Navigate / search

The Letters of Hemingway: a scholar’s work in the Ransom Center archives

By Kelsey McKinney

Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.
Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.

The recent publication of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I, 1907-1922 has re-ignited public interest in Hemingway’s personal life and documents. In the introduction to the book, editor Sandra Spanier writes: “Hemingway’s letters constitute this autobiography in the continuous present tense. They enrich our understanding of his creative processes, offer insider insights into the twentieth-century literary scene, and document the making and marketing of an American icon.” Four of the letters from the Ransom Center’s  Hemingway collection can be found in the book.

Liesl Olson, a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, visited the Ransom Center in October 2011 to study the letters of Hemingway. In January she will become Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She shares some of her findings from the Hemingway collection here:

“In October I spent a few days working in the Hemingway collection at the Harry Ransom Center. I was looking to learn more about the relationship between Hemingway and his Oak Park roots—especially his fraught relationship with his artistic mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. I also mined the collection for materials relevant to Hemingway’s time in Chicago, particularly during 1920-21 when he lived with friends on the north side and wrote for a fraudulent periodical called the Cooperative Commonwealth. What I found at the Ransom Center will help to complete a story that I tell about Hemingway in my book-in-progress, which is about the literary and artistic centrality of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most fantastic letter that Grace Hall Hemingway sent to her son is dated July 24, 1920, and it is contained in the Hemingway collection at the Ransom Center. The letter is an elaborate reprimand for Hemingway’s late-night lake escapade with friends up in Michigan. In Grace Hall Hemingway’s ten-page letter—for which she composed many drafts (also in the collection)—she conceives of the metaphor of a bank to describe their relationship, and she is quick to point out that he is “overdrawn.” Most Hemingway scholars know about this letter. But in looking at the letter in context of so many others at the Ransom Center, it is striking to learn that Hemingway’s father (who received a copy) called it a “masterpiece” and that the letter itself entered into family lore. Grace Hall Hemingway’s construction of motherhood—in a letter written in flourishing cursive script—is a striking analogue to Hemingway’s own construction of himself, much later in life, as a popular, bearded “Papa.”

I found many other collections at the Ransom Center  that help to illuminate the literary and cultural life of Chicago—especially the Alice Corbin Henderson collection. Henderson was Harriet Monroe’s editorial assistant at Poetry magazine, published in Chicago, where Hemingway’s poems first appeared in 1923. Though Hemingway’s letters to Monroe have been published—and the spectacular multi-volume Hemingway letters project will complete what has been missed—the materials at the Ransom Center provide the other side of the correspondence, the incoming letters to Hemingway. Like the 1920 letter from Grace Hall Hemingway, these letters give voice to the people and places that shaped Hemingway’s life and work.”

Denis Johnson papers open for research

By Amy Armstrong

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" opens this week in Austin

By Alicia Dietrich

Playwright Tom Stoppard wanted to incorporate ideas of chaos theory and thermodynamics into the intricately structured plot of his play Arcadia. His archive shows how he consulted with his son, a physics graduate student at Oxford University, and with his son’s colleagues to get the details just right.

The play opened to acclaim at the National Theatre in London on April 13, 1993, and now Austinites can see an Austin Shakespeare performance of Arcadia, which opens Thursday and runs through February 19 at the Rollins Studio Theater at the Long Center for the Performing Arts.

The Stoppard archive, which was acquired in batches between 1991 and 2000, spans more than 60 years and includes materials related to Arcadia and other well-known works, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1968) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).

To celebrate the opening of Arcadia this week, the Ransom Center is giving away two tickets to the Sunday, February 5 performance at 3 p.m. Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley will speak about “The Real Tom Stoppard” before the performance at 2:15 p.m.

Email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Arcadia” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the tickets. [Update: A winner has been chosen and notified for this drawing.]

Anita Desai's latest book now on shelves

By Alicia Dietrich

Anita Desai talks with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley at the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium at the Ransom Center.
Anita Desai talks with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley at the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium at the Ransom Center.

Anita Desai, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, recently published The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas that ruminate on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities.

