Jacqueline Muñoz, librarian at the Ransom Center, cataloged more than 300 books from David Foster Wallace’s archive. Here, she writes about her experience working with the collection and her personal response to Wallace’s work.
I didn’t think much of Infinite Jest in the beginning. My impression of David Foster Wallace’s writing was that it was wordy and unfocused with some seriously flawed characters. Gradually I settled into his use of language, which is quite impressive, and finally at the Boston AA section, I was hooked—certainly on the plot, but even more so on the man behind the prose. All at once, it was clear the length of the story and ambiguity of the characters was Wallace’s vehicle for articulating how unforgiving it is to be human, and how, though various generations may seem vastly different on the surface, they struggle internally with the same issues. I thought, this man is a genius; I want to know him better. So, I was thrilled to find out the Ransom Center would be acquiring his archive, especially given the description about the extensive annotations to his books.
Even then, I was not prepared for what we received. Of the more than 300 titles in his collection, there are maybe 10 or 15 that are not annotated—not simply with underlined passages but ample and personally revealing margin notes. The library basically falls into two categories: novels/stories he taught in his literature classes and books for use in research and self-analysis. Finishing Infinite Jest, I came away with a lot of questions about the origin of some of the characters, as well as theories about the story itself. I think the items in his library, which feel very much like journal entries the way he marked them up, provide some answers.
Looking at his collection, one can see that Wallace was undoubtedly a highly intelligent man: a philosopher, mathophile, physics buff, grammarian, pop-fiction reader, lit professor, creative writer, and spiritual seeker. He didn’t merely own these books; he digested them. Cover to cover there are handwritten notes and vocabulary words; he dog-eared pages, annotated the most pertinent passages, and even used the tomes as coffee mug coasters and phone conversation doodle pads. Through his books, one gains a sense of him on a personal, human level—his struggles, unpretentiousness, sense of humor, diligent research skills, and devotion to masterful writing. It’s almost as if he’s still teaching and sharing.
The archive of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), author of Infinite Jest (1996), The Broom of the System (1987), Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and numerous collections of stories and essays, is now open at the Harry Ransom Center. A finding aid for the collection and an inventory of Wallace’s library can be accessed online.
The Ransom Center acquired Wallace’s archive last year. The collection is made up of 42 boxes and is divided into three main sections: works, personal and career-related materials and copies of works by Don DeLillo. The works section covers the period between 1984 and 2006 and includes material related to Wallace’s novels, short stories, essays and magazine articles. The personal and career materials section covers 1971 through 2008 and includes juvenilia, teaching materials and business correspondence. Most of the correspondence in the collection is between Wallace and his editors and is related to his work. The third, and smallest, section includes photocopy typescripts of three works by Don DeLillo, one of which, Underworld, contains extensive handwritten annotations by Wallace.
The Ransom Center commemorates the opening of the archive with public readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors tonight at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) in the university’s Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall. The event, which is co-sponsored by “American Short Fiction” and Salvage Vanguard Theater, will be webcast live.
In conjunction with the exhibition Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, the Ransom Center and the University of Texas Press have published The Gernsheim Collection.
The Gernsheim collection is one of the most important collections of photography in the world. Amassed by the renowned husband-and-wife team of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim between 1945 and 1963, it contains an unparalleled range of images, beginning with the world’s earliest-known photograph from nature, made by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826. The Gernsheim collection includes 35,000 important and representative photographs from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; a research library of some 3,600 books, journals, and published articles; about 250 autographed letters and manuscripts; and more than 200 pieces of early photographic equipment. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise and taste with which the Gernsheims built the collection—makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier resources for the study and appreciation of the development of photography.
Published to coincide with the exhibition at the Ransom Center, this volume presents masterpieces of the Gernsheim collection, along with lesser-known images of great historical significance. Arranged in chronological order, this selection effectively constitutes a visual history of photography from its beginnings to the mid-twentieth century. Each full-page image is accompanied by an extensive annotation in which Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger describes the photograph’s place in the evolution of photography and also within the Gernsheim collection. Read an excerpt from the introduction in which Flukinger traces the Gernsheims’ passionate careers as collectors and pioneering historians of photography, showing how their untiring efforts significantly contributed to the acceptance of photography as a fine art and as a field worthy of intellectual inquiry.
