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Errol Morris book highlights photos from Ransom Center's collections

By Kelsey McKinney

Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.

Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, published by Penguin in September 2011.

Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections.  The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.

In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?

Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.

Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.

Related content:

Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).
"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).

In the galleries: Jacob Lawrence’s "Eight Studies for The Book of Genesis"

By Io Montecillo

"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
"Eight Studies for the Book of Genesis, No. 4" by Jacob Lawrence, 1989. © 2011 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) received his early education as an artist in Harlem. By the time he was in his twenties, he had received national recognition for his work, notably “The Migration Series,” about the African-American migration from the South to the North following World War I. Lawrence spent most of the rest of his life in the Pacific Northwest, and at the time of his death, he was generally recognized as one of the most important African-American artists.

All eight of Lawrence’s large silkscreen prints for the Book of Genesis are on display in sequence in The King James Bible: Its History and Influence exhibition. They show the artist’s strongly colorful and mildly abstract style at its best. The words of the preacher invoke the simplicity and force of the King James Version.

Lawrence’s works and those of other artists who were inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

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.

Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Senior Book Conservator Olivia Primanis executes the quarterly page-turning of the Gutenberg Bible to preserve the spine. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Members pose in the photo booth at “Kings & Creators, the opening reception for the exhibition “The King James Bible: Its History and Influence.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.
Artists draw calligraphy onto postcards for patrons at the “Kings & Creators” opening reception. Photo by Pete Smith.

Ur-Knopf: An early Knopf book is reunited with larger Knopf library

By Richard Oram

June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.

So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.

When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.

 

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

 

Author T. C. Boyle’s archive acquired

By Elana Estrin

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of novelist and short-story writer Tom Coraghessan “T. C.” Boyle, author of such acclaimed works as The Tortilla Curtain (1995) and World’s End (1987). Spanning more than 30 years from the 1970s through the present, the archive covers the breadth of Boyle’s prolific career.

“I am very pleased and honored to have my papers safely ensconced at the Ransom Center so that they may be preserved and made available to scholars,” said Boyle. “With such an archive, there is always the danger of damage or even destruction, especially when the papers are stored in filing cabinets and cardboard boxes in the basement of a very old house. I am vastly relieved to know that they are now safe.”

Boyle is the author of 22 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, and The New Yorker. He was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Prize for best novel of the year in 1988 for World’s End and the PEN/Malamud Prize in 1999 for T. C. Boyle Stories (1998). Boyle is currently a professor of English at the University of Southern California.

The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, professional files, and teaching material. Nearly every published title is represented by a binder of manuscript notes, research material, drafts, and proofs. Also included are about 140 short-story files.

If you’re in Austin, don’t miss the chance to see Boyle at BookPeople on March 19.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

There really is “Something About Arthur”: A peek into Charlotte Brontë’s childhood

By Kelsey McKinney

The daughters of Patrick Brontë built a literary empire. Combined, the three women published seven novels and two books of poetry. In 1847 alone, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, Emily published Wuthering Heights, and Anne published Agnes Grey. For the Brontës, literature was a way of life that started young. Charlotte’s unpublished juvenilia book “Something About Arthur,”—housed at the Ransom Center—provides an active look into the childhood imagination of a woman who would become a major part of the Western literary canon.

Charlotte Brontë wrote “Something About Arthur” at the age of 17 shortly after returning from boarding school. The text is 25 pages long and includes a 42-line poem. It is the story of a struggling artist who battles an arrogant aristocrat for the heart of the heroine, Lady Emily Chalwort. Like many of Charlotte’s juvenilia books, “Something About Arthur” is small enough to fit in one hand, measuring only 5.7 cm by 9.5 cm (2.5 inches by 3 5/8 inches). Charlotte’s handwriting is microscopic and barely legible.

Charlotte’s motivation for creating such small books is debated. Patrick Brontë was by no means a poor man, though it is suspected that he may not have wanted to fund the paper cost of his children’s fantasies. The distance from the Brontë house to the nearest store to buy paper could be a reason. Some suspect that the small words kept the stories secret from adult eyes or that Charlotte was merely trying to imitate newspaper print. The most common theory, however, is that the books were originally created for a group of toy soldiers. In 1826, the year the first small manuscript was created, Patrick Brontë returned from a conference toting a set of 12 wooden soldiers for Branwell, the second eldest and only male child. Eventually, each child chose his or her favorite soldier. The stories in these juvenilia manuscripts, it is speculated, were not about the soldiers, but created for them. Thus, the size of the book would need to be in direct proportion to the size of the soldier.

When creating the worlds for their toy soldiers, the Brontë children were divided. Charlotte played primarily with the next eldest, Branwell, leaving Emily to play with Anne. Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary kingdom and filled it with the characters of their imagination. They named the imaginary world Verdopolis. They created characters with names, occupations, and motivations. Charlotte transcribed their fantasies in her tiny, illegible hand. These fantasies became “Something About Arthur” and what is known as the “Glass Town” series. The majority of Charlotte’s juvenilia novellas are set in Verdopolis, the earliest written at the age of 14. “Something About Arthur” was written three years later, and Charlotte stopped writing about the characters of Verdopolis by her mid-20s.

The Brontë sisters’ fiction has long been the subject of biographical interpretation. The Brontë children were known to be social recluses. Charlotte especially was timid and often struggled to cope with her surroundings. Some scholars claim that because the Brontës spent the majority of their lives secluded, the fiction they produced must be the product of their own circumstances. Yet others dispute this claim. We may not see Charlotte herself in the characters of “Something About Arthur,” but we do see Charlotte’s evolution as a writer. This tiny book shows her love for strong heroines, current events, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her writing mimics gothic literature and the adventure novel, two devices she would discard in her later works. “Something About Arthur” is the beginning of a craft that would be skillfully and carefully honed.

The Ransom Center acquired “Something About Arthur” in 1952 through the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation. Fannie Ratchford, esteemed figure in the Ransom Center’s history, orchestrated the entire affair.  Miriam Lutcher Stark pledged her entire library to the university in 1925. Knowing that his library contained a similar Brontë juvenilia piece titled “The Green Dwarf,” Miss Ratchford prompted him to acquire “Something About Arthur” in 1952 when she found it on the market. He did just that. Today both juvenile manuscripts, and Miss Ratchford’s correspondence with Lutcher Stark, can be found in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Last December, another of Charlotte’s juvenilia books sold at auction to Le Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris. This book was the first in the “Glass Town” series, penned in 1826 when Charlotte was 14. It too is believed to have been written for the wooden soldiers.

 

Click on thumbnails below for larger images.

 

Robert Alter shares insight about the King James Bible

By Kelsey McKinney

A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.