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of Penelope Fitzgerald, and Hermione Lee, Fitzgerald’s biographer, have kindly given permission to quote from these unpublished letters.)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.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
While studying art history in graduate school, novelist Nicole Krauss spent hours in the library researching Rembrandt, only to find that she preferred imagining the details of his life instead.
“Beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might,” Krauss said.
Krauss’s vivid imagination has resulted in three critically acclaimed novels: Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Krauss was named a National Book Award Finalist for Great House, her most recent novel. In 2010, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under 40.
On Tuesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. CST, the Harry Ransom Center presents Krauss at Jessen Auditorium where she will read from Great House and speak with James Magnuson, Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A book signing follows. A live webcast of the event airs at approximately 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST.
Cultural Compass spoke with Krauss about her thoughts on art, what she’s currently reading, a Rembrandt self-portrait that reappears in her novels, the burden of inheritance, her advice for writers, transplanted rooms, and more.
Alma Singer from The History of Love shares the same name as the wife of Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose archive resides at the Ransom Center). Your works have been compared to those of Singer. Did you deliberately name Alma after I. B. Singer’s wife?
No, that was a happy accident. I wondered later whether it was an unconscious decision, but I don’t remember ever learning that her name was Alma until after I finished the book. I cast around a lot for names in the beginning; it’s difficult to name a character because almost every name feels artificial. I had chosen Singer because it was the name of someone I knew when I was the character’s age, 14, so it seemed natural to me. Alma just rolled off the tongue in the right ways. And of course it has all these wonderful meanings. It was a beautiful name, and it sat well with me. So I put the two of them together, and that was that.
Strangely, Isaac Bashevis Singer was never a big writer in my life. I still haven’t read many of his works, though I mean to. It surprised me that that book was compared to him so frequently. When David Grossman wrote his first novel, everyone told him that he had been influenced by Bruno Schulz. But he’d never heard of Schulz. He sat down and read him and had to agree.
You mention the same Rembrandt self-portrait in both The History of Love and Great House. In The History of Love, Uncle Julian says “there’s a serenity in his face, a sense of something that’s survived its own ruin.” In Great House, Arthur says he associated the portrait with the phrase “a ruined man.”
That’s interesting. You’re the first person who’s noticed that. I didn’t even notice that, though I knew that I had mentioned it in the other book. Obviously, it’s an important painting to me. It will probably end up in other novels as well.
Rembrandt is an artist whose work I’ve thought a lot about. I did a Master’s in Dutch seventeenth-century art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and I wrote my thesis on Rembrandt. I’ve always been moved, especially, by the late self-portraits as they get more and more honest. In the early self-portraits, you have this painter who’s putting on airs and costumes, modeling himself as a wealthy burgher or a famous artist, but he’s really just a young, scrappy, ambitious guy. And then late in his life, once he’s bankrupt and alone, there come these amazing self-portraits that are quite brutal, frank, and unadorned. You feel a hurriedness in the brushstrokes. He’s scratching into them with the back of the brush. You feel the sense of someone facing his death. Obviously, that’s a position that I am drawn to in my work. A number of my characters have been older people who are confronting the end of their lives, the final calculation of who they were, how they lived, their mistakes and regrets. I lived near that particular painting I mention, which hangs in Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I used to walk on the Heath daily, and you can visit Kenwood House without paying. You could go in everyday if you felt like it, which I often did just to see that painting. I guess you could say that I have a long history with it.
In your essay on writing Great House, you say that Weisz came out of your interest in transplanted rooms, specifically those of Freud and the painter Francis Bacon. This strikes a chord here at the Ransom Center, where there are two transplanted rooms: the study of Fleur Cowles and John Foster Dulles’s study and living room in D.C.
I realized at a certain point that there were some preserved rooms that I had always been drawn to in my life. I became fascinated with Bacon’s studio partly because it’s such an extreme example, such a complex room. He was infamously messy. He left everything wherever it dropped, so the studio was full of thirty years of stale sandwich crusts, half-drunk bottles of alcohol, old clothes, garbage. He kept this huge archive of photographs, but they were all crumpled up on the floor. There was a kind of violence to the mess, sometimes literally; he would slash a lot of his canvases. Over time, he wore paths through all of this material. For whatever reason, after he died his studio was moved from London to Dublin. You can imagine the archeological work involved with breaking it down into tens of thousands of pieces and then reconstructing it. I was drawn to the question of whether such a transplanted room retains its original power. Is it even the original, or is it a kind of simulacrum? It’s exactly the same, only it’s been taken apart and put back together, and now it’s in a new place: an uncanniness has been introduced.
