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New short story collection by Ransom Center author Julian Barnes released this week

By Courtney Reed

Cover of 'Pulse' by Julian Barnes
Cover of 'Pulse' by Julian Barnes

Pulse, Julian Barnes’s new book of short stories, came out on Tuesday, May 3. Comprised of 14 stories, Barnes examines the mysteries of love, death, and friendship. The stories traverse Italian vineyards and English seasides, spanning from the eighteenth century to modern day.

The Ransom Center acquired Barnes’s archive in 2000. The British writer’s papers span a 30-year career, including typescript drafts, printer’s copies, proofs, production material, and reviews of Barnes’s works.

According to Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley, “One of Britain’s major writers, Barnes is a versatile man of letters. From Flaubert’s Parrot to Love, Etc., Barnes’s fiction is rich and entertaining. His prose is as playful as it is supple and rich.”

Barnes’s first novel, Metroland, was published in 1980 and received the Somerset Maugham Award. The novel was later adapted into a 1997 film starring Christian Bale. Barnes then published two crime thrillers under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh, followed by his second novel, Before She Met Me, under his own name.

Describing his papers, Barnes wrote “Everything I do from the moment I am faced by what I recognize as the possibility—or pre-possibility—of a novel is contained within the archive. I have never thrown away more than the occasional (more or less duplicate) page of typescript. My archive therefore contains 98 or 99% of all the marks I make on paper as a novelist.”

Barnes is one of the writers featured in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, on display through July 31.

“By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them”

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center holds the Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. archive, which includes books published under the Borzoi imprint and books from Alfred A. and Blanche Knopf’s personal library. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director for Exhibitions and Fleur Cowles Executive Curator, Cathy Henderson, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian, Richard Oram, collaborated on The House of Knopf, which consists of collected documents from the Knopf, Inc. archive and is now part of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series.

Under the title heading, The Borzoi Credo, Alfred A. Knopf’s principles of publishing appeared in the November 1957 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Chief among his many standards in book production, Knopf stressed quality:

I believe that good books should be well made, and I try to give every book I publish a format that is distinctive and attractive.”

It comes as no surprise that a Borzoi book published by the house of Knopf would resemble the personalities and preserve the canon of its founders, Alfred A. and Blanche Wolf Knopf. In fact, Blanche, fond of the Russian wolfhounds’ aesthetic look, chose the Borzoi as the publishing house’s legendary colophon. Ironically, Blanche later owned a pair of borzois and grew to despise them, wishing she had chosen another dog for the Knopf imprint.

Known for their distinctive styles of dress and aggressive business demeanors, Alfred and Blanche burst into the publishing scene in 1915. And, style for style, Borzoi books, like the fashions of Alfred and Blanche, made a statement.

Favoring English tweed jackets and lemon-colored shirts, Alfred broke through the monochrome haze with his flamboyant style. Blanche preferred French haute couture, and was often found sheathed in classic Dior, oozing Parisian cool.

Knopf author Elizabeth Bowen, distinctly recalls her first encounter with Alfred Knopf in Portrait of a Publisher (1965). In the early 1930s, Alfred Knopf asked Bowen to meet him for lunch at the Savoy while on one of his trips to London. Already knowing Blanche well, Bowen recalls how she waltzed into the large foyer when it suddenly struck her that she had no idea what Alfred looked like. Trying to orient herself, Bowen put on her spectacles and circled the room:

“Then, my eye lit on a tie, some distance away. The sun glinted on it. The tie was not so much magenta as the dark-bright purple-crimson of a petunia, and it was worn with a shirt of a light green, just too blue to be almond, just not blue enough to be verdigris. Tie and shirt were at some height from the ground; their wearer stood leaning in a doorway or archway, a vantage-point some way away from the throng. He looked almost sleepy. With an onlooker’s great calmness, one might say indolence, he was considering everybody, including me.” Bowen’s instincts were correct; the colorful stranger was indeed Alfred A. Knopf.

