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Remembering Penelope Fitzgerald: “We Can Only Hope It Keeps Going.”

By Alicia Dietrich

The American publication of
The American publication of


Philip Christensen, College Associate Dean for Curriculum Development at Suffolk County Community College, maintained a seven-year correspondence with novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center. Christensen recently donated the letters from their correspondence to the Ransom Center, and in this essay, he shares some of the contents of those exchanges.

Email and social media appear virtually spontaneous, and yet, as Robert McCrum conceded in a recent blog on The Guardian’s website, “a physical correspondence, an exchange of missives, in envelopes, carries more freight than a high speed email.” In 1993, I mailed a letter to British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, care of her publisher, asking if she would read my paper on her uncle Ronald Knox, the once renowned Catholic apologist best remembered today for his “Detective Story Decalogue.” To my surprise, she wrote back, thus beginning a literary correspondence that came to a close, in April 2000, when I received an email, with the subject “Condolences” and a link to her obituary in The New York Times. (Terence Dooley, Fitzgerald’s literary executor and the editor of So I Have Thought of You: the Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, and Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, have kindly given permission to quote from these unpublished letters.)

Fitzgerald corresponded in aerogrammes, those blue papers that fold into their own airmail envelopes, and I recall opening each with surgical precision, for fear of excising her graceful marginalia, in italic hand, along the folds. Surely, Fitzgerald must have found my typescripts diffident and rehearsed, but she never hinted at any disparity, and, after an initial “Penelope Fitzgerald,” she signed her letters “Penelope.”

Penelope, a former tutor, regarded teaching as “some of the hardest work on earth.” Her lessons must have been memorably aphoristic. Of Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” she wrote: “it is a difficult subject, I think, as poor Hamlet must have felt that one traveller at least returned too often,” or, regarding the challenge of understanding the Duke in Measure for Measure: “he does break into octosyllabics at one point, & Shakespeare usually keeps them for actors with magic power.” She agreed that Let Dons Delight was Uncle Ronnie’s best book, and added that his invention of fictional disputations at an imaginary Oxford college, from 1588 to 1938, “carries imitation of the past to the point of second sights.”  When I made a passing reference to Vladimir and Estragon as modern pilgrims, she chided: “Surely, there are no ‘pilgrims’ in Waiting for Godot. Productions over here usually show Vladimir & Estragon as tramps, but as a matter of fact they are clowns, whose relationship to society is quite different.”

Penelope was philosophical about her late celebrity, writing that her reputation “is up now, but it will go down” and, within the context of her short story “The Red Haired Girl,” encouraged me not to give up: “it’s certainly never too late to be a writer.” She was also open about discussing her own work. In one letter, she described laying the foundation, almost literally, of a fictitious college in The Gate of Angels: “I walked all round Cambridge to find a spare piece of ground where another ancient college—a small one—could have been built.” She also commended one of my students for her essay on the same novel: “The references to divine providence I thought were very good because I didn’t mention it in the book but left it to be understood by discerning readers.”

Penelope, who thought her novels too British for Americans, was impressed by their sheer energy. When I wrote about a possible move from New York to Jackson, Mississippi, she replied, “Americans think nothing of tremendous moves, they just pack everything in the car and drive away.” She was also stirred by their good will. In reminiscences years after her visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which had purchased selections of her papers, her memory of nagging financial worries is assuaged by the kindnesses of the university staff: “I went to consult something in the University library, and had to manage on 2 dollars a day, but it was quite possible, if you just had breakfast, and I’ll never forget the patience & courtesy with which I was treated at the Humanities Library.”

As her American readership began to grow, Penelope gave all the credit to Houghton Mifflin, her new American publisher. American publication of The Blue Flower in April 1997 resulted in its wider recognition, including the cover page of The New York Times Book Review and in 1998, the first year of eligibility for non-American writers, the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In a letter written shortly thereafter, she so typically deflected the spotlight from herself and onto Christopher Carduff, her American editor: “It was a great encouragement for my wonderful book editor at Houghton Mifflin, who flew to New York with a ready-written speech in his pocket just in case it was necessary, and, lo and behold, it was.”

Twice, Penelope was selected as a judge for the Man Booker Prize, which her novel Offshore received in 1979. Shortly after her second Booker stint, in 1998, she wrote about the weariness following this task: “I have to admit that I’m glad the Booker is over—it’s bad enough having to judge it, but worse still, during the dinner an alternative panel of judges is broadcasting from a cellar beneath your feet and contradicting everything you say.”