Born in India, Desai often explores themes related to her homeland in her work, and she has been short-listed for the Booker Prize three times for her novels Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999).

The Ransom Center acquired her papers in a series of purchases between 1989 and 2006. The collection contains manuscripts and typescript drafts for all of her novels, from her first book, Cry, the Peacock (1963), through Journey to Ithaca (1995); works for children; introductions, prefaces, reviews, essays, speeches, and lectures; and correspondence.

Desai visited the Ransom Center for the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium, which explored “The State and Fate of Publishing.” Read the talk she gave at the symposium about her experiences with publishing.

Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium in April

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 Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium on April 5 and 6 at the Ransom Center. The symposium includes a public program on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium.

Symposium
registration is limited and opens January 23 at 11 a.m. CST. Participants must register online. The $55 registration fee includes access to all events on the schedule.

All symposium events will be webcast live.

The Ransom Center holds Wallace’s archive, which was made accessible for research in September 2010. For the symposium, writers, editors, journalists, and critics gather to discuss Wallace’s life and work in panel discussions on such topics as “Editors on Wallace” and “A Life through the Archive.”

Symposium moderators and participants include Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell, editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin.

In the Galleries: Ogden Nash’s padlocked collection of poetry

By Elana Estrin

One of Ogden Nash's copies of  'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Ogden Nash's copies of 'Hard Lines' with padlock and chain. Photo by Pete Smith.

“All of these books are worse than opium… I would rather have a child of mine use opium than read these books,” declared Senator Reed Smoot of Utah in March 1930, speaking from behind a desk towering with “smutty” books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Robert Burns’s poetry.

In 1929, Senator Smoot and Representative Willis Hawley of Oregon introduced a tariff bill to Congress that included a section restricting the importation of obscene materials, which inspired the widely repeated news headline “Smoot Smites Smut.” Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico led a protest against the proposed ban on obscene literature, and the House approved an amendment that removed books from the list of obscene materials.

But the battle wasn’t over. When the full bill reached the Senate in March 1930, Smoot brought book censorship back into the spotlight. After much debate, the Senate returned books to the list of obscene materials with the exception of “classics” and works of “established literary and scientific merit.” The Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law on June 17, 1930.

In response to the controversy, poet Ogden Nash penned “Invocation” and submitted it to The New Yorker, his first published contribution to the magazine, in January 1930.

The first verse reads:

Senator Smoot (Republican, Ut.)
Is planning a ban on smut.
Oh rooti-ti-toot for Smoot of Ut.
And his reverend occiput.
Smite, Smoot, smite for Ut.,
Grit your molars and do your dut.,
Gird up your l__ns,
Smite h_p and th_gh,
We’ll all be Kansas
By and by.

“Invocation” appeared in Nash’s collection Hard Lines. As a publicity stunt, Simon and Schuster sent out advance copies with a chain, padlock, and key attached.

One of Nash’s copies of Hard Lines appears in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored, on display through January 22. Nash intended to send this copy to book critic Alexander Woollcott. The inside front cover of the book includes the beginning of an inscription to Woollcott, but Nash misspelled Woollcott’s name (he forgot the second “l”) and inscribed the book to himself instead:

“For Ogden Nash with the very best wishes of the author. This is one of several advance copies equipped with lock and chain for attention-catching which were sent to current celebrities in hope of eliciting favorable comment. I started to mis-spell Alexander Woollcott’s name in this one, so kept it for myself. Woollcott didn’t like the one he got, even though I spelled his name right.*

*It sold nearly 40,000 copies in spite of him.”

Win a signed book by a writer on the New York Times "100 Notable Books of 2011" list

By Alicia Dietrich

The New York Times released its list of “100 Notable Books of 2011″ this week, and the Ransom Center holds the archives of five writers on the list.

To celebrate this news, the Ransom Center will give away a signed copy of a book by one of these writers to the first three people to email hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with the names of all five writers on the list.

Update: Congratulations to Lev L., Robert P., and Ry P. for their correct responses of Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Denis Johnson, and David Foster Wallace. They will all receive a signed copy of Denis Johnson’s novel Already Dead.