Five short years after founding the Borzoi imprint, Alfred and Blanche had firmly established their high standards of book production, becoming formidable figures in American literary publishing.

The pair often used their striking Tudor house in Purchase, New York as a meeting place for entertaining Knopf authors. Known as “The Hovel,” Alfred and Blanche’s home was anything but. A 1928 Westchester County newspaper article entitled, “By Their Books Shall Ye Know Them,” highlights the most important room in the house: their library. Filled with exquisite books with fine German bindings and work of the world’s best typographers, their library held representatives from important presses.

The Knopf’s standards remained intact even during World War II when paper and other essentials were scarce. Books printed during that time enclosed a notice from the publisher assuring the purchaser that, despite the need to economize, Borzoi books would continue to use the highest quality cloths that could be procured and carry on exceptional typographical and binding design. In fact, the notice said that the slimmer models afforded easier readability and handling than their fatter fellows.

Alfred, ever the advocate of fine quality, staunchly resisted the introduction of inexpensive paperbacks following World War II. He finally gave in and established the Vintage paperback series in 1954, under the stipulation that even Knopf paperbacks uphold the same aesthetic values and employ his talented book designers, such as Warren Chappell.

Alfred and Blanche made sure to impart their personal signature upon every Borzoi book, so that each publication was a work of art in itself. Alfred and Blanche’s high standards in book production attracted many of their authors, including Willa Cather.

As Bowen put it, “part of the splendor of a Knopf book is that it does not revive or cling to an old tradition, it founds a new one. This is a beauty which is contemporary, a work through contrast, pure and clarified colour; angle, surface. A book of this kind is not only to be devoured by the eyes, but handled: it is a pleasure to the fingertips. It gains weight from the fine solidity of the paper; yet lightness from the set-out of the distinctive type on each spacious page.”

 

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Ransom Center receives collection of miniature books

By Ryan Hildebrand

The Ransom Center recently received a gift of more than 60 miniature books from printer, collector, and aficionado Duane Scott, proprietor of the Scott Free Press. The gift includes books Scott printed under his Scott Free Press imprint, as well as examples published by others such as Achille J. St. Onge, The Press of the Indiana Kid, Arm and Hammer Press, Black Cat Press, The Hillside Press, and Tabula Rasa Press. Scott’s gift is a substantial addition to the Ransom Center’s collection of miniature books.

In But, Why Tabula Rasa? John Lathourakis ponders “What makes a somewhat normal person get into an activity as insane as miniature books? Some say it is a form of self-punishment for transgressions too base to describe; others merely look at miniature book people as simple souls who are normal in every respect except that they were born brainless. I have a less clinical approach. Simply stated, printers and publishers of miniature books are possessed people whose every waking moment is spent trying to solve unsolvable problems.”

Latourakis’s diagnosis may be somewhat correct for Scott, as he was drawn to miniature books in part because they are difficult to execute well. On his visit to the Ransom Center he talked about the seemingly impossible tasks of aligning a page’s front and back during printing, setting miniscule pieces of type by hand, and the general difficulties of working on a very small scale. In bookwork, a diminutive format amplifies difficulty because one’s tools stay the same size, while the object to which they are applied is no bigger than 3 inches, and often much smaller. A well-done miniature book showcases the craftsperson’s ability; a poorly executed book highlights his or her failings. Scott’s miniature books belong in the former category.

Scott had another reason for becoming a printer of miniature books. Years ago, while already a letterpress printer, he met another printer specializing in the genre. Scott admired the printer’s work, but the printer refused to sell his books; he would only trade for another miniature book. So, Scott printed his first miniature book, Mark Twain’s How I Edited an Agricultural Paper, in order to have an item for trade.

