Navigate / search

Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

By Micah Erwin

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.
These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

Anthology documents 22 plays performed at 2 London theaters

By Harry Ransom Center

 

Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.

The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?

The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.

This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.

Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Registration opens for photography symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age”

By Jennifer Tisdale

Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.
Image credit: Jonas Bendiksen, “Russia. Altai Territory. Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region’s future due to the toxic rocket fuel,” 2000. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.

The Harry Ransom Center presents the symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.” Scheduled for October 25–27, the symposium will be held in conjunction with the Ransom Center’s upcoming fall exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.

The symposium brings together photographers, curators, and historians to discuss the ways in which Magnum Photos has continually reinvented itself from the moment of its founding.

Symposium registration information, including registration, is available online.

Twelve Magnum photographers — Christopher Anderson, Bruno Barbey, Thomas Dworzak, Eli Reed, Jim Goldberg, Josef Koudelka, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power, Moises Saman, Alec Soth, Chris Steele-Perkins, and Donovan Wylie — as well as Magnum CEO Giorgio Psacharopulo, are scheduled to appear in panel discussions with a focus on the cooperative’s evolution and future.

Panel moderators will be Kristen Lubben, associate curator at the International Center of Photography, New York; Anne Wilkes Tucker, Gus and Lyndall Wortham Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; David Little, curator of photography and new media at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Stuart Alexander, independent curator and international specialist, photographs, Christie’s, New York; and Jessica S. McDonald, Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography at the Ransom Center. They will be joined by keynote speaker Fred Ritchin, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University’s (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts and co-director of the NYU/Magnum Foundation Photography and Human Rights educational program.

The Magnum Photos Inc. photography collection resides at the Ransom Center courtesy of MSD Capital, Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and John and Amy Phelan.

Memory as source in Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Machine Dreams”

By Ady Wetegrove

Known for the family dynamics she enmeshes in her work, Jayne Anne Phillips uses her own family history as a source for character and plot development in her debut novel Machine Dreams (1984). Phillips chronicles one family, the Hampsons, to explore narratives that span from the years leading up to World War II through the Vietnam War.

Phillips’s papers, which are now accessible at the Ransom Center, include letters, travel ephemera, army pamphlets, and public service announcements. Drawing on wartime and post-war letters written by her father, and addressed to his aunt, Phillips captures the distress of mid-twentieth-century America. The letters also inform character development in Machine Dreams.

Phillips incorporates specific language and usage from the letters throughout the novel. Her father continually sends love to “the kids,” but seldom makes specific mention of the names of his young cousins. Borrowing this language in a chapter titled “The House at Night,” Phillips writes:

“She heard faintly her brother breathe and whimper; in these summer days the artificial disruption of school was forgotten and the fifteen months of age separating them disappeared; they existed between their parents as one shadow, the kids, and they fought and conspired with no recognition of separation.”

Seeing Phillips’s papers is like gaining access to an era of American life. Family photographs in the archive supplement the early drafts of Machine Dreams, which Phillips scribbled in spiral notebooks. Annotations on photographs give meaning to otherwise nameless faces, revealing the ways Phillips develops her characters and narratives. It appears that personal relics guide Phillips’s process in the most intimate of ways—through family memories.

Phillips was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for her novel Lark & Termite and is the author of MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994), Black Tickets (1979), and Fast Lanes (1984).

Related content:

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read an excerpt from Lark & Termite

View a list of books that Jayne Anne Phillips recommends

 

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

 

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

By Edgar Walters

The Ransom Center’s archives are full of treasures waiting to be pulled off the shelves.  But once paged from the stacks, some of those treasures prove difficult to handle.

Such was the case with Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s enormous 1786 print “Pianta delle Fabriche Esistenti Nella villa Adriana.” The 10-foot wide map of Hadrian’s villa is a popular item at the Ransom Center, but its impressive size complicates the process of sharing it with students and scholars. Now, thanks to treatment efforts undertaken by Ransom Center conservators, the map is far more accessible.

Previously, a complex set of folds allowed the print to fit, attached to a stiff paper stub, inside its book. The setup was not optimal: long-term folds left significant creases in the print, and the stub attachment was unwieldy and damaging.

