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World War II-era Armed Services Editions boosted troop morale and fostered a new generation of readers

By Richard Oram

The book, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, celebrates the importance of the Armed Services Editions. Published between 1943 and 1947, these inexpensive paperback editions were given to servicemen on the frontlines. As Manning points out, not only did the editions achieve their principal purpose of raising morale, they encouraged a whole generation of readers who retained their appetite for reading when they returned home. Possibly a few stopped bullets or shrapnel. It’s necessary to remember that the cheap paperback edition was still a novelty at the beginning of the war, having been pioneered by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany during the 1930s.

 

Armed Services Editions were made possible by a group of publishers called the Council of Books in Wartime. This group collaborated by eliminating royalty payments and arranging for the production and distribution of paperbacks in the most inexpensive possible formats. The Ransom Center has a couple of connections with these books. Although there are larger collections at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress, we own more than 1,400 of the books, most of them shelved together as a discrete collection in the stacks, while some are kept with other editions of our major authors, such as John Steinbeck. Because they were printed on poor-quality wartime paper that is now brittle and brown, each is protected in a simple acid-free enclosure, invented by the Center’s Conservation department in the 1980s, and called a “tuxedo case.” Students of publishing history can use the collection to study which books were most successful (Manning concludes that books with a touch of nostalgia or sex were particularly popular with soldiers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the best-selling titles, even though it was considered a flop when first published in hardback during the 1920s). The books were generally published in an oblong format, with the cover notation “This is the complete book—not a digest.” In all, some 125 million copies were produced.

 

Among the founding members of the Council of Books in Wartime was Alfred A. Knopf, the eminent literary publisher (the massive Knopf, Inc. archive is here at the Center). Ironically, Knopf was famous for encouraging high production values in his own trade books, but he immediately recognized the importance of encouraging reading and raising morale and contributed a number of series titles by familiar authors in the Knopf stable, including thrillers by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and more literary works by Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset.

 

In the postwar era, a number of paperback reprint publishers capitalized on increased demand for books, the availability of new outlets for cheap editions, such as chain department stores and drugstores, and Americans’ newly enhanced disposable income. Pocket Books debuted in 1939 and became well known after the war for its lurid covers, which, as Louis Menand points out in an illustrated recent New Yorker piece, graced not only the unabashed pulp of Mickey Spillane but also higher-toned works by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Ballantine and Bantam editions flourished, and the era of the mass market paperback had arrived. Nearly every prominent American hardback publisher developed a line of paperback books. Oddly, Knopf, Inc. was a holdout, arriving late to the game with Vintage Books in 1956.  But it was the Armed Services Editions that gave the American paperback its big push.

 

Related content:

Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

New book sheds some light on “The House of Knopf”

“Publishing isn’t just about contacts; it’s equally a matter of human relationships”

 

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Meet the Staff: Heather Hamilton, Head of Paper Conservation

By Marlene Renz

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Master of Arts from Buffalo State College with a Certificate of Advanced Study in Art Conservation and Paper Conservation. She joined the Harry Ransom Center after working as a Special Collections Conservator at the Harvard College Library.

 

How did you decide to become a paper conservator?

When I was an undergraduate, I got a job at Harvard working in the conservation department doing some very entry-level work. That was where I saw the book conservators’ work and thought it was so interesting. A colleague recommended the North Bennet Street School, which has a full-time, two-year training program in which they teach the traditional methods of book binding. After I finished that program, I started as a technician in book conservation, which was when I decided to take it further and go back to graduate school to study paper conservation.

 

What is one aspect of your job that people would find surprising?

They might be surprised at the decision-making part of my job. People expect that when they come into a conservation lab, they are automatically going to see people working at a microscope, working with their hands, and working with their tools. While that certainly is a big part of what we do, conservation is about managing collections and having an understanding for the Ransom Center’s collections as a whole. We need to make sure that the hours we can sit down and work closely are allocated properly. The decisions are often made on a collection-wide level, rather than on an item level. Conservation is broader than what people expect because it is also related to preservation of collections, environmental monitoring of collections, and making sure that damage doesn’t happen in the first place.

 

Do you have a preference between hands-on work and decision-making?

I think just about any conservator would have to say that their favorite thing is to sit down at the bench with tools and actually have their hands on the items. That is the most fun part of the job, but the longer I’ve been in the field, the more I’ve learned to see the value of the administrative side. We have a large collection at the Ransom Center and we can treat only so many items in a year. So a lot of attention has to be put on which items should be treated now. I need to know what the most important item for me to be working on today is because I can work on only one item at a time.

