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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.

From the Galleries: Poe's "The Bells"

By Alicia Dietrich

The poems published just after Edgar Allan Poe’s death are among his most popular: “Annabelle Lee” and “The Bells.”

“The Bells” was written with the assistance of Poe’s good friend Loui Shew, whom he visited one evening in 1848, complaining that he lacked inspiration to write a poem. According to one version of the story, she offered the opening line and he completed the first stanza, she offered an opening line for the second stanza, and so on. “The Bells” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia: the sounds of the words directly reflect the mood evoked by each bell described. This manuscript, which is featured in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Poe, shows the poem’s earliest form, which Poe eventually expanded to four stanzas.

You can listen to Charles Keating doing a reading here from The Big Read audio guide CD:

The Bells

Isaiah Sheffer: Poe is "one of America's greatest writers"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with Isaiah Sheffer, creator of NPR’s Selected Shorts, who hosts tonight’s program “Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Storyteller,” which will be webcast live. He shares his thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe:

“If Edgar Allan Poe had never written a poem, he would still have been one of America’s greatest writers, thanks to his wonderful short stories, and the invention of the murder mystery genre in particular. If he had never written any of his colorful and often scary short stories, he would still have been one of America’s very greatest poets. In our program at the Harry Ransom Center we’re going to try to demonstrate both sides of this unique literary artist.”

Tonight’s program also features actors René Auberjonois and Fionnula Flanagan. They will read works by Poe, including “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Black Cat,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Bells.”

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read from "Lark and Termite"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. Phillips has published six novels and story collections over the last three decades. Her most recent work is Lark and Termite (2009).

Phillips visited the Ransom Center recently and recorded a reading of Lark and Termite, which you can listen to here.

Known for her poetic prose and her in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

The acquisition contains manuscripts in multiple states for Black Tickets (1979), Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1995), Motherkind (2000), and Lark and Termite, as well as dozens of individual short stories and essays, some never published. Phillips’s school records, early writings, family photographs, notebooks, business documents, fan mail, and related ephemera provide insight into the writer’s life, writing process, family relationships, and publishing history.

Playwright Terrence McNally's connections

By Alicia Dietrich

Four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally is a frequent focus of theater news these days. This summer he completed a workshop production of his new drama, Unusual Acts of Devotion, at the La Jolla Playhouse, that starred Richard Thomas and Doris Roberts. His latest musical—a stage version of Catch Me If You Can, originally a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio—just closed in a workshop production in Seattle and will move to Broadway sometime in 2010. McNally will also be represented on Broadway this season by revivals of his musical Ragtime and his dramedy Lips Together, Teeth Apart. In March, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is mounting a mini-festival of his work titled “Three Nights at the Opera with Terrence McNally” that will include productions of his The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, and will feature a newly commissioned play focused on the opening night performance of Bellini’s I Puritani that will be titled The Golden Age.

McNally has thus far made three gifts of his papers to the Ransom Center, and researcher Raymond-Jean Frontain recently wrote an article about his work with the Ransom Center’s McNally papers. Frontain is a professor of English at the University of Central Arkansas, where he focuses on seventeenth-century literature.

So how does a specialist in seventeenth-century devotional literature find his way from the religious lyrics of John Donne to the work of contemporary playwright McNally?

“In 1993, I caught the Broadway production of A Perfect Ganesh with Frances Sternhagen, which was one of the most luminous performances that I had experienced in a long while,” Frontain explains. “The actor led me to the play. I’ve been exploring the religious bases of McNally’s drama ever since.”

Read Frontain’s article “Terrence McNally’s Connections,” in which he explores McNally’s relationship with John Steinbeck, Angela Lansbury, and others.

From the Galleries: Poe in popular culture

By Alicia Dietrich

Poe’s influence on varied and broad swaths of popular culture—hard-boiled detective fiction, horror and suspense films, song lyrics, crime-scene-analysis dramas, graphic novels—seems to prove Allen Ginsberg’s claim that “everything leads to Poe.” Immortalized in the minds of readers and fans—as well as in television, film, t-shirts, and collectibles—Poe continues to fascinate and inspire.

One classic example is Poe’s appearance on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967). In their song “I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles declared, “Man you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe.” The band also made him a member of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, placing him in a prominent position on the memorable album cover.

Many other popular musicians have paid homage to Poe: Alan Parsons—famous for his engineering of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—set Poe’s works, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.” In 2003, Lou Reed released a concept album, The Raven, featuring musical and spoken interpretations of Poe’s works by various actors, including Steve Buscemi and Willem Dafoe.

Visit the Poe exhibition for many more examples of Poe’s influence in popular culture.

Poe Mania: View more than 4,000 Poe-related images, but "I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer"

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847
Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847

The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:

Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!

Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).

Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.

Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.