Click on the four-way arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the slideshow to convert into full-screen mode.
Michael Laird, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin and the proprietor of Michael Laird Rare Books, shares some recent discoveries he made about a Bible in the Ransom Center’s collection.
Scholarship begets scholarship; ergo bibliography, the study of books as physical objects, builds upon earlier discoveries, while seeking to answer questions about the transmission of texts, the provenance of books, and their bindings.
In fall of 2009, Ryan Hildebrand, head of book cataloging at the Ransom Center, wrote about an unusual nineteenth-century fore-edge painting that adorns a fifteenth-century book at the Ransom Center, namely a Latin Bible, printed in 1481 by Johann Amerbach, of Basel.1
While the name of the fore-edge painter (John T. Beers), is known 2, questions remain about the bookbinding itself, and of the manuscript fragment contained therein, specifically: When and where was the binding made? Can we identify the text of the manuscript fragment, and determine its date of origin?
It is an extraordinary fact that certain ornamental tools that were stamped on early bookbindings were unique to a particular workshop and thus can help to identify specific binderies—or even specific bookbinders. The study of early bookbindings has made significant progress during the last decade, particularly in Germany where vast databases of Gothic bookbinding tools now appear online3.
Careful study of the Ransom Center’s bookbinding reveals an actual name-stamp on the front and back covers. The binding is also adorned with ornamental stamps of birds, flowers, hearts, and Evangelist symbols. (View the above slideshow for more images of these stamps.)
After more than 500 years of use, many of these stamps are no longer easy to see. In special cases, a light pencil rubbing can reveal much more than meets the eye. It was determined that the Ransom Center’s binding is such a case, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram gave special permission for rubbings to be made in this instance. These rubbings were then compared with other rubbings that were taken from known binderies of the fifteenth-century.
The name on the binding of the Ransom Center’s 1481 Bible is Johannes Meigfoge. Meigfoge is known to have been active in Ellwangen, Germany, during the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century. Meigfoge’s workshop was first described by Ernst Kryss4, who failed to localize the bindery, but located 38 bindings by Meigfoge, including 35 books printed in the years 1475 through 1513, and 3 manuscripts. The location of Meigfoge’s workshop was convincingly assigned to Ellwangen (eastern Baden-Württemberg) by Heribert Hummel, in 1977.5
Inside the front and back boards of the present binding may be seen an extremely ancient fragment of manuscript that dates from the ninth-century.6 Whereas fragments from old manuscripts were commonly used as strengtheners by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century bookbinders, scholars rarely encounter manuscript material as old as this fragment. And so we can deduce that in the fifteenth-century, this small piece of parchment waste was used by Johannes Meigfoge to strengthen the inside of the spine, where it is still preserved therein.
Although the text of the fragment is hardly extensive, the Caroline minuscule handwriting is quite clear, and reads: In quam cumq[ue] domum intraveritis pri[mum dicite: pac huic domui. This text is from the New Testament, specifically Luke, chapter 10, verse 5:
“Into whatsoever house you enter, first say: ‘Peace be to this house.'”
Words of wisdom from a hitherto unknown ninth-century manuscript fragment—easily the oldest Biblical text at The University of Texas at Austin— afforded by the study of books as physical objects. With its nineteenth-century fore-edge painting, it is a remarkable fact that in one volume we are able to discover evidence of ca. 1000 years of book history.
1HRC Incun 1481 B471a
2Jeff Weber, Fore-Edge Paintings of John T. Beer (Los Angeles: J. Weber Rare Books, 2005)
4Ernst Kyriss, Verzierte gotische Einbande im alten deutschen Sprachgebiet (Stuttgart: Max Hettler, 1953), Tafelband I, no. 53. Ilse Schunke, Die Schwenke-Sammlung gotisher Stempel- und Eingbanddurchreibungen (Berlin, 1996) II, p. 257, offers no evidence for the assignment of this workshop to “Tubingen.”
5Heribert Hummel, “Johannes Meigfoge, ein Ellwanger Buchbinder des 15. Jahrhunderts” (in: Ellwanger Jahrbuch Bd. 27, 1977/78, pp. 187–194).
