The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the second in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
It’s the year 2000. McSweeney’s and the rest of the world came through the threat of Y2K unscathed. It’s a new millennium, and new millennium readers want to experiment, take chances, and conquer new frontiers in reading. In 2000, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, which tells the story of a corporate memo writer who begins an intimate friendship with a lemon after his girlfriend breaks up with him. Lemon perhaps set the tone for McSweeney’s books, as one reviewer called it “handsome, smartly written and deeply eccentric.”
A unique love story deserves a unique cover, but one unique cover would simply not do. How about 10,000 unique covers? This line of thinking inspired Dave Eggers’s and Lawrence Krauser’s “Oodles of Doodles” cover idea. The first 10,000 books were wrapped in a blank dust jacket containing only the title and author rubberstamped in various places on each cover—Krauser’s blank canvas. Over a period of about three months, for about three hours a day, Krauser drew unique doodles on 9,812 Lemon dust jackets, making each copy a unique, one-of-a-kind original. Krauser didn’t quite make it through the 10,000 print run, but illustrated an additional 1,000 covers for the Dutch translation, for a grand total of 10,812 unique books.
The Ransom Center currently holds three copies of Lemon: one blank copy and two with unique doodle covers.
Since publishing Lemon, McSweeney’s book publishing division has grown into McSweeney’s Books, which publishes nonfiction biographies, memoirs, and criticism; a long list of humor books including the “Baby, Be of Use” series by Lisa Brown and the popular Haggis-on-Whey encyclopedias; art books with portfolios by Marcel Dzama, Dave Eggers, and Art Spiegelman; and Beck’s Song Reader, a music album that exists only as richly illustrated individual pieces of sheet music.
McSweeney’s other book imprints include McSweeney’s Rectangulars; Believer Books, collecting writing from the magazine’s contributors; McSweeney’s McMullens, which publishes books for young children and young adults; Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustices around the world; Collins Library, reprints of forgotten classics edited by Paul Collins; McSweeney’s Poetry Series; and McSweeney’s Insatiables, a food and cooking imprint.
Hope Johnston is an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Baylor University. She received a grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment to study “Owner Markings in Early Printed Chaucer Editions” at the Ransom Center and shares some of her findings below. The Ransom Center celebrates the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014-2015.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s early and enduring fascination among English readers has become a source of interest in itself among modern critics. The Harry Ransom Center is home to one of the largest collections of early printed Chaucer editions in the world. While other major collections might have 8 or 12, the Ransom Center has 36 copies of these extremely rare books. A grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment made it possible to study notes added to them by generations of readers since the time of their publication.
Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) grew up in a well-to-do merchant family. The macabre silver lining for those who survived the Black Death, which killed more than 30 percent of England’s population between 1348 and 1350, was the inheritance of wealth from lost family members and increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Chaucer is an example of this: he became a retainer in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster, which led in turn to service as a royal administrator. He pursued his career as a writer at the same time, and he gently pokes fun at himself in the House of Fame for being the medieval equivalent of a geek. He describes how he would spend his days poring over records at the custom house, then, “Instead of reste and newe thynges thou goost hom to thy hous anoon, and also domb as any stoon, thou sittest at another book, til fully [dazed] is thy look.” His travels to Italy for the king benefitted his literary career as he became familiar with the works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. One of his last works is the one modern readers know best, the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s literary achievements received acclaim during his lifetime and high praise from his literary successors. William Caxton made the Canterbury Tales one of the first books printed in English, ca. 1477. The first collected edition of Chaucer’s Works appeared in 1532, and it was so popular that it went through six editions by the start of the seventeenth century.
Knowing who owned the books can also help researchers map the dispersal of copies from London. One of the Ransom Center Chaucers contains pages from another copy of Chaucer’s Works at Trinity College, Cambridge: both belonged to members of the extended Grenville family during the early nineteenth century, and it appears that an owner took pages from a rather raggedy Trinity College copy to replace pages missing from the book now at the Ransom Center, which is in better overall condition. Two other Ransom Center Chaucers accompanied their owners on travels abroad even before their eventual arrival in Texas. One belonged to a sixteenth-century naval explorer, Sir Robert Dudley (1574–1649), who left his wife and daughters to elope with a younger woman to Florence, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life. “J. Abdy,” an Englishman traveling the Continent in 1650, acquired Dudley’s 1602 Chaucer edition and brought it back to England. Another copy of the Canterbury Tales, from the 1687 edition of Chaucer’s Works, accompanied Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), a nineteenth-century explorer, on a two-year trek through the Saharan Desert. Chaucer’s pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury, but all of the books in Texas have traveled much farther, and every book has a story about its journey from the Renaissance to the present day.
