Navigate / search

Dylan Thomas exhibition in New York features materials from the Ransom Center’s collections

By Marlene Renz

“I went on all over the States, ranting poems to enthusiastic audiences that, the week before, had been equally enthusiastic about lectures on Railway Development or the Modern Turkish Essay.” –Dylan Thomas (1914–1953)

 

Dylan Thomas in America—A Centennial Exhibition, which opened yesterday at the 92nd Street Y’s Weill Art Gallery, chronicles the poet’s experiences in the United States between his first visit in 1950 and his death in 1953. The 92Y’s Kaufman Concert Hall hosted the Welsh poet and author for his first American reading. The exhibition includes 19 facsimiles from the Ransom Center, including letters, postcards, photos, and manuscript pages. Images of a handwritten draft of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, some correspondence, and Thomas’s “self-portrait” will be on view.

 

Thomas is now considered one of the most important Welsh poets of the twentieth century, and it was during his American tour that he wrote his most well-known piece, Under Milk Wood.

 

The Ransom Center’s Dylan Thomas collection consists of manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, drawings, financial records, photographs, galley proofs, page proofs, and broadcast scripts. The Ransom Center also holds more than 280 photographs related to Thomas.

 

Listen to a reading by actors, including Michael Sheen, of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, from the opening night of the exhibition.

 

 

Related content?

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Image: Photo of Dylan Thomas by Rollie McKenna, ca. 1953.

In the Galleries: A discarded happy ending for “Gone With The Wind”

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Gone With The Wind’s scriptwriter Sidney Howard had the difficult task of converting the 1,000-page novel into a film script that was not too long, without sacrificing key elements of the novel. One of producer David O. Selznick’s concerns was that all problems be caught before filming started, because cutting scenes out would be more expensive than having an appropriately long script written in the first place. To help Howard, Selznick and his story editor Val Lewton employed the skills of other scriptwriters and authors.

 

In October 1938, Selznick sent the script to two top MGM scriptwriters, Lawrence Stallings and Bradbury Foote, for help editing. The men, under confidentiality, had eight days to make their suggestions.

 

Foote’s editing gave the film a happy ending, destroying one of the novel’s most emotionally powerful scenes. In Foote’s rewrite, Rhett does indeed leave, but Mammy thrashes the famous “Tomorrow is another day!” speech, telling Scarlett, “Never you mind tomorrow, honey. This here is today! There goes your man!” The scene dissolves to a shot of a railroad station. Scarlett corners Rhett in the car of a train, entreating, “Oh, Rhett! Life is just beginning for us! Can’t you see it is? We’ve both been blind, stupid fools! But we’re still young! We can make up for those wasted years! Oh, Rhett—let me make them up to you! Please! Please!” He kisses her hands, and the scene fades out. Selznick considered this rewrite “awful.”

 

Selznick employed a host of other writers to help find creative ways of combining scenes from the novel, and almost all of the writers who worked on the script did so after filming had commenced. Writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, John Van Druten, John Balderston, Ronald Brown, and Edwin Justus Mayer briefly worked on the script. In a memo from Fitzgerald to Selznick, Fitzgerald proposes that Scarlett’s miscarriage be cut. The death of Bonnie, Scarlett’s miscarriage, and Melanie’s death in childbirth, all in rapid succession, would be too much for the audience to endure. Fitzgerald mentions that the miscarriage seems less sorrowful in the book because Scarlett already had three children. He writes, “There is something about three gloomy things that is infinitely worse than two, and I do not believe that people are grateful for being harrowed in this way.”

 

Pages from various drafts of the screenplay are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available.  Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

Related content:

View other Gone With The Wind blog content

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

Application process opens for Ransom Center’s fellowships

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Harry Ransom Center invites applications for its 2015–2016 research fellowships. More than 50 fellowships will be awarded for projects that require substantial onsite use of the Center’s collections, supporting research in all areas of the humanities, including literature, photography, film, art, the performing arts, music, and cultural history.

 

Information about the fellowships and the application process is available online. The deadline for applications, which must be submitted through the Ransom Center’s website, is January 15, 2015, at 5 p.m. CDT.

 

All applicants, with the exception of those applying for dissertation fellowships, must have a Ph.D. or be independent scholars with a substantial record of achievement.

 

The fellowships range from one to three months, with stipends of $3,000 per month. Also available are $1,200 or $1,700 travel stipends and dissertation fellowships with a $1,500 stipend.

