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Your field guide to the Ransom Center

By Richard Oram

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.

Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.

The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.

Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.

The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.

Charles R. Larson on African literature

By Alicia Dietrich

Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Charles R. Larson. Photo by Roberta Rubenstein.
Tonight, Charles R. Larson of American University speaks about his collection of African, African American, and Native American literature, acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in 2009. Bernth Lindfors, University of Texas at Austin emeritus professor of English, hosts the conversation, which will be webcast live. Here Larson shares how he became interested in African literature and began collecting.

This collection of books and manuscripts would not exist if I had not gone to Nigeria in 1962 as a Peace Corps volunteer. Prior to my departure, I had earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in American literature and written my thesis on William Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy. I fully intended to return to the United States and pursue a Ph.D. in American literature. Fortunately, the summer before my departure for Nigeria, I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard.

Nigeria totally altered my worldview, mostly by showing me the failure of my earlier education. Not only did I begin reading emerging works by African writers, but I realized that in the many American literature courses that I had taken, I had never read a work by a minority writer. I began ordering books from the United States and reading Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and other African American writers. How ironic that the man who directed my M.A. thesis and taught the American literature survey course I took never mentioned a single African American writer, yet he was an African American. After I returned to the United States, I discovered that he had one of the most extensive private collections of African American literature, but he obviously never felt comfortable enough to assign any of those writers in his own courses.

How fortunate that the school where I taught English in Eastern Nigeria was a scant few miles from Ogidi, the village where Achebe grew up and the setting of his celebrated novel. I was aware of Ogidi’s proximity to my own village and was even told that Achebe visited his family there from time to time, but I made no attempt to meet him until several years later. Equally important, however, was Onitsha, the Igbo center of business and culture, a dozen miles from where I lived. It was there that I purchased many of the original titles by the Onitsha pamphleteers and had my first true sense of what was already becoming a major school of African writing. In Onitsha at the CMS Bookstore, I also purchased Achebe’s third novel, Arrow of God, soon after it was published.

Nigeria changed my scholarly life. When I returned home I was determined to see that works by African writers were reprinted in American editions, and in the spring of the 1965 academic year, I taught my first course in African literature. The rest is history.

Don DeLillo and David Mamet honored by PEN

By Alicia Dietrich

Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.
Left, photo of Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid. Right, photo of David Mamet by Pete Smith.

Two writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center received 2010 PEN Literary Awards.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the 2010 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. He is the author of 15 novels, 4 plays, and a number of short stories and essays. The PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction goes to a distinguished living American author of fiction whose body of work in English possesses qualities of excellence, ambition, and scale of achievement over a sustained career, which places him or her in the highest rank of American literature.

Author, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director David Mamet received the 2010 PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for a Master American Dramatist. Mamet is the author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award. The PEN/Laura Pels Foundation Award for Drama recognizes a master American dramatist whose literary achievements are vividly apparent in the rich and striking language of his or her work.

“The fact that the archives of Don DeLillo and David Mamet, two of PEN’s literary award winners this year, are at the Ransom Center is a reminder of the extraordinary collections at the Center,” said Steve Isenberg, executive director of the PEN American Center, a member of the Ransom Center’s Advisory Council, and a former visiting professor of humanities at The University of Texas at Austin. “It’s wonderful that these collections are readily available to scholars, students, faculty, and the public to see firsthand.”

Read a Q&A with DeLillo on PEN’s website.

Recommended Reading: Books of the Decade

By Alicia Dietrich

'1599: Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare' by James Shapiro
'1599: Year In the Life Of William Shakespeare' by James Shapiro
With 2010 drawing to a close, Ransom Edition, the Center’s print newsletter, asked writers and scholars to share their picks for the best book of the past decade. See the recommendations of Booker Prize-winner Penelope Lively, writer and filmmaker Iain Sinclair, writer Stephen Harrigan, writer and journalist Selina Hastings, and associate professor Randolph Lewis.

David Foster Wallace’s library: Dog ears, coffee rings, duct tape, and heavy markings

By Jacqueline Muñoz

Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Books from David Foster Wallace's library. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Jacqueline Muñoz, librarian at the Ransom Center, cataloged more than 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s archive. Here, she writes about her experience working with the collection and her personal response to Wallace’s work.