Scott’s books are all completely handmade, from the setting of the tiny six-point type, to the binding, and of course, the printing. In some cases, he also made his own paper. His 1984 publication, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Awakened: A Portion of a Doll’s House was published in an edition of 250 copies, with 100 of them printed on 100-percent rag paper made from old cotton shirts, handkerchiefs, sheets, and pillow cases. Another of Scott’s books, Oriental Sayings, used paper made from denim. His daughter Caroline recalls, “He put out the word to the family to save our old cotton, and when we went to visit, we would haul along any worn-out clothes and linens.” Scott processed the pulp in an Umpherston beater and formed the sheets himself.

The topical matter of Scott’s collection is broad. The writings of Mark Twain are oft repeated, as are excerpts from other well-known authors such as Robert Frost and Henrik Ibsen. As expected, many of the books are concerned with printing, the book arts, and book collecting, including two books on miniature bookplates and type and paper specimen books. A book on Gutenberg contains a miniature facsimile leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, and a work on Ottmar Merganthaler (inventor of the Linotype machine) contains a Linotype circulating matrix. Perhaps the frustrations associated with printing miniature books incline their makers toward humor, as many of the books are quite funny, or at least take a very light-hearted tone. I can’t close this post without mentioning two of the more humorous works in Scott’s collection: What Men Know About Women by A. Mann, which is entirely blank inside, and the humorous and racy Shaggy Dog Story, a story about a dog named Sex.

 

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In the Galleries: "Lark and Termite"

By Courtney Reed

'Lark And Termite' by Jayne Anne Phillips
'Lark And Termite' by Jayne Anne Phillips
Born in West Virginia in 1952, writer Jayne Anne Phillips published her first story collection in 1976. The publication of Black Tickets in 1979 prompted Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer to call Phillips “the best short story writer since Eudora Welty.” Phillips’s subsequent publications, which have been praised for their poetic prose and in-depth examinations of war and family dynamics, have continued to garner critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including her most recent novel, Lark and Termite, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2009. Materials related to Phillips and Lark and Termite are highlighted in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Lark and Termite explores the effects of the Korean War on a soldier and his family back home in West Virginia. Termite, the disabled son of the soldier, and Lark, his half sister and caretaker, are the central characters of the novel. The novel shifts between narrators, settings, and time.

Inspired by a series of investigative news articles published in 1999 about the No Gun Ri Massacre during the Korean War, Phillips incorporates the incident into the plot of Lark and Termite. During the massacre, an unknown number of Korean refugees were strafed from the air by machine guns at close range by U.S. soldiers. The bridge where the massacre occurred is the setting of critical scenes in the novel, and bridges and trains bear strong symbolism throughout the story. Phillips kept news clippings about the incident in her files related to the novel, and one clipping that includes an image of the bridge is displayed in the exhibition.

Further significance of trains and tunnels are found throughout the novel. Displayed in the exhibition is a typescript page from a section of the book narrated by Termite, which demonstrates the boy’s attraction to trains and bridges. Termite spends much of his time in a rail yard tunnel listening to the roar of the trains overhead.

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read two selections from Lark and Termite.

Scholar discusses relationship between Jewish and African-American culture in the early twentieth century

By Elana Estrin

Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan
Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.

Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.

Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?

A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.

Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?

A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.

Q: What surprised you?

A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.

Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.

What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.

Q: How did you choose the title of your book?

A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.

In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.

Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?

A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.

Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?

A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.

Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?

A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.

On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Primp My Book: A brief history of the customized reading experience

By Molly Schwartzburg

Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.

The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.

 

Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.

“The Proper Binge”: Julia Child in the Ransom Center archives

By Alicia Dietrich

Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
Publicity photo of Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child by Paul Child.
The Ransom Center holds the Knopf Inc. archive, which includes material related to the publication of the groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. View photos and read some of the letters that document the book’s progress and publication over several years.

The Sweet Smell of Provenance

By Jennifer Tisdale

This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
This copy of 'Ulysses,' which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book's history and its handlers.
Some books in the Ransom Center’s collections tell a story just by their smells. The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram and literary scholar Edward L. Bishop explain how a copy of Ulysses, which belonged to T. E. Lawrence, has a sweet, smoky scent that reveals much about the book’s history and its handlers. Learn more.

