The papers of American author James Purdy (1914–2009) at the Ransom Center include a missive written to Purdy in the spring of 1971 by the actress Margaret Hamilton (1902–1985). Hamilton is, of course, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
The communication fills three pages of a whimsical Rosalind Welcher greeting card and continues onto both sides of a sheet of the actress’s personalized note stationery. From internal evidence in Hamilton’s letter, as well as from an earlier one in the collection from playwright Neal Du Brock to Purdy, it’s evident she had starred in Du Brock’s dramatization of Purdy’s novel The Nephew. The production was presented by the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York in early 1971.
Du Brock’s adaptation wasn’t particularly well received and closed with considerable gloom among the play’s company. Purdy evidently wrote a consoling note to Du Brock, which led Du Brock to suggest that Miss Hamilton, who had clearly felt stung by the reviews, might be cheered by a positive word from the original author.
Purdy’s ensuing note to Hamilton seemingly helped lift the actress’s spirits, and she responded in her letter of April 23, 1971, “how very dear of you to write me…and perk up such a dismal Easter.” She went on to say she was then in Boston at her alma mater, Wheelock College, recovering from the flu and looking forward, upon her recovery, to appearing in a play with the school’s drama department.
After recounting the hectic events surrounding the production of The Nephew and its treatment in the press, the scarcely wicked witch continued with the observation that “it is amazing how vulnerable we all are—to negative criticism—we remember each phrase—do we remember the kind or approving phrases? No! It really boils down to one man’s opinion. And we do ask for it!” Hamilton closed with an invitation to Purdy to “come & have tea or a drink… sometime this summer if you are in New York.”
The James Purdy papers are currently being processed and will be available to scholars once cataloging is complete.
Biographer Judith Major’s recent book Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age (University of Virginia Press) highlights the work of the pioneering landscape critic, and Major quotes from one of the letters in the Ransom Center’s Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell papers for her book. Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was one of America’s premier etchers and illustrators. He found a commercial success as a magazine illustrator, turning out well-received renderings of American and, later, European scenes.
The Pennell collection includes correspondence that documents a notable creative project undertaken by Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) and Mariana Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) in which they published illustrated articles on the cathedrals and churches of England and France. Their two series of illustrated articles appeared in issues of The Century Magazine between 1887 and 1899; the first series, English Cathedrals, was issued in book form in 1892.
In 1882, when the idea for the articles on the cathedrals of England was first conceived by Van Rensselaer, she had been a published author and critic on art, architecture, and landscape architecture for six years. Pennell had been working as an illustrator, first in his native Philadelphia and then nationally, since the late 1870s. He had done illustrations in Scribner’s Magazine, Century, and other publications. His best-known work at that point was the illustrations he executed to accompany George Washington Cable’s text for The Creoles of Louisiana, issued serially in The CenturyMagazine during 1883 and published in book form in 1884.
Van Rensselaer likely invited Joseph Pennell to provide the illustrations for her English cathedral articles because both Van Rensselaer and the Century’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, knew and respected Pennell’s work. In 1884, Pennell was living in London, married to Elizabeth Robins, a writer and fellow Philadelphian.
The work on the English cathedrals got off to a rocky start when, in the summer of 1885, Van Rensselaer, returning to New York from Germany, stopped in York, England, expecting to meet with Pennell. Pennell didn’t appear or account for his absence, and when later they were able to meet, he related to his wife, Elizabeth, “his frank impressions of Mrs. Van Rensselaer, who had ideas for the cathedral [at Salisbury] which were not his.” Despite this initial awkwardness the English cathedral series was completed “without unpleasantness” (in Elizabeth Pennell’s words), and the final article published in The Century Magazine by 1889.
As Pennell began his work on the churches of France in the fall of 1889, a new source of discord between artist and writer made itself evident. Pennell had begun working with churches in the south of France when he discovered several of those chosen for illustration had undergone recent restoration or were currently under restoration. This situation and the artist’s response to it had a significant impact upon his choices of subjects and the drawings he sent back to New York.
In a long letter Van Rensselaer wrote to W. Lewis Fraser of the Century art department on January 30, 1890, she reviewed Pennell’s drawings, and while on the whole she was pleased, she found problems with the cathedrals in Angoulême and Périgueux and the St. Sernin church in Toulouse.