 

The stipends are funded by endowments and annual sponsors, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Jewish Studies, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship Endowment, the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation, the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund, the Woodward and Bernstein Endowment, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the South Central Modern Language Association, and The University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Graduate Studies, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and program in British Studies.

 

Since the fellowship program’s inauguration in 1990, the Center has supported the research of more than 900 scholars through fellowship awards. In conjunction with the program’s 25th anniversary, the Center seeks to raise $25,000 to establish a Fellowship Anniversary Endowment to support the growth of the fellowship program and the next generation of humanities scholars.
Related content:

Read articles by and about Ransom Center fellows 


Ransom Center Fellows on Fellowships: Video Interviews

 

Image: Attributed to Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, [Geisha having her photograph taken], not dated, color woodblock; Alfred Junge, scene conception for The Barretts of Wimpole Street, 1956; Fred Fehl, still featuring Sara Yarborough from a production of Cry, 1974; Clement Smith & Co., Hercat’s New and Startling Illusion, 1888; Julia Margaret Cameron, [May Prinsep], 1870, albumen print.

 

 

Contemporary debates on vaccination policies have historical parallels in Ransom Center’s collections

By Jennifer Yang

Recently, The New York Times published an article on vaccination that has highlighted a resurging controversy. In late June 2014, a federal judge upheld a New York City policy barring unimmunized children from public schools, and objectors have decried the policy as an infringement upon their rights. In the United States, incomplete vaccination rates were highest among the poor until 1994, when the Vaccines for Children Program made it more affordable. Now, these rates are highest among the middle- and upper-classes, due to increasing philosophical and religious objections. However, such controversy is hardly new in the centuries-old history of vaccination. Documents in the Ransom Center’s collections cast historical light upon the modern vaccination debate.

 

In 1721 Boston, a smallpox epidemic generated an atmosphere of fear and suspicion when prominent physician Zabdiel Boylston began to counter the illness with vaccination methods. Cotton Mather, a prominent Boston clergyman, publicly declared his support of Boylston’s practices and encouraged other physicians to do the same. Outraged mobs believed vaccinators to be no better than murderers, and Boylston and Mather became subject to popular attacks, culminating in Boylston going into hiding with his family and practicing medicine in disguise. An assassination attempt made on Mather expressed the furious sentiments of the Bostonian public, as a bomb was thrown through his window with the affixed message “COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam you: I’ll inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.”

 

Vaccination came into more prominence and credulity with the publication of English physician Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae in 1798. Jenner made the observation that farmhands and dairy maids, exposed to cowpox disease through their daily work, seemed to possess immunity against the more severe disease of smallpox. Jenner conducted an extensive series of cowpox inoculation case studies, often following patients for several years and even inoculating his own 11-month-old son, to see if his hypothesis about the effects of vaccination were true. Jenner’s findings increased general confidence in vaccination, as he proved that cowpox inoculations from human to human could guard against smallpox, while previously patients were more dangerously inoculated directly with the smallpox virus or from diseased animal matter.

 

Jenner’s work contributed to the passing of the UK Vaccination Acts, key vaccination laws ranging from 1840 to 1907. The 1840 Act made vaccination free, while from 1853 to 1874 a series of more stringent acts made vaccination compulsory and even penalized objectors with fines and imprisonment. Anti-vaccination groups and protestors became more common in this period, as citizens were gripped by fears of the rumored spread of diseases such as syphilis through negligent vaccinators. Vaccination Brought Home to the People, an 1876 pamphlet by Miss Chandos Leigh Hunt, exclaims “If the devil delights in torturing, as it is represented, then indeed must he revel in Vaccination!” Pamphlets and lectures expressing such sentiments abounded as membership in anti-vaccination leagues and groups increased. A famous supporter against the UK Vaccination Acts was playwright George Bernard Shaw, who in 1906 wrote a fervent letter of support to the National Anti-Vaccination League, equating official methods of vaccination with “rubbing the contents of the dustpan into the wound.” Dissent was somewhat appeased by the Vaccination Acts of 1889–1907, which enforced regulation and safety measures for vaccination, as well as allowing for conscientious objection.

