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The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

Fellows Find: Irish Schlemiels

By Stephen Watt

Stephen Watt is a Professor of English and Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spent the month of June reading both manuscripts and published works in the Ransom Center’s Irish literature and Judaica collections. The result of this and further research, he hopes, will be a scholarly monograph that examines cultural interactions between Irish and Jewish immigrants in later nineteenth-century America, particularly theatrical ones, and the ways in which Irish-Jewish relations of the early twentieth century help define our sense of modern and modernist writing. His research was funded by a fellowship from the Dorot Foundation.

Occasionally at the end of the evening, I find myself “channel surfing” on the television seeking a momentary diversion or, even better, an effective sedative. Over the years, The Late Show with David Letterman has reliably provided both, and I have often enjoyed a skit on the show entitled “Is it Something or Is t Nothing?”  Typically, the “it” in question is some kind of bizarre performance or an unlikely combination of objects, and it occurs to me that the scholarly book might be described in just these terms: a bizarre performance and/or an assemblage of facts or ideas that, at least at first glance, don’t necessarily appear related. Perhaps more relevant, the gestation of a scholarly book—the emotional highs produced by a surprising discovery and discouraging lows caused by doubt or lack of confidence—often reminds me of the Letterman show’s question: Is the project “something,” an intellectual intervention or creative achievement of some consequence, or is it “nothing?”

The fortunate recipient of a one-month fellowship at the Ransom Center generously provided by the Dorot Foundation, I came to Austin with an idea for a monograph, the working title of which is Irish Schlemiels: The Irish-Jewish Unconscious and American Modernism. I hoped it was “something” or would become such, but I wasn’t certain. The genealogy of the project includes the phrase “Irish schlemiels” in a wonderful poem by Northern Irish writer Paul Muldoon; a problematic analogy in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1997 novel Grace Notes between the horrors of World War II and those of the “Troubles” in Belfast and Derry; and my ongoing interest in the representation of Irishmen and Jews on the later nineteenth-century popular stage, both in New York and in the Dublin of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey’s adolescence in the 1890s. How, for example, did post-Famine Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s affect representations of the Irish in America?  How did the later diaspora of largely Eastern European Jews arriving in America in the 1880s and 90s inflect the cultural work done by theater at the fin de siècle?  How does the popularity in both America and Ireland of such plays as Paul Potter’s Trilby and widely-seen revivals of The Merchant of Venice relate to the emergent populations of immigrants in America? Most important, how does this cultural interface affect American drama and fiction of the modernist period?

To be a little more candid, I actually arrived in Austin with rough drafts of the chapters dealing with later nineteenth-century immigrant drama and theater. But I was uncertain if I could outline and structure effectively the chapters on modernist writing. The Ransom Center’s collections of the manuscripts of such figures as Elmer Rice, Edward Dahlberg, and, in a more theatrical vein, Stella Adler helped enormously in clarifying this matter. In fact, the center’s holdings of Jewish American and Irish writing are enormous; a scholar could spend a blissful summer reading materials on any one of these artists—or on George Bernard Shaw, Kay Boyle, or Samuel Beckett, all of whose works I read while in residence. Dahlberg and Rice in particular, both under-studied and underappreciated, grew to assume great importance in my plans, which now include a chapter on Joyce, Dahlberg, and Henry Roth; and another on Synge and Shaw, Rice and Adler.

But this scarcely describes the unique items—now exceptionally important to Irish Schlemiels—that I uncovered in the Ransom Center. These include Rice’s Shavian one-act play A Diadem of Snow, sandwiched in a 1918 issue of The Liberator between radical editorials concerning lynchings in the American South and Jack Reed’s reports from the revolution in Russia; Leslie Daiker’s remarkable “The Circular Road,” a radio play concerning a young Jewish Dubliner grieving over the shooting of his father during the civil war of the 20s; Stella Adler’s incisive and exhaustive workbook for actors of one of Synge’s masterpieces, Riders to the Sea; and an exchange of letters between Dahlberg and Kay Boyle that adds great clarity to the former’s complicated view of James Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. All of these materials will contribute significantly to my book, as will countless passages I found in these and other writers’ works