What can the surviving copies tell us about the reading habits of early owners? First, we have proof that Chaucer’s sixteenth-century audience included women as well as men based on the names of female readers inscribed in the books. Dedications also provide glimpses of the personal lives of the readers, such as the romantic promise made by Peter Wood when he gave his book as a gift: “Take in good worth from him that gives this present and his heart to you while he lives. Esteem not the gift after its value, but regard the goodwill of the giver, not as I now would but as I now may, to command him both night and day—Said Peter Woodde.” Expressions of affection accompany severalof the books as they were passed along: “to my welbeloved brothers,” and another “to my loving frind Carls.” There is even a polite thank you note in one of the Ransom Center Chaucers: “Master George Manning, I thank you for your book. Mary Buckmore.”
Annotations also provide insights into the reasons why readers enjoyed Chaucer’s writing. One early owner of a book at the Ransom Center notes with satisfaction how Criseyde is laid low and cursed by the gods in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid: “A just rewared for untrothe,” the comment observes. Another reader takes delight in Chaucer’s caustic depiction of corrupt religious officials, writing the following under the woodcut of the Pardoner: “Chaucer in this prologue (as in diverse other places) very excellently describes the great craft and abominable deceit of all the popish prelates, varnished over with a fair face and color of feigned religion and false pretended holiness.” In another book, the margins are so full of phrases copied by hand from the printed text that the effect is similar to the overzealous use of a highlighter in a modern textbook: the reader has copied so many phrases that none of them truly stand out.
“Father Chaucer” was seen as a source of wisdom for Renaissance book owners, and it comes as no surprise that readers would choose to add favorite sayings from other sources to their copies of Chaucer’s Works. One writes, “Give me that worthy whose true judgment can distinguish ‘twixt the ill and honest man, and not be swayed by others…” Another book declares (rather disingenuously) that the owner will not pass judgment on lazy individuals:
he that may thryue and wyllnot
and his maysters commaundement fullfylnot
ffor to be hys Iuge I wyllnot
and he neuer thryue that skyllnot
Be me katerynne leke
He that may thrive and will not,
And his master’s commandment fulfill not,
To be his judge I will not
And he never thrive that skill [has] naught.
By me Katherynne Leke
A more serious contemplation can be found in another book, where Thomas Churchar expresses concern about being judged by unjust standards: “Though of the sort there be that feign and cloak their craft to serve their turn, shall I alas that truly mean for their offense thus guiltless burn; and if I buy their fault so dear that their untruth thus heat my fire, then have I wrong?” The vehemence of religious persecution meant that words could lead to spiritual and physical danger; wisdom could be a subjective matter. Comments by Catholics and Protestants show how they found echoes of their own Christian faith in his religious writings.
The Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Chaucer editions shows how the medieval poet continued to speak to readers through the centuries, and through owner markings, we can still hear the voices of early readers today.
Novelist Bernard Malamud was one of the most significant Jewish American writers of the twentieth century, and this year, to honor and celebrate his life and work, The Library of America has released two collections of Malamud’s fiction: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50sand Novels and Stories of the 1960s. A third collection is forthcoming.
Born in Brooklyn on April 26, 1914, to Russian Jewish immigrants, Malamud earned his Master’s degree from Columbia University and taught writing at Oregon State University and Bennington College. His first novel, The Natural (1952), was adapted into a film starring Robert Redford in 1984. His fourth novel, The Fixer,won both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize in 1966. Malamud also published a total of six other novels and 65 short stories throughout his career.
Malamud’s archive includes correspondence, articles, essays, notebooks, manuscripts, interviews, and more.
Stephen Graham was a British traveler and writer largely responsible for shaping British and American perceptions of Russia in the early twentieth century. He later traveled throughout Europe and North America, writing many novels and biographies that established him as an important author during his lifetime. Graham’s work, however, is little known among readers today.
In his recent biography, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham, Michael Hughes re-establishes Graham as a significant literary and cultural figure.
While researching, Hughes drew from the Ransom Center’s collection of Graham’s archival materials, which includes manuscripts and letters from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Zona Gale, and Ernest Hemingway. Below, Hughes discusses Graham’s personal life and public contributions.
Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham is now available to be ordered or read for free through Open Book Publishers.
In your introduction, you write, “The writing of a ‘Life’ is, it goes without saying, an intensely personal process.” What does your biography reveal about Graham beyond the persona presented through his texts?
