Navigate / search

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

By Alyssa O'connell

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

Related Content

Notes from the Undergrad: Student finds passage to past through diary is a journey full of surprises

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

Undergraduate Visitor

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Fellows Find: When Knopf Inc. published a master work by Fernando Ortiz: A strange hurricane

By Armando Chavez-Rivera

 

Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.
Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.

Armando Chávez-Rivera, an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, has published four books, among them Cuba per se. Cartas de la diáspora (2009), which summarizes extensive information about Cuban writers located off the island. He worked as a journalist for more than a decade in Latin America, with long stays in various countries in the region, and has published in magazines and popular journals. Currently his academic research is concentrated on Spanish-American literature while he maintains his work as a columnist for the Latin American Data Base, a unit of the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2013–2014 fellowships.

In the spring of 1947, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. published the first English translation of Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar) by Fernando Ortiz. This inspired essay explores the island’s history, culture, and economy through references to its principle crops, and provides detailed information about the internal tensions within society and its relationship with the United States.

The Harry Ransom Center preserves the correspondence between Ortiz and the publishing house, as well as routine communications of the legendary team formed from Herbert Weinstock, editor, and Harriet de Onís, translator, who were responsible for the first English translations of other celebrated Latin-American writers like Alejo Carpentier.

Knopf Inc.’s growing interest in Latin America was rooted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, and Blanche W. Knopf visited several countries in the region in 1942. Contrapunteo was the first important Cuban work published by Knopf Inc.

Ortiz’s book created a controversy among the editorial advisors; one of them undervalued it for being written in a supposedly “tropical” style, grandiloquent and almost impossible to translate. Nevertheless, Ortiz’s international prestige as an academic and his encyclopedic knowledge of culture, versed in ethnography, sociology, and anthropology, among other fields, tipped the scales in his favor.

The book received excellent reviews from the press, with praise for a translation that maintained the original language’s seductive blend of rigorous scientific knowledge, profusion of quotations, and sustained poetic prose. We now know the subsequent impact the volume had on terminology, coining terms like “transculturation,” to refer to the mutual exchange between cultures in contact.

Contrapunteo reviewed Cuba’s economic situation and its dependence on foreign markets and capital, primarily from the United States. The book found a way to state scientific knowledge without sacrificing literary elegance, while addressing political, cultural, and economic aspects of a region that the U.S. public knew little about or viewed stereotypically.

Ortiz’s works—as well as those by Knopf’s tireless collaborators in those years, Columbian Germán Arciniegas and Brazilian Gilberto Freyre—hinted at the brewing political upheavals that would yield uprisings, revolutions, and dictatorships, and focused on milestones such as the Cuban revolution and its radicalization to communism and confrontation with the United States.

In the course of my two-month stay at the Ransom Center, I followed this thread of analysis in the letters between Knopf Inc.’s editors, translators, and advisors from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the subsequent reaction of the press and the markets. Knopf’s publications promoted a better understanding of the rest of the hemisphere by the United States and laid the groundwork for a favorable reception of Spanish American Boom literature.

I read the Knopf Inc. archive as if it was an intellectual, cultural, and societal “counterpoint.” Several books from the New York publisher showed the cultural change, literary renovation, and the approaching political explosion in neighboring countries. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar was one of those rare books that, through its information and biting political reflections, was a strange hurricane of premonitions, bitter and sweet, for the Knopf editors and United States’ readers.

English Honors seminar course on David Foster Wallace gives undergraduates a look into Wallace’s archive

By Emily Neie

Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Before spring of last year, I had only heard David Foster Wallace referenced by acquaintances and a TV show character with an affinity for oversized novels. When I was applying for my undergraduate internship at the Ransom Center, I noticed that the Center had acquired Wallace’s archive and opened it for research. I knew that a course on Wallace was being offered by the University as an English Honors seminar during the fall semester, and the opportunity to combine my academic studies with my new internship seemed like a perfect way to enhance my first experience with Wallace’s work. What I believed to be a simple coincidence turned out to be an unforgettable journey down the rabbit hole that is the mind of David Foster Wallace.

My first experience with Wallace was his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I immediately fell in love with his wit and intimate voice. I would need aforementioned love to lay the foundation for my relationship with Infinite Jest, which has been admittedly rocky, yet rewarding. My professor, Heather Houser, has done an excellent job planning our exposure to Wallace, introducing us to his style in shorter, more light-hearted bursts before throwing us headfirst into the waters of Infinite Jest. She also planned two class trips to the Ransom Center to view items pulled from Wallace’s archive so that we could read marginalia written in miniscule handwriting, correspondence with editors and fans, and annotations in books that he used for research. When I asked her why she thought it was so important to bring our class to see Wallace’s archive firsthand, she replied, “Wallace’s letters, manuscripts, and notes show him to be a painstaking writer and reader. Writing was a laborious, often distressing process for Wallace. Students see this in the sheaves of drafts and series of letters between Wallace and his editors and friends.”