Of course, no scholarship ever evolves in a vacuum. When I wrote my fellowship application, several essays in what might be called the “New Jewish-Irish Studies” had appeared, and today the list of works in this area has been graced by two recent and very considerable achievements: Mick Moloney’s album of Tin Pan Alley songs, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, and George Bornstein’s study The Colors of Zion (Harvard, 2011). My Irish Schlemiels doesn’t look—or shouldn’t be mistaken for—either of these. But it is my hope that it will be “something,” not “nothing,” and that this emergent field will both grow in importance and promote greater understanding of the cultures of two immigrant groups that contributed so substantially to this country. In either case or in both, the Ransom Center collections and truly outstanding staff will have played and will continue to play a major, much appreciated role.

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Q and A: Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley speaks about legacy of Literary Modernist Critic Hugh Kenner

By Elana Estrin

Hugh Kenner and Chuck Jones. No date. Photographer unknown.
Hugh Kenner and Chuck Jones. No date. Photographer unknown.

Hugh Kenner, considered America’s foremost commentator on literary modernism, was unlike any other literary critic before or since. His scholarship ranged from Ezra Pound to geodisic math to animator Chuck Jones, and he personally knew the modernists about whom he wrote. Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder once wrote: “Kenner doesn’t write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest’s dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion.”

Kenner’s archive resides at the Ransom Center. Cultural Compass spoke with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about Kenner’s legacy, approach, correspondence with modernist writers, and their friendship.

The Ransom Center doesn’t usually collect critics’ archives. Why was it important for you to acquire Kenner’s papers?

Hugh Kenner was clearly an exception for us. He was one of the most important critics of the most important literary movement of the last century: modernism. His stature as a critic, his influence on literary criticism generally, and his close study of such modernist writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett make his archive a tremendous resource for scholars and students.

The archive holds all of the letters that Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guy Davenport—one after another of major critics and writers—wrote to Kenner. These letters are extremely valuable and revealing. To have figures of their stature writing to a literary critic was rare.

Kenner’s archive offers an opportunity for graduate students, young scholars, and anyone else for that matter, to study the working life of a major literary critic. Kenner brought life not only to these modernist writers but also to the period itself.

As a modernist scholar, how has Kenner influenced you?

The most obvious influence on me is his work on Joyce. The early work he did in Dublin’s Joyce perfected a kind of critical dialog with the author. Certainly he influenced me in the attention he gave to the text. It was more than simply the explication of the text, more than simply close reading. Kenner went beyond that. He brought these writers to a kind of living presence. It’s a very rare critic who can do that.

I was intrigued by Kenner’s writing style. It was arcane yet simple, direct, and humorous. He used words that were outside the usual vocabulary of literary critics. His mind was so fertile. He could talk about the newspaper in the same way he could talk about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

What distinguished Kenner’s approach?

He had a mathematical mind, and he could follow things in physics and calculus that most people wouldn’t understand. Science and mechanics, bodies of knowledge that were outside the usual literary focus, blended into his sense of understanding of the world. For example, he’d say: Dublin is on this latitude, and on that day there was a full moon. And of course with Joyce, it always worked.

He was an enormously learned man, but he wasn’t pedantic. He had a lively and engaging style. It wasn’t deadly, as the style was of many of the critics of that period. He’d come at things at an angle so different that the angle itself was worth noting. He was just so startling. You never knew what he was going to come up with.

What was your relationship with Kenner?

We were friends. We both taught at the Institute of Modern Letters, which was an eight-week program in the summer. I edited the James Joyce Quarterly, and he helped me on that. We had a very good relationship. We’d meet at these various conferences and do gigs together, as they say. So I knew him well.

He used to come have dinner with our family when our kids were very little. They’d imitate him and say with an odd voice: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” They just loved him. He told them a story about Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky,” he said, “would tell you that nature would give this tree life and light. Then if you put it in the fireplace, this tree would give that light that it took from nature back to you.” Kids can understand that. He was always interesting.

What are some highlights of Kenner’s papers?