Pennell had not supplied exterior views of any of the three that she found acceptable. Of St. Sernin she wrote “In some way or the other I must have at least one picture of the exterior of the church; if not from Mr. Pennell, then drawn by someone else from a photo.” In other cases Pennell had supplied views she hadn’t asked for; several of these she had turned down as “entirely useless for my purpose.”
In this file there is a six-month hiatus until the next piece of surviving correspondence. This was Mariana Van Rensselaer’s letter of July 31, 1890 to editor R. W. Gilder in which she responded to Joseph Pennell’s “recent letters to Mr. Fraser.”
Van Rensselaer opened with the comment that “I am sorry he finds some of the buildings in question ‘unillustrate-able’…” and goes on to assert that “ they are unrivalled in historical and, I venture to say, in broad and deep architectural (which means artistic) interest.”
Further along in the letter she notes that her choices of subject were intended to illustrate the significant regional variation seen in medieval French ecclesiastical architecture and, for this reason, “we must have the great typical buildings, however restored, and not less typical unrestored ones, or attractive bits gathered here and there.”
In Pennell’s letters he referred to his practice of using shading and other effects to ameliorate the problems posed by unsympathetic restoration and unfinished repairs, provocatively referring to this process as “cooking.” Van Rensselaer responded by observing that he had been “engaged to illustrate what he saw, not to make fancy sketches.” Later in the letter, however, she modified her position, stating the hope that Gilder “will give me the privilege of rejecting any that are ‘cooked’ in too palpable a way.”
Van Rensselaer’s 12-page response to Pennell was supplemented by a briefer letter from Gilder to the artist. In it he stated that The Century Magazine regarded the series as “an intellectual & historical” work “conducted by the writer of the articles” and that the magazine had “surely endeavored to meet your views in every way.” Gilder closed with the observation that the series upon that Pennell and Van Rensselaer labored was not, commercially speaking, a “hilariously ‘popular’ performance,” but one which demanded “great exertions and no little drudgery on the parts of both writer & artist.”
In his reply from Luchon, France, dated August 20, 1890, Pennell responded to Gilder’s letter by once again stating the impossibility of making tangible the intent of the original builders of the churches when they had been unsympathetically restored. “I can look beneath the restoration but Mrs. Van Rensselaer should remember that I must draw what is on the surface. [Henry Hobson] Richardson [whose sympathetic description of the churches had been mentioned by Van Rensselaer earlier] would never have dreamed of taking the modern restoration of St. Sernin as anything but a model of very ordinary work of the most uninteresting kind.”
Pennell defended “my cooking or faking … [of] these drawings [by asserting] when I come to one of these old churches … and find, instead of beautiful stained glass which ought to be there, blank white windows, or windows at times which are even yet unfinished … I have got to intensify, for example, my lights and shadows and try to give some sort of pictorial effect which really is not there.”
Pennell concluded his reply with the statement that “I never should think of criticizing Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s scheme or methods, but I cannot help repeating that she ought to bear in mind that I cannot draw the ideas of the old men when their work is not visible.”
The last item in the Pennell-Van Rensselaer correspondence file is Van Rensselaer’s letter of August 13, 1893 to Joseph Pennell, and its tone is in marked contrast to the preceding letters in the file. Having just returned to Marion (where she was living) from “that extraordinary and enchanting [World’s] Fair at Chicago,” she recounts her work rewriting the English cathedral book (by now entitled Handbook of English Cathedrals) and makes suggestions for Pennell’s work at Bourges, Le Mans, Chartres, and Le Puy. In closing, Van Rensselaer returns to the world’s fair, writing “I suppose you will come home to see the Fair. If not, you will miss the great sight of the century.”
Mariana Van Rensselaer withdrew from the project before the fourth article in the French cathedral series appeared in the September 1899 issue of The Century Magazine. Since Pennell had finished drawings on hand, the editors of the magazine asked Elizabeth Pennell to write the articles, allowing the series to be completed between 1907 and 1909. The cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais, and Rouen concluded the project; these three were the only edifices in the series that Joseph Pennell etched on site.