There is something about looking at an author’s handwriting, and leafing through his personal library that grounds you. This was a person, with a life and loved ones: an actual person wrote these books I’m reading, you think, and that realization can be sudden and startling. I am not quite sure why it is easy to forget about the human element of literature, but my time with the Wallace archive helped me remember that I am studying a brilliant person’s imagination incarnate.

I agree with this statement from my classmate Aaron Levine: “We as a class are privileged… most people who read Infinite Jest do not get to read it in segments and then have hour-and-a-half conversations with a room full of inquisitive minds.” It has been an even greater privilege to be taught by a professor who understands the value of pushing the limits of undergraduate study, and to have access to the unique resources that the Ransom Center has to offer. The experiences I have had as an undergraduate scholar at the Ransom Center have enriched my adventures as an intern, as well as my future academic endeavors. In fact, I am planning to research the Ransom Center’s collections for my upcoming undergraduate English Honors thesis.

Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Joanna Barker, right, views photographs from the Julia Margaret Cameron collection at the Ransom Center. Cameron photographed Joanna Barker’s great-grandmother Mary Ryan many times, and the collection contains photos of her great-grandparents posing as Romeo and Juliet in 1867 shortly before they were married that year. Joanna's husband Nicolas Barker, left, editor of The Book Collector, was here as part of a public forum The Fate of The Book presented by the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Joanna Barker, right, views photographs from the Julia Margaret Cameron collection at the Ransom Center. Cameron photographed Joanna Barker’s great-grandmother Mary Ryan many times, and the collection contains photos of her great-grandparents posing as Romeo and Juliet in 1867 shortly before they were married that year. Joanna's husband Nicolas Barker, left, editor of The Book Collector, was here as part of a public forum The Fate of The Book presented by the English Department at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Alex Szerlip, a scholar working in the Norman Bel Geddes collection, gives a talk for docents at the Ransom Center about her research. Photo by Pete Smith.
Alex Szerlip, a scholar working in the Norman Bel Geddes collection, gives a talk for docents at the Ransom Center about her research. Photo by Pete Smith.
 Conservation staff bathe an Eric Gill drawing to remove a poor quality mat. The mat was adhered to the front of the drawing and was discoloring and damaging the paper.
Conservation staff bathe an Eric Gill drawing to remove a poor quality mat. The mat was adhered to the front of the drawing and was discoloring and damaging the paper.

Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

By Ady Wetegrove

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Remembering Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

By Edgar Walters

Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit, dedicated to “building the world of tomorrow,” proved to be a step into Bob Hesdorfer’s future before he’d even arrived.

“I was probably 14,” says Hesdorfer, referring to the spring day in 1939 that he and a classmate spent at the New York World’s Fair. The exhibit, which took place at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, marked one of his first ventures into adulthood. Hesdorfer recalls, “For the very first time, I was allowed to take the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway on my own.” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, he still remembers it fondly.

Upon arriving, Hesdorfer recounts, “We hit many of the pavilions, but we couldn’t begin to cover the whole fair in one day. I think the General Motors [Futurama exhibit] was the one we headed for first.” They weren’t alone in their eager enthusiasm. “As I recall, there were long lines waiting to get in.” When asked whether he thought the other guests were as excited as he was, Hesdorfer responded, “Oh, you could just tell.”

Simply entering Futurama proved arresting: “We were overwhelmed. It was really something that I had never seen before… We were curious about what it was all about,” says Hesdorfer. More than just a collection of sleek predictions, the exhibit represented an entirely new way of viewing a world shaped by humans. It allowed viewers a departure from temporal technological constraints, offering a tangible example of a delightful but elusive concept: the potential of the future. For Hesdorfer, who grew up to be a graphic designer, the experience was particularly inspiring. “Everything was smooth and clean and rounded and pristine… I appreciated the concept and the design work that went into it… I thought I could have been an automobile designer… I would have liked to have been an industrial designer as Bel Geddes was.”

Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Hesdorfer describes the experience: “When we got to the Futurama model, they had these chairs on a conveyor belt, and we got in a couple chairs and rode around the whole thing. The model was in the middle below us and we could look down on it.”

“There was a voice describing what we were seeing, and it was just mindboggling… The traffic was below ground, or at least below the sidewalk level, and the sidewalks were above and around. There was no direct contact with the traffic, so it was safer and easier. You didn’t have to wait to cross the street or for the light to change.”

Some of Bel Geddes’s predictions, nearly inconceivable at the time, now seem believable. Hesdorfer recalls, “One of the things that they predicted was keeping automatic distance between vehicles on the highway, and now I guess it’s just about ready for use in the cars.”

The fair made a lasting impression on the boys. When asked whether Hesdorfer knew at that age who Norman Bel Geddes was, he responded, “Probably not before [Futurama].” He’s certainly known about him ever since.