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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.

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.

Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, reads at Wednesday's "Politics and Presidents" Poetry on the Plaza event. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mark Updegrove, Director of the LBJ Presidential Library, reads at Wednesday's "Politics and Presidents" Poetry on the Plaza event. Photo by Pete Smith.
Barry Stone of the artist collective Lakes Were Rivers conducts a show-and-tell with Ransom Center staff to prepare for an upcoming exhibition this summer at the Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Barry Stone of the artist collective Lakes Were Rivers conducts a show-and-tell with Ransom Center staff to prepare for an upcoming exhibition this summer at the Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Photographer Nathan Lyons signs copies of his books at the Ransom Center before speaking at a public program on Thursday. Photo by Pete Smith.
Photographer Nathan Lyons signs copies of his books at the Ransom Center before speaking at a public program on Thursday. Photo by Pete Smith.