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Creepy, macabre, and bloody: Halloween assignment illustrates breadth of Ransom Center's collections

By Bethany Johnsen

Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.
Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.

Bethany Johnsen is an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center who has been working with Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg to gather materials for students for a visit on Halloween.

For the students in University of Texas at Austin English Professor Janine Barchas’s freshman honors seminar, a Ransom Center visit on October 31 will bring more than the usual bag of treats: a Halloween-themed presentation introducing students to the Center’s resources.

I assisted Ransom Center Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg in putting together the presentation, and this process revealed the provocative connections that such a subject affords, and will, we hope, suggest to these students ways they might use the collections over the remainder of their time as students. With so many items relating to the supernatural, morbid, or just plain unusual to choose from, limiting the presentation to a manageable size was perhaps the most difficult part of the process.

With a topic as huge as Halloween and all its creepy associations, where does a curator begin? We wanted to pull from various collections to display the richness of the Center’s holdings. So while hours could be spent on the objects of horror from just, say, film, we restricted ourselves to the torso model of Robert De Niro’s makeup for his role as the monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein and the mask of (imitation) human skin from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Of course, the modern scary movie invokes a tradition long predating the twentieth century. The presentation will highlight older examples of fascination with the occult, from a sixteenth-century book entitled The discouerie of witchcraft,: wherein the lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of conjurors, the impietie of inchantors…, (and so forth) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ouija board. And in case such historically important artifacts lack a certain flavor of whimsy, we were sure to include a blood-stained handkerchief from the personal effects of  printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, accompanied by a note reading “Dickie’s first cut sometime in November 1885.”

But many of the picks were not as immediately obvious candidates as century-old child blood.  Following a suggestion to investigate the Edward Gorey collection, given the American illustrator’s enormous influence on the contemporary Gothic aesthetic, I combed through his manuscripts to and came across a page that had—in addition to such phrases as “gothic,” “flamboyant,” and “arc cassé”—the words “danse macabre” scrawled across it. This page was not immediately remarkable in a series of brittle papers covered by Gorey’s doodles, but we were intrigued by “danse macabre” anyway. The dance of death, as we call it in English, is an artistic and literary genre that arose in the late medieval period to represent allegorically that death unites everyone, regardless of station or class; we must all dance with death. This symbol must have had special resonance in an age when death, and the harshest class distinctions were so ubiquitous. The Center holds wonderful examples of “dance of death” iconography from many periods, images that can be rather jarring.

Like Halloween traditions themselves, the Center’s holdings span many nations and centuries, and it is this diversity that allows the researcher to pursue unexpected links, like those that arise between twentieth-century artists and late medieval allegories.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Reading room page and undergraduate student Melissa Herman pages materials from the  stacks. Photo by Pete Smith.
Reading room page and undergraduate student Melissa Herman pages materials from the stacks. Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Jones, a volunteer in the conservation department, works on the binding for 'El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Jones, a volunteer in the conservation department, works on the binding for 'El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Conservation department volunteer Margaret Schafer works on repairing paper tears to an album belonging to Joseph Hergesheimer, an early 20th century novelist. Photo by Pete Smith.
Conservation department volunteer Margaret Schafer works on repairing paper tears to an album belonging to Joseph Hergesheimer, an early 20th century novelist. Photo by Pete Smith.

In the Galleries: Propaganda poster protesting Nazi book burnings

By Io Montecillo

This 1942 poster reminded Americans of the widespread 1933 Nazi book burnings and presented books as playing a fundamental role in the fight against tyranny.
This 1942 poster reminded Americans of the widespread 1933 Nazi book burnings and presented books as playing a fundamental role in the fight against tyranny.

On May 10, 1933, a series of coordinated book burnings took place across Germany. In the academic sphere, the German Students Association’s staged burnings were an attempt to eliminate “un-German” works from university libraries. Addressing the students gathered in Berlin, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels encouraged them to “clean up the debris of the past.” Ultimately more than 25,000 books were burned, including works by Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Helen Keller.

The 1933 Nazi-sponsored book burnings in Germany prompted a swift and very public response in the United States. On the day of the burnings, more than 100,000 marchers took to the streets of New York City in protest. American newspapers covered the story extensively, and citizens soon watched the burnings firsthand via newsreel footage in theaters throughout the United States.

In the aftermath, the Brooklyn Jewish Center created a Library of Nazi Banned Books, and the New York Public Library hosted an exhibition of banned books. The book burnings took on greater significance in 1942 as the United States, at war with Germany, pointed to the book burnings as evidence of the Nazi government’s tyranny.

The poster can be seen in the current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22.

In the Galleries: "The Harp Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

By Kelsey McKinney

Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).
Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).

In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921). That prize-winning book was an expanded commercial edition of the poems in this volume. The longer book was published by Harper and Brothers and contained these poems, another poem published first by Frank Shay, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921), and a handful of additional new verses.

Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver was one of four volumes that came to represent the chapbook series Salvo that Shay published from the shop. A “salvo” is a burst of gunfire, and these little volumes were likewise meant as small but powerful bursts of energy. Millay’s volume was the most influential of the series.

Shay, the owner of the Greenwich Village bookshop, was a natural salesman. Actor and playwright Holland Hudson wrote that Shay used his windows wisely to draw customers into his shop. Millay’s bibliographer Karl Yost noted that for the total edition of 500 copies, Shay printed most of the copies in orange, but he also printed a small number of each in “red, dark green, apple green, yellow, and blue.” Yost explains Shay did this so that he could create striking window displays. Shay’s wife, the artist Fern Forrester Shay, created the cover art and interior illustrations for this volume. The Ransom Center only owns covers in green, blue, and red. The imprint inside the volume reads, “printed for Frank Shay and sold by him at 4 Christopher St., in the shadow of old Jefferson Market, 1922.”

The Ballad of the Harp Weaver includes some of Millay’s most famous poems and may be read in full in the online exhibition.

Several copies of Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp Weaver can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22.