Meet the Staff is a new Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlight the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. The series kicks off with a Q&A with Amy Armstrong, who has been an archivist at the Ransom Center since January 2009 and is head of the Archives Cataloging Unit in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Science in Information Studies degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Armstrong has processed many collections at the Ransom Center, including the papers of Sanora Babb, William Faulkner, Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, and the McSweeney’s publishing archive. She also catalogs non-commercial sound recordings in the Ransom Center’s holdings.
Tell us about any current archives you’re working with.
I’m currently processing the records of McSweeney’s publishing house, which is a dream come true. I also catalog non-commercial sound recordings, which are sort of a “hidden collection.” We have almost 14,000 recordings, [including] some amazing recordings from Erle Stanley Gardner, Norman Mailer, and Denis Johnson. I’m committed to making them easier for patrons to find and use, and if they aren’t preserved, they’ll deteriorate.
What is your favorite collection that you have processed?
I actually love all of them, but one of my favorite collections is the Sanora Babb papers. Babb was an amazing woman who had big aspirations beyond the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, where she lived in the early 1920s. After immigrating to California, she wrote a novel about Dust Bowl migrants. However, the contract for her book was cancelled, because John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was simultaneously being published. Babb was also married to cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was Japanese, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. She loved life and didn’t take it for granted.
What is your favorite thing about your work?
My responsibility as an archivist is to ensure that the materials we’ve been entrusted to preserve are made available as widely as possible for anyone to use. I get such a thrill when I know someone has come into the Reading and Viewing Room and used a collection I have processed. After all, that’s why the Ransom Center exists and why are all so committed to the work we do here.
Have you had a favorite experience processing archives?
Denis Johnson autographed a book for my husband, who is a big fan. I was so touched by his kindness and generosity. It really made my year.
What is your favorite book?
The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.
What is one of your primary interests?
Have you lived anywhere unusual?
I grew up in San Antonio and lived for three years in England when my mom worked at RAF Alconbury, an American Air Force Base.
The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. This is the final installment in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
It’s 2011. Venturing into children’s literature seems like a natural evolution for McSweeney’s. The line between McSweeney’s adult and children’s books may seem blurry to some readers. You know what I mean if you’ve ever given your child one of the “board books” in Lisa Brown’s “Baby Be Of Use” series and received a blank stare and little-to-no good response. A parent might be confused by the brightly illustrated, pictorial stories that instruct your wee little one on the method for making mommy and daddy a martini or changing the oil in the car.
Or you might relate if you’ve ever delighted in handing your fifth-grader one of the encyclopedias in the Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey series. My favorite is Your Disgusting Head. Or the fuzzy (I don’t mean warm; I mean literally fuzzy) novelization of Dave Eggers’s and Spike Jonze’s screenplay, The Wild Things, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. These aren’t really for kids, but they’re a lot of fun no matter how young at heart you may be!
McSweeney’s marketed its children and young adult book imprint with the tagline “For Kids Who Love Weird Books.” The books definitely have the McSweeney’s design aesthetic. Many feature dust jackets that unfold into posters, and one even features heat-sensitive ink. Frequent McSweeney’s collaborator Jordon Crane’s board book Keep Our Secrets includes this tip: “For best results read this book with a hairdryer.” The McSweeney’s collection came complete with a hairdryer and is certainly the only collection at the Ransom Center with such a tool. The series features not only amazing illustrations but amazing stories. S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners and the Treasure of the Drowned Man’s Canyon is the first in a series and was a Nominee for the 2014–2015 Texas Bluebonnet Award.
Since being weird is no longer a stigma, I’m anxious for my own 1-year old, Simon, to be a weird kid. You see, being different is not only OK, it’s celebrated. Everything about McSweeney’s celebrates difference. From the namesake of the company, Mr. Timothy McSweeney himself, to the experimental design of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, to publishing books like Lemon (Lawrence Krauser), Real Man Adventures (T. Cooper), It Chooses You (Miranda July), and others that bring to print stories that comfort those who’ve always felt like they’ve never “fit in.” The publishing house also shines a light on the often ignored voices captured in the Voice of Witness oral history series that highlights human rights abuses in this country and around the world.
In fact, McSweeney’s wants to help inspire the upcoming generations’ crop of McSweeney’s writers. Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s helped establish a non-profit tutoring and writing center, 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Under the umbrella organization 826 National, seven more centers have opened in Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston. Many writers and artists donate their work in support of 826 National with the proceeds of many McSweeney’s books going directly to further the work of the tutoring centers.