6Compare the ninth-century Latin Bible fragment at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley: f2MS A2M2 800:3, reproduced by Digital Scriptorium. (accessed 8/8/2010). The Bancroft fragment is thought to be German (as here?)
Among the Ransom Center’s greatest treasures is the Gutenberg Bible, one of only five complete copies in the United States and only 21 complete copies in the world. The Ransom Center digitized the entire copy of its Gutenberg Bible in 2002, resulting in 1,300 images that reveal the text, large illuminations, and handwritten annotations. These images can be viewed online in the Gutenberg Bible web exhibition. The exhibition also includes information about Johann Gutenberg, the popularization of printing, the appearance of the Bible, and more.
Christopher Bigsby, a professor of American Studies and the Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia, has written extensively about Arthur Miller. He recently published a biography on the playwright, Arthur Miller (Harvard University Press, 2009), and he writes here about working at the Ransom Center.
I have been visiting the Harry Ransom Center for more than 30 years, most recently working on Arthur Miller’s papers, though the staff there must have been somewhat irritated when Miller held back boxes of materials so that I could work through them to write his biography. It delayed their arrival in Austin by nearly two years. You will even find among them a page bearing a lipstick kiss from Marilyn Monroe, a touch distracting to the serious scholar.
I once made a BBC television film about the Ransom Center during which I learned that in the event of fire, the area floods with inert gas. It is designed to preserve the collection though, alas, not the researchers. I am told that more recently they have exchanged this for a sprinkler system. As an academic I think that shows a failure of nerve. I approved of the earlier priority.
In England there is an excellent fish and chip chain called Harry Ramsden’s. I’ve been known to confuse the two, not least because both offer immediate satisfaction wrapped up in yesterday’s papers. For academics the Center is a kind of limbo. When you go there, you don’t know whether you will discover a path to heaven or hell. Will the hidden be revealed, theories proved, or will the notebooks of writers contradict everything you wish to say? Does tenure await or a life in advertising?
The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence. Admittedly it hasn’t as yet produced many Popes, but it has had a hand in a new Renaissance. In the past, its money, admittedly, came from oil and not banking (hard to know which it is harder to love right now) but its role in preserving our cultural heritage (the UK’s no less than the US) has been central. Where else but Texas, after all, should we look to research Winnie the Pooh?
We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.
Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.
Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.
[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Writer Alan Furst, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, is known for his historical espionage novels set in pre-World War II Europe. His most recent novel, Spies of the Balkans, will be released today. Email email@example.com with “Furst” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight for a chance to win one of two copies of the book. [Update: This contest has ended, and winners have been notified.]
Furst visited the Ransom Center last fall and sat down for an interview to discuss his writing and his archive. Below are some excerpts from the interview.
Furst discusses why he writes spy novels.
Furst discusses how he develops atmosphere in his books.
Furst talks about what it means for him and his career to have his papers housed at the Ransom Center.
Fans of Furst can also check out his recommended reading, read his Writers Reflect interview, and listen to him read from his book Spies of Warsaw on the Ransom Center’s website.
Books of Hours were medieval prayer books designed for laymen. Part I of this series outlined the historical context for the emergence of the Book of Hours as a distinctive class of text and provides an introduction to the subject. The current installment takes a look inside a Book of Hours and illustrates some of the more common elements of these books with images drawn from the Ransom Center’s collections.
Writer and journalist Selina Hastings is the author of four literary biographies, including The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, which was released today in the United States.
Hastings recently wrote an article for Ransom Edition about her work in the Ransom Center’s collections and the “uneasy friendship” between Maugham and Hugh Walpole.
Hastings is a terrific storyteller, and you can listen to audio of her talking about the challenges she faced in researching Maugham. In a case of being in the perfect place at the perfect time, Hastings was the first scholar to be granted access to Maugham’s papers by the Royal Literary Fund.
At the Ransom Center, Hastings conducted research as a Mellon Fellow in 2002–2003 and was awarded the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies in 2009–2010. She has previously worked in the Ransom Center’s collections for her biographies on Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and Rosamond Lehmann. She is currently working on a biography of Sybille Bedford.