The letters between Kenner, Eliot, and Pound are of great value. They reveal the questions that Kenner would ask Eliot, for example. You see his mind as he grapples with, as he says, “Tom’s work.” To watch his mind work and to watch his engagement with these great modernists is a tremendous opportunity for students and scholars to see what great literary criticism was like in those days.

He really got to know these writers. Kenner once said to me that when he was a graduate student a professor had told him: “If you want to be a student of modernism, you should go and meet the great modernists and talk with them.” He visited Beckett a lot, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and he knew Eliot and discussed his work with him. With Kenner, you always realized that these writers were human beings first.

What is Kenner’s legacy to literary criticism?

It isn’t that he made a great discovery of this or that. It’s that he was able to see these modernist tropes clearly. He was the great elucidator, the one who really understood the writers and brought their works out. He understood the way in which modernists trapped by the century’s culture and age worked their way out of it. Whether it be Virginia Woolf or Joyce, Kenner understood what their dispositions were toward the culture, their reactions to the culture, and how their work was so important to them.

He had a great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.

His work on Pound was seminal. Probably no one wrote better about Pound than Kenner. His book The Pound Era is really the history of modernism and what modernism was.

There’s no Kenner school. He always went out on his own, explored things on his own. He was unique, and he remains unique. There’s no one quite like him. I think that is part of his charm and his great contribution to our culture.

Donald Davie, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and Carroll Terrell in Maine. No date. Photographer unknown.
Donald Davie, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and Carroll Terrell in Maine. No date. Photographer unknown.

Scholar discusses work in Knopf publishing collection

By Elana Estrin

Independent scholar John Thornton came to the Ransom Center last year to research his upcoming biography of Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the House of Knopf. The Ransom Center’s Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection comprises 1,526 boxes. To navigate this extensive archive, Thornton says, he emulated biographer Lytton Strachey: “[Strachey] would look at the sources like someone rowing out over a great sea of information and lowering his bucket here and there and pulling up samples and examining them. So I think that’s the best I can do: row my boat through the Knopf collections and see what turns up.”

Video highlights scholar’s work in Beckett collection

By Elana Estrin

Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.

Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.

The Immortal Hoax of William Henry Ireland

By Courtney Reed

“I’m happy that this book is stable enough for scholars to use,” said Inkyung Youm, a graduate intern in the Ransom Center’s Conservation Department, when asked about the most satisfying part of conserving a book of fabricated Shakespearian manuscripts.

When Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare first crossed Inkyung’s workbench, time had taken its toll. The book had split apart in several places. The leather that remained on the binding was chemically deteriorated, and the covers were detached from the text block. Thankfully, the paper was in fairly good condition despite some foxing, a term applied to orangish spots, often present in older paper, that are attributed to deteriorating mold spores or microscopic bits of metal.

Samuel Ireland, an engraver and publisher of travelogues, published this printed collection of alleged Shakespeare manuscripts. Later, the manuscripts that inspired the publication were revealed as forgeries made by his son, William Henry Ireland.

In two published exposés that chronicle his voyage down the slippery path of a forger, William Henry recalls the 1792 trip he took with his father, Samuel, to Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-on-Avon. Samuel Ireland, a fervent enthusiast of everything Shakespeare, hoped to discover Shakespearian heirlooms and tracked a promising lead to Clopton House, home of a Mr. Williams. To his father’s horror, Mr. Williams facetiously told Samuel he should have arrived sooner: “Why it isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers, in order to clear a small chamber for some young partridges which I wish to bring up alive: and as to Shakespeare, why there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them.” Missing the joke entirely, Samuel burst out in anger: “Good God, Sir! You do not know what an injury the world has sustained by the loss of them.”

The trip to Stratford-on-Avon and his father’s love of Shakespeare clearly inspired the 17-year-old William Henry Ireland. Two years later, in 1794, young William Henry “procured” from an anonymous gentleman a lease agreement between William Shakespeare and Michael Fraser. He presented this document to his father, who was enormously delighted. The lease was a fake, as were the dozens of other items William Henry “unearthed” during the following months. His father, though, was convinced they were authentic and in 1796 he published Miscellaneous Papers, a compilation of the forged manuscripts.