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 third in a four-part series highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
In 2002, Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, and Ed Park began planning a long-format magazine featuring essays, interviews, and reviews. With the assistance of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s staff, TheBeliever was launched in 2003. The same year, Andrew Leland, former intern at McSweeney’s, was offered the job of managing editor to create the second issue of The Believer magazine. Leland dropped out of Oberlin College to take the job, and he continued in the post for eight years and 75 issues. TheBeliever, easily identified by its iconic cover template designed by Eggers and illustrated with drawings by Charles Burns, has become a monthly art and culture magazine featuring content unimpeded by arbitrary word limits and highlighting schematic drawings, illustrations by Tony Millionaire, and regular columns by Nick Hornby, Greil Marcus, and Jack Pendarvis. The Believer is also home to the “Sedaratives” advice column founded by Amy Sedaris and featuring guest contributors from Janeane Garafolo to Weird Al Yankovich. The magazine also puts out three special issues a year dedicated to art, film, and music.
Two notebooks filed in box 98, folders 3 and 4 were kept by Believer editor Andrew Leland and are among the most revealing items in the archive. One has a clean, earnest design, with a simple soft-yellow cover. The other is a NASCAR spiral with the image of Tony Stewart emblazed on the front. The notebooks begin in the summer of 2003 and contain daily “to-do” lists, editorial checklists, and other jottings. On one particular day, the numbered list reads:
1) Phillips images
2) Format letters
3) Rest of articles à Tony
4) Call Boy George
Numbers one through four are all crossed out, giving a brief glimpse into the creative, interesting, and mundane aspects of being a Believer editor.
TheBeliever attracts remarkable writers and remarkable readers. David Foster Wallace’s subscription postcard for TheBeliever is evidence that they’re sometimes both. It’s humorous and prized—the tape still adhered to the card with flecks of wall paint suggests it was hanging on Leland’s wall.
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.
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 first in a series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
It’s 1997. Dave Eggers is working at Esquire magazine. From his Brooklyn apartment at 394A Ninth Street, Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly. Eggers explains the publication will be called McSweeney’s, named after a man claiming to be a relative who wrote “long, tortured, and often incomprehensible letters” to the Eggers family. The email, which was forwarded extensively to other friends and writers, notes: “There will be an emphasis on experimentation. If you have a story that’s good, but conventional, you’d be better off sending it somewhere legitimate. This thing will be more about trying new and almost certainly misguided ideas.” Rejected works, unfinished stories, and cartoons without pictures had found their home.
Expecting to be around for only a few years, McSweeney’s is still going strong 15 years later and still publishes the flagship McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the monthly magazine TheBeliever, and an ever-expanding catalog of books published under various imprints.
Each issue of the Quarterly Concern is completely redesigned, but the McSweeney’s house style is immediately recognizable, often influenced by vintage typography and a distinct design aesthetic that honors the craft of bookmaking. Always willing to experiment, McSweeney’s has published issues with two spines, a magnetized binding, and a cigar box housing. They’ve also published an issue that resembles a bundle of mail, an issue printed as a complete daily newspaper, and an issue that gave readers a look inside the head of one sweaty man. Many issues focus on a theme, and selected issues have paid tribute to Donald Barthelme; acquainted readers with the art of comics and modern forms of extinct literary genres; introduced international voices by featuring contemporary writing from Icelandic, South Sudanese, and Australian Aboriginal writers; and provided thoughtful non-fiction essays.
Issue 16 was the first edition designed by former editor Eli Horowitz and can be considered the first to really experiment with book form and function. Horowitz wanted “something that could sit on a shelf, pretend to be a normal book, but then unfurl into something else entirely.” The jacket unfolds three times, resembling a pair of pants when completely unfolded, and contains four pockets. One pocket holds the novella Mr. Nobody at All by Ann Beattie, another holds a book of short stories, the third holds Robert Coover’s story “Heart Suit” presented as a deck of 15 playing cards, and the final holds an object: a comb. Horowitz noted that they wanted the fourth pocket to hold an item, but it had to be something long and thin. McSweeney’s considered a ruler and magnifying glass but didn’t want readers to ascribe a meaning to the item or think they were supposed to use it in a certain way. Horowitz decided on a comb. McSweeney’s printer in Singapore subcontracted with a comb maker, and they considered various samples, which can be found in box 17, folder 5 of the archive.
