Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.
Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.
In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.
How do you choose your subjects for a biography?
I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.
During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies. What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?
I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.
There are more than 800 footnotes in your book. Is that average or unusual in a biography?
Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.
Fitzgerald was a private person. How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?
There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.
Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?
My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.
Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?
I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.
You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard. Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?
I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.
2015 marks the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Since its publication in 1865, the book has never been out of print. It has been translated into countless languages and has become a work that truly transcends the time and culture in which it was written.
In honor of the book’s legacy the Harry Ransom Center presents Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This exhibition follows the evolution of Carroll’s story through time, around the world, and across different types of media, from stage and screen to children’s toys. The exhibition offers something for everyone and provides interactive opportunities throughout. Highlights of the exhibition include a rare copy of the 1865 “suppressed” edition, Carroll’s own photograph of Alice, Edith, and Lorina Liddell, the sisters who inspired the story, and Salvador Dalí’s 1969 illustrations.
View the Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandvideo preview.
Museums and libraries around the world are joining in the observance of Alice’s sesquicentennial. In New York City, the Morgan Library & Museum will display Dodgson’s original manuscript (on loan from the British Library) in its upcoming exhibition Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, while Vassar College Archives and Special Collections Library will exhibit an early printing of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland alongside other works of fantasy from the period. John Tenniel’s original drawings will be shown at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library will exhibit Carroll’s letters to publisher Alexander MacMillan and a first edition of the book from his library.
Browse upcoming Alice-related events on this list, compiled by The Lewis Carroll Society and the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.
Share your exhibition experience with #aliceinaustin.
Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.
In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.
Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.
You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?
I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.
You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?
If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!
You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?
I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.
When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?
Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.
When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?
It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.
Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?
It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.
On Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m., novelist Jayne Anne Phillips reads from Quiet Dell, a novel based on the true story of a murderous West Virginia con man who preyed on widows, in a Harry Ransom Lecture. A reception and book signing follow. View a trailer for the book.
Stephen King said of Quiet Dell: “In a brilliant fusion of fact and fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips has written the novel of the year. It’s the story of a 1931 serial killer’s crime and capture, yes, but it’s also a compulsively readable story of how one brave woman faces up to acts of terrible violence in order to create something good and strong in the aftermath. Quiet Dell will be compared to In Cold Blood, but Phillips offers soothing Capote could not: a heroine who lights up the dark places and gives us hope in our humanity.”
Phillips, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, is the author of Lark and Termite, a National Book Award finalist. Known for her poetic prose and 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.
Below, Phillips discusses the inspiration behind her novel Quiet Dell, her archival research for the book, her writing process, and her own archive.
Your work often seems to draw upon your own family history for inspiration. The murders in Quiet Dell, for example, took place near your hometown in West Virginia. Can you talk about how history and family memory evolved into your novel?
My mother remembered holding her mother’s hand at age 6, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August—cars parked on either side as far as she could see—past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece-by-piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Ever after, when we drove past the hamlet, ten miles or so from my hometown, she would point out “the road to Quiet Dell.” Thousands walked past the scene in the summer and fall of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site: an unimaginable slaughter of innocents. A con-man led a double life, found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and skillfully courted them in letters for months. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, and the media spun it as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer was christened a modern Bluebeard, but the deeper story was far more complex. Quiet Dell is true to an evolving real event, but creates the world in which it happened, beginning the Christmas before the crime. I was interested in the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” in creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. For me, the tale began in 9-year-old Annabel Eicher’s voice at the magical turning of the year. Quiet Dell meets the history of a family that vanished with a counterpoint story in which that family is alive, and then alive in memory, directly influencing the lives of those who seek justice for them. The reader is endowed with a foreknowledge of event, but the fact of the event touches only the surface of its effects.
Can you tell us about the archival research you conducted with primary materials while writing Quiet Dell?
The actual names and facts of the crime seemed a Victorian fairy tale set in the ’30s: Sherriff Grimm, Judge Southern, Duty (the Eicher dog, “twice bereft,” whose photograph appeared in newspapers across the country), the Gore Hotel—and the fact that the trial took place on the stage of an Opera House before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees, left over from a previous production. The Clarksburg Harrison County Public Library allowed me to Xerox numerous pages of newsprint, and many pages of a haphazard “scrapbook” on the crime assembled by a 13-year-old boy, James Law (who grew up to own the most important bookstores in the area). I’ve always found photographs, particularly of strangers, to reveal whole dimensions of information, and I carried a small copy of the last known photo of the Eicher family in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in that image, so wary and adult, suggested her character in the novel. As I was beginning my research, a family friend who knew I was writing about the Quiet Dell crime gave me an envelope he’d found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, West Virginia. Across the front in faded pencil, it read, Piece of sound proof board used by Harry Powers during his notorious Murdering in the fall of 1931. I opened the envelope and held in my hand a thick felt square marked with a 3. As Rilke said, “Every angel is terrifying.” I came to know the woman who grew up in the Eicher home in Park Ridge, Illinois, and lives there today; the playhouse, and the mural Asta Eicher painted on the walls for her children, still exists. I gleaned hints from newspaper interviews with those who said they’d known Harry Powers under one alias or another; the statements were wildly contradictory. Not so the obituaries I was able to find online: the phrasing and tone implied specific narratives. I found the grandchildren of photographer Floyd E. Sayres through a hint in his obit; they allowed me to include his images of scenes associated with the crime, though the images are far more beautiful than the versions that appear in Quiet Dell. Letters from Powers and women who wrote to him appeared in newsprint; the trial transcript was a matter of record. These events took place nearly 85 years ago; the history was distant enough that I could use real names, yet invent the perceptions, thoughts, relationships, of the characters to tell my own “dark fairy tale.” The scant patterns of a real history, for me, cast a spell that is almost bewitching.
