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“My Alices”: Writer John Crowley shares his connection to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

By Harry Ransom Center

John Crowley, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is an American author of fantasy, science fiction, and mainstream fiction. He published his first novel, The Deep, in 1975, and his 14th volume of fiction, Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, in 2005. He has taught creative writing at Yale University since 1993. A special 25th-anniversary edition of his novel Little, Big will be published this spring. Below, he shares how Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland influenced his own work.

 

A critical (best sense) reader of my work once wrote an entire essay about allusions to and quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books in a novel of mine called Little, Big—a very Alice sort of title in the first place. Some of the quotes and allusions, while certainly there, were unconscious; the turns of phrase and paradoxes and names in those books are so ingrained in me that they simply form part of my vocabulary. I first heard them read aloud: my older sister read them to me when I was about eight years old. I don’t remember my reaction to Alice in Wonderland—except for absorbing it wholly—because for certain books read or heard at certain moments in childhood, there is no first reading: such books enter the mind and soul as though they had always been there. I do remember my reaction to Through the Looking Glass: I found it unsettlingly weird, dark, dreamlike (it is in fact the greatest dream-book ever written). The shop where the shopkeeper becomes a sheep, then dissolves into a pond with Alice rowing and the sheep in the stern knitting (!)—it wasn’t scary, but it was eerie because it so exactly replicated the movements of places and things and people in my own dreams, of which I was then becoming a connoisseur. How did this book know about such things?

 

Another profound connection I have with Alice I only discovered—in delight—some years ago in (of all places) the Wall Street Journal. In an article about odd cognitive and sensory disorders, it described “Alice in Wonderland syndrome:” “Named after Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, this neurological condition makes objects (including one’s own body parts) seem smaller, larger, closer or more distant than they really are. It’s more common in childhood, often at the onset of sleep, and may disappear by adulthood…”

 

I have tried to describe this syndrome to people for years, and never once met anyone who recognized it from my descriptions. In my experience it’s more odd a feeling than this, and more ambivalent: I feel (or felt, as a child, almost never any more) as though my hands and feet are billions of miles distant from my head and heart, but at the same time I am enormously, infinitely large, and so those parts are in the same spatial relation to myself as ever, or even monstrously closer. It was awesome in the strict sense, not scary or horrid, uncomfortable but also intriguing. I wonder if Carroll (Dodgson, rather) had this syndrome. I’ve thought of including it on my resume: “John Crowley was born in the appropriately liminal town of Presque Isle, Maine, and as a child suffered from or delighted in Alice in Wonderland syndrome.”

 

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is on view through July 6.

 

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Drama in the Archives: Humanities class fosters undergraduate research

By Harry Ransom Center

Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.

 

In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.

 

For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.

 

Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.

 

“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”

 

As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”

 

Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.

 

“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.

 

For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.

 

Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.

 

“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”

 

After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”

 

Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.

 

Several students from this class will present their research and experiences in upcoming posts in the “Notes from the Undergrad” series on this blog.

 

Related content:

Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

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

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

Signature Courses at the Ransom Center

 

 

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Amplify the Harry Ransom Center!

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center is excited to announce its participation in this year’s Amplify Austin Day. Beginning on March 5 at 6 p.m., we will be asking for your help in raising $5,000 within a 24-hour period. We are proud to be a part of this year’s community-wide effort to give back to the city of Austin. So mark your calendars and help support your community and the Ransom Center on this day of giving!

 

Proceeds raised will be used to support the Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibitions and programming. The money raised will assist in:

 

  • developing future exhibitions
  • creating and launching web exhibitions
  • supporting teacher training opportunities and family-guide materials
  • publishing exhibition catalogs and companion books
  • collaborating with other museums

 

The Center’s exhibitions are free and open to the public. With your support, we can continue to share our world-renowned collections. Schedule a donation.

 

Photo by Maritza De La Pena.

International database of copyright holders celebrates 20th anniversary

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center and the University of Reading have worked together for the past 20 years to establish and maintain the WATCH File, now one of the largest worldwide resources on copyright information. To commemorate the 20th anniversary, Rick Watson, current U.S. compiler for WATCH, and Andrew Gansky, a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, interviewed founders Cathy Henderson and David Sutton and invited them to reflect on their experiences building and running an online international copyright resource, to share their perspectives on the changing landscape of copyright policy, and to comment on what the future might hold for WATCH.

 

What was the original impetus for WATCH?

WATCH came into being in mid-1994 as a response to the revision of national laws (following the principles of the Berne Convention, an international agreement governing copyright) to favor the intellectual property rights of creators, making copyright protection automatic at the moment of creation. This shift in law set up an environment in which those who wanted to make use of those creations might more frequently need to obtain express permission to do so. WATCH is now the world’s primary source of information about who holds the copyright in any individual’s creative works. The acronym originally stood for Writers and Their Copyright Holders, and it was upgraded in 1997 to include artists.

 

How did WATCH develop as a web resource?

WATCH was initially launched as a pre-web online gopher file. With the rapid development of the World Wide Web, by 1996 WATCH had become one of the earliest public information websites, and probably one of the first to be a joint U.S.-U.K. project. The web address has changed over the years but has always been reachable through the helpful alias of www.watch-file.com.

