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Scholar discusses work in Knopf publishing collection

By Elana Estrin

Independent scholar John Thornton came to the Ransom Center last year to research his upcoming biography of Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the House of Knopf. The Ransom Center’s Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection comprises 1,526 boxes. To navigate this extensive archive, Thornton says, he emulated biographer Lytton Strachey: “[Strachey] would look at the sources like someone rowing out over a great sea of information and lowering his bucket here and there and pulling up samples and examining them. So I think that’s the best I can do: row my boat through the Knopf collections and see what turns up.”

Method actor Karl Malden stars in both stage and film version of "Baby Doll"

By Elana Estrin

Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'
Film still of Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach in 'Baby Doll.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series continues tonight at the Ransom Center with Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956), featuring Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Middle-aged Archie Lee Meighan (Malden) looks forward to finally consummating his two-year marriage with Baby Doll (Baker) on her upcoming 20th birthday. When rival Silva Vacarro’s (Wallach) cotton gin burns down, Vacarro plots revenge against Archie Lee through Baby Doll.

Karl Malden was an American method actor who created both the Broadway and film roles of Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire as well as the role of Archie in Baby Doll. Malden had a long and full career and was considered, from a casting agent’s point of view, “the ideal Everyman,” as he was remembered in his obituary in The New York Times. Malden’s performances in Williams’s Streetcar and Baby Doll are two of his strongest, and he flourished as an actor under the direction of Elia Kazan. As Malden put it, critics applauded him for being “No. 1 in the No. 2 parts I was destined to get.”

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings. Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Video highlights scholar’s work in Beckett collection

By Elana Estrin

Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.

Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.

"Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" helps propel Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor to stardom

By Elana Estrin

Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'
Signet paperback edition of Tennessee Williams's play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.'

The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center continues tonight with Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition, Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.

Despondent ex-athlete Brick Pollitt (Newman) resists the affections of his enticing wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Taylor). Tensions climax during cotton tycoon Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration on the Pollitt Plantation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped propel Newman and Taylor to stardom. Although Taylor did not fit Williams’s own “idea of Maggie the Cat,” she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal and was praised by Walter F. Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”

Williams offered his literary agent Audrey Wood a list of eight “acceptable” directors for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. MGM, however, preferred to work with a director they already had under contract. MGM offered George Cukor the directorial job, but Cukor turned it down when he realized that the Hollywood version of the story cut out most of the play’s implications of Brick’s homosexuality. The changes also infuriated Williams, who is said to have cautioned audiences to stay away from the 1958 film, charging that “this movie will set the industry back 50 years!” Richard Brooks, whom Wood identifies as “maybe!” qualified for the job, was eventually chosen to direct the film.

Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.

Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.

This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.

Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

By Elana Estrin

Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.
Tony Kushner chats with students after a public program during a visit in 2006.

In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Becoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.

How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?

Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read A Streetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.

Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.

I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.

What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?

I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do The Glass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.

In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.

Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.
Kushner speaks during a public program in 2006.

What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?

I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.

How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?

Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.

I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.

As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.

I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.

Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?

I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.

Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.

You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?

I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.

One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.

Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.

John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”

Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.

I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.

What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?

I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.

I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which A Streetcar Named Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Managing editor at "The Strand" discusses publishing Dashiell Hammett story from Ransom Center's collections

By Elana Estrin

Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
After doing some detective work of his own, Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located a previously unpublished short story by Dashiell Hammett at the Ransom Center. Untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” the short story has been published for the first time in The Strand’s current issue, released today. (Learn more here about how unpublished manuscripts are unearthed at the Ransom Center.) Perhaps best known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, Hammett is considered the father of hardboiled detective fiction. Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center includes 14 other unpublished works, drafts, unfinished works, and personal correspondence. We talked to Gulli about his decision to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Out of the several unpublished Hammett manuscripts you read, how did you choose to publish “So I Shot Him” in The Strand?

All of the manuscripts I found were very, very, very strong works of fiction. “So I Shot Him” was my favorite one. It stood out because I thought it was something Hammett hadn’t tried to write before. It was sort of an experimental Hammett story.