As a writer, how do you approach establishing a sense of place and time for your reader?
There is the Pound dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to guide the writer: specific physical fact infused with sensory detail. Words, in careful association, are sensual triggers for the reader; each reader brings a world of unconscious and subconscious memory to the text. Certain sense memories, smells, sounds, can connect us to pasts we did not experience. Readers have said to me, “When I read your work, I don’t feel as though I’m reading a story; I feel I’m inside the story.” Another said, of Termite (from Lark And Termite), “You make us want to be him.” Every art is a form of alchemy: transforming one element into another, widening, deepening, until one world connects to worlds before and beyond it. Literature is a crafted seduction in which the reader actively participates.
Can you tell us about your writing process? (For example, do you write on a laptop or desktop? Do you have an office or studio space dedicated to writing? Do you write during certain hours of the day? How do you go about revising your work?)
I began writing as a poet, and I continue to compose line by line, slowly, aware of the music and stress of the syllables in the lines. I write both by hand and on the computer (laptops and desktops, since I live in three cities), and print out every page, not only because I distrust machines, but because I revise on paper. I write in the daytime, never at night, in front of a window. I often work on longer projects in the summers, when I’m not engaged in my labor-intensive day job. Editing, teaching, discussing literature, advocating for talented students, is far too compelling.
Your archive is now open and accessible to researchers. What do you hope people will be able to learn from your papers and work?
Those spiral notebooks in which I composed my early stories seem to belong to another universe I once inhabited, while the archive of the present, boxes of more recent drafts, artifacts, lists, and correspondence, piles up around me. Access to an archive, not in a writer’s rooms but in a neutral, sacred space, the clean well-lighted place that is the Ransom Center, is a privilege, an intimate investigation. Touching actual pages, photographs, letters, comparing small and large changes from one draft to another, takes the reader inside the books, into the works themselves. It’s delicious.
You are the director of the Rutgers University- Newark MFA program. How does teaching influence your writing, and how do your experiences as a writer shape how you teach?
I don’t think teaching influences my writing, except to intensify the pressure of not writing—a tool I have always used, pre-dating teaching. Part of writing is the yearning toward what is still unseen and unknown. For me, ideas, rumination, research, are not the true thing; they only swirl around it. A book begins with language: a line of prose, a paragraph. The book is inside those words and the long struggle is to deepen and sustain what is genuine. I suppose I teach that one’s relationship to writing is as complex as one’s relationship to the self: it’s endless and mysterious, full of the mundane and the celestial in shifting quantities. No writer approaches words the same way; the “why,” unique as a fingerprint, is ineffable. The writer creates meaning where none is obvious, invents the dots and connects them. We’re like practitioners of the same unrecognized religion: the process itself is the experience. It’s witchcraft and soothsaying, and hard, grinding work.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Fat City, by Leonard Gardner; The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (all books I’m teaching); a galley of Colm Toibin’s new Nora Webster; HER, a memoir by Christa Parravani, and Prelude To Bruise, just-published poems by Saaed Jones (these last two both recent graduates of RU-N MFA program).
John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007. In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights. His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today. To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.
In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.
Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?
So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.
In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life. How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?
In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.
Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?
The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory. For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.
A fully illustrated catalog by Ransom Center Curator of Film Steve Wilson has been co-published by the Ransom Center and University of Texas Press to complement the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind.
Featuring more than 600 images from the Ransom Center’s archives of David O. Selznick, the film’s producer, and his business partner John Hay “Jock” Whitney, The Making of Gone With The Wind offers fans and film historians alike a must-have behind-the-camera view of the production of this classic film.
Read the foreword of the book by Robert Osborne, film historian and host of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), where he notes that Gone With The Wind was the first film aired when TCM launched in 1994.
Join the conversation about the exhibition online with the hashtag #makinggwtw. Stay up to date with the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, the Center’s monthly email newsletter. Subscribe today.
Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.
You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?
Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.
What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?
His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.
His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.
Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.
I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.
I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.
Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!
The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.
What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.
How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?
The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.
Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.