 

The Ransom Center also possesses many manuscripts on French scientist Louis Pasteur and his work on vaccination.  Pasteur worked on a rabies vaccine from 1881 to 1885, experimenting on dogs, rabbits, apes, and eventually humans. A catalyst to his professional reputation came about in 1885, when Joseph Meister, a 9-year-old shepherd, was mauled by a rabid dog. Though Pasteur did not hold a license to practice medicine, he conferred with his colleagues about the possibility of treating the boy. His longtime friend and collaborator, physician Émile Roux, refused to work with him on the case. Finally, Pasteur found two eminent physicians who agreed to supervise the treatment. The boy recovered successfully, and Pasteur was lauded as a hero—he became nationally famous, with poets even writing odes to his genius, and went on to co-found the Pasteur Institute with Émile Roux on the laurels of his acclaimed scientific achievement.

 

Religious and philosophical objections have risen over the past decade, with religious exemptions for vaccinations nearly doubling in New York, and tripling in Ohio, where a measles outbreak spread throughout the Amish population. The nation has also seen a resurgence in measles and mumps, with the highest rate of measles since 1994. Debate over vaccination laws and compulsory policies in schools continues to rage, as fervent supporters arise to counter objectors in equal measure. Contemporary battles over vaccination controversy may find parallels in the past, as the centuries-old arguments and ideas resound in the modern voices of vaccination’s supporters and detractors.

 

 

Related content:

Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Director draws upon Tennessee Williams collection for UT production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”

By Alicia Dietrich

A production of Tennessee Williams’s iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on campus last week, and director Jess Hutchinson delved into the Tennessee Williams collection at the Ransom Center to guide some of her work on the play.

 

Set in New Orleans, William’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic centers around fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she seeks refuge in her sister’s home, only to clash with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.

 

Hutchinson, a third-year MFA Directing candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, was especially interested in digging deeper into the ending of the play, and in the Williams collection, she found multiple drafts of endings that were quite different from the published version.

 

“Williams tried on different ways to end Blanche’s story and handle her departure,” said Hutchinson, noting one discarded draft included Blanche being forced into a straightjacket. “And he chose this very specific, relatively controlled exit. That tells me a lot about what that moment is for her, how to stage it, how to think about where she is mentally and emotionally at the end of the play.”

 

Hutchinson worked with a group of undergraduate actors in the production, and exploring the drafts and ideas that Williams discarded helped guide how she and the actors approached the ending of the play.

 

“It focuses our range of choices in rehearsal,” said Hutchinson. “I feel that it would be disingenuous to the play for Blanche to be completely out of control at the end. She isn’t taken away in a straightjacket. In other drafts, she is. So that tells me Blanche still has some lucidity, that she retains the ability to make choices in that moment. The actress and I have looked for Blanche’s power in that scene, her control. Where can we see her consciously make decisions, and how do they fuel her departure with the doctor and matron? The actors and I have come to see that as a moment of recognition. Something in this doctor—this stranger—reaches a place in her that is whole and hasn’t been broken by this experience. And really, we got to complicate what some might write off as a moment of clear ‘insanity’ because I was able to see to see the other drafts that Williams tried first.”

 

As Hutchinson sifted through various early drafts of the play in the Williams collection, she was struck by how “not good” many of them were and how it was a great reminder that the creative process includes false starts and dead ends even for the most talented writers and artists.

 

“Something about seeing documents in a famous, iconic writer’s handwriting revealed that this person who wrote this thing that I love was closer to me than I might have thought,” she said. “He was a human and an artist and was trying to make something that spoke to the core experience of what it is to be a person—what it means to interact with other people in the world and have your heart broken and have moments of incredible joy. Just the humanity that’s present in these archival materials and what we can see in these drafts and false starts and moments of inspired genius made it possible, at least for me, to be bolder in my own work in the rehearsal room.”

 

A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas at Austin. Tickets are available online.

 

Related content?

John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

In the Galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

In the Galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

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

In the galleries: The productive, but complicated, relationship between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan

In the galleries: Stella Adler’s notes on Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie

In the Galleries: The “Ruins of a Play” evolve into “The Glass Menagerie”

In the Galleries: “Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First ‘Gentlemen Caller’?”

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

Meet the Staff: Film Curatorial Assistant Albert A. Palacios

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is an occasional series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Albert A. Palacios has been the Film Curatorial Assistant at the Ransom Center since January 2010 and is a doctoral student in Latin American history at The University of Texas at Austin. He holds a Master of Science in Information Studies and a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from The University of Texas at Austin. He was recently awarded the 2014 prize for best graduate essay for Book History. The judges noted “Not only is his research breathtaking, he offers a whole new approach to the issue of Spanish colonial censorship, and beyond that, a new perspective on the mechanics of censorship in general.”

