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Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

By Megan Barnard

The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.

The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.

The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

McSweeney’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.
Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin.

The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.

“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”

The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.

The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Read more about the arrival of the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center.

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

By Abigail Cain

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Dramaturg James Graham admits he had barely heard of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth before starting work on the play. Alongside Williams’s other works—including Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—the difficult script often fades into the background.

This summer The Old Vic in London is bringing Sweet Bird of Youth to center stage. The play, which follows professional gigolo Chance Wayne and aging Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, exists in countless forms. Williams spent over 15 years writing and rewriting the play; some versions conclude with the characters alive and well, others with them dead. Entire acts that were slashed from earlier versions are later revived as Williams struggled to get it right.

Dramaturging involves editing and analyzing an existing text, and in the case of Sweet Bird of Youth, this task was especially difficult. Although many theaters select a single version of the play to perform, Graham instead wove together the different versions to make a cohesive whole. As part of his research, he spent time with the Williams collection at the Ransom Center in early 2013 reading through drafts of the play.

“Following [Williams’s] brain was an adventure—insertions, appendices, and keys leave a trail,” Graham said. “Seeing the names of his characters evolve, as Delphine became Valerie became Heavenly, and Phil Beam elevated to the more heroic-sounding Chance Wayne. I noted his coffee stains and allowed myself to imagine the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the page.”

The Ransom Center’s collection is one of the principal archives of Williams’s works. The Center acquired the author’s own papers between 1962 and 1969, which document his career through more than 1,000 separately titled plays, poems, and short stories, along with correspondence and newspaper clippings. In 1964, the Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and his literary agent Audrey Wood. Then, in 1965, the collection expanded with the acquisition of family papers from his mother.

Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered on June 1 and will run through August 31 at The Old Vic in London.

Watch a scene from the production.

In the galleries: Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of “The Fight”

By Abigail Cain

The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."
The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."

Norman Mailer once wrote, “[Boxing] arouses two of the deepest anxieties we contain. There is not only the fear of getting hurt, which is profound in more men than will admit to it, but there is the opposite panic, equally unadmitted, of hurting others.”

Mailer used boxing to explore many of the violent debates of modern American life, debates about sex, gender, race, and even literary style. The Fight, Mailer’s book-length account of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, touches on many of these subjects while capturing one of the most famous and memorable boxing matches in history. Mailer’s love of the sport shines through as he describes the precision, skill, and art of two of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Mailer’s unabashed egoism and racism are equally evident. Since its publication in 1975, the book has been both widely celebrated and deeply criticized, much like Mailer himself.

In this draft page of The Fight, Mailer offers a description of the charismatic and often outrageous boxer Muhammad Ali. Mailer writes, “Is it possible that Muhammad Ali is the only American in the 20th century one does not need to describe?… when he is looking his best (and Ali has his days) then not only is the greatest athlete who ever lived standing before you but a fellow who is in danger of being the most beautiful man.”  Though few could rival Mailer’s oversized ego, in Ali, Mailer may have met his match.

The opening page of Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of The Fight is on display through August 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Literature and Sport. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.

Mailer’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.

Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.
Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.