Until recently, one of the largest objects in the Ransom Center collections has also been one of the least visible. This past fall, Ransom Center photographer Pete Smith took up photographing Joan Blaeu’s great wall map (GWM) as a personal challenge.
June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.
So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.
When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.
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Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.
Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).
Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.
The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.
Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is the collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.
Scattered about the collections are many other hair samples belonging to various celebrities. The most important were taken from Charlotte Brontë (brunette), Marie Antoinette (a blond lock), and Edgar Allan Poe (a black braid, kept in a locket he gave to his sometime girlfriend Elmira Shelton). When the latter’s hair was exhibited last year for his 200th birthday, it swiftly became one of the most popular items, with younger visitors calling it “creepy.”
There is just something about hair. Composed mostly of the tough protein keratin, it survives practically forever, along with bones (thus Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”). The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s Mariana) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles.
I had often wondered why Leigh Hunt formed the collection and how it came to us. After a bit of digging, I discovered that John L. Waltman had answered my questions about the hair collection in an obscure journal article back in 1980. Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.
Along with Milton’s hair, which may have been removed when he was disinterred in 1790, a single golden hair from Lucretia Borgia’s head was Hunt’s prize. He described it as “sparkl[ing] in the sun as if it had been cut yesterday.” Lord Byron stole a portion of a lock in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and presented it to Hunt with a quotation from Alexander Pope: “and beauty draws us with a single hair.”
The Hunt hair collection, minus Lucretia Borgia’s strand, stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.
While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.
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