 

Is there a specific item that you felt was particularly rewarding to work?

Items that I recently treated for the upcoming Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition were challenging—toy film strips called “Movie Jecktors.” While it is a paper object, it is a strip of paper that is wound onto a wooden dowel. It was very fragile and needed quite a bit of repair. It has been one of the most fun objects I’ve treated and so interesting because the paper was similar to tracing paper, and the transparency made it challenging to treat.

 

Do you have a preference between reading books electronically or tangibly?

I think about that question every time I read. I do both. I read a lot on my iPhone, but then I’ll read paper books as well. I can tell that the convenience of electronic readers is undeniable and that there is nothing we can do to reverse it. We need the convenience of having a library on our device. I’m at peace with this change because I recognize it as the nature of books to become this. But at the same time, people still love paper books. And just about anyone you talk to about reading will say that they love to be able to turn the pages in a book. I still think that reading a paper book is a lot more comfortable for my eyes, and I’m even more comfortable holding it. So, I use both, and I feel good about both.

 

What book is on your nightstand or iPhone right now?

Hard Choices by Hilary Clinton. I checked out the hardcopy from the library a couple of weeks ago, and I’m just starting it.

 

Do you have a favorite place in Austin?

I’m a big fan of Zilker Park because of the idea that you can see all of Austin in one place enjoying Zilker for free on a Sunday afternoon. I guess I consider Zilker to be Austin. Also, I love to go to all of the different Mexican food places. I recently moved to South Austin, and I’m learning a lot more about Austin food just by being in the thick of it.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

Take my daughter to Zilker Park. That does take up quite a bit of my free time, but I also have an interest in artists’ books, book making, and print making. I try to work on those and take printmaking and book-making classes when I can. I’m a member of the Women Printmakers of Austin. I’m also a knitter and a sewer.

 

Have you made your own book before?

Before I went to graduate school, I studied book binding at North Bennet Street School, and during that two-year period, I made historical book models all the time. The books that I am making now fit more in the category of artists’ books, which are more like artwork. Imagine a book almost like a sculpture where the book itself is a piece of artwork and might have unusual formats or something like that. I’ve been trying to combine bookbinding and printmaking into one process of book-making, though my projects have been quite simple because the printmaking is so new to me. I really enjoy it.

 

Have you brought your daughter to the Ransom Center or any of its exhibits before?

Not yet. I am bringing her to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland this spring.

 

Related content:

World War I Red Cross poster undergoes conservation treatment for exhibition

Conservation team brings large map to larger audiences

Read other Meet the Staff profiles

 

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Gerald W. Cloud named as Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts

By Jennifer Tisdale

Gerald Cloud. Photo by Alexis Catnooks.
Gerald Cloud. Photo by Alexis Catnooks.

The Harry Ransom Center announces the appointment of Gerald W. Cloud as its Carl and Lily Pforzheimer Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts.

Cloud will be responsible for overseeing the Ransom Center’s extensive holdings of early books and manuscripts, including promoting access to, and use of, the collections and interpreting them for varied audiences. The Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer Library of English Literature is one of the cornerstones of the Center’s early books and manuscripts collections.

Prior to joining the Ransom Center, Cloud served as head librarian at UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, curator of literature at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and most recently as an antiquarian bookseller at James Cummins Bookseller.

“Gerald’s professional experiences—academic teaching, collection development, knowledge of the antiquarian book trade, scholarship in bibliography and the history of the book—will be invaluable to the Ransom Center and its patrons,” said Steve Enniss, Director of the Harry Ransom Center.

Cloud will support researchers working with the Ransom Center’s early book and manuscripts collections and collaborate with colleagues to promote enhanced access to collections, including digital initiatives and exhibitions. He’ll also work closely with the Center’s conservation department on setting treatment priorities for collection materials as well as expanding and strengthening the Pforzheimer Library.

“I look forward to raising the profile of the Ransom Center’s collections and invigorating use for original research with scholars, students, faculty and others,” said Cloud.

Holdings within the Pforzheimer Library include the plays, poems, novels, essays, polemical writings, and translations of some of the most important English writers from 1475 to 1700. All major writers (William Caxton, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, John Donne, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Dryden, and William Congreve, among many others) are represented by first and important editions. The Pforzheimer books are supplemented by 2,000 manuscript items.