 

Palacios has coordinated several major volunteer projects, including the digitization of the Alfred Junge collection, the preservation of the Perry Mason film, and the fan mail database in the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

What does an average day for you entail?

Typically I manage eight to 15 graduate volunteers working at the film department each semester. We work on a range of projects, from creating digital collections and preserving film media to processing archives. However, this past semester we had 24 graduate and undergraduate students helping develop content for the web exhibition Producing Gone With The Wind.

 

Tell us about your role in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind?

I was the project coordinator for the Gone With The Wind fan mail database, which shares thousands of letters that Selznick International Pictures received between 1936 and 1939. I recruited and trained graduate volunteers on preparing letters for scanning, digitization, image cropping, database records, transcription, as well as writing feature stories about the different types of letters. I also reviewed for quality and approved each entry. To date, we have records for more than 3,000 letters and transcripts for more than 6,000 pages.

 

What’s the most rewarding part about your job?

I think working with the volunteers is the most rewarding. They help us accomplish many high-quality projects, and they are always so excited and engaged. I am particularly glad to see that the myriad experiences and skills we offer can support their professional development. They help us preserve and make our collections accessible, while we help them define their career aspirations.

 

Tell us about your academic background and interests.

I started as an undergraduate at UT, pursuing a dual degree in architecture and anthropology. I knew I didn’t want to be an architect or an archaeologist when I finished in 2009, but I still wanted to explore questions of design and cultural representation. I started looking at museum exhibition design while I was studying architecture in Italy. That was when I decided to combine my architecture and archaeology/anthropology majors within the context of museums and archives at the School of Information. I graduated with my master’s degree there and jumped over to Latin American studies, where I wrote my thesis on book censorship in sixteenth-century Mexico. After receiving my master’s degree, I began in the history Ph.D. program. Ultimately, I’m working toward becoming a curator of Latin American special collections.

 

Did you travel to research your thesis?

I have gone to Mexico City, Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities the throughout past two years to hunt down Mexican “inculabula” and manuscript sources that elucidate publishing practice in sixteenth-century Mexico. I am analyzing the censorship process, printing privilege (akin to copyright) and the social networks that intellectually and economically favored New Spain’s authors. I’m happy to say that two papers from that research are being published this year—one will be a chapter in a book and another in an academic journal.

 

What’s your favorite movie?

Spellbound! I’m a big fan of psychological thrillers. At the Ransom Center, we have original storyboards, construction drawings, and props that were created for the movie’s dream sequence.

 

Related content:

View other Gone With The Wind blog content

View other “Meet the Staff” profiles

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger versions of the images.

National Book Award finalist Jayne Anne Phillips discusses writing process and historical inspiration for her novel “Quiet Dell”

By Alicia Dietrich

On Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m., novelist Jayne Anne Phillips reads from Quiet Dell, a novel based on the true story of a murderous West Virginia con man who preyed on widows, in a Harry Ransom Lecture. A reception and book signing follow. View a trailer for the book.

 

Stephen King said of Quiet Dell: “In a brilliant fusion of fact and fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips has written the novel of the year. It’s the story of a 1931 serial killer’s crime and capture, yes, but it’s also a compulsively readable story of how one brave woman faces up to acts of terrible violence in order to create something good and strong in the aftermath. Quiet Dell will be compared to In Cold Blood, but Phillips offers soothing Capote could not: a heroine who lights up the dark places and gives us hope in our humanity.”

 

Phillips, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, is the author of Lark and Termite, a National Book Award finalist. Known for her poetic prose and in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

 

Below, Phillips discusses the inspiration behind her novel Quiet Dell, her archival research for the book, her writing process, and her own archive.

 

Your work often seems to draw upon your own family history for inspiration. The murders in Quiet Dell, for example, took place near your hometown in West Virginia. Can you talk about how history and family memory evolved into your novel?

