Navigate / search

Denis Johnson papers open for research

By Amy Armstrong

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" opens this week in Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

Playwright Tom Stoppard wanted to incorporate ideas of chaos theory and thermodynamics into the intricately structured plot of his play Arcadia. His archive shows how he consulted with his son, a physics graduate student at Oxford University, and with his son’s colleagues to get the details just right.

The play opened to acclaim at the National Theatre in London on April 13, 1993, and now Austinites can see an Austin Shakespeare performance of Arcadia, which opens Thursday and runs through February 19 at the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

The Stoppard archive, which was acquired in batches between 1991 and 2000, spans more than 60 years and includes materials related to Arcadia and other well-known works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

To celebrate the opening of Arcadia this week, the Ransom Center is giving away two tickets to the Sunday, February 5 performance at 3 p.m. Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley will speak about “The Real Tom Stoppard” before the performance at 2:15 p.m.

Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Arcadia” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the tickets. [Update: A winner has been chosen and notified for this drawing.]

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.

Exhibition Services staff members remove the ‘Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia’ display banner after the close of the exhibition.  Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Exhibition Services staff members remove the ‘Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia’ display banner after the close of the exhibition. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Preparator Wyndell Faulk and Chief Preparator John Wright carefully remove from display Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
Preparator Wyndell Faulk and Chief Preparator John Wright carefully remove from display Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin interviewed University President William Powers Jr. at the Ransom Center about the school’s Powers Graduate Fellowship Program. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
The Graduate School at The University of Texas at Austin interviewed University President William Powers Jr. at the Ransom Center about the school’s Powers Graduate Fellowship Program. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Book chronicles “Postcards From America” road trip with Magnum photographers

By Elana Estrin

In May 2011, five Magnum photographers and one writer hopped on an R.V. at the Harry Ransom Center and launched a two-week road trip from Texas to California.

1,750 miles and thousands of photographs later, the result of the “Postcards from America” road trip is a limited-edition book that was released this week. The book is actually a collection of 18 items enclosed in a box signed by the itinerant photographers—Paolo Pellegrin, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Alec Soth, Mikhael Subotzky—and writer Ginger Strand: a book, five bumper stickers, a newspaper, two fold-outs, three cards, a poster, and five zines. According to the “Postcards From America” Tumblr, these items “combine to represent the idiosyncratically American character that defines this project.”

More information and pictures from the book are available on the “Postcards From America” website.

A selection of prints from the road trip will be added to the Magnum Photos collection, housed at the Center. The Ransom Center is pleased to participate in this documentary event, an outgrowth of the Center’s relationship with the Magnum Photos collective. In 2010 the Ransom Center joined in partnership with Magnum Photos and MSD Capital, LP to house 200,000 original press prints from Magnum’s New York bureau. The Ransom Center has since created a preliminary inventory and opened the collection for research to students, faculty, and the general public. The Ransom Center continues to work with Magnum, including the Magnum Foundation, to add further research value to the collection.

“The Ransom Center was the perfect place for us to start this trip,” photographer Susan Meiselas, President of the Magnum Cultural Foundation, told Cultural Compass. “Our picture distribution system, represented by the New York press print library that’s now housed at the Center, was part of the glue that historically held us together as a collective. In a post-analog age, we’re exploring new ways of being together collectively, and this trip was one of those experiments. We really saw how the Ransom Center could be a bridge between the old and the new. I hope we’ll keep doing more new projects together because I really believe in the importance of linking the archival materials to a living body of new production carried out with the same relentlessly curious spirit.”

Watch photographer Alec Soth lead a video introduction to the box set.

In the coming weeks, stay tuned for a follow-up blog post featuring a selection of prints from the road trip that will be added to the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.