That made me think about Freud’s room in London, which I lived near and also spent a lot of time in. It was a comforting place to me, as you can imagine Freud’s study might be for anyone [laughs]. I was thinking about how his wife and daughter tried to make upheaval easier for him by creating a replica of the study he had left behind in Vienna. When he died the following year, everything was left exactly where he last put it down, frozen in time, the glasses on the desk and all that, obsessively preserved until now.
I wanted a room of my own like that to experiment with. I was curious about the urge to preserve or reconstruct such a talismanic room. Weisz’s room—his father’s study in Budapest which is dismantled by the Nazis and which the son spends fifty years reconstructing in Jerusalem—became a way of experimenting with that. I once listened to a graphic artist give a presentation about a book he was working on, all of which takes place in the living room of his childhood house, and the book stretches from prehistoric time into the future. He built a little model of it so he could figure out how the sun would move through it. I remember thinking that that was similar to what I did with Weisz’s room. Only I wasn’t interested in how the light moved through it. I was interested in something else: what does it mean to try to recreate what has been lost, and can one ever recreate it? There remains the question of what’s missing, the imperfection that can’t be gotten around or erased. And what about those who instead reinvent themselves in the face of loss? And is recreation always a form of reinvention? I wanted to experiment with that idea, and I wanted to see what was at the bottom of my fascination with it.
Did you find what was on the bottom?
I found lots of things. One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all. It’s really about posing questions. Great House is a novel about uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt almost more than anything else, what it means to commit to a life regardless of those conditions.
The desk in Great House also strikes a chord at the Ransom Center because we have the desks of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, John Fowles, and others. You’ve said that your desk is similar to the desk in Great House, but you didn’t realize it until later.
Yeah, you want it? I’m trying get rid of it [laughs]. It’s pretty big. It was a desk that was in the house I moved into. It was built by the house’s former owner to his esoteric specifications. It’s a bulky desk, overbearing in every way. It extends all the way up the wall. It has all of these shelves and drawers. But at least for a while I was completely unaware of its echo in the book I was writing it on.
At some point I realized, of course. Not only the physical resemblance, but that I was writing about inheritance. I didn’t realize until much later than I should have because the mind has a way of guarding itself from the origins of what it’s fictionalizing; otherwise it would be hard to have the balls to write about much of anything at all. The mind obscures, especially, the psychological origins of the work, I find. Later one discovers them.
My desk has always been almost comically burdensome to me because in order to get rid of it, which I always toy with the idea of doing, I’d have to have it destroyed (it’s on the top floor of the house and there’s no way to get the monster down the stairs). That always felt too wasteful to me. So there’s the absurd tension of not wanting it but feeling somehow bound to it. On top of all that, the former owner built it around this painted panel which he wrenched out when he moved out, so there’s this large, gaping hole in the desk right above my head, which has taken on obvious symbolic meaning to me [laughs] and which I still, daily, write under. All the same, it did me the good turn of giving me a means to approach a graver concern lurking below, having to do with the burden of the emotional furniture we inherit and pass on to our children. In other words, it gave me a novel, and so now I’m stuck with the thing, unless you want to come and relieve me of it.
In your essay, you described this phenomenon of not realizing until later the origins of what you’re writing about as a “blind spot.” Have you found examples of other blind spots?
I’m not drawn to writing autobiographically because it cramps me and comes at the cost of the freedom that writing otherwise allows–to go places that I haven’t gone, to invent, to experiment, to imagine, to push boundaries. But if I stray too far in that direction, then the work loses the urgency and necessity of the personal, and in the end it doesn’t work or come fully alive for me. So it’s a delicate balance, and there is very often that moment of revelation when I become aware of the ways in which my fiction reflects my own experience, or how it evolved from certain interior conditions or needs. It isn’t always a direct reflection, it’s rarely one-to-one, but there is always a moment where I become aware of the correspondence.
We’ve talked about your interest in transplanted rooms and writers’ desks. What’s your experience with archives?
I’m not a big researcher. When I was in graduate school in England, I found myself always bumping up against the same wall. I’d spend a lot of time in libraries, reading and aimlessly semi-researching, but then my mind would start to improvise. When I wrote about Rembrandt, for example, I found myself wanting to makes claims about interior life, or at least trying to imagine it. But beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might.
I’m often asked about the research I’ve done for my novels, but the truth is that I did very little. Most of the places I’ve written about I know intimately; in the case of Chile, which I don’t, I went through an intense period of reading about the nightmare of the Pinochet regime long before I ever thought about writing about it. You might say that in the end, writing about it was the only solution for me. A novel grows to fit the author’s concerns.
