As a graduate intern, I have the opportunity to respond to a variety of research queries about the collections. Recently, I helped solve a mystery laid by two differing editions of John le Carré’s 1974 thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, was trying to get to the bottom of a story he had once heard about a difference between the first edition of the novel in the United States and in England.
According to Sisman, just before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was about to be published, David Cornwall (alias John le Carré) had been travelling in Laos and Cambodia with Washington Post journalist David Greenway, and Cornwall had asked Greenway to look through the segments of the novel set in Hong Kong.
Early in the novel, Ricki Tarr describes to George Smiley his anxiety after Irina has failed to appear at a rendezvous: on a hunch he had decided to go down to the airport. “I took the Star Ferry, hired a cab, and told the driver to go like hell. It got like a panic,” Tarr tells Smiley. The airport was then in Kowloon, across the water from Hong Kong Island.
After reading this passage, Greenway asked Cornwall, “Does this novel take place in the present?”
“So if he’s so anxious to get to the airport quickly, why doesn’t he just jump in a cab and go through the tunnel?” (The Cross Harbor Tunnel linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the location of the airport, had opened in 1972.)
As soon as they reached Bangkok, Cornwall contacted his publishers, and though the American edition had already gone to press, it was not too late to change the passage in the British edition.
The Ransom Center has the first British edition and the first American edition. True to Le Carré’s enigmatic style, Sisman asked me to check the “the fourth sentence of the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 7” in both.
Being that it was a spy novel, I was a little nervous about what I would find, but Sisman was right. The American edition mentions the ferry; the British does not. It was a bit of an added thrill to be able to trace the movements of a spy in two different editions.
Adam Sisman’s John Le Carré: The Biography will be published by HarperCollins in the United States and by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom next fall.
Receive the Harry Ransom Center’s latest news and information with eNews, a monthly email. Subscribe today.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
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.
The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918 marks the centenary of the start of World War I. Triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by a Bosnian-Serb student, open conflict began the following month when Austria-Hungary invaded the Kingdom of Serbia in retaliation. Within weeks, nearly all of the nation-states of Europe were drawn into a war that lasted four long years and killed ten million servicemen.
Tomorrow, June 28, marks the 100th anniversary of the assassination that sparked outbreak of the First World War.
Enter to win a signed copy of Geoff Dyer’s book The Missing of the Somme, a book that is part travelogue and part meditation on the remembrance of the First World War. To enter, tweet a link to this blog post with the tag @ransomcenter.
Not on Twitter? Email hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Somme” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter.
All tweets and emails must be sent by Monday, July 1, at midnight CST. A winner will be drawn and notified on Tuesday.
Alan Furst, a New York Times bestselling author whose archive resides at the Harry Ransom Center, recently published his latest novel Midnight in Europe.
Furst is widely recognized for his historical espionage novels set in the World War II era. His 2008 novel, The Spies of Warsaw, was adapted into a miniseries starring David Tenant and Janet Montgomery that premiered on the BBC in 2013. His works have been translated into 18 languages, and in 2011 he received the Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award.
Midnight in Europe is set in the outskirts of wartime Paris in 1938. Cristián Ferrar, a Spanish émigré and lawyer at an international law firm risks his life in a mission to help supply weapons to the Republic’s army. He is joined in his efforts by a motley crew of idealists, gangsters, arms traders, aristocrats, and spies, all compelled by different reasons to fight for righteous principles and democracy.
To celebrate the release of Midnight in Europe, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Furst’s 2008 novel Spies of the Balkans. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Alan Furst” in the subject line. By entering via email, you are also opting-in to receive the Ransom Center’s monthly email newsletter. All tweets and emails must be sent by Thursday, June 26, at midnight CST, and winner will be drawn and notified on Friday.
The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the second in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
It’s the year 2000. McSweeney’s and the rest of the world came through the threat of Y2K unscathed. It’s a new millennium, and new millennium readers want to experiment, take chances, and conquer new frontiers in reading. In 2000, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, which tells the story of a corporate memo writer who begins an intimate friendship with a lemon after his girlfriend breaks up with him. Lemon perhaps set the tone for McSweeney’s books, as one reviewer called it “handsome, smartly written and deeply eccentric.”
A unique love story deserves a unique cover, but one unique cover would simply not do. How about 10,000 unique covers? This line of thinking inspired Dave Eggers’s and Lawrence Krauser’s “Oodles of Doodles” cover idea. The first 10,000 books were wrapped in a blank dust jacket containing only the title and author rubberstamped in various places on each cover—Krauser’s blank canvas. Over a period of about three months, for about three hours a day, Krauser drew unique doodles on 9,812 Lemon dust jackets, making each copy a unique, one-of-a-kind original. Krauser didn’t quite make it through the 10,000 print run, but illustrated an additional 1,000 covers for the Dutch translation, for a grand total of 10,812 unique books.
The Ransom Center currently holds three copies of Lemon: one blank copy and two with unique doodle covers.
Since publishing Lemon, McSweeney’s book publishing division has grown into McSweeney’s Books, which publishes nonfiction biographies, memoirs, and criticism; a long list of humor books including the “Baby, Be of Use” series by Lisa Brown and the popular Haggis-on-Whey encyclopedias; art books with portfolios by Marcel Dzama, Dave Eggers, and Art Spiegelman; and Beck’s Song Reader, a music album that exists only as richly illustrated individual pieces of sheet music.
McSweeney’s other book imprints include McSweeney’s Rectangulars; Believer Books, collecting writing from the magazine’s contributors; McSweeney’s McMullens, which publishes books for young children and young adults; Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustices around the world; Collins Library, reprints of forgotten classics edited by Paul Collins; McSweeney’s Poetry Series; and McSweeney’s Insatiables, a food and cooking imprint.