Penelope often reflected on “time’s fell hand,” for instance in her memories of The Sole Bay Bookshop, in Southwold, and the inspiration of her second novel, which “has now alas closed its doors.” She was relieved that her father Edmund George Valpy (“Evoe”) Knox, editor of Punch for nearly two decades (1932 to 1949), “didn’t live to see the disappearance of Punch, which would once have seemed hardly believable” or that her Uncle Ronnie, whose unecumenism appeared hopelessly out of place after Vatican II, can be judged, “like the rest of us, only in terms of the time he lived in.” One Advent, she abruptly closed with wishes haunted by the recent death of her brother Rawle: “I’m lucky to be with my family this Christmas, although I was very sad to lose my brother this year. He was an old man & I’m getting to be an old woman,” and, elsewhere, her perfect balance of concession and grace is faultless in her observation of grandchildren at play: “I haven’t been so well lately, but hearing my grandchildren play football (handicapped by the kitten) in the garden just outside my window made me feel better.”

To this day, one of Penelope’s letters remains undelivered, “a catastrophe” she blamed on the “confused postal service.” I remain hopeful this letter, retrieved from some untidy corner at the Royal Mail, will one day miraculously appear, evidence of what the editors of her selected essays confidently call The Afterlife (2000). Penelope once wrote, regarding the Old Vic: “We can only hope it keeps going,” a sentiment she playfully applied to herself. This reminiscence is dedicated to her, with the hope that this conversation will “keep going” for a long time.

Photographer Elliott Erwitt’s archive to be housed at the Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

The archive of photographer Elliott Erwitt (b. 1928), which includes more than 50,000 signed photographic prints, will be housed at the Ransom Center. Spanning more than six decades of Erwitt’s career, the archive covers not only his work for magazine, industrial, and advertising clients but also photographs that have emerged from personal interests.

Collectors and philanthropists Caryl and Israel Englander have placed the archive at the Ransom Center for five years, making it accessible to researchers, scholars, and students.

Born in Paris to Russian émigré parents, Erwitt spent his formative years in Milan and then immigrated to the United States, living in Los Angeles and ultimately New York. In 1948, Erwitt actively began his career and met photographers Robert Capa, Edward Steichen, and Roy Stryker, all who would become mentors.

In 1953, Erwitt was invited to join Magnum Photos by Capa, one of the founders of the photographic co-operative. Ten years later, Erwitt became president of the agency for three terms. A member of the Magnum organization for more than 50 years, Erwitt’s archive will be held alongside the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center.

In addition to providing access to the archive, the Ransom Center will promote interest in the collection through lectures, fellowships, and exhibitions. The Erwitt materials are currently being prepared for public access.

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Image: USA. Arlington, Virginia. November 25, 1963. Jacqueline KENNEDY at John F. KENNEDY’s funeral.

Commentary Magazine Archive Donated to Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.

According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”

Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.

Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.


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"The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" collection donated to Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Lobby poster for the Broadway production of 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.'
Lobby poster for the Broadway production of 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.'

The Harry Ransom Center  has received a donation of a collection of materials from husband-wife duo actress Carlin Glynn and writer and director Peter Masterson relating to their careers and their work on the original Broadway production and film of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The collection consists of eight document boxes of materials, half of which relate to the 1978 musical. The musical was directed by Masterson, who also co-authored the book with Larry L. King. Carol Hall wrote the lyrics for the musical. The stage musical starred Glynn as Mona Stangley, the owner of a brothel in the fictional town of Gilbert, Texas. The show ran for more than 1,500 performances on Broadway, toured extensively and was adapted to film in 1982.

“We chose the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin to house our film and theatrical works and memorabilia, as so much of it is fueled by our Texas roots,” said Glynn and Masterson. “The Ransom Center is the leading theatrical and cinematic archive and will display our work properly so that it may be of value to future generations.”

The collection tracks the musical from its genesis to its stage performance and film adaptation through multiple versions of the stage and film script, publicity photographs, correspondence and financial documents related to the premiere, documents related to the West End production and other touring productions, and correspondence related to the development of the film script.

Ransom Center acquires archive of film director Nicholas Ray

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of film director Nicholas Ray (1911–1979), best known for his film Rebel Without a Cause.

Spanning more than 35 years, materials in the collection include, but are not limited to, Ray’s work on They Live By Night (1949), In A Lonely Place (1950), Flying Leathernecks (1951), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Run for Cover (1955), Bitter Victory (1957) and 55 Days at Peking (1963). Rebel Without a Cause starred James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood.

The holdings include original treatments, annotated scripts, photographs, journals, notes, audio reels, video recordings and film that provide an account of Ray’s working methods and ideas.

Also included are materials from Ray’s teaching career, which he began in 1971. Ray taught film directing and acting at Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University, New York University and the Lee Strasberg Institute.

Storyboards from Rebel Without a Cause reveal a different ending from the film that was released. In the alternate ending as originally planned, Plato, played by Mineo, is shot from the dome of the planetarium. The archive’s 64 storyboards contain Ray’s handwritten dialogue and directions. Almost all of Ray’s dialogue changes were incorporated into the film.

Ray’s most ambitious personal project was the experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again (1973–1976), which he made with students at Harpur. A version of the film screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, but Ray continued working and editing the film until his death. Materials relating to the autobiographical project include hours of edited work print, rushes, cut negative, editing notes and journal entries.