‘What Every Girl Should Know’: The birth control movement in the 1910s

By Alicia Dietrich

Layne Craig, a lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin, recently used materials from the Ransom Center’s collections to supplement her class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” She writes about discoveries she made in the Center’s collections and how the materials were used in the class.

As a graduate student, I visited the Harry Ransom Center for its literary artifacts: Virginia Woolf’s letters to her niece Angelica Bell, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the Hogarth Press edition of Elizabeth Robins’s Ibsen and the Actress. I only recently learned, however, of the breadth of the Ransom Center’s resources on social science movements connected to literary history. I wanted to incorporate those resources into my fall 2010 class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” With Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg’s help, I collected texts significant to the English and American birth control movements of the 1910s, along with texts highlighting the connections between birth control and the literary landscape of the twentieth century.

Some of the texts were foundational to the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger wrote “What Every Girl Should Know” in 1916, during the most politically radical period of her career, before she was charged with obscenity and fled to England to escape jail time. My students were able to look at the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of that pamphlet, analyzing both Sanger’s left-wing, feminist activism and the working-class audience she sought to reach in that text.

In contrast, we looked at early editions of British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Stopes’s decidedly middle-class-focused bestsellers, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1919). Compared to Sanger’s mass-produced pamphlets, Stopes’s books look scientific and pedantic, with text-heavy dust jackets listing the author’s credentials. Inside, however, are flowery descriptions of “the sex tide in woman”: “If a swimmer comes to a sandy beach when the tide is out and the waves have receded, leaving sand where he had expected deep blue water—does he, baulked of his bathe, angrily call the sea ‘capricious’?” Stopes’s dual self-presentation as a scientist and a poet is a source of continual fascination for me, and these editions of her books helped bring that paradox to life for my students.

I also collected texts containing fictional depictions of birth control. Perfect for my uses was a manuscript of the third chapter of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group, depicting a young woman’s visit to a birth control clinic in 1933. I love the title McCarthy gave this vignette: “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” I also made a serendipitous discovery: Charles Norris’s 1930 Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. The biblical imagery and art deco aesthetic of the dust jacket provoked conversation among my students, and the book itself, a family drama, has become part of my own work on the period.

Finally, with the help of Ransom Center graduate student intern Stephanie Bordy, I discovered a rich source of manuscript material in the newly cataloged British Sexological Society (BSS) collection. My students read a speech on “Sex Education before Marriage” given to the BSS by Jane Hawthorne, the clinician at Stopes’s Mothers Clinic, and pored over the handwritten notes of the society’s Heterosexual Study Group, to whom Sanger gave a paper in June 1920. We also perused the Society’s Library List, which included a section on “Birth Control” alongside sections on “Marriage,” “Homosexual and Intersexes,” “Venereal Disease,” and “Novels.”

My students completed a writing assignment based on the texts we examined, allowing them to visit the Reading Room themselves for a longer look at our materials. The project was as useful to me as to them, as it gave me a chance to explore the range of the Ransom Center’s collections, both in literary texts and in the cultures that influenced their production.

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Embroidered Bible tells many stories

By Anna Chen

Among the Harry Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Bibles is a 1638 edition of what is arguably the single most influential English translation of the Bible, the King James Bible. This Bible’s front and back covers are embroidered with a nativity scene in silk and silver thread on linen. Mary, seated and holding the infant Jesus, is the most imposing and central figure in the scene. At her feet are the three Magi presenting gifts to the Christ child, while Joseph, clad in a red-and-white striped costume, stands behind her. At the bottom of the front cover is embroidered the Latin word “obtulerunt” (they offered), and on the back, “adoraverunt” (they adored), terms that refer not only to the actions of the Magi, but also, perhaps, to the devotional work of the embroiderer.