Cloud begins his position on January 12, 2015.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: Mystery Solved at the Harry Ransom Center

By Natalie Zelt

As a graduate intern, I have the opportunity to respond to a variety of research queries about the collections. Recently, I helped solve a mystery laid by two differing editions of John le Carré’s 1974 thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Le Carré’s biographer, Adam Sisman, was trying to get to the bottom of a story he had once heard about a difference between the first edition of the novel in the United States and in England.

 

According to Sisman, just before Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was about to be published, David Cornwall (alias John le Carré) had been travelling in Laos and Cambodia with Washington Post journalist David Greenway, and Cornwall had asked Greenway to look through the segments of the novel set in Hong Kong.

 

Early in the novel, Ricki Tarr describes to George Smiley his anxiety after Irina has failed to appear at a rendezvous: on a hunch he had decided to go down to the airport. “I took the Star Ferry, hired a cab, and told the driver to go like hell. It got like a panic,” Tarr tells Smiley. The airport was then in Kowloon, across the water from Hong Kong Island.

 

After reading this passage, Greenway asked Cornwall, “Does this novel take place in the present?”

 

“Yes, why?”

 

“So if he’s so anxious to get to the airport quickly, why doesn’t he just jump in a cab and go through the tunnel?” (The Cross Harbor Tunnel linking Hong Kong Island to Kowloon, the location of the airport, had opened in 1972.)

 

“Oh, God!”

 

As soon as they reached Bangkok, Cornwall contacted his publishers, and though the American edition had already gone to press, it was not too late to change the passage in the British edition.

The Ransom Center has the first British edition and the first American edition. True to Le Carré’s enigmatic style, Sisman asked me to check the “the fourth sentence of the penultimate paragraph of Chapter 7” in both.

 

Being that it was a spy novel, I was a little nervous about what I would find, but Sisman was right. The American edition mentions the ferry; the British does not. It was a bit of an added thrill to be able to trace the movements of a spy in two different editions.

 

Adam Sisman’s John Le Carré: The Biography will be published by HarperCollins in the United States and by Bloomsbury in the United Kingdom next fall.

 

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Q&A: Film critic Molly Haskell discusses “Gone With The Wind”

By Sarah Strohl

Molly Haskell, film critic and author of Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, explores the popularity and influence of both the book and film, from their first appearance to the present on Wednesday, November 19, at 7 p.m. The program, which is held in conjunction with the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, will be webcast live.

 

In her book Frankly, My Dear, Haskell explores how and why the saga of Scarlett O’Hara has kept such a tenacious hold on the national imagination for almost 75 years. In the first book ever to deal simultaneously with Margaret Mitchell’s novel and David O. Selznick’s film version of Gone with the Wind, Haskell seeks the answers. By all industry predictions, the film should never have worked, but Haskell argues that what makes it work so amazingly well are the fascinating and uncompromising personalities involved of Mitchell, Selznick, and Vivien Leigh.

 

Below, Haskell answers questions about her own experiences with Gone With The Wind, her take on Scarlett O’Hara’s legacy, and more.

 

You talk about how the popularity of Gone With The Wind might have diminished its reputation in the eyes of critics: “According to the stern moral axiom that a film can’t be both great and popular, our affection for it is almost a mark in its disfavor.” (pg. 34) Why do you think this is, and do you think this rings true for films today?

​I think it’s still true. Gone With The Wind was, in a way, the first blockbuster, though Jaws is the one with which we associate the current use of the term, and it was followed by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Wars—the latter almost in a class by itself. Then there are more Spielberg and Lucas mega-hits—the Indiana Jones films and Jurassic Park cum sequels. None of these is taken seriously, though I think standards have shifted somewhat, and the distinction between high culture and popular culture is far less rigid than it once was.

 

You describe reading or seeing Gone With The Wind for the first time as a “formative experience.” Do you remember where you first experienced Gone With The Wind?

​If you mean the movie, I can’t pinpoint the date. I read the book when I was about 12 or 13, swallowing it whole overnight. By the time I saw the film, I was a little more ambivalent about Scarlett: she was gutsy, courageous, ambitious, indecorous (all pluses to my way of thinking), but she was also a Southern belle, something I very much didn’t want to be. Except just a little!​

 

You noted certain parallels between Margaret Mitchell and Scarlett O’Hara. To what extent do you think Mitchell wrote herself into the role of the protagonist?