Hope Johnston is an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Baylor University. She received a grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment to study “Owner Markings in Early Printed Chaucer Editions” at the Ransom Center and shares some of her findings below. The Ransom Center celebrates the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014-2015.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s early and enduring fascination among English readers has become a source of interest in itself among modern critics. The Harry Ransom Center is home to one of the largest collections of early printed Chaucer editions in the world. While other major collections might have 8 or 12, the Ransom Center has 36 copies of these extremely rare books. A grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment made it possible to study notes added to them by generations of readers since the time of their publication.
Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) grew up in a well-to-do merchant family. The macabre silver lining for those who survived the Black Death, which killed more than 30 percent of England’s population between 1348 and 1350, was the inheritance of wealth from lost family members and increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Chaucer is an example of this: he became a retainer in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster, which led in turn to service as a royal administrator. He pursued his career as a writer at the same time, and he gently pokes fun at himself in the House of Fame for being the medieval equivalent of a geek. He describes how he would spend his days poring over records at the custom house, then, “Instead of reste and newe thynges thou goost hom to thy hous anoon, and also domb as any stoon, thou sittest at another book, til fully [dazed] is thy look.” His travels to Italy for the king benefitted his literary career as he became familiar with the works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. One of his last works is the one modern readers know best, the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s literary achievements received acclaim during his lifetime and high praise from his literary successors. William Caxton made the Canterbury Tales one of the first books printed in English, ca. 1477. The first collected edition of Chaucer’s Works appeared in 1532, and it was so popular that it went through six editions by the start of the seventeenth century.
Knowing who owned the books can also help researchers map the dispersal of copies from London. One of the Ransom Center Chaucers contains pages from another copy of Chaucer’s Works at Trinity College, Cambridge: both belonged to members of the extended Grenville family during the early nineteenth century, and it appears that an owner took pages from a rather raggedy Trinity College copy to replace pages missing from the book now at the Ransom Center, which is in better overall condition. Two other Ransom Center Chaucers accompanied their owners on travels abroad even before their eventual arrival in Texas. One belonged to a sixteenth-century naval explorer, Sir Robert Dudley (1574–1649), who left his wife and daughters to elope with a younger woman to Florence, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life. “J. Abdy,” an Englishman traveling the Continent in 1650, acquired Dudley’s 1602 Chaucer edition and brought it back to England. Another copy of the Canterbury Tales, from the 1687 edition of Chaucer’s Works, accompanied Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), a nineteenth-century explorer, on a two-year trek through the Saharan Desert. Chaucer’s pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury, but all of the books in Texas have traveled much farther, and every book has a story about its journey from the Renaissance to the present day.
What can the surviving copies tell us about the reading habits of early owners? First, we have proof that Chaucer’s sixteenth-century audience included women as well as men based on the names of female readers inscribed in the books. Dedications also provide glimpses of the personal lives of the readers, such as the romantic promise made by Peter Wood when he gave his book as a gift: “Take in good worth from him that gives this present and his heart to you while he lives. Esteem not the gift after its value, but regard the goodwill of the giver, not as I now would but as I now may, to command him both night and day—Said Peter Woodde.” Expressions of affection accompany severalof the books as they were passed along: “to my welbeloved brothers,” and another “to my loving frind Carls.” There is even a polite thank you note in one of the Ransom Center Chaucers: “Master George Manning, I thank you for your book. Mary Buckmore.”
Annotations also provide insights into the reasons why readers enjoyed Chaucer’s writing. One early owner of a book at the Ransom Center notes with satisfaction how Criseyde is laid low and cursed by the gods in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid: “A just rewared for untrothe,” the comment observes. Another reader takes delight in Chaucer’s caustic depiction of corrupt religious officials, writing the following under the woodcut of the Pardoner: “Chaucer in this prologue (as in diverse other places) very excellently describes the great craft and abominable deceit of all the popish prelates, varnished over with a fair face and color of feigned religion and false pretended holiness.” In another book, the margins are so full of phrases copied by hand from the printed text that the effect is similar to the overzealous use of a highlighter in a modern textbook: the reader has copied so many phrases that none of them truly stand out.
“Father Chaucer” was seen as a source of wisdom for Renaissance book owners, and it comes as no surprise that readers would choose to add favorite sayings from other sources to their copies of Chaucer’s Works. One writes, “Give me that worthy whose true judgment can distinguish ‘twixt the ill and honest man, and not be swayed by others…” Another book declares (rather disingenuously) that the owner will not pass judgment on lazy individuals:
he that may thryue and wyllnot
and his maysters commaundement fullfylnot
ffor to be hys Iuge I wyllnot
and he neuer thryue that skyllnot
Be me katerynne leke
He that may thrive and will not,
And his master’s commandment fulfill not,
To be his judge I will not
And he never thrive that skill [has] naught.
By me Katherynne Leke
A more serious contemplation can be found in another book, where Thomas Churchar expresses concern about being judged by unjust standards: “Though of the sort there be that feign and cloak their craft to serve their turn, shall I alas that truly mean for their offense thus guiltless burn; and if I buy their fault so dear that their untruth thus heat my fire, then have I wrong?” The vehemence of religious persecution meant that words could lead to spiritual and physical danger; wisdom could be a subjective matter. Comments by Catholics and Protestants show how they found echoes of their own Christian faith in his religious writings.
The Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Chaucer editions shows how the medieval poet continued to speak to readers through the centuries, and through owner markings, we can still hear the voices of early readers today.