When you read Graham’s books today—particularly his early travel books about Russia—they often seem intensely personal. Graham’s autobiography, which he published when he was 80, also seems to be very candid and open in tone. In reality, though, Graham was careful to manage the way he presented himself to his readers. When writing about Russia he described at length his love of the Russian Orthodox Church—its liturgies and its architecture—but he said little about his interest in Theosophy (which greatly influenced his views when he was a young man). He said nothing about his unusual family background—his father was a well-known journalist who abandoned his wife and children to establish a second family but without ever divorcing his first wife. Nor did Graham acknowledge that for the last 25 years of his first marriage he was living with another woman. In a sense, these are private matters, but they did greatly influence his own view of the world. Graham suffered a kind of emotional crisis in the 1920s when his parents died and his marriage collapsed, which led him to reassess many of his earlier ideas. He increasingly abandoned his belief that the world was a ‘miraculous place’—his phrase—and spent more time writing biographies and novels. It was only towards the end of his life that he once again began to return to the ideas of his youth.
Your biography largely draws from Graham’s personal papers and archive, including materials at the Harry Ransom Center. Which materials at the Ransom Center did you find most interesting? What insight did they offer?
The biggest “find” I had at the Ransom Center was an unpublished book written by Graham when he was a young man. He called it Ygdrasil—the name of the great ash tree that in Norse mythology connects the different worlds—and it served as a metaphor for Graham’s conviction that the material world was only a kind of emanation of something more profound. When he went to Russia, he convinced himself that the country was a kind of liminal zone, that is a place where the sacred ran through the mundane. Finding Ygdrasil showed me how greatly Graham was influenced by the ideas of nineteenth-century German Romanticism—admittedly filtered through the pen of Thomas Carlyle. The Center’s collection also contains many letters to and from Graham that helped me to piece together the chronology of his life and the various influences on him. The collections at the Ransom Center allowed me to understand better what Graham was actually trying to do in his books.
Graham extensively documented and reflected on his travels through Russia, and his written works ultimately influenced the United States’ and Great Britain’s opinions on the country. How did Graham portray Russia through his books and articles? What unique perspective did he offer?
Graham’s Russia was a fantasy world. Although he was skilled at writing sketches of everyday scenes, the Russia he saw (or thought he saw) was a place spared the ravages of industrialization and urbanization. Graham was realistic enough to know that the country was changing, but he still believed that Russia offered a kind of “seed of hope,” a place where everyday life was free from the banalities of western civilization. He was not alone. In the years before 1914, both in the USA and Britain, there was a huge growth of interest in Russian culture. Translations of the great nineteenth-century novelists were popular, whilst the Ballets Russes attracted large audiences when it toured the capitals of Western Europe. Many people in the West appeared to see in Russia a place of beguiling difference, an exotic country with a culture richer and more vibrant than anything that existed elsewhere. This was something of a fantasy of course—but a fantasy that was widespread. Graham’s books played an important role on both sides of the Atlantic in shaping the image of Russia as a place with a unique “soul.”
In your book, you aim to reintroduce Graham as a significant literary figure of the twentieth century. What were the writer’s greatest contributions to British and American culture?
Graham originally intended his 1964 autobiography to be less an account of his life and more a memoir of the numerous people he had known from the literary and political worlds. One of the ironies of Graham’s life is that he was often closest to writers who have since rather fallen into obscurity (in many cases rather unjustly). He was a good friend of the poet Vachel Lindsay and knew a number of other people involved in the Chicago literary renaissance of the inter-war period. He served as a kind of mentor to the author Wilfrid Ewart, author of The Way of Revelation, which is in my view of the best novels to come out of the First World War. He also helped the young poet and writer John Gawsworth launch his literary career. (Gawsworth himself became an important figure in British literary life and was a friend of numerous writers, ranging from Lawrence Durrell to M. P. Shiel.) I should say, though, that some people despised Graham’s brand of what Rebecca West called his “mechanical” mysticism. I think Graham’s career reminds us that literary life in both Britain and America was, in the twentieth century, not only about the peaks—the “great writers” whose memory survives today—but instead consisted of a far more complex milieu of writers, critics, and journalists. It’s probably worth adding that, in more recent times, Graham is often best-remembered by environmentalists and scholars interested in landscape. Annie Dillard mentions him in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. The British writer Robert Macfarlane, whose books about walking and mountaineering have been very popular, also writes warmly of Graham. In fact—and despite the fact that I am a Russian specialist by profession—I first came to know Graham through his books about walking. His 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping is still popular with many walkers today.