​I think she thought she was creating Scarlett in the image of her grandmother, a powerhouse of a lady (as were the war widows and survivors of her generation, in Mitchell’s eyes). But so much of the flapper-micshief-maker-tomboy Peggy Mitchell went into the role, and with such ​galvanic force, that she became the heroine almost in spite of her author.​

 

 

When Gone With The Wind emerged, girls and young women everywhere fell in love with Scarlett as a role model for passion and independence. Do you think Scarlett is relevant to young women today?

​Definitely if viewers are able to see beyond the Southern manners, the period trappings, and the always troubling treatment of slavery and the blacks. Scarlett has so many modern offspring, women who have been liberated by feminism (and women’s suffrage, for which Mitchell’s mother fought), without necessarily acknowledging it: Madonna, Lady Gaga, even the Sex and the City babes and Girls!.​

 

 

When casting Scarlett, Selznick reviewed more than 1,400 candidates over two years and spent $92,000 before settling on Vivien Leigh for the role. Can you describe the level of desire and competition for girls who were dying to be Scarlett?

​It was not just the great role of 1939, it was the role of a lifetime. Actresses who were completely wrong for it, like Katharine Hepburn, campaigned. Stars who hadn’t auditioned in years auditioned for it, while others covertly let it be known that they ​were available. Selznick scoured the South. Women wrote to Mitchell begging her to intercede for them. The “quest” stoked stories and filled fan magazines, until it seemed as if everyone in the country had weighed in one way or another. And not just as to the role of Scarlett, but Rhett Butler, too. Though that was practically unanimous: Clark Gable.

 

Do you think there are any actresses today who could come close to Leigh’s performance?

​It’s hard to say, since we no longer have the studio system grooming stars, and no longer want or expect the particular kind of glamor that those stars radiated. It’s such a different game, and each era’s definition of what’s convincing and “real” in acting changes radically. This is a good thing, I think. Who would want to recreate that unique experience? When people try, as in remakes, it usually fails.

 

Related content:

View blog content related to Gone With The Wind

 

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Image: Cover of Molly Haskell’s Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited.

National Book Award finalist Jayne Anne Phillips discusses writing process and historical inspiration for her novel “Quiet Dell”

By Alicia Dietrich

On Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m., novelist Jayne Anne Phillips reads from Quiet Dell, a novel based on the true story of a murderous West Virginia con man who preyed on widows, in a Harry Ransom Lecture. A reception and book signing follow. View a trailer for the book.

 

Stephen King said of Quiet Dell: “In a brilliant fusion of fact and fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips has written the novel of the year. It’s the story of a 1931 serial killer’s crime and capture, yes, but it’s also a compulsively readable story of how one brave woman faces up to acts of terrible violence in order to create something good and strong in the aftermath. Quiet Dell will be compared to In Cold Blood, but Phillips offers soothing Capote could not: a heroine who lights up the dark places and gives us hope in our humanity.”

 

Phillips, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, is the author of Lark and Termite, a National Book Award finalist. Known for her poetic prose and in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

 

Below, Phillips discusses the inspiration behind her novel Quiet Dell, her archival research for the book, her writing process, and her own archive.

 

Your work often seems to draw upon your own family history for inspiration. The murders in Quiet Dell, for example, took place near your hometown in West Virginia. Can you talk about how history and family memory evolved into your novel?

My mother remembered holding her mother’s hand at age 6, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August—cars parked on either side as far as she could see—past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece-by-piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Ever after, when we drove past the hamlet, ten miles or so from my hometown, she would point out “the road to Quiet Dell.” Thousands walked past the scene in the summer and fall of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site: an unimaginable slaughter of innocents. A con-man led a double life, found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and skillfully courted them in letters for months. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, and the media spun it as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer was christened a modern Bluebeard, but the deeper story was far more complex. Quiet Dell is true to an evolving real event, but creates the world in which it happened, beginning the Christmas before the crime. I was interested in the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” in creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. For me, the tale began in 9-year-old Annabel Eicher’s voice at the magical turning of the year. Quiet Dell meets the history of a family that vanished with a counterpoint story in which that family is alive, and then alive in memory, directly influencing the lives of those who seek justice for them. The reader is endowed with a foreknowledge of event, but the fact of the event touches only the surface of its effects.

 

Can you tell us about the archival research you conducted with primary materials while writing Quiet Dell?