The bulk of the McSweeney’s archive comprises mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs used to produce McSweeney’s publications, but every publication isn’t fully documented. The materials related to issue 16 provide a good look at the publishing process. The archive contains Beattie’s and Adam Levin’s manuscripts with edits by Horowitz, partial proofs with copy-edits, color swatches, the comb samples, and an early homemade design mockup.
In a contribution to George magazine titled “If I Were President,” T. C. Boyle states that as President of the United States, he would establish a litocracy, fight to change the illiteracy that has America in its grip, and replace currency with books. Although Boyle has not achieved the presidency, he has used his roles as an author and teacher to advocate for a more literary society. The correspondence in the T. C. Boyle papers at the Ransom Center provides evidence of Boyle’s tireless promotion of books and reading, and not just of his own (although his often hilarious promotional letters to Viking representatives and booksellers show that as well).
Boyle writes to one of his former high school students, Chris Finer, now a high school librarian in New Hampshire, that “My object is to fire people up about literature.” Students in English classes from around the country send letters to Boyle, and his responses are often included in the archive. In a letter to a class at Weymouth High School (East Weymouth, Massachusetts), Boyle tells the students—half of whom intended to enroll in junior college after graduation and half with no plans for the future—that he had not read very much as a teenager, either, but later discovered that “reading and books were my weapons against the world. I could take myself away from my life, I could learn things school didn’t teach me, I could seize power and grow into the monster I now am. All because of reading. And, of course, writing.”
Boyle encourages not only readers but also writers, from students to colleagues to strangers from all walks of life. He praises their work, exhorts them to write, and sends blurbs to their publishers. One reason Boyle is supportive of other authors is because as a young man, he himself had received inspiration and encouragement from older mentors, the teachers and writers whom he has referred to as “guiding lights” and “heroes.” In 1971, he wrote to Harry Roskolenko asking for career advice and direction. Roskolenko wrote back with praise for Boyle’s talent, contact information for a magazine editor, and especially the advice to “WRITE.” Boyle followed both Roskolenko’s advice and his example of supporting aspiring writers.
I must thank you for the chocolate and snuff you intend to send me, if it be perfumed with anything but orange or jessamin [jasmine] flowers, I had rather have plain, for I find all musk etc. hurts my head.
William Bridgeman, Clerk to the English Secretary of State, London, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, May 23, 1686 (PFORZ-MS-0317)
In a series of over 150 letters that the Ransom Center is publishing online as part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, clerks from England’s Office of the Secretary of State reveal the intimate relationship they enjoyed with one of England’s chief diplomats in Northern Europe during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This diplomat was Sir Richard Bulstrode, a nobleman loyal to the Stuart dynasty throughout his life, who fought on the side of the Royalists during the English Civil Wars and supported the Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was an immensely pragmatic and skilled lawyer and politician who managed to maintain official government positions even during the Commonwealth Period.
Passages from letters like the one quoted above illustrate just how Bulstrode’s political savvy operated. He and his agents took care to interweave practical and personal matters into his official dealings with his government superiors and their clerks. For example, it seems like it was quite common for Bulstrode to procure luxury commodities from the markets of Europe for these clerks as a favor for keeping him up to date on significant political news from London. As can be seen in the second item pictured below, which is part of a series of official communiqués that ask him to perform certain diplomatic tasks for the realm, the clerk acknowledges receipt of a chocolate and snuff shipment in between news about the apprehension of a military embezzler in Bruges and the results of an important trial involving the Church of England (PFORZ-MS-0318).
Newsy tidbits in letters were not the only way Bulstrode kept his finger on the pulse of English politics, though. These letters represent just one small part of how Bulstrode sought to satisfy his voracious appetite for news. His main sources for current events from his homeland were handwritten newsletter services. At the Ransom Center, 1,469 newsletters that were sent to Bulstrode between 1667 and 1689 comprise the largest portion of the Pforzheimer collectionof English manuscripts. Originating in London, these newsletters form direct parallels with the letters from the Secretary of State’s office in that they reveal the same sorts of personal relationships that Bulstrode fostered with his official correspondents. For example, in two newsletters from 1679 (PFORZ-MS-1008 and PFORZ-MS-1023), a clerk includes personal notes thanking Bulstrode for sending chocolate to him and his boss, Sir Joseph Williamson. Williamson was able to provide his subscribers an insider’s perspective on current events because, along with his journalistic enterprises, he also served a term as Secretary of State and maintained a high position at Court.