“The Birth of Feeling” section of The History of Love reads: “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” How does this reflect your views of art?
There are moments in one’s reading when one encounters a passage that so precisely captures some aspect of existence, great or small, never previously articulated to you, but which you instantly understand and recognize nonetheless. It’s a little shocking, and it’s joyful, and one feels, suddenly, access to the underpinnings of everything. I think art is that–an enhancement, often a spiritual one.
Tell me about your visit to Israel in 2010 for the Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship. I understand you met with Yoram Kaniuk.
This was a pilot program, an academy at a wonderful place, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where a small part of Great House takes place. It was the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem; nobody wanted to live outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time, in 1860, because it was so dangerous, gangs of marauding bandits and so on. In 1973 it became a place where artists were invited to stay and work, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in the city. All kinds of writers, artists, and musicians have stayed there. [Saul] Bellow had a residency there. It’s likely that Singer stayed there at one point or another. Basically the director had the idea of reviving those residencies. It was a wonderful place to be, especially since I spent so much time in Jerusalem growing up.
Unlike Israeli writers like [David] Grossman, Amos Oz, Yoel Hoffmann, or others I’ve been reading for a long time, I hadn’t been familiar with Kaniuk. I stumbled onto one of his books in a bookstore, as one used to do [laughs]. It was called The Last Jew, and I couldn’t resist the title. I picked it up, and there was this incredible endorsement on it from Susan Sontag who said of all the books in translation she’d read, Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Kaniuk were the greatest, or something along those lines. So then I had to read it. It’s an incredibly complex book, demanding in all kinds of ways, but absolutely remarkable; it’s like nothing else I’ve read. After I read everything of his that I could find, I got to know him in Israel. He’s a warm, old, cantankerous, stubborn, complicated soul and an incomparably great writer.
What advice do you have for writers?
It depends on who the writer is. Writing is incredibly hard work. Thinking itself is hard, and growing harder and harder under the tyranny of technologies of distraction. Writing, which is an elevated form of thinking, is even harder, and doing it in a sustained way over the course of a few years isn’t exactly a walk in the park. People often ask about the physical details of how a writer works–where, when, with what mechanism–as if it will reveal some hidden mystery as to how it’s done. But all of that is, of course, largely irrelevant. So, to begin with, writing requires time and tremendous will. Just to do it regularly, to persevere and not give up. The other necessary element, for me, is freedom, a spirited conviction that you are going to allow yourself to do whatever you want to do in the work, however unpromising or ill-advised it may seem.
I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere in which so many young writers start off, in writing and MFA classes, isn’t problematic for that reason. Before their work is even finished it’s put before a jury of their peers. If I had to submit my work to such a jury once a week, to any jury, I’d have to spend the rest of the week resuscitating the stubbornness that keeps me writing. It takes a certain courage, or perhaps just obliviousness, to pursue things that feel risky or poised to fail. But in my experience, it’s those efforts that lead to the most interesting things, the things that I end up sticking with and which take me places that feel most worth going to.
What are you reading now?
The Sermon and Other Stories by Haim Hazaz, who was the first writer to win the Israel Prize. This summer, I read a lot of Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer most famous for her books for children, the Moomintroll series. But later in her life she started writing books for adults, and The New York Review of Books has recently been publishing them in English. The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter on a remote Finnish island. This girl’s mother has died, but that’s never spoken of. It’s only reflected through the very unique relationship between this stubborn, unconventional older woman and the young girl, equally stubborn, and the unusual things that absorb their attention. Jansson is also one of the best nature writers I’ve ever encountered.
Who are some of the writers you admire?
Bruno Schulz, [Franz] Kafka, [Samuel] Beckett, [Saul] Bellow, [Georges] Perec. In the last few years, I read all of Thomas Bernhard and became consumed by him for awhile, fascinated, in particular, by his penchant for upsetting or offending people; it runs so contrary to the contemporary American climate of appealingness, charm, lightness, of all that goes down easily.
There are also poets who matter very much to me. Yehuda Amichai and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert both impacted me deeply when I was younger and taught me something about the kind of writer I wanted to be. To remind myself, I still return to them.
It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.
Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.
According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.
“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”
If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.
For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.
Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”
In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.
The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.
In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.
Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”
Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”
Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”
Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”
Student (angered): “I’m serious.”
Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”
John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.