Explore Michael Hughes’s blog about Stephen Graham
Listen to Michael Hughes’s lecture on Stephen Graham through the Anglo-Russian Research Network blog
See Stephen Graham’s signature on the Ransom Center’s Greenwich Village Bookshop door.
Tomorrow, May 15, the Ransom Center will screen All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), the second film of the World War I Film Series, held in conjunction with the current exhibition, The World at War, 1914–1918. The film will be shown in the Ransom Center’s theater at 7 p.m.
All Quiet on the Western Front, an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 bestselling novel, tells the story of Paul Baümer, a young German soldier who—under tremendous pressure from his war-enthused village—enlists in the German Army and serves on the battlefields of France and Belgium, where he suffers the demoralizing conditions of trench warfare and is wounded in battle. Remarque’s novel is often cited as a landmark in the history of post-WWI disillusionment; its success caused the book market to be flooded with war memoirs and novels written by veterans, many of whom expressed anger and resentment toward former military leaders and insensitive civilians. The 1930 film adaptation of the story was every bit as controversial as the book—which was censored and banned both for its “filth” and its anti-war sentiment. The production and reception history of the film quickly established it as one of the most far-reaching and provocative movies ever made about the experiences of men in battle.
Though the public controversy surrounding Remarque’s book certainly made for a precarious film adaptation project, the international success of the novel prompted Universal Pictures to buy the production rights on Armistice Day in 1929. Though many at Universal feared that Remarque’s bleak story of war and its horrors would not appeal to audiences a decade after the war’s end, Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle, himself a committed pacifist, insisted on the creation of the film. After much in-house dithering, Universal selected Lewis Milestone, a Russian-born immigrant who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1919, to direct the film. Milestone had served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during the First World War, where he had produced army film footage. The original screenplay was edited by a team that included Maxwell Anderson, the author of the WWI stage play What Price Glory?, which had been released as a silent film in 1924 and would later be remade under the direction of John Huston in 1952. Future famed director George Cukor, in his first Hollywood job, was the uncredited dialog director of All Quiet on the Western Front.
Milestone and his team had grave difficulty deciding on the cast; more than 200 screen tests were given to a wide variety of actors and actresses. Milestone had the most trouble choosing an actor to play Paul Baümer: should the lead be a known star or an unknown talent, presenting the “everyman” aspect of an infantry soldier? Milestone considered Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Johnny Harron, and even Erich Maria Remarque himself before settling on the virtually unknown Lew Ayres, whom he came across while looking at screen tests Cukor had discarded.
The role of Paul Baümer would become definitive in Ayres’s life and career. While working on the film, Ayres became a dedicated pacifist; years later, when the draft was introduced for World War II, Ayres announced himself a conscientious objector. His decision provoked the ire of Hollywood, and Ayres was blacklisted by many Hollywood producers during wartime.
Milestone was dedicated to creating realistic battle scenes for the film: Universal dramatically exceeded its budget on the movie—in all spending nearly $1.5 million on the film, four times more than its initial projection. Milestone created a large-scale reconstruction of a First World War battlefield in Balboa, California, complete with trenches, barbed wire, and a No Man’s Land. A special crane was imported for the camera, and authentic uniforms were imported from France and Germany. Ex-German Army officers were hired to drill the actors.
The elaborate sets and nuanced acting of the film brought wide acclaim in America and Britain when it was released in 1930: Variety called it a “harrowing, gruesome, morbid tale of war, so compelling in its realism, bigness and repulsiveness. . . .Nothing passed up for the niceties; nothing glossed over for the women.” The film won the year’s Academy Awards both for best film and best direction.
Such accolades did not extend across Europe, however, where many countries objected to the film for its blatant anti-militarist stance, its graphic nature, and its depiction of the former Central Powers. The film was banned in Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. It incited angry demonstrations in Austria. France did not ban the film but censored a scene in which German soldiers spend the night with French women of questionable morals.
As may be expected, the film received the most incendiary reactions in Germany. Though Universal prepared a specially dubbed version of the film, edited by Remarque himself (who cut many of the more overt depictions of German militarism), it caused riots in German theaters. Joseph Goebbels publicly denounced the film, and the leading Nazi newspaper called it “a Jewish lie.” Five days after premiering in Berlin, All Quieton the Western Front was suppressed by Germany’s Supreme Film Censorship Board. Reels of the film, as well as copies of the book, were publicly burned.