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Within the Ransom Center’s extensive collection of papers of British author and poet Edmund Blunden (1896–1974) is a group of printed maps. These maps came into Blunden’s possession during his service as an officer in the Royal Sussex Regiment during World War I. Most of the maps are British Ordnance Survey trench maps detailing various sectors in southwestern Belgium in the vicinity of Ypres and are what one might expect to find among the papers of an officer veteran of a conflict. One, however, differs in that it was acquired by then Lt. Blunden in the village of St. Julien under unusual circumstances.
On this map he has written “German map brought back by me from pillbox near St. Julien in the battle of July 31, 1917.”
That day was the first of the campaign known as Third Ypres or, by a name having special resonance, as Passchendaele. The village of St. Julien is about four miles northeast of Ypres on the road to Langemarck and Poelkapelle and was one of the first objectives taken by British troops in a campaign intended to build upon the success of the earlier battle of Messines Ridge, fought the previous June to the immediate south of Ypres.
As is so often the case in war, the early expectations of success eluded the planners of the offensive. Field Marshal Douglas Haig’s belief the that German army was near collapse proved illusory, and the hope of achieving a decisive breakthrough faded as the campaign wore on. Eventually the capture of the village of Passchendaele, seven miles east of Ypres, and a low ridge just beyond was settled on as a realistic culmination. When Canadian troops took the heights on November 9, 1917, the campaign came to an end, and an Allied victory was declared.
The map Blunden saved from the German bunker is a commercially published map in a scale of 1:300,000, issued by the firm of L. Ravenstein of Frankfurt am Main. Despite its title of Kriegskarte von Belgien und angrenzendem Frankreich (War Map of Belgium and Bordering Areas of France), it appears to be an undated wartime reissue of a conventional prewar political map. It has been updated by overprinting in red indicating “fremde Festungen” (foreign fortresses) and “ungefähre Frontlinie” (approximate frontlines).
The Blunden copy has further been cut into panels and mounted on cloth backing. It has one correction to the “front lines” done in graphite pencil, and, oddly for a map apparently in use in late July 1917, the area from Messines to Wytschaete taken by British forces in the struggle for Messines Ridge nearly two months earlier still appears on the map as a German salient.
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A recent project to reorganize some materials in the papers of British author Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) brought to light specimens of traditional Nepalese handmade paper serving in a most prosaic capacity.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mackenzie travelled widely and at one point was contacted while in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Nepal by a London publisher. The message from London arrived via New Delhi, India, in the form of a telegram and asked if Mackenzie would consider a “biography of Churchill” upon completion of his present commitment. Unless the biography sought was to be a brief piece for a newspaper or periodical, it would appear it was never written by Mackenzie.
So, in a sense, the telegram was just one more of those numberless pieces of paper that the active life of a published author produces, and a creative dead end at that. But this telegram was very different from most others in that it was written out on paper unlike any I have ever seen.
The form was printed in Devanagari script on two sheets and was accompanied by three more unused blanks. The paper is called lokta and is prepared by hand from fibers obtained from the bark of the Nepalese lokta tree (Daphne cannabina). While lokta paper manufacture requires much the same general techniques as traditional Western handmade paper, the present specimens exhibit a faint but uniform criss-cross design when held up to the light rather than the distinct chain-and-wire lines of their Western equivalents. The finished product is said to be durable and resistant to insect damage.
The sheets in the Mackenzie papers are remarkable for their texture and appearance, exhibiting bits of bark and small twigs worked into the fabric of the paper, dramatic whorls of lokta fiber here and there, and even occasional voids in the paper’s surface. The paper is a mottled pale tan in color and more nearly translucent than opaque. It seems to have been lightly treated during manufacture with sizing, so has a feel more like cloth than traditional paper. The effect is at once one of extreme primitiveness of technique, and yet, at the same time, one of remarkable beauty.
A web search provided several brief histories of lokta paper, which indicate that it was employed by the Nepalese government until the 1950s for its official correspondence and that it continues to find a role there in the preparation of certain classes of documents. Use of the paper is on the decline in Nepal as it is being displaced by conventional machine-made papers, but there is a substantial international market for it among those attracted by its remarkable texture and appearance.
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