I didn’t think much of Infinite Jest in the beginning. My impression of David Foster Wallace’s writing was that it was wordy and unfocused with some seriously flawed characters. Gradually I settled into his use of language, which is quite impressive, and finally at the Boston AA section, I was hooked—certainly on the plot, but even more so on the man behind the prose. All at once, it was clear the length of the story and ambiguity of the characters was Wallace’s vehicle for articulating how unforgiving it is to be human, and how, though various generations may seem vastly different on the surface, they struggle internally with the same issues. I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him better. So, I was thrilled to find out the Ransom Center would be acquiring his archive, especially given the description about the extensive annotations to his books.

Even then, I was not prepared for what we received. Of the more than 300 titles in his collection, there are maybe 10 or 15 that are not annotated—not simply with underlined passages but ample and personally revealing margin notes. The library basically falls into two categories: novels/stories he taught in his literature classes and books for use in research and self-analysis. Finishing Infinite Jest, I came away with a lot of questions about the origin of some of the characters, as well as theories about the story itself. I think the items in his library, which feel very much like journal entries the way he marked them up, provide some answers.

Looking at his collection, one can see that Wallace was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man: a philosopher, mathophile, physics buff, grammarian, pop-fiction reader, lit professor, creative writer, and spiritual seeker. He didn’t merely own these books; he digested them. Cover to cover there are handwritten notes and vocabulary words; he dog-eared pages, annotated the most pertinent passages, and even used the tomes as coffee mug coasters and phone conversation doodle pads. Through his books, one gains a sense of him on a personal, human level—his struggles, unpretentiousness, sense of humor, diligent research skills, and devotion to masterful writing. It’s almost as if he’s still teaching and sharing.

David Foster Wallace archive now open

By Alicia Dietrich

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
The archive of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), author of Infinite Jest (1996), The Broom of the System (1987), Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and numerous collections of stories and essays, is now open at the Harry Ransom Center. A finding aid for the collection and an inventory of Wallace’s library can be accessed online.

The Ransom Center acquired Wallace’s archive last year. The collection is made up of 42 boxes and is divided into three main sections: works, personal and career-related materials and copies of works by Don DeLillo. The works section covers the period between 1984 and 2006 and includes material related to Wallace’s novels, short stories, essays and magazine articles. The personal and career materials section covers 1971 through 2008 and includes juvenilia, teaching materials and business correspondence. Most of the correspondence in the collection is between Wallace and his editors and is related to his work. The third, and smallest, section includes photocopy typescripts of three works by Don DeLillo, one of which, Underworld, contains extensive handwritten annotations by Wallace.

View some teaching materials from the archive.

The Ransom Center commemorates the opening of the archive with public readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors tonight at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) in the university’s Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall. The event, which is co-sponsored by “American Short Fiction” and Salvage Vanguard Theater, will be webcast live.

Writer Wilson Harris knighted

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of 'The Ghost of Memory' by Wilson Harris
Cover of 'The Ghost of Memory' by Wilson Harris
United Kingdom–based Guyanese writer Wilson Harris, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, has been knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. He is the author of the works Fetish (1951), Eternity to Season (1954), Palace of the Peacock (1969), and The Ghost of Memory (2006).

Harris, born in 1921, was influenced in his writing by his personal experiences with the complex Guyanese landscape and multi-racial culture. His novels, known for their abstract and experimental nature, are full of metaphors and complex symbolism, with an intermingling of time, reality, imagination, memory, and dreams; they have been called “psychical expeditions.” Harris won the Guyana National Prize for Literature in 1987 and 2002.

The Wilson Harris collection, which was acquired by the Ransom Center in batches between 1970 and 2007, includes handwritten manuscripts, typescripts, page proofs, and reviews for several of his books, as well as correspondence, primarily letters written by Harris to poet and literary critic Michael Thorpe.

"The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence."

By Harry Ransom Center

‘Arthur Miller’ by Christopher Bigsby
‘Arthur Miller’ by Christopher Bigsby

Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American Studies and the Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has written extensively about Arthur Miller. He recently published a biography on the playwright, Arthur Miller (Harvard University Press, 2009), and he writes here about working at the Ransom Center.

I have been visiting the Harry Ransom Center for more than 30 years, most recently working on Arthur Miller’s papers, though the staff there must have been somewhat irritated when Miller held back boxes of materials so that I could work through them to write his biography. It delayed their arrival in Austin by nearly two years. You will even find among them a page bearing a lipstick kiss from Marilyn Monroe, a touch distracting to the serious scholar.