My mother remembered holding her mother’s hand at age 6, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August—cars parked on either side as far as she could see—past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece-by-piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Ever after, when we drove past the hamlet, ten miles or so from my hometown, she would point out “the road to Quiet Dell.” Thousands walked past the scene in the summer and fall of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site: an unimaginable slaughter of innocents. A con-man led a double life, found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and skillfully courted them in letters for months. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, and the media spun it as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer was christened a modern Bluebeard, but the deeper story was far more complex. Quiet Dell is true to an evolving real event, but creates the world in which it happened, beginning the Christmas before the crime. I was interested in the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” in creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. For me, the tale began in 9-year-old Annabel Eicher’s voice at the magical turning of the year. Quiet Dell meets the history of a family that vanished with a counterpoint story in which that family is alive, and then alive in memory, directly influencing the lives of those who seek justice for them. The reader is endowed with a foreknowledge of event, but the fact of the event touches only the surface of its effects.

 

Can you tell us about the archival research you conducted with primary materials while writing Quiet Dell?

The actual names and facts of the crime seemed a Victorian fairy tale set in the ’30s: Sherriff Grimm, Judge Southern, Duty (the Eicher dog, “twice bereft,” whose photograph appeared in newspapers across the country), the Gore Hotel—and the fact that the trial took place on the stage of an Opera House before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees, left over from a previous production. The Clarksburg Harrison County Public Library allowed me to Xerox numerous pages of newsprint, and many pages of a haphazard “scrapbook” on the crime assembled by a 13-year-old boy, James Law (who grew up to own the most important bookstores in the area). I’ve always found photographs, particularly of strangers, to reveal whole dimensions of information, and I carried a small copy of the last known photo of the Eicher family in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in that image, so wary and adult, suggested her character in the novel. As I was beginning my research, a family friend who knew I was writing about the Quiet Dell crime gave me an envelope he’d found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, West Virginia. Across the front in faded pencil, it read, Piece of sound proof board used by Harry Powers during his notorious Murdering in the fall of 1931. I opened the envelope and held in my hand a thick felt square marked with a 3. As Rilke said, “Every angel is terrifying.” I came to know the woman who grew up in the Eicher home in Park Ridge, Illinois, and lives there today; the playhouse, and the mural Asta Eicher painted on the walls for her children, still exists. I gleaned hints from newspaper interviews with those who said they’d known Harry Powers under one alias or another; the statements were wildly contradictory. Not so the obituaries I was able to find online: the phrasing and tone implied specific narratives. I found the grandchildren of photographer Floyd E. Sayres through a hint in his obit; they allowed me to include his images of scenes associated with the crime, though the images are far more beautiful than the versions that appear in Quiet Dell. Letters from Powers and women who wrote to him appeared in newsprint; the trial transcript was a matter of record. These events took place nearly 85 years ago; the history was distant enough that I could use real names, yet invent the perceptions, thoughts, relationships, of the characters to tell my own “dark fairy tale.” The scant patterns of a real history, for me, cast a spell that is almost bewitching.

 

As a writer, how do you approach establishing a sense of place and time for your reader?

There is the Pound dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to guide the writer: specific physical fact infused with sensory detail. Words, in careful association, are sensual triggers for the reader; each reader brings a world of unconscious and subconscious memory to the text. Certain sense memories, smells, sounds, can connect us to pasts we did not experience. Readers have said to me, “When I read your work, I don’t feel as though I’m reading a story; I feel I’m inside the story.” Another said, of Termite (from Lark And Termite), “You make us want to be him.” Every art is a form of alchemy: transforming one element into another, widening, deepening, until one world connects to worlds before and beyond it. Literature is a crafted seduction in which the reader actively participates.

 

Can you tell us about your writing process? (For example, do you write on a laptop or desktop? Do you have an office or studio space dedicated to writing? Do you write during certain hours of the day? How do you go about revising your work?)

I began writing as a poet, and I continue to compose line by line, slowly, aware of the music and stress of the syllables in the lines. I write both by hand and on the computer (laptops and desktops, since I live in three cities), and print out every page, not only because I distrust machines, but because I revise on paper. I write in the daytime, never at night, in front of a window. I often work on longer projects in the summers, when I’m not engaged in my labor-intensive day job. Editing, teaching, discussing literature, advocating for talented students, is far too compelling.

 

Your archive is now open and accessible to researchers. What do you hope people will be able to learn from your papers and work?

Those spiral notebooks in which I composed my early stories seem to belong to another universe I once inhabited, while the archive of the present, boxes of more recent drafts, artifacts, lists, and correspondence, piles up around me. Access to an archive, not in a writer’s rooms but in a neutral, sacred space, the clean well-lighted place that is the Ransom Center, is a privilege, an intimate investigation. Touching actual pages, photographs, letters, comparing small and large changes from one draft to another, takes the reader inside the books, into the works themselves. It’s delicious.