Only after several decades would All Quiet appear in full in Germany. In 1984, a dubbed reconstruction of the original cut of the film was broadcast on television in West Germany for the first time and to great success. Nearly 11 million viewers watched the film. The restoration of the film for public view embraced an irony appropriate for a story that criticizes bureaucracy and high command: one of the prints used for the restoration had come from the private collection of noted cinephile and censor Joseph Goebbels, who in the 1930s had burned as many reels of the film as he could, save for his own.
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Sebastian Barry, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has written a new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, the latest of six distinct yet related books based on the characters and events of Barry’s own family.
The Irish poet, novelist, and playwright is the author of the critically acclaimed play The Steward of Chirstendom (1995) and the novel A Long Long Way, which was a finalist for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. His first novel, Macker’s Garden, was published in 1982, two years before he attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a Fellow at the International Writing Program.
The Temporary Gentleman is written from the perspective of an Irishman living in Accra, Ghana, in 1957 as he urgently reflects on his life and work. The novel explores its narrator’s past serving in World War II, working as an engineer and UN observer, and struggling to maintain his marriage.
Barry visited the Harry Ransom Center in 2006 to meet with archivists about his then-recently acquired papers. The collection includes drafts of the writer’s published and unpublished works as well as manuscripts, letters, and more.
To celebrate the release of The Temporary Gentleman, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Barry’s previous novel, The Secret Scripture (2008). To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Sebastian Barry” in the subject line. All tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified tomorrow, May 14. [Update: This giveaway is closed, and the winner has been notified.]
Writer, documentarian, and Londoner Iain Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has written a new book, American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light. Sinclair visited The University of Texas at Austin in 2010 while preparing for his previous project, Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (2012).
American Smoke records Sinclair’s personal pilgrimage from Great Britain to the United States, the home of his literary heroes of the Beat Generation. Travelling from Hackney, London, to Gloucester, Massachusetts, the writer hoped to discover and understand the spirit of the poets and novelists who inspired his youth: Charles Olson, Garry Snyder, William Boroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Dylan Thomas, to name a few.
The story opens with the writer’s identification of time, place, and emotion: “It was the season of autumn ghosts, a dampness in the soul. 2011 and London had lost its savour. A good step beyond midway through my dark wood of the world, I came to America, hoping to reconnect with the heroes of my youth. The largest, the most light-occulting of all the giants, that earlier race, was Charles Olson: poet, scholar, and last rector of Black Mountain College.”
The scope of American Smoke extends beyond Charles Olson and Sinclair himself. Not only a memoir of his journey in the United States, the book is also a portrait of a former generation of Americans and an exploration of their legacy today.
To celebrate the release of American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light, the Ransom Center will be giving away a signed copy of Sinclair’s book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire: A Confidential Report. To be eligible to win, tweet a link to this blog post and mention @ransomcenter. If you’re not on Twitter, send an email to hrcgiveaway(at)gmail.com with “Iain Sinclair” in the subject line. All Tweets and emails must be sent by midnight CST tonight, and winners will be drawn and notified tomorrow, May 2 [Update: The winner has been chosen and notified.]
James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, discusses Shakespeare in America at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 1, at the Harry Ransom Center. A reception and book signing follow, and books will be available for sale.
Shapiro’s newest work, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, explores Shakespeare’s role in American culture. The anthology, published by the Library of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, comprises 71 pieces from American poets, politicians, essayists, novelists, and more. It includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Cole Porter, Isaac Asimov, and James Agee.
The anthology aims to show that, although America declared its independence from Great Britain, Americans have adapted Shakespeare for use in cultural expression. In a recent interview, Shapiro said, “American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity.” The full interview may be viewed in the above video.
The Ransom Center holds three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and several quarto editions of the plays, along with prompt books, costume designs, and many other materials relating to productions of the plays from the eighteenth century to the modern era.
Diane Johnson’s dynamic career has encompassed a wide variety of genres, settings, and subjects. As a biographer, she has explored the lives of Mary Ellen Peacock and Dashiell Hammett. As a novelist, she has been named a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. She also co-authored the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. This year, Johnson has released her first memoir, Flyover Lives.
Johnson’s books are celebrated for their exploration of time and space and her characters for their curiosity and wit. Similarly, in Flyover Lives, Johnson discusses her roots in the American Midwest and her eventual escape to New York, California, and ultimately, Europe. The memoir provides her readers a deeper understanding of her own life and work through the exploration of her ancestry, her childhood, and herself as both mother and writer.
Johnson’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and contains drafts and production materials of her novels in addition to book reviews, essays, correspondence, and a variety of personal papers.
Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence: “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.
Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian). The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf: “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.
The same compassion is palpablein Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s NewCriterion in 1926. In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.
Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.” Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.
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