How does “So I Shot Him” compare with Hammett’s other works?

It’s very different in some ways but at the same time has a lot of Hammett trademarks: tension, great characterization, and terse, realistic dialog. The trademark Hammett dialog is superb and seamless. You don’t feel like you’re reading something. It feels like you’re actually listening to what the characters are saying.

What I love about Hammett is the tension. This story has the feel that something sinister is about to happen. There’s such a build-up, and you keep turning page by page to see the conclusion.

This story stood apart because there was a psychological element to it. It’s not like a lot of his other stories that have a clear-cut plot and conclusion. With this story, the ending leaves you asking a lot of questions. I wanted to publish something that we’ll speak about for a long time. If you’re a suspicious person, you’ll think something sinister happens. If you’re not, you may not think so.

Why was it unpublished?

This is the $64,000 question. A lot of times, you’ll understand why writers decided not to publish something if the work was poor. But in this case, the story is very, very, very good. Hammett was a man of many contradictions, so it’s difficult to tell why he didn’t publish it. If I were to guess, I think he worked very hard on it but thought it wouldn’t work in the pulp fiction market. Sometimes writers don’t know what’s in their best interest. If he had published this story, I’m sure it would’ve been very successful. Looking at the story, you have to suspect that he held it dear to him. He was interested in keeping it to himself, especially since he didn’t destroy it. The Hammett estate told me they were aware that these materials have existed for a long time, so perhaps they’d have a better answer!

What do you think Hammett would say if he knew the manuscript were being published today?

I think that writers become less inhibited over time. Writers look at what they wrote when they were younger and can have one of two reactions: either shock that I can’t believe I was this bad. Or, my god, I was writing something very fresh, very new, very uninhibited. A lot of writers look back on old manuscripts and try to drink from that fountain of work that was uninhibited.

The manuscript is undated. When do you think Hammett wrote this story?

I would say the 1920s or 1930s. There’s a bit of a slinging, 1920s feel to it. I could be wrong. But I’m certain it wasn’t his first attempt at fiction.

What can you tell us about some of the other unpublished manuscripts in the Hammett collection at the Ransom Center?

I found 14 other unpublished manuscripts. The Ransom Center was very helpful. I did all of my research remotely with the help of an intern who was just incredible, Nick Homenda. If it weren’t for Nick, I don’t know where I would be.

It was all very time consuming because I would look up a manuscript, then I’d have to cross-reference at other libraries, and write to Hammett experts to check that the manuscripts I found weren’t published before. It took over 100 hours of work, but I managed to determine that these 14 other manuscripts weren’t published either.

In these stories, we see a lot of elements Hammett used later on in his career. We see colorful portraits of criminals in these stories. One story is about a regular, everyday private detective who’s a lot like Continental Op [a recurring character who appears in 36 of Hammett’s short stories]. The story ends like an Anton Chekhov story. There’s an ending, but not a resolution. You want a little more.

What made you decide to look through Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center?

I decided to look at the Ransom Center because someone had found an unpublished Graham Greene novel at the Ransom Center, which we published in The Strand. I did some more research and found that there were a lot of other interesting manuscripts at the Ransom Center.

Did anything surprise you in the Hammett archive?

The fact that I found 14 unpublished Hammett manuscripts was a huge surprise that will last a lifetime. I thought I’d be lucky if I found one. I’m now seeking permission to publish the rest in book form. Now I’m just waiting for the Hammett estate. I’m pretty certain it will be published. Several editors are interested.

It’s incredible what the Ransom Center has done preserving all these great writers’ works. It keeps a lot of these people alive for future generations. At the Ransom Center, you’re custodians of literary treasures.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How are unpublished manuscripts unearthed at the Ransom Center?

By Elana Estrin

The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.

The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28 issue of The Strand.

This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?

Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.

“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.

When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.

“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.

Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.

When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.

“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.

Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.

Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.

“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”

On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”