 

The starting-points for the WATCH research were informal (often handwritten) sources in the major research libraries. The Harry Ransom Center had records of the copyright holders of up to 1,000 authors, mostly literary and mostly British, and by late 1994 they had obtained written permissions to include details on more than 700 of these copyright holders in the database. Other early contributors included the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the National Library of Wales, the University of Delaware Library, and the Huntington Library.

 

While the project had archival and literary origins (a first-name list of authors to be included was provided by a Reading-based parent project called the Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters), a principle was established very early on of never refusing to include copyright information provided to the WATCH offices, even if it was not very literary, not very archival, or not very British or American. As a result, the WATCH file now contains well over 20,000 records covering creators from about a hundred different countries.

 

What were the challenges with WATCH as it developed, whether technological, institutional support, or copyright holder participation?

The British end of the project was enthusiastically supported by the Society of Authors and the British Library and attracted funding from the Strachey Trust, the Arts Council, the Royal Literary Fund, the British Academy, and a number of private charities, including the Pilgrim Trust, the Chase Charity, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

 

On the U.S. side, Ransom Center reference staff contribute content, while the Center’s IT staff has ably migrated the database content across a succession of platforms and currently maintains the website and underlying data infrastructure.

 

What has it been like maintaining WATCH as a joint U.K.-U.S. enterprise, especially in terms of differing copyright regulations and contexts between countries?

A division of labor was established relatively early on. The Reading WATCH office locates copyright holders for U.K. and European-born writers and artists while the Ransom Center WATCH office focuses primarily on U.S. and North American–born ones.

 

When and why did the need for a different database for literary organizations and publishing houses become apparent?

Publishing and literary organizations—publishing houses, literary agencies, and little magazines—that have gone out of business and disappeared from view are notoriously difficult to track. The two WATCH teams began work on creating an addition to WATCH, which has been named FOB (Firms Out of Business) in 2006. This is a separate file accessible from the WATCH home page that will grow as information is researched in both Reading and Texas. New content for FOB is welcome from anyone conducting research in this particular field of study.

 

Do you foresee any particular challenges for WATCH and FOB in the future as technologies and copyright practices continue to evolve?

With regard to WATCH, we are monitoring whether or not the U.S. Copyright Office and copyright regulating authorities in other countries heed a call for a reintroduction of national copyright registries. Should that happen, then the need for the WATCH file may diminish. Indeed, the WATCH file might even be absorbed by one or more such registries. The utility of FOB, however, is likely only to grow as the business model for traditional print publishers continues to shift dramatically, resulting in mergers and firms going out of business.

 

Any particular goals for growing or expanding WATCH and FOB?

The universities of Texas and Reading are fully committed to maintaining WATCH and supporting both the expansion of its international role and its participation in new and related areas of research. One of the greatest challenges is to secure continuing external funding beyond the annual support of the Strachey Trust and the British Academy so that more resources can be directed to the kind of purposeful and sometimes in-depth research required to enhance and update the WATCH and FOB files.

 

Finally, I am sure we would all like to hear any especially interesting copyright stories. Any surprises in 20 years, or stories that illustrate the relationship between WATCH, copyright holders listed in, or scholars who use the database?

The WATCH offices have received some very strange letters and emails over the years, including several from authors enquiring about the whereabouts of their own copyrights, requests for copyright information about nursery rhymes and stories like “Three little pigs,” and one letter from an author who had died some months earlier. (It transpired that the letter had been found in his desk after his death, and his executors had decided to post it, in view of its positive comments about WATCH and request to be included: a posthumous plaudit.) WATCH was even once contacted by a private investigator hired to track down the owner of an obscure author’s copyrights.

 

We have a stored message for regular pasting and sending which simply reads “Copyright generally lasts for 70 years after the author’s death.  As William Shakespeare died in 1616, there is no copyright in his work.”

 

As an annoyance and a curiosity, the duration of copyright in manuscript materials in the U.K. is a constant source of surprise.  Every year the U.K. WATCH Office refers authors seeking to clear copyright for Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) to Commander Mark Dickens, and for Lord Byron (who died in 1824) to Messrs John Murray.

Fellows Find: Ties to director Brian De Palma found throughout film collection at the Ransom Center

By Harry Ransom Center

Ethan de Seife is an independent scholar and the author of the book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. He is currently an arts writer for the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days. His research was supported by a Ransom Center travel grant. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The best-known cinematic collaboration between actor Robert De Niro and director Brian De Palma is surely the 1987 film The Untouchables, in which De Niro memorably portrays a bloated, vengeful Al Capone. But the two artists have a shared history that goes back to 1968, when De Niro was a raffish young actor in New York’s off-off-off-Broadway theater scene, and De Palma, fresh from Sarah Lawrence’s ambitious film program, was a director whose head was filled with visions of the French New Wave, Alfred Hitchcock, and avant-garde weirdness.