Storyboards from Rebel Without a Cause will be displayed on the first floor of the Center from July 28 through Aug. 31. Once processed, cataloged and housed, the collection will be available for research in the fall.


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Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling donates collection of materials to Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Notes for 'The Difference Engine' by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Notes for 'The Difference Engine' by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

American science fiction writer Bruce Sterling has donated a collection of materials to the Ransom Center. Sterling, an alumnus of the University, is known as one of the co-founders of the “cyberpunk” movement in the 1980s, with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, and others. In Sterling’s introduction to Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986), he defines the movement as “an unholy alliance of the technical world of pop culture, visionary, fluidity, and street-level anarchy.” The anthology, which Sterling edited, examines what happens when scientific discoveries push the boundaries of human knowledge.

The bulk of the collection, which spans from the early 1980s to the present, comprises more than 250 books from his library and 322 serial volumes, along with a set of posters from Russian films (ca. 1986). Many of the books are various editions of works by Sterling, and many of the periodicals contain articles or stories Sterling wrote.

The collection also contains drafts of several of Sterling’s major works. Late drafts of Holy Fire (1996), Heavy Weather (1994), and the unpublished Angel Engines are included, and multiple drafts in various stages can be found for Islands in the Net (1988) and Schismatrix (1985).

The novel The Difference Engine (1990), which Sterling wrote with Gibson, is well-represented with manuscript drafts and notebooks of chapters. Microcassettes of what appear to be phone conversations between the two discussing the work are also included. For this novel, Sterling conducted research in the rare book collections in the Ransom Center’s reading room, and his research notes are included in the materials.

Ransom Center receives collection of miniature books

By Ryan Hildebrand

The Ransom Center recently received a gift of more than 60 miniature books from printer, collector, and aficionado Duane Scott, proprietor of the Scott Free Press. The gift includes books Scott printed under his Scott Free Press imprint, as well as examples published by others such as Achille J. St. Onge, The Press of the Indiana Kid, Arm and Hammer Press, Black Cat Press, The Hillside Press, and Tabula Rasa Press. Scott’s gift is a substantial addition to the Ransom Center’s collection of miniature books.

In But, Why Tabula Rasa? John Lathourakis ponders “What makes a somewhat normal person get into an activity as insane as miniature books? Some say it is a form of self-punishment for transgressions too base to describe; others merely look at miniature book people as simple souls who are normal in every respect except that they were born brainless. I have a less clinical approach. Simply stated, printers and publishers of miniature books are possessed people whose every waking moment is spent trying to solve unsolvable problems.”

Latourakis’s diagnosis may be somewhat correct for Scott, as he was drawn to miniature books in part because they are difficult to execute well. On his visit to the Ransom Center he talked about the seemingly impossible tasks of aligning a page’s front and back during printing, setting miniscule pieces of type by hand, and the general difficulties of working on a very small scale. In bookwork, a diminutive format amplifies difficulty because one’s tools stay the same size, while the object to which they are applied is no bigger than 3 inches, and often much smaller. A well-done miniature book showcases the craftsperson’s ability; a poorly executed book highlights his or her failings. Scott’s miniature books belong in the former category.

Scott had another reason for becoming a printer of miniature books. Years ago, while already a letterpress printer, he met another printer specializing in the genre. Scott admired the printer’s work, but the printer refused to sell his books; he would only trade for another miniature book. So, Scott printed his first miniature book, Mark Twain’s How I Edited an Agricultural Paper, in order to have an item for trade.

Scott’s books are all completely handmade, from the setting of the tiny six-point type, to the binding, and of course, the printing. In some cases, he also made his own paper. His 1984 publication, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Awakened: A Portion of a Doll’s House was published in an edition of 250 copies, with 100 of them printed on 100-percent rag paper made from old cotton shirts, handkerchiefs, sheets, and pillow cases. Another of Scott’s books, Oriental Sayings, used paper made from denim. His daughter Caroline recalls, “He put out the word to the family to save our old cotton, and when we went to visit, we would haul along any worn-out clothes and linens.” Scott processed the pulp in an Umpherston beater and formed the sheets himself.

The topical matter of Scott’s collection is broad. The writings of Mark Twain are oft repeated, as are excerpts from other well-known authors such as Robert Frost and Henrik Ibsen. As expected, many of the books are concerned with printing, the book arts, and book collecting, including two books on miniature bookplates and type and paper specimen books. A book on Gutenberg contains a miniature facsimile leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, and a work on Ottmar Merganthaler (inventor of the Linotype machine) contains a Linotype circulating matrix. Perhaps the frustrations associated with printing miniature books incline their makers toward humor, as many of the books are quite funny, or at least take a very light-hearted tone. I can’t close this post without mentioning two of the more humorous works in Scott’s collection: What Men Know About Women by A. Mann, which is entirely blank inside, and the humorous and racy Shaggy Dog Story, a story about a dog named Sex.


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