Stephen Watt is a Professor of English and Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spent the month of June reading both manuscripts and published works in the Ransom Center’s Irish literature and Judaica collections. The result of this and further research, he hopes, will be a scholarly monograph that examines cultural interactions between Irish and Jewish immigrants in later nineteenth-century America, particularly theatrical ones, and the ways in which Irish-Jewish relations of the early twentieth century help define our sense of modern and modernist writing. His research was funded by a fellowship from the Dorot Foundation.
Occasionally at the end of the evening, I find myself “channel surfing” on the television seeking a momentary diversion or, even better, an effective sedative. Over the years, The Late Show with David Letterman has reliably provided both, and I have often enjoyed a skit on the show entitled “Is it Something or Is t Nothing?” Typically, the “it” in question is some kind of bizarre performance or an unlikely combination of objects, and it occurs to me that the scholarly book might be described in just these terms: a bizarre performance and/or an assemblage of facts or ideas that, at least at first glance, don’t necessarily appear related. Perhaps more relevant, the gestation of a scholarly book—the emotional highs produced by a surprising discovery and discouraging lows caused by doubt or lack of confidence—often reminds me of the Letterman show’s question: Is the project “something,” an intellectual intervention or creative achievement of some consequence, or is it “nothing?”
The fortunate recipient of a one-month fellowship at the Ransom Center generously provided by the Dorot Foundation, I came to Austin with an idea for a monograph, the working title of which is Irish Schlemiels: The Irish-Jewish Unconscious and American Modernism. I hoped it was “something” or would become such, but I wasn’t certain. The genealogy of the project includes the phrase “Irish schlemiels” in a wonderful poem by Northern Irish writer Paul Muldoon; a problematic analogy in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1997 novel Grace Notes between the horrors of World War II and those of the “Troubles” in Belfast and Derry; and my ongoing interest in the representation of Irishmen and Jews on the later nineteenth-century popular stage, both in New York and in the Dublin of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey’s adolescence in the 1890s. How, for example, did post-Famine Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s affect representations of the Irish in America? How did the later diaspora of largely Eastern European Jews arriving in America in the 1880s and 90s inflect the cultural work done by theater at the fin de siècle? How does the popularity in both America and Ireland of such plays as Paul Potter’s Trilby and widely-seen revivals of The Merchant of Venice relate to the emergent populations of immigrants in America? Most important, how does this cultural interface affect American drama and fiction of the modernist period?
To be a little more candid, I actually arrived in Austin with rough drafts of the chapters dealing with later nineteenth-century immigrant drama and theater. But I was uncertain if I could outline and structure effectively the chapters on modernist writing. The Ransom Center’s collections of the manuscripts of such figures as Elmer Rice, Edward Dahlberg, and, in a more theatrical vein, Stella Adler helped enormously in clarifying this matter. In fact, the center’s holdings of Jewish American and Irish writing are enormous; a scholar could spend a blissful summer reading materials on any one of these artists—or on George Bernard Shaw, Kay Boyle, or Samuel Beckett, all of whose works I read while in residence. Dahlberg and Rice in particular, both under-studied and underappreciated, grew to assume great importance in my plans, which now include a chapter on Joyce, Dahlberg, and Henry Roth; and another on Synge and Shaw, Rice and Adler.
But this scarcely describes the unique items—now exceptionally important to Irish Schlemiels—that I uncovered in the Ransom Center. These include Rice’s Shavian one-act play A Diadem of Snow, sandwiched in a 1918 issue of The Liberator between radical editorials concerning lynchings in the American South and Jack Reed’s reports from the revolution in Russia; Leslie Daiker’s remarkable “The Circular Road,” a radio play concerning a young Jewish Dubliner grieving over the shooting of his father during the civil war of the 20s; Stella Adler’s incisive and exhaustive workbook for actors of one of Synge’s masterpieces, Riders to the Sea; and an exchange of letters between Dahlberg and Kay Boyle that adds great clarity to the former’s complicated view of James Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. All of these materials will contribute significantly to my book, as will countless passages I found in these and other writers’ works
Of course, no scholarship ever evolves in a vacuum. When I wrote my fellowship application, several essays in what might be called the “New Jewish-Irish Studies” had appeared, and today the list of works in this area has been graced by two recent and very considerable achievements: Mick Moloney’s album of Tin Pan Alley songs, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, and George Bornstein’s study The Colors of Zion (Harvard, 2011). My Irish Schlemiels doesn’t look—or shouldn’t be mistaken for—either of these. But it is my hope that it will be “something,” not “nothing,” and that this emergent field will both grow in importance and promote greater understanding of the cultures of two immigrant groups that contributed so substantially to this country. In either case or in both, the Ransom Center collections and truly outstanding staff will have played and will continue to play a major, much appreciated role.
