruise, tennis, the Illinois State Fair, and the first presidential campaign of John McCain.

Wallace, whose affinity for and comprehension of the rules of grammar and usage were widely known, published an essay entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” in Harper’s in April 2001. An early draft of his essay can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. The draft is a veritable rainbow, covered in red, black, blue, and green ink. Wallace notes his argument at the bottom of the page: “Language & grammar are the distinctive human attainment. They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: ‘In the beginning was the Word). Facility with language… may be one of our responsibilities (like care of the earth, decency to our fellows).”

David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar is also seen in his library, which includes a number of books related to language, usage, and writing. One of his books about the history of the English language is underlined extensively throughout by Wallace. On one page, Wallace highlights with an exclamation point the following text: “[The average person] is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.”

It seems that none of Wallace’s books were safe from his inquiring pen. Wallace deeply admired novelist Don DeLillo. His library includes more than a dozen books by DeLillo, whose influence on Wallace can be seen in Wallace’s extensive handwritten notes about the novels and DeLillo’s writing style. On a page of DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names, Wallace writes with his red and green pens: “D doesn’t use commas between independent clauses—only uses ‘and.’ See p. 19. Why? It gives narrative a more oral quality—We never hear this comma.”

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.

Writer Russell Banks signs the authors’ door. Banks’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, which contains items ranging from essays on music icons Billie Holliday and Robert Johnson to his unpublished first novel 'The Locus.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Writer Russell Banks signs the authors’ door. Banks’s archive resides at the Ransom Center, which contains items ranging from essays on music icons Billie Holliday and Robert Johnson to his unpublished first novel 'The Locus.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Participants from the Southern conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America visited the Ransom Center to view materials from the collections, including the works of industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Participants from the Southern conference of the Industrial Designers Society of America visited the Ransom Center to view materials from the collections, including the works of industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. Photo by Pete Smith.
Collection and Building Management Librarian Alex Jasinski assists with shelving assembly for a low-humidity, cold-storage vault for housing cellulose acetate materials. Photo by Pete Smith.
Collection and Building Management Librarian Alex Jasinski assists with shelving assembly for a low-humidity, cold-storage vault for housing cellulose acetate materials. Photo by Pete Smith.