 

You are the director of the Rutgers University- Newark MFA program. How does teaching influence your writing, and how do your experiences as a writer shape how you teach?

I don’t think teaching influences my writing, except to intensify the pressure of not writing—a tool I have always used, pre-dating teaching. Part of writing is the yearning toward what is still unseen and unknown. For me, ideas, rumination, research, are not the true thing; they only swirl around it. A book begins with language: a line of prose, a paragraph. The book is inside those words and the long struggle is to deepen and sustain what is genuine. I suppose I teach that one’s relationship to writing is as complex as one’s relationship to the self: it’s endless and mysterious, full of the mundane and the celestial in shifting quantities. No writer approaches words the same way; the “why,” unique as a fingerprint, is ineffable. The writer creates meaning where none is obvious, invents the dots and connects them. We’re like practitioners of the same unrecognized religion: the process itself is the experience. It’s witchcraft and soothsaying, and hard, grinding work.

 

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Fat City, by Leonard Gardner; The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (all books I’m teaching); a galley of Colm Toibin’s new Nora Webster; HER, a memoir by Christa Parravani, and Prelude To Bruise, just-published poems by Saaed Jones (these last two both recent graduates of RU-N MFA program).

 

Related Content:
-Listen to Phillips read from Lark and Termite at the Ransom Center.

-Memory as source in Jayne Anne Phillip’s Machine Dreams

-View a list of books recommended by Phillips

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

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

Matthew Bernstein delves into complexities of staging “Gone With The Wind” premiere in a segregated Atlanta in 1939

By Alicia Dietrich

On Thursday, October 16, at 7 p.m., Matthew H. Bernstein, Professor of Film and Media Studies at Emory University, discusses “Selznick’s March: Hollywood Comes to White Atlanta” at the Harry Ransom Center.

 

The world premiere of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta was the culmination of months of anxious and complicated negotiations between producer David O. Selznick, distributor MGM, their staffs, and the city of Atlanta. Bernstein offers an in-depth look at the challenges of staging the 1939 premiere in a segregated southern city in his lecture, held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.

 

In the below Q&A, Bernstein discusses the enduring legacy of the iconic film, the thankless staff members who worked behind the scenes to organize the Atlanta premiere, and surprises he found in the David O. Selznick collection at the Ransom Center.

 

The Bernstein program is free and open to the public. Seating is first-come, first-served, and doors open at 6:30 p.m.

 

December marks the 75th anniversary of the premiere of Gone With The Wind in Atlanta. Why, all these years later, does this film evoke such a strong response from audiences?

The hold Gone With The Wind has over certain audiences is extraordinary. I’ve known people who moved to Atlanta because of it, and I know people here in Atlanta take great offense if one mounts any criticism of it. There are many reasons for it.

 

Some are obvious: its landmark status as an Academy Award winner and one of the highest grossing films, adjusted for inflation, in Hollywood history. There is its technical achievement as an extremely well made and spectacular film in one of Hollywood’s strongest years—it’s simply a great pleasure to watch. There are the terrific casting and performances by the leads and the secondary cast.

 

But the film has such a hold over audiences for other reasons as well. The film’s ambivalent treatment of Scarlett is one—she is a modern, brash woman in a genteel society who flouts convention to get what she wants however she can, with little introspection. The film admires her energy and drive, but simultaneously mocks her selfishness, her pettiness, and her pretensions, largely through Rhett Butler’s witty and clear-eyed deflation of her airs. She’s a classic melodramatic heroine, one who makes so many mistakes in her life and loves and ultimately comes to realize the opportunities she has missed.

 

Its deepest appeal, I believe, resides in its portrayal of the tremendous loss and suffering Scarlett endures—the film was a source of inspiration to women struggling through the Great Depression and then World War II across the globe. That portrait endures, even as it is woven into the less-than-progressive racial politics typical of the plantation genre of the 1930 (an area where we should note the film is less offensive than Margaret Mitchell’s novel).

 

You’ve said that the Gone With The Wind premiere in Atlanta was the high point in the city’s history. Is there any comparable event today that would convey just how big of deal this was to Atlantans at that time?

