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Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out

By Molly Schwartzburg

The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.

The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.

Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”

The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.

Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.

You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.

You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.

How to have literature in a pandemic

By Gabriela Redwine

Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering the dead, and celebrating the living. The Ransom Center’s collection includes several people, both famous and ordinary, whose lives have been touched by AIDS. Among the most well known is Terrence McNally, whose plays Lisbon Traviata (1985, 1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and Love! Valour!
Compassion!
(1994), as well as the Emmy-winning television movie Andre’s Mother (1988, 1990), incorporate AIDS as part of the social, emotional, and biological fabric of their characters’ lives.

All five of these works are represented in the McNally papers at the Ransom Center, in addition to manuscripts, correspondence, and production materials related to his other works, and other materials dating from his high school years through the present. His papers also include 174 computer disks with contents ranging from manuscripts to correspondence to photographs. Digital drafts exist for three of the plays mentioned above: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion!, which won a Tony for best play in 1995, is the story of eight gay friends, one of whom owns a large house in the Hudson Valley where the group meets for holiday weekends during one summer. These gatherings become a celebration of friendship and an exploration of life and desire in a time of AIDS. Andre’s Mother first took shape as a short play written for Urban Blight, a musical revue performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1988. Both the original eight-minute play and the television movie version, which aired on PBS in 1990 as part of the American Playhouse series, explored the confrontation between Andre’s lover and his mother, and were set at Andre’s memorial service shortly after his death from AIDS.

In addition to drafts with McNally’s handwritten corrections, the boxes related to these two works contain a small amount of correspondence from ordinary people who wrote to share their personal experiences with McNally after seeing Andre’s Mother or Love! Valour! Compassion! One letter is from a mother who lost her own son to AIDS. Another is from an older gay man who cared for his long-time partner in his final years. In 1991, Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Andre’s Mother “offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule.” McNally’s larger collection and this small pocket of correspondence are a testament to the power of stories, both public and private, to connect people.

Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

By Richard Oram

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

Music inspired by Poe's works

By Elana Estrin

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

Ransom Center Celebrates Tennessee Williams's Induction into Poets' Corner

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams will be inducted into the Poets’ Corner in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with celebrations beginning today. Previous inductees include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

The Ransom Center holds materials that document the family, life, and work of the American playwright Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams. The collection contains numerous manuscript drafts, including those for the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.

The Tennessee Williams collection was built from four major acquisitions in the 1960s with smaller amounts of material added over the years. The nucleus of the collection began with Williams’s own papers, acquired by the Ransom Center from 1962 to 1969. These materials included over 1,000 separately titled works, numerous clippings, and several boxes of correspondence. In 1964, the Center expanded the collection with the purchase of the correspondence between Williams and his agent, Audrey Wood. In 1965, the Center acquired a large number of manuscripts, including Williams’s first full-length play, Candles to the Sun, from Williams’s official bibliographer, Andreas Brown. Brown’s materials also included a complete run of Williams’s publications, and Brown’s own correspondence, notes, and drafts from his work on Williams’s bibliography.

The Williams family papers were also acquired in 1965 from Williams’s mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. These materials included original manuscripts and works of art by Williams, over 700 letters, scrapbooks, personal memorabilia, and 650 photographs.

Update on the "Victorian Blood Book"

By Alicia Dietrich

This large, oblong decoupage book contains more than 40 collages consisting of carefully assembled engravings from books. The decoupage has been embellished with hand-colored drops of “blood” and handwritten religious commentaries. The emphasis throughout is on images of the Crucifixion, birds, and snakes, all dripping with blood.

The album, familiarly known to us as the “Victorian Blood Book,” has been an object of fascination, horror, and mystery since it arrived with the rest of the Evelyn Waugh library in 1967.

Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram wrote an article about the book for a prior issue of eNews. Since then, he has unearthed some new information about the book’s origins, which he discusses in a new audio slideshow, where you can see slides of each page of the book.

Scholar explores Hemingway family papers

By Mary Dearborn

As a fellow at the Ransom Center last year, independent scholar Mary V. Dearborn uncovered new information about the Hemingway family while studying the Ernest Hemingway collection and Leicester Hemingway’s New Atlantis collection. She’s currently working on a book based on her findings: The Hemingway Family: The Human Cost, which is scheduled for publication in 2011. Her research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dearborn says her book will “tell for the first time the hundred-year story of a tragic American family,” and shares some highlights from her research at the Ransom Center:

I was working in the Hemingway family papers, and I was astounded by what I found there. The papers were mostly Ernest’s mother’s, containing all her correspondence, records, and photographs. None of Hemingway’s previous biographers seem to have really looked at this material, perhaps dismissing it as “domestic” and thus trivial.

