Writer Denis Johnson, whose archive is currently being cataloged at the Ransom Center, is best known for his National Book Award–winning novel Tree of Smoke (2007), Jesus’ Son (1992), and several plays and poetry collections. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently published Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which was originally published in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002.
Johnson’s archive contains materials related to the novella, some of which can be seen in the above slideshow.
In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the novella. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Johnson” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.
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The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.
The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.
Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.
This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.
But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.
Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.
The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.
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Coetzee enrolled in the University in 1965, and he earned his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages in 1968. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
In a 1984 essay for the New York Times titled “How I Learned About America—and Africa—in Texas,” Coetzee writes about working in the collections at the Ransom Center:
“In the Manuscripts Room of the library, I found the exercise books in which Samuel Beckett had written “Watt” on a farm in the south of France, hiding out from the Germans. I spent weeks perusing them, pondering the sketches and numbers and doodles in the margins, disconcerted to find the well-attested agony of composing a masterpiece had left no other traces than these flippancies. Was the pain perhaps all in the waiting, I asked myself, in the sitting and staring at the empty page?”
Once the Coetzee archive is cataloged, students will have access to Coetzee’s own papers for scholarly work and perhaps will explore some of these same questions about the writer’s process.
Coetzee was on campus during the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966, and in the same essay, he recalls hiding under a desk during the ordeal. He also recalls happier times on campus spent with cricket teammates and traveling to College Station to play the Aggie team, also composed mostly of students from colonial countries. Coetzee lived in Austin with his wife during those three years, and their son Nicholas was born here.
Coetzee returned to the University as a guest of the linguistics department and again in 1995 to teach students in the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. Student evaluations from his time at the Michener Center are included among his papers, and the anonymous responses are almost unanimous in their praise.
“John Coetzee has an astonishing mind,” wrote one student.
“I feel very fortunate to have had him as a teacher,” wrote another. “His intellect is world-class. I admire his writing as well as his teaching. He parses meaning with rather exquisite precision, displays humor, never loses the larger sense. He has high standards but was always approachable. He guided classroom discussions with a light hand—they were spontaneous but not chaotic. He was, in short, very great—interesting and interested.”
The Texas Exes, the alumni organization for The University of Texas at Austin, awarded Coetzee the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2004.
Coetzee returned to the University once more in May 2010 to give a talk as part of the Graduate School‘s 1910 Society Lecture Series, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school.
In his talk, Coetzee said of his time in Austin: “My free hours I spent in the library, which I cannot praise more highly than to say it did not know all the treasures it contained.”
Scholars, researchers, and students will no doubt be mining the Coetzee archive in the coming years in search of the many treasures that it contains.
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The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Nobel Prize-winning writer and University of Texas at Austin alumnus J. M. Coetzee. Spanning more than 50 years, the archive traces the author’s life and career from 1956 through the present.
“My association with The University of Texas goes back almost half a century,” said Coetzee. “It is very satisfying to me to know that my papers will find a home at the Ransom Center, one of the world’s great research collections.”
Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the university, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.
Coetzee is an acclaimed novelist, academic, and literary critic. Influenced by his personal history of growing up in South Africa, he writes with strong anti-imperialist feelings. He has published 13 books, including Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999. Both novels received the Man Booker Prize, awarded each year for best full-length novel, making Coetzee the first author to receive the award twice.
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.
In the early 1920s, noteworthy visitors to Frank Shay’s Bookshop at 4 Christopher Street began autographing the narrow door that opened into the shop’s office. Signed by over 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable habitués of Greenwich Village, this unusual artifact is a literal portal to the past, revealing the rich mix of innovators— from anarchist poets to major commercial publishers—that defined this slice of Bohemia from 1920 to 1925.
The shop was a haunt of legendary figures: novelists Upton Sinclair and John Dos Passos browsed alongside artists John Sloan and James Earle Fraser. Poets Edwin Arlington Robinson and Vachel Lindsay rubbed elbows with publishers Thomas Seltzer and John Farrar. Playwright Susan Glaspell and Theatre Guild founder Lawrence Langner crossed paths with Algonquin Round Table members Donald Ogden Stewart and Heywood Broun.
This narrow pine door began its life in a flat at 11 Christopher Street once occupied by the novelist and prominent Villager Floyd Dell. In 1921 the building was demolished, but not before Frank Shay saved the door—painted red at the time—and took it across the street and installed it at the back of his shop. As Christopher Morley tells the story, Shay enjoyed an afternoon drink in his office and hung the door to hide this then-illegal activity; these were the days of Prohibition.
According to Morley, the first signer was artist Hendrik Willem Van Loon. His name appears in the center front, accompanied by a cartoon ship. We do not know whether signing the door was a privilege reserved only for some customers. The vast majority of signers were well known; a small number were local businesspeople or friends of the shop’s various owners.
As the number of signatures grew, the door became a well-known curiosity, and people visited the shop to see it. Over the five years that the shop was in business, the door was covered with approximately 242 signatures, most in pencil. Shay likely added the blue “frame” before he sold the shop in 1923. Varnish was added at some point, protecting most of the signatures, though some had already smudged or faded beyond recognition.
When the shop closed in 1925, then-owner Juliette Koenig moved the storied door to her New York apartment. In 1960 she put it up for sale, and the Ransom Center purchased it.
Dillon Welch is an undergraduate studentstudying violin performance at the Butler School of Music. He researched the Ransom Center’s Russell Banks archive for a class devoted to the author’s works. During the course, Banks was on campus for an event at the Ransom Center, and Welch was given the opportunity to meet Banks in person.
For the spring 2011 semester, as part of the new Signature Course program at The University of Texas at Austin, I took a class on the works of Russell Banks. I’d never heard of him before. But I soon got to know him through both his characters and themes. After we had thoroughly delved into the depths of Banks’s mind on the page, we got to do the same with the man. To me, this was the highlight of the course: a small group of people sitting around a table having an intimate conversation with the author that ranged from deep political questions on his frequent use of racial themes in his novels, to why his characters like to drink Canadian Club. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, for which I could scarcely stop asking questions. To know that we were learning things about Banks that few people actually knew was fascinating. We spent a semester reading close to half of his novels and several short stories. In addition, we spent time studying his archive at the Ransom Center, setting our eyes on rarely seen items. At the beginning of the semester, our professor, Evan Carton, said, “When you leave this course, you will be some of the foremost scholars on Russell Banks.” He was so right.