Navigate / search

New book sheds some light on "The House of Knopf"

By Richard Oram

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.

 

Watch video interviews with novelist Alan Furst

By Alicia Dietrich

‘Spies of the Balkans’ by Alan Furst
‘Spies of the Balkans’ by Alan Furst

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 hrcgiveaway@gmail.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.

Inside a Book of Hours

By Alicia Dietrich

Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation. HRC MS 6, fol. 15r, France, mid to late 15th century.
Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation. HRC MS 6, fol. 15r, France, mid to late 15th century.
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.

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography

By Alicia Dietrich

Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
Biographer discusses researching Somerset Maugham biography
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.

A new home for "Finnegans Wehg"

By Alicia Dietrich

A German translation of James Joyce's 'Finnegans Wehg' ('Finnegans Wake'). Photo by Pete Smith.
A German translation of James Joyce's 'Finnegans Wehg' ('Finnegans Wake'). Photo by Pete Smith.

Walter Wetzels, an emeritus professor in the Department of Germanic Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, recently donated a German translation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to the Ransom Center. He shares a bit of his history with the text.

It must be more than 50 years ago after reading my first novel in English (that was Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel) that I very ambitiously tried the famous and feared James Joyce. And, of all things, I chose Finnegans Wake. Little did I know what to expect, and—predictably—it turned out to be a disaster. I felt completely defeated and asked myself whether the English that I had learned in school and Joyce’s version were the same language. I gave up. Much later, in the mid 1990s, I heard that some audacious person had translated the work into German. I bought the tome hoping to finally understand it in my native tongue. Of course, the “translation” turned out to be just as impenetrable to me as the original had been. Defeated again— and for good this time—the book ended up on one of my shelves where it has rested, untouched, ever since.

It was not until 2010, when I started to tackle the problem of thinning my library, that the only sensible solution for my ancient struggles occurred to me: the Harry Ransom Center.

I am gladly passing the work on to more competent and determined minds.

Explore Books of Hours at the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation.
Hours of the Virgin. Matins. Annunciation.
Pestilence, famine, war, and death: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were close companions to life in the fourteenth century. The Church was compromised by political corruption and worldliness, and the pope resided not in Rome but at Avignon, where he remained a virtual pawn to the king of France. During this calamitous phase of European history, a devotional text called the Book of Hours emerged as a medieval bestseller. Ten of these volumes reside in the Harry Ransom Center collections. Learn more about Books of Hours in the first of a three-part series on Books of Hours.

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of "The Things They Carried"

By Alicia Dietrich

2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. The book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43.

The Ransom Center acquired the archive of the National Book Award–winning writer in 2007, and a finding aid for the collection is available online. Also, read what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Jim Crace papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

Jim Crace
Jim Crace

The papers of British writer Jim Crace, author of acclaimed works Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), are now open at the Ransom Center. A finding aid of the collection can be accessed online.

The Center acquired Crace’s archive in 2008. The collection is made up of more than 45 boxes of materials, including the research notes, early drafts and edited page proofs of All That Follows (2010), Crace’s novel that is being released next Tuesday.

Below you can view a video of Crace reading from All That Follows. Also, listen to audio of Crace reading from his other works and view a list of his recommended reading.

Anthony Bertram Rota's legacy at the Ransom Center

By Cathy Henderson

Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.

In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.

Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.

Norman Mailer’s "real" Facebook

By Jacqueline Muñoz

Facebook. No doubt you’ve heard of it. But did you know that the origin of Facebook really comes from the concept of a “freshman facebook”? Many universities publish and distribute a yearbook of sorts to its incoming freshman students that includes registrants’ photos and a few biographical details about them. The idea is that this book will be a tool to help students get to know one another in the incoming class.

At Harvard University, this directory is known as the Harvard Freshman Red Book Register, and this practice had been in place for three years (started by the class of 1940) by the time Norman Mailer matriculated in 1939. Mailer would graduate in the class of 1943. His Harvard Freshman Red Book Register, published in December of 1939, has a companion Harvard Freshman Red Book, which was published in May and is a summary of the first year in college. In his Register you can see the equivalent of “posting on his wall” in comments he literally penciled in about himself next to his photo on page 93 (“Beautiful, alluring, gorgeous”), as well as those scrawled in by his friends and initialed in good fun—we assume (“We all don’t like him”).

These books are two of the numerous holdings from Mailer’s personal library, which numbers around 900 volumes in the Ransom Center book collection. His library was acquired with his papers, comprising more than 1,000 boxes of materials, by the Ransom Center in 2005 along with another sizeable collection of more than 150 books, the Thomas Fiske collection of Norman Mailer. Within these collections, it is interesting and fun to recreate how Mailer grew from a high school student with a penchant for math, to a college Red Book editorial board staffer and engineering major, and finally evolved into a boisterous and prolific writer who published novels, articles, and poetry on everything from literature to race, feminism, sexuality, politics, art, culture, and society. Among his papers, there are high school and college journals, scrapbooks, grade reports, and even sweet and creative letters written home to his parents. Later materials consist of unpublished stories, handwritten notes, typed drafts, galley proofs, screenplays, and first editions of all his published books.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.