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?
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.
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.
We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.
Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.
Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.
[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Writer Alan Furst, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, is known for his historical espionage novels set in pre-World War II Europe. His most recent novel, Spies of the Balkans, will be released today. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight for a chance to win one of two copies of the book. [Update: This contest has ended, and winners have been notified.]
Furst visited the Ransom Center last fall and sat down for an interview to discuss his writing and his archive. Below are some excerpts from the interview.
Furst discusses why he writes spy novels.
Furst discusses how he develops atmosphere in his books.
Furst talks about what it means for him and his career to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.
Fans of Furst can also check out his recommended reading, read his Writers Reflect interview, and listen to him read from his book Spies of Warsaw on the Ransom Center’s website.
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.
Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.
Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.
At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.
Playwright Kenneth Brown, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, introduces a screening of the documentary film Another Glorious Day tonight at 7 p.m. at the Ransom Center. The film explores the history, context, and performances of the Living Theatre’s European tour of his play, The Brig (1963). A question and answer session follows.
The film is centered around a 2008 revival of The Brig, the inflammatory play that exposed the harsh realities inside a U.S. Marine prison. This documentary by Karin Kaper and Dirk Szuszies puts former Marine Kenneth H. Brown’s drama into historical perspective—and makes a case for its ongoing relevance—through powerful scenes from the recent production in Berlin and illuminating interviews with directors of the play past and present, revival cast members, and the playwright himself.
The Cultural Compass had a conversation with Brown in which he discussed The Brig, its ongoing relevance, and his archive at the Ransom Center.
Brown discusses how The Brig changed the Living Theatre’s approach to productions.
The Living Theatre’s been in existence over 40 years, and it was in existence about 15 years before The Brig was done. And before The Brig was done, they were doing Brecht and various standard radical theatrical events. They did Paul Goodman and Picasso and Gertrude Stein and Brecht.
But once The Brig was done, the play, which the movie demonstrates, created the acting style and the approach to material by the company that has existed from 1963 to the present day. The whole direction of the company was re-directed by their doing The Brig. The reason being, that in order for the play to work onstage, you have 17 Marines—those are all the characters in the play—you have to make them Marines. So we had to conduct a boot camp, which went on for six weeks. By the time it was over, these guys were running ten miles and doing 60 push-ups and sit-ups, and they knew how to march, and they knew how to double-time, they knew how to half-step. They were Marines!
And that made the play absolutely riveting because it was like looking at the real thing, rather than looking at something being enacted. Because the one thing the actors said to me was, “There’s no audience in the brig. And there’s no acting in the brig because if you have to make a bed, you really have to make a bed.” There’s no making belief you’re making the bed. If some guy punches you in the stomach, he’s not really punching you, but your reaction has to be so real that it’s almost as bad as if he really punched you.
So by the time they did the play, it created this whole style and approach to material in the theater that was responsible for everything the Living Theatre did afterward. They did everything in that style and still do to this day.
Brown discusses how it feels to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.
I’m 74 years old. A few years ago—and I’m in relatively good health—I said to myself, “Well, I’m over 70, got a nice little apartment in Brooklyn overlooking the bridge, a beautiful neighborhood with the store where I did my shopping.” I had really kind of retired from life. And it was fine. I hadn’t stopped writing. I never stopped writing. I’d been writing since I was 6 years old. But I had settled on “this is it.”
And then, in 2007, Judith Molina [co-founder of The Living Theatre], who’s now 83 years old, called me and said, “We’re reviving The Brig.” I went, “I don’t believe it.”
And then it opened in 2007, and it was a bigger hit than it was the first time. And in The New York Times, we had a two-page review with pictures. Two pages! Not a column. Two pages with pictures! And then in 2008 it went on the European tour, and then Tom Staley bought the archive, and all of a sudden, I turned around, and I had been thrown back in the pool again. And that’s kind of what my feeling of my archive, of the whole process, is.
It has enlivened interest in a lot of other stuff of mine.
Brown discusses why The Brig is still relevant to today’s audiences.
The Brig has always been relevant, which is kind of amazing to me. But I guess as long as there’s war and as long as there’s a military and especially as long as one questions the ethical right to wage war and in this ridiculous nonsense in Afghanistan and Iraq—when you do a play that studies the psychology of what it is to be a Marine, how more relevant can you get? It’s going to stay relevant forever. Until there’s peace throughout the world. Then the play’s not relevant anymore because then there’s no military threat. If there’s no military threat, then the play ceases to be relevant.
2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. The book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43.
The Ransom Center acquired the archive of the National Book Award–winning writer in 2007, and a finding aid for the collection is available online. Also, read what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
The papers of British writer Jim Crace, author of acclaimed works Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), are now open at the Ransom Center. A finding aid of the collection can be accessed online.
The Center acquired Crace’s archive in 2008. The collection is made up of more than 45 boxes of materials, including the research notes, early drafts and edited page proofs of All That Follows (2010), Crace’s novel that is being released next Tuesday.
Below you can view a video of Crace reading from All That Follows. Also, listen to audio of Crace reading from his other works and view a list of his recommended reading.
The Ransom Center screens Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries, the award-winning PBS documentary about the National Book Award–winning writer and environmental activist, on Monday evening at the Ransom Center. Matthiessen’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.
The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Sewald, producer, writer, and director of the documentary. He writes about what it was like to work with Matthiessen on this project.
I studied his craggy face as he gazed at the screen, reviewing a rough-cut video of his story, adapted and condensed of course for television viewers and the film festival crowd. More than three years of my own life had been invested in Peter Matthiessen’s, and the thought of my bio film soon being finished left me at once elated and a little bereft. How often does one get to pick the brain and probe the heart and soul of a legend like Peter, a hero to every young man (myself included) who ever believed he had what it took to write for a living? I couldn’t help but think how lucky I had been to get to know him, and how reluctant I was to pronounce the project “completed.” After all, Peter Matthiessen, then almost 82, was still very much alive and showing no signs of wanting to pack it in.
Making films about people, especially living ones, presents both joys and challenges, and this film was no exception. It was captivating to hear Peter speak about his books and journeys, from The Snow Leopard, to Shadow Country, and from New Guinea to Nepal. Few if any people have crammed more into eight decades of life than he has. In fact, the totality of Peter Matthiessen’s written work and personal experience is something most may only dream about. Here is a man who writes both fiction and non-fiction, who married three times, fathered and adopted children, became a Zen monk, and fought the powers that be over human and civil rights. I always found it funny that all Peter asked of my personal take on his life story was “clarity.” Therein was the challenge.
When the final version of Peter Matthiessen: No Boundaries was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Brooklyn last year, Peter seemed to like the film— even though he more than once chided me for taking his life far too seriously. In truth, he can be very funny and wonderful company, which I think we demonstrate on screen. But in a film that was required to clock-in at 56 minutes and 46 seconds (a PBS hour), I chose to focus on what I believe are Peter’s most important works and on how the events and circumstances of his life informed his choices and set the trajectories for his literary and spiritual quests. I still maintain that this approach was the best one. After all, Peter Matthiessen is an important body in the literary firmament. To do anything less would have been unthinkable to me.
I have been gratified by the fact that my film has been in demand on the screening circuit since it first aired nationally on PBS in April of last year. It is always interesting to note audience reactions and to meet people who have seen and appreciated my work and the work of my collaborators. Like writing, making independent films can be a rather solitary process, especially after shooting has ceased and scripting begins. I am now working on my next film, about the author and feminist Isabel Allende. But we’re still in the shooting stage, which means I’m still sociable. So come out and see me on April 12. It will be fun.