Grace Hemingway is usually written off as a cold, castrating shrew—the picture of her that her son wholesaled, blaming her for his father’s suicide. She was definitely difficult, but she was a fascinating woman, and her marriage was a complicated and nuanced relationship of power that Ernest learned a great deal from, for good and ill.

The added bonus is that in these papers there are numerous anecdotes and descriptions of Ernest’s upbringing, contributing to a far more well-rounded picture of the boy and young man than we have previously been given. Ernest once confided to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner, that he couldn’t write freely while his mother was still alive—not at all the impression he commonly gave out! Their relationship was, until her death in 1951, fraught and intense—and heretofore unexplored.

Discovering "The Sheltering Sky"

By Harry Ransom Center

Matt Morton, a senior in the English Honors Program, Humanities Honors Program, and Government, is working as an undergraduate intern with Ransom Center Curator of British and American Literature Molly Schwartzburg. Undergraduate interns at the Harry Ransom Center have the opportunity to gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience at a major research library and museum. Interns work in a variety of capacities, including developing exhibitions, assisting with collections cataloging, and creating unique multimedia.

Morton has been assembling materials from the Paul Bowles and other collections for an exhibition case that is now on display on the Ransom Center’s second floor through November 13. He shares his experience working on this project:

On my first day as an intern at the Ransom Center, I walked into the building feeling guilty. A lover of all things literary, I was entering my fourth year as an English and Humanities major. Nevertheless, I had ventured inside the Center only twice, both times during organized class visits.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had heard horror stories from fellow classmates about internships consisting of making copies and gazing out the window. I knew, of course, that an internship at the Ransom Center would provide the opportunity to do more than grunt work. Still, I was unsure of how I could make a substantial contribution.

I soon found out. I was met by my supervisor, Molly Schwartzburg, who immediately began outlining the projects we would be working on. The first of these was the creation of a single-case exhibition centered on a New York Times article commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky.

Written by Dwight Garner, the article was notable for its references to Tennessee Williams’s review of The Sheltering Sky, and Norman Mailer’s discussion of Bowles in Advertisements for Myself, two works of which the Ransom Center holds original manuscripts. Garner also referred to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life. Carr did extensive research at the Center while working on the biography and even inscribed a copy of the biography to the Center’s staff.

Garner’s article was the initiation of my relationship with The Sheltering Sky, which would progress over a few short weeks. While I was thrilled to be given responsibility for an exhibition, however small, I was simultaneously apprehensive. During my three years at UT, I somehow had never heard of Bowles. How could I create an exhibition focusing on one of his novels?

I soon found that the task was not as daunting as I imagined. Molly and I began by repeatedly touring the mazes of the Center’s collections. Soon I found myself sorting through the Bowles and Williams collections and Mailer’s papers, eventually having to decide which of the enticing collection materials should be included in the exhibition’s limited space. Finally, all that remained was creating the layout, an act that allowed me even more creative freedom.

After only four weeks of work, the exhibition is finished. I hope that it will introduce viewers unfamiliar with Bowles to The Sheltering Sky, as the process of its creation similarly educated me.

From the Author: Alan Furst

By Alicia Dietrich

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with historical spy novelist Alan Furst, who is reading tonight at the Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live. Here is how Furst has been occupying his time lately:

“I’m hard at work in two ways: maybe the more interesting has to do with promotion. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, 15 books, and now I’ve been led to discover, by Random House marketing people, the literary chat room. On reflection, since printing was invented, no other system of communication like this has ever existed. Short paragraphs, query and response, a kind of intellectual tennis, in minutes not days, achieved by the internet. And the protocols of e-communication seem to enhance, not limit, the discourse. In other words, you point to trails, you don’t go down them, but the person you address may, and the witnesses—audience?—because it’s an open forum—may do so as well.

“Also, not an anti-climax to me, I’m writing the hell out of a new book, about southern Europe in 1940/41, excited to confront new politics, new history, new ethnographies—the anthropological espionage novel!! You heard it first here.”

Learn more about Furst by viewing his reading recommendations, the inventory of his archive, and a profile that explores his writing process using Furst’s archival materials at the Ransom Center.