I once made a BBC television film about the Ransom Center during which I learned that in the event of fire, the area floods with inert gas. It is designed to preserve the collection though, alas, not the researchers. I am told that more recently they have exchanged this for a sprinkler system. As an academic I think that shows a failure of nerve. I approved of the earlier priority.

In England there is an excellent fish and chip chain called Harry Ramsden’s. I’ve been known to confuse the two, not least because both offer immediate satisfaction wrapped up in yesterday’s papers. For academics the Center is a kind of limbo. When you go there, you don’t know whether you will discover a path to heaven or hell. Will the hidden be revealed, theories proved, or will the notebooks of writers contradict everything you wish to say? Does tenure await or a life in advertising?

The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence. Admittedly it hasn’t as yet produced many Popes, but it has had a hand in a new Renaissance. In the past, its money, admittedly, came from oil and not banking (hard to know which it is harder to love right now) but its role in preserving our cultural heritage (the UK’s no less than the US) has been central. Where else but Texas, after all, should we look to research Winnie the Pooh?

To Keep or Not to Keep: Denis Johnson and his papers

By Kevin Endres

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. The handwritten note points out that 'These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
As an avid reader of Denis Johnson’s work (I bought my first Playboy magazine to read Nobody Move in serial form), I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go through his papers. Seeing Johnson speak at the 2008 Flair Symposium, “Creating a Usable Past: Writers, Archives, & Institutions,” had amplified, for me at least, the desire to know as much as one can about a favorite author. Flair’s intimate venue and Johnson’s candidness about his own archive gave mystique to his lost work and to what he has decided to save—for with Johnson, this decision is both deliberate and thoughtful. For those who weren’t there, here is a video of Johnson discussing his past habit of throwing away drafts and one of his more recent decisions to destroy a notebook, essentially censoring his own archive.

Two years after Flair, among the most exciting finds in Johnson’s papers were two pages of a draft of “Emergency,” a story from Jesus’ Son, which had been severely crumpled and then smoothed out to fit in a folder with other drafts of the story. One can only speculate as to why these pages were crumpled, but perhaps they are a testament to Johnson’s statement that, after hearing that poet Donald Justice received $17,000 for the drafts of one of his books, Johnson “went upstairs and emptied his wastebasket.” Scholars and fans alike will be grateful that he did.

There are treasures relating to his early life and even some drafts dated before 1992 (Johnson included a note with several stacks of floppy discs stating “These discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992″). There is a binder of press clippings housed with a mother’s devotion in neat, plastic sleeves; letters, report cards, and other mementos of Johnson’s youth; a draft of the story “Happy Hour,” from Jesus’ Son, dated 9-26-1991, and another draft bearing the alternate title “Electric Child on Bad Fun”—a draft that proved to be quite different from its published form.

Johnson said that it was “liberating” to throw away drafts because they “were like skins [he] was shedding and leaving behind.” He adds that this process of shedding skins did more for him as an artist than his drafts could for a researcher. But after Johnson decided to save his skins, his awareness of his papers’ archival destination raises an issue new to the modern area: censorship. It’s hard to imagine Evelyn Waugh or Charlotte Bronte experiencing self-consciousness about writing in a journal because a scholar might someday read it and scoff, but many of today’s top authors are aware that placing their papers at libraries engages part of an important branch of scholarship (and occasionally comes with a pay-off). What does this self-awareness mean for them as artists and archivists, and what does it mean for the future of archives? I’m not one to speculate, but I expect that as more living writers place their archives at libraries, the nature of the archive will evolve, for better or worse.

Author Denis Johnson's papers acquired by the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Denis Johnson speaks on a panel at the Ransom Center's 2008 Flair Symposium on 'Building the Archive.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Denis Johnson speaks on a panel at the Ransom Center's 2008 Flair Symposium on 'Building the Archive.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

The Ransom Center has acquired the papers of National Book Award winner Denis Johnson, author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke.

The collection includes manuscripts, typescripts, research materials, journals, correspondence, family photos and juvenilia, press clippings, books, and other items. Many of Johnson’s pre-1992 works exist only in digital form, and bundles of floppy disks with manuscript drafts are part of the archive. An early scrapbook includes baby footprints, Johnson’s birth certificate, family photos and correspondence between Johnson and his family.