The conservation team had a better idea. Conservators cut the map away from its stub and carefully unfolded the map onto a large work surface, where it was cleaned of superficial dust and grime. The creases were relaxed by a textile humidifier and then flattened under a weighted drying system. Conservators also mended small tears in the print using long-fibered Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Next, Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation, was tasked with creating a modified tube around which the print could be rolled. Her objective was to eliminate the need for folding, thus protecting the item from potentially harmful creases. Given the print’s large size, a standard tube would be too large to house on a shelf within the stacks. Hamilton’s answer was to roll the map onto a flattened, space-saving pad.

The pad consists of four layers. A corrugated board forms the core, which is then wrapped in thick foam. An outer layer of soft, thin Volara foam envelops the interior, which is cocooned by airplane cotton just below an exterior cloth surface. Hamilton used a giant needle to sew through the many layers, ensuring that everything was well-secured.

Finally, Preservation Housing Manager Apryl Voskamp created a custom archival box to house the print and its pad. The new lidded box has a layer of protective Volara foam and a drop front, which allows the print to slide out easily without risk of harm.

The map of Hadrian’s villa is frequently used by classes in the University’s School of Architecture, where students learn the importance of structure and accessibility. Applying those same concepts, Ransom Center conservators have brought new life to the map of Hadrian’s villa.

 

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

 

Beat Generation poet Peter Orlovsky’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Peter Orlovsky’s notebook titled Rolling Thunder, Oct. 29, 1975.
Peter Orlovsky’s notebook titled Rolling Thunder, Oct. 29, 1975.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), an important figure in the Beat Generation.

Orlovsky was the companion of fellow poet Allen Ginsberg for more than 40 years, and his papers reflect significant aspects of their relationship. Orlovsky’s collection comprises manuscripts, journals and notebooks, correspondence, tape recordings, photographs, and other personal documents, including unpublished poetry and prose works.

Around the time that Orlovsky met Ginsberg, he began to keep a journal, filling more than 140 notebooks before his death. Some of Orlovsky’s published poems appear in the journals, yet none of the journals have been published.

Correspondence in the collection highlights Orlovsky’s many connections with other poets, authors, and artists. There are more than 1,600 letters written to Orlovsky and/or Ginsberg, including 165 letters written by Ginsberg himself. Some notable correspondents include Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, and Robert LaVigne. Orlovsky also wrote regularly to his parents and siblings, and more than 65 of his letters are included in the archive.

The collection features more than 2,650 photographs taken by or of Orlovsky, documenting the years between 1970 and 2010. Also included are eight reel-to-reel tapes from the 1960s and more than 120 audiocassettes made by Orlovsky during the 1970s and 1980s, some recording conversations with Ginsberg.

The Ransom Center has extensive collections of Beat Generation writers, including materials related to William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Corso , Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.

The Orlovsky materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Related content:
Ransom Center Humanities Coordinator Gregory Curtis writes about a piece of correspondence in the archive, revealing how a misunderstanding began between Allen Ginsberg and Diana Trilling.

Now open: “Literature and Sport” and “Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive”

By Alicia Dietrich

Two new exhibitions, Literature and Sport and Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive open today at the Ransom Center.

"Literature and Sport" opens today at the Ransom Center.
"Literature and Sport" opens today at the Ransom Center.

Sport holds a sacred place in Western culture and literature. Writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Foster Wallace have written about sport.

Drawn exclusively from the Ransom Center’s collections, Literature and Sport showcases the literature of sport through fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. Organized by sport, the exhibition highlights some of the finest examples of literary writing about baseball, football, boxing, tennis, cricket, bullfighting, and other sports. From Bernard Malamud’s The Natural to Norman Mailer’s The Fight, great literary works capture the appeal of sport and its ability to transform both the individual and society, all the while demonstrating how writers elevate language to literature.

"Contemporary Photographic Practice in the Archive" runs through August 4 at the Ransom Center.
"Contemporary Photographic Practice in the Archive" runs through August 4 at the Ransom Center.

Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive was created in cooperation with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video. Members of the collective created a body of work influenced in some way by the Ransom Center—its space, its purpose, its collections. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Man Ray, manuscripts from the E. E. Cummings archive, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, an embellished Maurice Ravel score, and props from the Robert De Niro collection.

Both exhibitions are on display through August 4 and can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours to 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

Beginning June 18, free docent-led tours are offered on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Join us for an “All-Star Evening,” the opening celebration for the summer exhibitions Literature and Sport and Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive, this Friday from 7 to 9 p.m.  Become a member now to receive complimentary admission and valet parking at this event. If you are not yet a member, tickets are available for $20 at the door (valet parking not included for non-members).