The actual names and facts of the crime seemed a Victorian fairy tale set in the ’30s: Sherriff Grimm, Judge Southern, Duty (the Eicher dog, “twice bereft,” whose photograph appeared in newspapers across the country), the Gore Hotel—and the fact that the trial took place on the stage of an Opera House before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees, left over from a previous production. The Clarksburg Harrison County Public Library allowed me to Xerox numerous pages of newsprint, and many pages of a haphazard “scrapbook” on the crime assembled by a 13-year-old boy, James Law (who grew up to own the most important bookstores in the area). I’ve always found photographs, particularly of strangers, to reveal whole dimensions of information, and I carried a small copy of the last known photo of the Eicher family in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in that image, so wary and adult, suggested her character in the novel. As I was beginning my research, a family friend who knew I was writing about the Quiet Dell crime gave me an envelope he’d found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, West Virginia. Across the front in faded pencil, it read, Piece of sound proof board used by Harry Powers during his notorious Murdering in the fall of 1931. I opened the envelope and held in my hand a thick felt square marked with a 3. As Rilke said, “Every angel is terrifying.” I came to know the woman who grew up in the Eicher home in Park Ridge, Illinois, and lives there today; the playhouse, and the mural Asta Eicher painted on the walls for her children, still exists. I gleaned hints from newspaper interviews with those who said they’d known Harry Powers under one alias or another; the statements were wildly contradictory. Not so the obituaries I was able to find online: the phrasing and tone implied specific narratives. I found the grandchildren of photographer Floyd E. Sayres through a hint in his obit; they allowed me to include his images of scenes associated with the crime, though the images are far more beautiful than the versions that appear in Quiet Dell. Letters from Powers and women who wrote to him appeared in newsprint; the trial transcript was a matter of record. These events took place nearly 85 years ago; the history was distant enough that I could use real names, yet invent the perceptions, thoughts, relationships, of the characters to tell my own “dark fairy tale.” The scant patterns of a real history, for me, cast a spell that is almost bewitching.

 

As a writer, how do you approach establishing a sense of place and time for your reader?

There is the Pound dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to guide the writer: specific physical fact infused with sensory detail. Words, in careful association, are sensual triggers for the reader; each reader brings a world of unconscious and subconscious memory to the text. Certain sense memories, smells, sounds, can connect us to pasts we did not experience. Readers have said to me, “When I read your work, I don’t feel as though I’m reading a story; I feel I’m inside the story.” Another said, of Termite (from Lark And Termite), “You make us want to be him.” Every art is a form of alchemy: transforming one element into another, widening, deepening, until one world connects to worlds before and beyond it. Literature is a crafted seduction in which the reader actively participates.

 

Can you tell us about your writing process? (For example, do you write on a laptop or desktop? Do you have an office or studio space dedicated to writing? Do you write during certain hours of the day? How do you go about revising your work?)

I began writing as a poet, and I continue to compose line by line, slowly, aware of the music and stress of the syllables in the lines. I write both by hand and on the computer (laptops and desktops, since I live in three cities), and print out every page, not only because I distrust machines, but because I revise on paper. I write in the daytime, never at night, in front of a window. I often work on longer projects in the summers, when I’m not engaged in my labor-intensive day job. Editing, teaching, discussing literature, advocating for talented students, is far too compelling.

 

Your archive is now open and accessible to researchers. What do you hope people will be able to learn from your papers and work?

Those spiral notebooks in which I composed my early stories seem to belong to another universe I once inhabited, while the archive of the present, boxes of more recent drafts, artifacts, lists, and correspondence, piles up around me. Access to an archive, not in a writer’s rooms but in a neutral, sacred space, the clean well-lighted place that is the Ransom Center, is a privilege, an intimate investigation. Touching actual pages, photographs, letters, comparing small and large changes from one draft to another, takes the reader inside the books, into the works themselves. It’s delicious.

 

You are the director of the Rutgers University- Newark MFA program. How does teaching influence your writing, and how do your experiences as a writer shape how you teach?

I don’t think teaching influences my writing, except to intensify the pressure of not writing—a tool I have always used, pre-dating teaching. Part of writing is the yearning toward what is still unseen and unknown. For me, ideas, rumination, research, are not the true thing; they only swirl around it. A book begins with language: a line of prose, a paragraph. The book is inside those words and the long struggle is to deepen and sustain what is genuine. I suppose I teach that one’s relationship to writing is as complex as one’s relationship to the self: it’s endless and mysterious, full of the mundane and the celestial in shifting quantities. No writer approaches words the same way; the “why,” unique as a fingerprint, is ineffable. The writer creates meaning where none is obvious, invents the dots and connects them. We’re like practitioners of the same unrecognized religion: the process itself is the experience. It’s witchcraft and soothsaying, and hard, grinding work.