The premiere happened in Atlanta because this is where Margaret Mitchell lived and wrote the novel. The 1996 Olympics are the only phenomenon that equals it. In both cases, Atlanta felt the eyes of the world were upon it. In 1939, a reporter ranked the Gone With The Wind premiere greater than Charles Lindbergh’s visit to the city.

 

You spent some time in the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick archive researching the premiere in Atlanta. What surprises did you find?

The Ransom Center has always been one of my favorite places to undertake research. The Selznick collection is exceptional, and I found many surprises. One might have predicted the amount of work and energy that went into staging the premiere, but it was still extraordinary to see the details that had to be attended to.  Selznick let his staff plan away, swooping in only at the end to question and in some cases criticize their work. Another big surprise was a letter I found from one Robert Willis, a member of a theater club on one of Atlanta’s black college campuses; this student invited the Selznick group to visit the black side of the city. No one to my knowledge had discussed this aspect of the premiere. I had read Selznick’s last-minute memos about giving Hattie McDaniel a page in the souvenir program for the premiere, but never knew what inspired that. Overall, the most delightful surprise to me was to see the extent to which Margaret Mitchell had Selznick wrapped around her finger. The dynamic there is extremely amusing.

 

Selznick and his staff worked for months to plan and execute the premiere in Atlanta. Can you talk about why expectations were so high for the film in Atlanta?

As I mentioned, Selznick was not really involved in the plans. He was far too busy attending to the manifold details involved in Gone With the Wind‘s post-production so that the film would be finished in time for the Atlanta premiere. He delegated the overwhelming majority of the work to his story editor, Kay Brown, who worked with Atlantans as well as the MGM distribution executives in charge of the premiere. Selznick fretted on the sidelines, gave Brown some ideas, but his attention was elsewhere until late November.

 

As for high expectations, in the 1930s, the white citizens of Atlanta craved attention and validation, partly because of the city’s destruction during the Civil War, and partly because of its boosterism. It was a growing city that loomed large regionally, but not nationally.  To have one of its residents write a Pulitzer Prize-winning international bestseller stirred a wave of civic pride. Atlanta also loved the movies as much as any city in the 1930s, but not many films were set in Georgia. So Georgians were thrilled at the prospect of seeing an epic production that was sympathetic to the state’s ordeal during the Civil War and afterwards. Southerners in general felt Hollywood never represented them fairly—here was a film that promised to do so. Add to that the idea that Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh would be on the streets of the city for the premiere and you can see why white Atlantans—officials, business leaders, civic leaders and ordinary citizens—went crazy over this. White Atlantans, that is. Black Atlanta likewise gloried in the presence of the stars, but some leaders questioned the hoopla and the film itself.

 

Can you talk about what role Kay Brown played in organizing the premiere and smoothing relations between Selznick International Pictures and Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell? 

Since Brown was the one who found the Gone With The Wind manuscript and persuaded a reluctant Selznick to option the novel, it seems appropriate that she would handle the Atlanta event. It was difficult, thankless work involving diplomacy and a lot of keeping her thoughts to herself. She is the real hero of this story. Like so much else that Selznick undertook, the Atlanta premiere could not have happened, or worked, without her.  Brown completely charmed the Atlantans, and especially Margaret Mitchell. Selznick needed Mitchell’s good will—if she criticized his film, its box office grosses could have been diminished. So there Brown was, in the field, and communicating back to Selznick about how things were progressing, and playfully letting him now that she was not enjoying it. She didn’t even stay for the Atlanta festivities; she had to head up to Manhattan to plan the opening there a few days after Atlanta. She was quite happy to miss them.

 

There were controversies over race with the premiere in Atlanta, as producers deemed it unsafe for Hattie McDaniel to attend the event and African American audiences were largely excluded from festivities taking place around the city. Can you talk about how Selznick and his staff approached these issues? 

The Loews’ Grand where the premiere took place did not have segregated seating. Black Atlantans waited four months till April to see it in a “colored” theater. Selznick recognized that his film could invite strong attendance among African Americans, and even thought that if black cast members came to Atlanta, they could help promote the film in black neighborhoods.  Kay Brown, like the MGM distribution and advertising executives who planned the premiere, relied heavily on certain Atlantans for advice on many issues, including this one. The “Hollywoodians” knew they were way out of their depth on the “delicate” issue of race relations in the South. Most simply, they followed the advice the Atlantans gave them, which was not to include Hattie McDaniel in the festivities or the souvenir book. Regarding the latter, the rationale was that McDaniel’s photo in the program might give some malcontent a basis for criticism of the film and the premiere, something they wanted to avoid. Besides, as guests of the city, the Hollywood folks thought they should follow their hosts’ suggestions. Kay Brown put it well: “…while it was unfortunate to exclude Mammy, it was the wisest policy.”  They made an unsurprising choice in 1939.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Image: Crowds gather for the parade in Atlanta for the premiere of Gone With The Wind.

