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Iain Sinclair traces steps of literary heroes of the Beat Generation in new book

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.]

Shakespeare scholar explores the Bard’s role in American culture

By Gabrielle Inhofe

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.

 

Related content:

James Shapiro “unravels” Shakespeare’s life

Diane Johnson’s new memoir explores her life and work

By Jane Robbins Mize

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.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

 

Image: Cover of Diane Johnson’s memoir Flyover Lives.

Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

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 palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion 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.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Jane Austen in Austin: A Regency display on view

By Harry Ransom Center

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s most ambitious and controversial novel. To celebrate both the author and the cultural history behind this complex work, students in English Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2013 graduate seminar curated two display cases relating to Austen and her culture. Below, students Chienyn Chi, Dilara Cirit, Gray Hemstreet, Brooke Robb, Megan Snell, and Casey Sloan share some of the items displayed.

 

From family correspondence to uniquely inscribed copies of the novels, the Jane Austen items held by the Harry Ransom Center allow us a rare and intimate view of this beloved author. Georgian fashion plates, landscape illustrations, and other Regency-era artifacts further help to illuminate the culture in which Austen lived and wrote. This display can be seen during reading room hours through May 30.

 

One case contains items relevant to the world described in Mansfield Park, first advertised as published on May 9, 1814. In telling the story of the modest and physically fragile Fanny Price, Austen created a complex and challenging work that critics often contrast unfavorably with the more popular Pride and Prejudice, in which the heroine is pert and talkative. Austen herself judged Pride and Prejudice “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” In Mansfield Park, Austen alludes to the vogue for large-scale “improvements” by popular landscaper Humphry Repton, sentimental drama and theater culture, and the Royal Navy’s role in the Napoleonic Wars. Such references reveal Austen’s awareness of the large cultural concerns of her day.

 

 

Biographer mines Ransom Center’s collections to uncover “The Unknown Henry Miller”

By Alicia Dietrich

Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.

 

Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.

 

The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.

 

The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.

 

The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.

 

Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.

 

Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.

Q&A: New book explores Lord Byron’s canine companions through full-color illustrations of “man’s best friends”

By Jane Robbins Mize

“dogs! or Men! (for I flatter you in saying
That ye are dogs—your betters far)”
—“Don Juan,” Canto VII. Verses 1–2

In August, Geoffrey Bond released the full-color coffee table book, Lord Byron’s Best Friends: From Bulldogs to Boatswain & Beyond. Bond, both a Byron and Newfoundland enthusiast, currently resides at Byron’s childhood home, Burgage Manor. In his introduction, he writes, “Byron and his contemporaries are a continuing source of interest and discovery—he must surely have spawned more English Literature PhD’s than any other poet!” Yet, Bond’s book provides a unique perspective on the celebrated poet by including not only a biography of Byron himself but also an illustrated appreciation of the many canines that accompanied him throughout his career and life.

 

Below, Bond discusses his work while writing Lord Byron’s Best Friends and explains why Byron’s readers ought to, when considering the poet, appreciate both the man and the “man’s best friends.”

 

How did the Ransom Center’s Lord Byron collection enhance your knowledge and aid in your preparation for this book?

 

The Ransom Center has been extremely generous to me in allowing me to show fully illustrated for the first time and in color, Elizabeth Pigot’s unique book [The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and his Dog] created at a time when [Lord Byron] was living here with his mother in Burgage Manor, which is, of course, now my home. So enamored are we and many others of the Pigot book that we are going, this year, with the consent of the Center, to produce it as a stand-alone book for children wrapped around with some additional material. The work by Pigot shows—in a unique way—Byron’s love of animals and, of course, his first great Newfoundland, Boatswain.

 

What significance do you believe “The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and His Dog” holds in the book at large?

 

I was aware of the Pigot book and had seen the odd illustration from it from time to time but never seen it in its entirety.  To Byronists it is, of course, a very well-known piece of work and, of course, seminal in Byron’s early oeuvre when he began writing and publishing poetry while living here in the small town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire. I have written separately on the genesis of Byron’s poetry, which was not as many people think, sitting and writing at Newstead Abbey where in fact he did not spend very much time. Between 1803 and 1808 when he was at Harrow School and Trinity College Cambridge, he spent much of his holiday time here at Burgage Manor, which his mother had rented.  Byron could not go and live at Newstead Abbey until he was 21 years of age as he was what we call under English law a “Ward of Chancery.” He therefore began his writing, his juvenilia, here in Southwell and went to the nearby market town of Newark-on-Trent for Mr. Ridge to publish his first books of poetry. Elizabeth Pigot was rather like an elder sister to Byron, one of his few platonic friends, and greatly encouraged him in his writing, hence my emphasis on Southwell combined with the printing of his books in Newark being the genesis of his poetry.

 

You write in the epilogue, “I have an extensive Byron library and have read much about the poet as well as a great deal of his poetry. However, my studies of his relationships with animals, dogs in particular, have given me a greater insight into his personality and increased my understanding of the man.” What particular aspects of Byron’s character have been revealed to you throughout your research for Lord Byron’s Best Friends?

 

Nobody has ever written before specifically about Byron’s love of animals in general and dogs in particular, and what the book brings out is that Byron, as many people knew, found personal relations difficult, [that] he had a very stormy childhood, and that dogs gave Byron what he craved emotionally: undivided attention and unconditional love, far more than people had ever realized.  There have been references to Byron’s love of animals and dogs from time to time in a wide variety of publications about him, but never concentrated comment before and certainly never with illustrations.