The book’s binding provides several clues about the embroiderer’s identity. The embroiderer would most likely have been a female member of a wealthy family who could have afforded the luxury goods of silk and silver with which the book was covered. Though there were professional male embroiderers at this time, embroidery was a formative component of girls’ education, and women were the main producers of embroidered household furnishings in wealthy households, including cushion covers, bed hangings, clothing, and book covers.

Through her embroidery, too, she would have participated in the seventeenth-century debate over needlework’s role in women’s education. Many contemporary writers praised needlework’s role in shaping women’s virtue, claiming that it kept women from idleness and talking too much. For example, a popular seventeenth-century pattern book, The Needle’s Excellency, begins with a poem by John Taylor called “The Praise of the Needle”:

And for my Countries quiet, I should like,
That Women-kinde should use no other Pike [i.e., needle].
It will increase their peace, enlarge their store,
To use their tongues lesse, and their Needles more.
The Needles sharpenesse, profit yields, and pleasure,
But sharpnesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.

But women’s needlework also troubled early modern moralists because it encouraged women to aspire to the more “manly” virtues of artistic creation and public display. Others, however, saw the private and public faces of needlework not in opposition but as a continuum. Hannah Wolley, a writer of household manuals, recommended that women wear clothing they had worked themselves as public signs of their skill and virtue. And still others explicitly perceived needlework as authorship. The tomb of Dame Dorothy Selby (ca. 1572–1641), for example, describes her as a woman:

Whose curious needle wound the abused stage
Of this leud world into the golden age,
Whose pen of steel and silken inck enroll’d
The acts of Jonah in records of gold.

The needle, then, was also seen as a tongue or a pen with which women could participate in public dialogue with and about the world. Mary’s prominence in this Bible’s embroidered scene, for example, is no accident. The most popular sources of pictorial embroidery in the seventeenth century were Biblical stories of heroic and virtuous women. That the intimate and domestic nativity scene on the cover of this Bible is also one of public worship by the Magi makes it a fitting representation of the simultaneously private and public roles of domestic needlework and its maker.

The embroiderer of the Ransom Center’s 1638 Bible would also have been someone of artistic sensibility. Placing the family against a background of silver thread recalls the painterly practice of situating holy figures against a metallic background to highlight their otherworldly qualities. The flowers and leaves on the spine are examples of raised work, a very popular embroidery style in the seventeenth century. Its three-dimensional effect is part of the contemporary trend towards textured effects in other artistic media. We welcome readers’ advice in identifying the particular stitch this embroiderer used here.

Finally, thanks to the numerous marks of ownership inside the book, we may even know the needlewoman’s last name. Written on verso of the title page to New Testament is the inscription: “John Sleigh, Inner Temple. 12 Nov AD 1850.” Written inside back cover is the note: “James Sleigh ye sonne of Hugh Sleigh was born ye 26th [?] day of Jany 1688.” And inside the front cover is pasted in a hand-drawn shield that includes the arms of the Sleigh family of Derbyshire, England.

This artifact’s text, annotations, and decoration thus combine to enrich our understanding of women, domestic life, economics, reading practices, art, religion, and material culture in seventeenth-century England.

Bibliography:

Brooks, Mary M. English Embroideries of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in the Collection of the Ashmolean Museum. Oxford: University of Oxford, 2004.

Jewitt, Llewellyn, ed. The Reliquary, vol. 7. London: Bemrose & Lothian and John Russell Smith, 1866-7.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. “The needle and the pen: needlework and the appropriation of printed texts.” In Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory, ed. Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Morrall, Andrew, and Melinda Watt, eds. English Embroidery from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1580-1700: ’Twixt Art and Nature. New York: The Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design, and Culture; New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Parker, Roszika. The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. London: Women’s Press, 1984.

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Image: The Holy Bible, HRC BS 185 1638 L5 1638. Printed by Robert Barker, London, 1638. Size: ca. 6 x 3.5 in. Cover materials: silk and silver thread on linen.