 

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Fat City, by Leonard Gardner; The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (all books I’m teaching); a galley of Colm Toibin’s new Nora Webster; HER, a memoir by Christa Parravani, and Prelude To Bruise, just-published poems by Saaed Jones (these last two both recent graduates of RU-N MFA program).

 

Related Content:
-Listen to Phillips read from Lark and Termite at the Ransom Center.

Memory as source in Jayne Anne Phillip’s Machine Dreams

View a list of books recommended by Phillips

 

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John Lahr delves into “treasure trove of Williams material” for new biography, “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh”

By Marlene Renz

Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”
Cover of John Lahr’s “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.”

John Lahr, a renowned theater critic who wrote for The New Yorker for more than two decades, took up the task of continuing to record and analyze Tennessee Williams’s life in 2007.  In Lahr’s new biography, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton), he draws upon his subject’s plays, letters, and even his own experience of meeting the writer to give readers greater insight into the complicated mind of one of America’s greatest playwrights.  His research included a 2011 visit to the Harry Ransom Center, which houses and extensive collection of  Williams’s papers, including original manuscripts.

 

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, which has been nominiated for a National Book Award, was released today.  To read more about the book and its reviews, visit John Lahr’s website.

 

In a Q&A with Cultural Compass, Lahr discusses how he stayed true to Williams by spending time with primary sources, including items in the Ransom Center’s holdings.

 

Was there a particular aspect of Williams’s life or work that you were particularly drawn to?

So much new primary source material—diaries, letters—had been published about Williams since the first biography was written, that I felt a new narrative was needed to tell the story with a deeper sense of event, and a surer knowledge of the internal issues with which Williams was struggling. Also, the plays needed to be interpreted not just recapitulated. Williams always said the plays were a map of his internal life at the time of the writing. My goal was to chart the trajectory of the mutation of Williams’s consciousness, to show how the plays reflected the man and how the man re-presented his internal turmoil in his plays. The book, which has just been shortlisted for the National Book Award, seems to have met a need for the public for a change in narrative about Williams, to see the man and his work with a new lens.

 

In this biography you sought to avoid capitalizing on the sensationalism of Williams’s public life.  How useful were primary sources in helping keep an objective perspective?

In my other biographies, I had primary sources to hand. For Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr, I had my father to depose and the experience of a lifetime of living with him; in Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, I had exclusive use of Joe Orton’s diary of the last eight months of his life as a backbone of the narrative; in Dame Edna Everage and the Rise of Western Civilization: Backstage with Barry Humphries, I was backstage with him at the Drury Lane Theatre and on the road. With Williams, my tactic was to stay as close to his words and what he wrote at the time of writing each play to get a sense of the man and to give the reader the pulse of his metabolism. His published diaries, his published letters (which only go up to 1957), and the remaining correspondence of nearly a quarter of a century to which I had access formed the primary source for my narrative. I think of this as a sort of “global positioning device” for the interpretation both of the plays and the man.

 

Do you recall if there was a particular item that you found interesting?

The Ransom Center is a treasure trove of Williams material; so it’s really impossible to say which item was more revelatory.  For me, I think the letter from his institutionalized sister Rose (“I’m trying hard not to die”) and the typing lessons which the blighted Rose, who never in the end held a job, were scorching. Miss Edwina, her mother, had her typing Puritan platitudes about the blessings of work and rigor and attainment—a regimen that finally helped to drive her crazy. And of Williams, there is a beautiful valedictory letter to his first real companion, Pancho Roderiguez, telling him in later life to walk tall in the world.

 

 

Related content:

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams interviews… Tennessee Williams

In the galleries: Tennessee Williams tinkers with his Southern image

Q and A: Playwright Tony Kushner speaks about influence of Tennessee Williams

In the galleries: The productive, but complicated, relationship between Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan

In the galleries: Stella Adler’s notes on Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie

In the Galleries: “Love and Relationships”

In the galleries: The “Ruins of a Play” evolve into “The Glass Menagerie”

In the galleries: “Girls! Girls! Girls! Did You Marry Your First ‘Gentlemen Caller’?”

 

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