Among the forged manuscripts that William Henry “discovered” was a lost manuscript of a play titled Vortigern & Rowena. At the same time that he published the forged manuscripts, Samuel Ireland negotiated to have the lost tragedy produced at Drury-Lane. The audience was filled with doubters, including antiquarian Edmond Malone, who questioned the play’s authenticity in An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments. Even the renowned actor John Philip Kemble, playing the role of Vortigern, doubted the play’s authenticity and decided to give the tragic role a comic turn. The premiere was the play’s only performance.

The critics began to accuse Samuel Ireland of making the forgeries. Hoping to “exculpate my father from the odium which was heaped on him [instead],” William Henry published a pamphlet in late 1796, An Authentic Account of the Shaksperian Manuscripts, confessing that he forged the manuscripts. Nevertheless, it seems that Samuel Ireland thought his son a dullard and refused to believe that he had the skills to compose and write the forgeries—Samuel went to his death in 1800 still believing in the manuscripts’ veracity.

In the preface to his 1805 book, The Confessions of William Henry Ireland, William Henry wrote that he preferred that his actions be “regarded rather as that of an unthinking and impetuous boy than of a sordid and avaricious fabricator instigated by the mean desire of securing pecuniary emolument.” He describes in detail his forging methods and reiterates that he wanted to please his father with these gifts. He admits that pride in his own forging abilities led him to undertake some of the projects.

William Henry made a business of his scandal until his death in 1835. He cashed in by selling sets of “original” forgeries to collectors. One such copy of the handwritten forgeries, which originally was presented to the Prince Regent (later George IV), was acquired by the Center in the 1980s.

Conservators often study the historical background as well as technical information relating to an artifact to enhance their understanding of the artifact and to guide their treatment methodology. “At the Ransom Center, our approach to conservation treatment is usually quite conservative to safeguard physical information intrinsic to the item. Usually, we stabilize the physical structure and, sometimes, the chemical condition of a book so that patrons can safely handle the item,” says Ransom Center Book Conservator Olivia Primanis.

Originally, Inkyung planned a conservative treatment: to repair the book structure by reattaching the covers to the book with tackets, a technique that reconnects covers to the text block by looping thread through small holes that are pierced in the cover and through the shoulder of a text block. This repair would have left the book close to its original state, but the binding structure proved to be too deteriorated for a minor repair. While Inkyung was working on the book, the sewing threads broke, which required that the book be disassembled. Once apart, Inkyung mended tears in the pages and guarded the single leaves into gatherings with long-fibered Japanese paper and then resewed the book.

“This is a big job,” says Primanis, “especially when the book is large in size. This one measures 44 centimeters by 33.7 centimeters.”

Inkyung made a new cover for the book since the marbled paper covering and much of the original leather that remained were chemically deteriorated. Inkyung made the new cover with a marbled paper that had a pattern similar to the original cover and book cloth, which, today, is considered more durable than most newly made leathers.

Inkyung constructed a housing for the book that accommodates the original cover. Because deteriorated leather can stain adjacent materials, a folder was made for the original cover to protect the new binding.

Evidence of William Henry Ireland’s hoax lives on in the manuscript facsimiles and the printed publication. Because the book is working as a book should, Ransom Center patrons can now safely handle and study the forged Shakespearian manuscripts along with other texts revealing the context of these fabrications. These volumes might also be called on by those interested in background information on the recently published monograph inspired by the life of William Henry Ireland, The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.

 

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Scholar explores work and career of writer Mulk Raj Anand

By Charlotte Nunes

 

Charlotte Nunes is a graduate student in English at The University of Texas at Austin. She used the Ransom Center collections to research her dissertation, “‘This Novel Social Fabric’: Transnational Anti-Imperialism and British Literary Modernity, 1913–1936.” One chapter examines Mulk Raj Anand’s novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) in terms of Anand’s involvement in the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association in London during the mid-1930s.