Surviving manuscript newsletter collections the size of Bulstrode’s are rare and significant to historical research. This is because, until 1695, there were no independently printed newspapers in England and only one official Gazette controlled by the government. People in Bulstrode’s era who wanted uncensored news had to rely on what could be gathered from personal correspondence through the thrice-weekly post. To meet the growing demand for reliable reporting, a few entrepreneurs in London set up newsletter services to mail proprietary information to subscribers about proceedings in parliament, activities of the military and royal family, and court gossip that could not be printed in the public newspaper.
Bulstrode subscribed to two different newsletter offices that are represented in our collection. The smaller of the two sets is from the office of Edward Coleman, who was executed for treason during the anti-Catholic fervor stirred up by Titus Oates in the autumn of 1678. The larger set is from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, who, as an entrepreneur, was deeply connected to the burgeoning printing industry in London, and, as mentioned above, also served as Secretary of State from 1674 to 1679. The way Williamson set up his service, subscribers paid annual fees based on how frequently they wished to receive newsletters, but they were also obliged to mail accounts of news and politics back to London from their estates around the realm or stations in Europe. If subscribers were diplomats like Bulstrode, they received discounted service rates but were asked to send both first-hand accounts and printed newspapers from their localities. This information not only provided newsletter offices with news for future letters, but—for Williamson—it also provided valuable intelligence for his statecraft.
Taken together, these letters and newsletters in our collection preserve one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. Historians like Professor James Winn of Boston University are using the wealth of information in the collection to study the details of the Restoration period of English history. In his forthcoming book on Queen Anne of Great Britain, for example, Winn is using these documents to help pin down the precise course of events that led to Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark. This match for Anne occurred after a rumored engagement to Prince George of Hanover (who became her successor to the throne), and an unwanted courtship by the Earl of Mulgrave.
In the two newsletters from February and December 1680 pictured below (PFORZ-MS-1133 and PFORZ-MS-1219), the writer reports about Anne’s rumored engagement to George of Hanover—which turned out not to be true. Newsletters from autumn 1682 (such as PFORZ-MS-1392) reveal how Mulgrave’s pursuit of Anne may have gotten him expelled from court. Fortunately for Mulgrave, after Anne’s marriage to George of Denmark in July 1683 (discussed in PFORZ-MS-1460), Mulgrave staged a political comeback. As the newsletter from August 20, 1683, describes: “The Earl of Mulgrave has kissed the king’s and duke’s hand, and does now make the Court very constantly” (see PFORZ-MS-1466).
The newsletters also illustrate how such seemingly petty politics in the late years of the Second King Charles’ court were conducted against the terribly bloody and vindictive background of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1683. As the newsletter below from August 24, 1683, offers:
There was a very warme discourse the beginning of this weeke, that the duke of Monmouth would surrender himselfe, but it seems it was a mistake; but this much [break] I am informed from very good hands, that the duke of Monmouth has offered to come in & declare all he knows upon promise of pardon, but that it was rejected; & certainely the duke of Monmouth after the ill steps he has made ought not to pretend to capitulate with the King, ag.t whom he has in so high a degree offended.
Newsletter from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, Whitehall, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, August 24, 1683 (PFORZ-MS-1467)
The Ransom Center’s digital publication of the Bulstrode letters and newsletters marks the first time a large collection of seventeenth-century newsletters has been made freely available to a mass viewing audience with item-level descriptions. While the newsletters have been commercially microfilmed and partially transcribed in the past, these publishing efforts have all been incomplete and out of chronological order. This has made using newsletters for research incredibly difficult for scholars. As part of the Ransom Center’s effort to describe and digitize the Pforzheimer collection, the Center reorganized all 1,469 letters by date and recorded all of the days mentioned in each newsletter in database records for each individual item. One consequence of this activity has been the discovery of over two dozen “lost” newsletters that had been neither microfilmed nor transcribed in the past.
The Center’s cataloging and digitization efforts will provide unprecedented levels of access to primary source documents for seventeenth-century history. The online publication of the Bulstrode newsletters, along with the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, will provide a needed service to scholars and teachers and open up information to readers looking to discover important details and ephemera about English politics and culture during the Restoration. As other archives that hold major newsletter collections—such as the Folger Shakespeare Library—begin to publish them with item-level descriptions online, the Ransom Center will be able to open the door to a reexamination of an origin narrative for independent correspondence journalism in England.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.