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Hugh Kenner, considered America’s foremost commentator on literary modernism, was unlike any other literary critic before or since. His scholarship ranged from Ezra Pound to geodisic math to animator Chuck Jones, and he personally knew the modernists about whom he wrote. Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder once wrote: “Kenner doesn’t write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest’s dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion.”
Kenner’s archive resides at the Ransom Center. Cultural Compass spoke with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about Kenner’s legacy, approach, correspondence with modernist writers, and their friendship.
The Ransom Center doesn’t usually collect critics’ archives. Why was it important for you to acquire Kenner’s papers?
Hugh Kenner was clearly an exception for us. He was one of the most important critics of the most important literary movement of the last century: modernism. His stature as a critic, his influence on literary criticism generally, and his close study of such modernist writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett make his archive a tremendous resource for scholars and students.
The archive holds all of the letters that Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guy Davenport—one after another of major critics and writers—wrote to Kenner. These letters are extremely valuable and revealing. To have figures of their stature writing to a literary critic was rare.
Kenner’s archive offers an opportunity for graduate students, young scholars, and anyone else for that matter, to study the working life of a major literary critic. Kenner brought life not only to these modernist writers but also to the period itself.
As a modernist scholar, how has Kenner influenced you?
The most obvious influence on me is his work on Joyce. The early work he did in Dublin’s Joyce perfected a kind of critical dialog with the author. Certainly he influenced me in the attention he gave to the text. It was more than simply the explication of the text, more than simply close reading. Kenner went beyond that. He brought these writers to a kind of living presence. It’s a very rare critic who can do that.
I was intrigued by Kenner’s writing style. It was arcane yet simple, direct, and humorous. He used words that were outside the usual vocabulary of literary critics. His mind was so fertile. He could talk about the newspaper in the same way he could talk about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.
What distinguished Kenner’s approach?
He had a mathematical mind, and he could follow things in physics and calculus that most people wouldn’t understand. Science and mechanics, bodies of knowledge that were outside the usual literary focus, blended into his sense of understanding of the world. For example, he’d say: Dublin is on this latitude, and on that day there was a full moon. And of course with Joyce, it always worked.
He was an enormously learned man, but he wasn’t pedantic. He had a lively and engaging style. It wasn’t deadly, as the style was of many of the critics of that period. He’d come at things at an angle so different that the angle itself was worth noting. He was just so startling. You never knew what he was going to come up with.
What was your relationship with Kenner?
We were friends. We both taught at the Institute of Modern Letters, which was an eight-week program in the summer. I edited the James Joyce Quarterly, and he helped me on that. We had a very good relationship. We’d meet at these various conferences and do gigs together, as they say. So I knew him well.
He used to come have dinner with our family when our kids were very little. They’d imitate him and say with an odd voice: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” They just loved him. He told them a story about Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky,” he said, “would tell you that nature would give this tree life and light. Then if you put it in the fireplace, this tree would give that light that it took from nature back to you.” Kids can understand that. He was always interesting.
What are some highlights of Kenner’s papers?
The letters between Kenner, Eliot, and Pound are of great value. They reveal the questions that Kenner would ask Eliot, for example. You see his mind as he grapples with, as he says, “Tom’s work.” To watch his mind work and to watch his engagement with these great modernists is a tremendous opportunity for students and scholars to see what great literary criticism was like in those days.
He really got to know these writers. Kenner once said to me that when he was a graduate student a professor had told him: “If you want to be a student of modernism, you should go and meet the great modernists and talk with them.” He visited Beckett a lot, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and he knew Eliot and discussed his work with him. With Kenner, you always realized that these writers were human beings first.
What is Kenner’s legacy to literary criticism?
It isn’t that he made a great discovery of this or that. It’s that he was able to see these modernist tropes clearly. He was the great elucidator, the one who really understood the writers and brought their works out. He understood the way in which modernists trapped by the century’s culture and age worked their way out of it. Whether it be Virginia Woolf or Joyce, Kenner understood what their dispositions were toward the culture, their reactions to the culture, and how their work was so important to them.
He had a great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.
His work on Pound was seminal. Probably no one wrote better about Pound than Kenner. His book The Pound Era is really the history of modernism and what modernism was.
There’s no Kenner school. He always went out on his own, explored things on his own. He was unique, and he remains unique. There’s no one quite like him. I think that is part of his charm and his great contribution to our culture.