The Harry Ransom Center’s notable holdings in international literature include both handwritten and typed manuscripts of the English-language novel Coolie (1935) by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004). Today, a Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Coolie is still in print. The novel chronicles the tragically short life of the young laborer Munoo in pre-independence India. The manuscripts available at the Ransom Center provide significant insights into Anand’s career-long investment in cross-cultural, cross-lingual, and cross-class exchange. Anand was born to a middle-class family in Peshawar and came of age in an increasingly anti-imperial political climate. He actively agitated against British imperialism in the years leading up to Indian independence in 1947. Yet at the same time, Anand’s early exposure to British culture and literature had a determinative effect on his literary-political career. He traveled to England in 1925 to study at University College London; he would remain based in London, though he frequently returned to India over the next two decades. Along with Ahmed Ali and other Anglophone Indian writers influential in the establishment of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in London in 1935, Anand leveraged English-language fiction to advance the PWA objectives of affecting social justice in India and fostering interaction between writers internationally.

An examination of the Coolie manuscripts confirms Anand’s ambition to appeal to Anglophone audiences. On the back of page 571 of the handwritten version, for example, Anand scrawled a list of English-language newspapers including The Times of India, The Bombay Chronicle, The Sentinel, and The People. It’s fair to speculate that these were publications that Anand hoped might review and promote his novel once it was completed and published. The typed version, as well, bears evidence of Anand’s networking with British literary and political communities. A hand-printed note to the right side of the cover page reads, “typed 1935 by Celia Strachey.” Celia was the wife of the former British Labour Party politician John Strachey; that she typed the manuscript indicates Anand’s proximity to and engagement with British Labour and Marxist circles.

The manuscripts are yellowed, brittle, and slightly damaged in some areas. Nevertheless, they remain quite legible and offer insights into Anand’s writing process. For example, it’s interesting to observe in the handwritten version that several pages of continuous, unedited writing will often be followed by several pages of heavily marked-up material with entire sentences and passages vigorously scribbled out. It seems that Anand’s writerly flow was subject to considerable fluctuation. The typescript includes Anand’s extensive edits, in pencil; although he includes only a few notes about potential structural revisions, sentence-level edits abound. Compare the consequential last line of the novel as it appears in the handwritten version (page 646):

“But in the early hours of one unreal white night he passed away,—the tide of his life having reached the deeps of the sea and become one with the black waters of forgetfulness.”

And the edited, typed version (page 412):

“But in the early hours of one unreal white night he passed away,—the tide of his life having reached back to the deeps.”

Anand cut nearly the entire second half of the final line, including the phrase “black waters.” Notably, this phrase would appear in the title of his subsequent novel Across the Black Waters (1940), which tells the story of a division of Indian troops deployed in Flanders during World War I. The title references the Hindu prohibition of sea travel known as Kala Pani (“Black Water”). That Anand originally used the phrase “black waters” to denote the oblivion of death enriches the significance of the title of his later book.

It’s worth mentioning that in addition to the Coolie manuscripts, the Ransom Center holds several letters that Anand wrote to such influential literary figures as George Bernard Shaw, John Lehmann, and Henry Treece. The letters demonstrate that his attempts to promote his writing in England were frequently unsuccessful. In response to Anand’s submission, dated February 18, 1945, of a few pieces for publication in England, John Lehmann penciled notes directly on Anand’s letter (presumably in advance of composing an official rejection letter): “The story about ‘Appearances and Reality’ just might do, tho’ it follows a rather conventional pattern… The second story is quite appallingly written.” The letters also demonstrate Anand’s deep conviction that the circulation of literature internationally had a role to play in improving the material conditions of the world’s poor. He wrote to Shaw on March 2, 1949, “Unfortunately, the vast illiteracy in India makes for very poor sales of books. People prefer to buy bread when they can get it.” Yet, he wrote, “I need not emphasize how important is the need for the exchange of literature between the various countries of the world. In India we want to encourage the kind of thinking which is associated with European humanism and free thought.” Although a vocal anti-imperialist, Anand found much to admire in Britain’s cultural and intellectual traditions, and his career was saliently characterized by his investment in transnational literary and political solidarity.

Charlotte Nunes extends her thanks to Professor Snehal Shingavi for his feedback on this blog post.

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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