“Films of 1939” series kicks off this week

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center kicks off the series “Films of 1939” with a screening of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn this Thursday, October 2, at 7 p.m.

 

1939 is widely considered by film historians to be one of the most outstanding years in filmmaking. In conjunction with the Harry Ransom Center’s exhibition, The Making of Gone With The Wind, which marks the 75th anniversary of the film, the Ransom Center will screen three other films released in this prolific year: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Idiot’s Delight, and The Wizard of Oz.

 

The screenings are free and open to the public. 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.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Thursday, Oct. 2, 7 p.m.

Mickey Rooney and Rex Ingram star as Huck and Jim in this adaptation of the Mark Twain classic. Daring boy Huck (Rooney) sails down the Mississippi River with Big Jim (Ingram), an enslaved man running away from being sold. Ingram turned down the role of Big Sam in Gone With The Wind to play Jim. Film run time is 91 minutes.

 

Idiot’s Delight

Thursday, Nov. 6, 7 p.m.

Starring Clark Gable and Norma Shearer in their third film together, Idiot’s Delight follows disparate travelers stranded at an Alpine hotel when the borders are closed with war imminent. MGM hoped to reunite Gable and Shearer as Rhett and Scarlett in Gone With The Wind, but the negative public response to rumors of Shearer’s casting ensured that it would not happen. Film run time is 107 minutes.

 

The Wizard of Oz

Thursday, Dec. 4, 7 p.m.

In in this early Technicolor classic directed by Victor Fleming, Judy Garland stars as Dorothy Gale, who is swept away to a magical land by a tornado and embarks on a quest to see the wizard who can help return her home. After completing work on The Wizard of Oz, Fleming took over as director of Gone With The Wind after George Cukor left the production. Film run time is 102 minutes.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Image: Film still from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In the Galleries: Producer David O. Selznick defends casting Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara

By Gabrielle Inhofe

British actress Vivien Leigh is best remembered for her part as Scarlett O’Hara, the beautiful Southern belle who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Her inspired performance won an Academy Award for Best Actress. However, when word got out that she was being considered for the role, letters against the selection poured into Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick’s office.

 

The president of a chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy wrote a letter stating that she and the members “vigorously protest against any other than a native born southern woman playing the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind. Furthermore, we resolve to withhold our patronage if otherwise cast.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Joe Shay wrote to Selznick calling it “an unfortunate selection” should someone other than a Southerner be cast.

 

Selznick wrote a letter to Ed Sullivan, an entertainment columnist at the time, defending Leigh. He notes that Leigh’s parents are French and Irish, just like Scarlett’s, and he draws comparisons between England and the South. Selznick writes, “A large part of the South prides itself on its English ancestry, and an English girl might presumably, therefore, be as acceptable in the role as a Northern girl.” Furthermore, he notes the relationship between the Southern and British accents is much closer than that of the Southern and Northern accents. He also points out that the English have warmly received the portrayals of Englishmen by Americans, so Americans would be ungrateful to do the same. Finally, Selznick points toward successful cross-cultural performances in American theater, like the British actor Raymond Massey as Abraham Lincoln and the American actress Helen Hayes as Queen Victoria.

 

When Leigh’s selection as Scarlett was made official, the reaction in the South was overwhelmingly negative. Susan Myrick, who advised the filmmakers on historical detail, helped to convince Mrs. W. D. Lamar, President of the United Daughters of the Confederacy on the soundness of the choice. According to Myrick, Lamar “greatly preferred an Englishwoman for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, rather than a woman from the East or Middle West, as she had always felt there was a close kinship between the Southerner and the English people.”

 

The memo is on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title will be co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press in September with a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

Related content:

View other Gone With The Wind blog content

 

Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.

 

Image: Ed Sullivan, then a gossip columnist, had learned that Vivien Leigh was Selznick’s choice for the role of Scarlett.  Selznick denied it but, anticipating resistance to his decision, had already developed a five-point justification, which he began to circulate to entertainment reporters.