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.”
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.
“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 exposésthat 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.
Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.
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.
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 novelwas 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.
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.”
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
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.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
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.
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.
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.