 

To my mind, De Palma is the most talented of the directors of the so-called “Film School Generation.” He’s also the most misunderstood: critical writing on his work has been stuck in the same ruts (Hitchcock, violence, misogyny) since the 1970s. It’s getting boring. A filmmaker as gifted as he is deserves better.

 

In the first of what I hope are several archival expeditions in preparation for a book-length re-evaluation of De Palma’s work, I visited the Ransom Center on a travel grant in January 2014 to comb through the Robert De Niro papers. The two men made three unusual and fascinating films together before “reuniting” for The Untouchables: Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). These three titles represent the earliest feature films of both of these artists, each of whom would very soon go on to much greater fame.

 

It was a good first choice for this project, as the artists’ shared body of work is pretty small and is mostly confined to early in their careers. I’d hoped to find some information on De Palma’s working methods, though this was not really in evidence. (Memo to the Ransom Center: Please solicit and archive the papers of Brian De Palma.) A few handwritten script notes did offer tantalizing clues, though.

 

The film Hi, Mom! is a vicious satire of Vietnam-era politics and liberal empty-headedness; it remains one of the most subversive of all American films. Much of its deserved reputation for challenging satire rests on the infamous “Be Black, Baby” sequence, in which the members of a black radical group stage a work of participatory theater designed to allow white people to “experience” blackness. Patrons are subjected to all manner of abuse… and then rave about the show. It’s a deeply ambiguous and still pretty shocking scene.

 

De Niro’s own notes for this scene are, in total: “At ‘Be Black, Baby’ play where I play a cop and beat up the white liberals painted black.” The paucity of this description itself speaks to the importance of improvisation to both De Niro’s and De Palma’s art; this, in turn, reveals a great deal about the nature of the film’s production.

 

The most intriguing of my finds in the De Niro papers pertains to a De Palma film in which De Niro does not even appear. De Palma made Home Movies in 1980 in an unprecedented collaboration with film students at Sarah Lawrence. In the collection was a treatment (a kind of synopsis) of the script dated from 1970; apparently De Niro had been considered for a part in it. The treatment differs in significant ways from the film as it was made a decade later, and those differences themselves may also prove revelatory of De Palma’s evolution as an artist.

 

Once I’d exhausted the parts of the De Niro papers that pertain to De Palma, I moved on to two other Ransom Center collections that, coincidentally, also overlap with De Palma’s career: the papers of playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and that of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The former wrote The Untouchables and the latter wrote De Palma’s 1976 film Obsession.

 

The Mamet papers offered mostly old marked-up scripts, which would have been useful had the object of my quest been Mamet’s writing methods. The Schrader papers, though, yielded a few gems, including a usefully comprehensive compendium of reviews of the film, collated by the writer’s clipping service. A few financial documents also provided potentially valuable clues about the film’s budget and production methods.

 

A few snapshots of promotional ephemera from Greetings allowed me to put a fun capstone on my perusal of the De Niro papers, to which I returned when time allowed on the last day of my brief residency. Had I wanted to don the “fat suit” that Robert De Niro wore in The Untouchables, I think I might have been able to arrange it. Maybe on my next visit.

 

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From the Outside In: First photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras," Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

By Harry Ransom Center

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center’s collections is the first photograph, which has been reproduced on the Center’s south atrium window. A French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took this first photograph from the window of his studio in France in the early 1820s, and due to a fortunate series of events, the photograph is part of the Ransom Center’s collections.

 

Niépce was born in 1765 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when great innovations were taking place around Europe. One of these innovations was the art of lithography, a form of printing that involves using chemicals on a flat, smooth surface to transfer images. Niépce became entranced by the lithographic process and began toying with its potential. A poor draftsman, he depended on his artistically inclined son Isidore to create illustrations for his lithographic pursuits. Isidore, however, was drafted into Napoleon’s army, leaving Niépce unable to create lithographs. Intent on finding a way to create images without having to draw them, Niépce turned to the camera obscura, a device developed in the Renaissance in which an image could be projected through a small hole into a darkened box or room. Inside this darkened space an image would be cast as a realistic, albeit upside down, projection. Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.

 

Excited with his new method of capturing images from life, Niépce hurried to present his invention of heliography, or “light writing,” to the Royal Society of London. Yet, the invention’s potential was not recognized, and he was turned away. Niépce was undeterred, and he joined with Louis Daguerre to continue refining his heliographic process. Although Niépce passed away before photography became an everyday staple, Daguerre kept experimenting and created the daguerreotype in 1839, which introduced the concept of photography to the wider world.

 

This important image came to the Ransom Center in 1963 from the photo historian Helmut Gernsheim. The First Photograph had gone missing after 1905. Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 in the possession of the descendants of the previous owner, who found it in storage, sitting unknown in a crate all that time. A decade after this discovery, Gernsheim generously donated the one-of-a-kind object to the Center after its purchase of his photography collection. For more information on the First Photograph and its history, visit the First Photograph web exhibition.

 

The Gernsheim collection features many other prominent photographs, covering the history of photography through the 1960s. The Ransom Center also houses the Magnum Photos archive of nearly 200,000 photographs from the 1950s to the present, and other prominent works, making the Center a fruitful place for research.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Holly Hansel wrote this post.

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