Milly S. Barranger, Dean at the College of Fellows of the American Theatre and Distinguished Professor Emerita at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, visited the Ransom Center in July on a fellowship funded by the Fleur Cowles Endowment to study the Audrey Wood papers for her upcoming book Audrey Wood and the Playwrights: Shaping American Theatre and Film in the Last Century. The book will be her fourth on pioneering women in the American theater in the mid-twentieth century. Below, she shares her experience working in the collections.
The Hazel H. Ransom Reading Room at the Ransom Center is a treasure of interstitial resources on American theater and its creators from Eugene O’Neill to Lillian Hellman and Terrence McNally. The Center’s award of a travel fellowship afforded me the opportunity to return for a second time to the Audrey Wood papers to do a complete review of the more than 60 boxes containing materials on the literary agent’s representation of playwrights and their plays for the commercial theater. The considerable files present the life and career of Audrey Wood (1905–1985), along with her clients and their playbills, scripts, musical scores, photographs, and correspondence, and the business records of the Liebling-Wood Agency. The correspondence between the literary agent and her clients reveals the nature of their relationships during Broadway failures and successes. As Audrey Wood said, the commercial theater is a “tough business,” and these files reveal just how difficult it was for clients and their agents in the mid-twentieth century.
Based on my experiences in other research libraries, I have concluded that the ability to work with a collection that consolidates materials on the subject results in a highly productive research experience. I have written on subjects that required travel from one collection to another to review the career and interactions with associates and co-workers. The Center’s large collection of materials affords the researcher the luxury of remaining in one place to scrutinize, in this instance, the literary agent’s life story.
In addition, the ambience and orderliness of the Reading Room favors uninterrupted scholarship in the knowledge that across the table from you other research fellows are hard at work on Irish dramatic literature or Tom Stoppard. In other words, although undisturbed, you share the company of exceptional scholars.
The splendor of the Reading Room is that the researcher’s needs have been carefully anticipated in the organization of the collections, the retrieval system for files, the attentive staff, and the ambience of the room itself. It is my hope that my next research project mandates a return to the Ransom Center.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
Dr. Christopher Hull from the University of Nottingham, UK, came to the Harry Ransom Center on a British Studies Fellowship to research the Graham Greene collection. His initial plan is to write and publish a book on Greene and Cuba, concentrating on the writer’s journeys to the island prior to writing Our Man in Havana (1958), his depiction of the island and the Cold War in this iconic novel, and his continuing relationship with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro after 1959. His larger project is to write a book on Greene and Latin America. He shares some of his findings in the collection here.
Supported by a British Studies Fellowship, I spent five profitable weeks at the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 researching its Graham Greene collection. I was particularly interested to read material related to Greene’s contacts with Latin America, specifically three of his novels: Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973). The Center holds all the manuscript drafts for these works, as well as Greene’s screenplays for film versions of the first two novels. They offer a fascinating insight into the gestation of storyline and characters by one of Britain’s most renowned twentieth-century novelists.
As well as full-length manuscripts, the Ransom Center holds many of Greene’s shorter works, including unfinished and unpublished scripts, journalistic articles and opinion pieces, and an assortment of personal letters. Among these, we can see that the writer’s reputation for practical jokes and a mischievous sense of humor sometimes got him into trouble. In 1953, Greene was returning from a visit to Edinburgh with a friend after meeting “two delightful Texan girls” in a hotel. After imbibing a few pints of Black Velvet on their southbound train to London, the author and his friend decided as a joke to set up a new society. They published an announcement in The Times: “May we beg the courtesy of your columns to announce the formation of the Anglo-Texan Society?” It had the avowed objective of “establishing cultural and social links” between Britain and the Lone Star state.1
Abroad on a journalistic assignment in Kenya to cover the Mau-Mau rebellion, Greene soon received the perturbing news that the Society had received 60 membership applications on its first day. By the time Greene had returned to Britain, the Anglo-Texan Society had already held an inaugural cocktail party. His friend was now the Society’s Chairman and Greene its President. There was, however, some cynical reaction from the United States. TheNew York Times wondered if Greene, known as a creator of “diabolisms and plenty of hells” and no great supporter of U.S. foreign policy, might have a dastardly plan underfoot to make Texas cede from the Union. But the Society went from strength to strength, and during another of Greene’s absences in Vietnam, prior to the publication of The Quiet American (1955), his friend presided over a jamboree at a film studio outside London. The Houston Fat Stock Show lent four prime steers and three Hillbilly bands to delight 1,500 Texans and Society members. Double-decker “Texas to Piccadilly Circus” buses carried 300 of the overseas visitors from London to the event. 2
Greene diplomatically resigned his presidency of the Society, using his frequent absences abroad as a credible excuse. The sobering Anglo-Texan Society experience dampened his enthusiasm for large-scale practical jokes, but the Society was still holding events 25 years after its formation.
Perhaps the biggest source of riches in the Harry Ransom Center’s Graham Greene collection is its series of “Dream Diaries.” As a troubled teenager, his headmaster father had sent Greene to London for six months of psychoanalysis alongside his pretty first cousin. Forty years later, when suffering from recurrent depression in the 1960s, a psychoanalyst recommended the peripatetic British author to write down the content of his dreams. The advice produced remarkable results, and gives an invaluable insight into the mind of the prolific author. Several volumes contain the writer’s memories of his dreams, intermittently, for the years 1964–66, 1972–75, 1979–81, 1983–86, and 1988. Greene’s “Dream Diaries” detail the writer’s nightly obsessions, fantasies, and episodes of repeated paranoia, as well as memories of past events. Among many fantastical accounts, the diaries recount his experiences from childhood and adulthood, his many travels to dangerous spots around the world, famous personalities (both living and dead), and time spent with several female partners in addition to his long-estranged wife. Four decades after his teenage experience of psychoanalysis, Greene was still fantasizing about an affair and possible marriage to his pretty cousin.
The recounting of most people’s dreams does not make for stimulating entertainment, but in Greene’s case they are riveting. Greene had served as an air-raid warden in Central London during the blitz. And his house in Clapham (South London) was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War II. One of his recurrent fears was evidently a German invasion of Britain and further bombing raids. He also feared persecution by Haiti’s voodoo-worshiping President-for-Life “Papa Doc” Duvalier, years after his novel The Comedians had painted a dark picture of the dictator’s rule.
From a writer described by Lord of the Flies author William Golding as the “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness,” even less dramatic nocturnal thoughts come alive. In his miniscule handwriting, for example, is the following dream from 1981:
Having dinner at Bentley’s I felt rather strange as I was wearing my dressing gown & had bare feet. I was relieved that no waiter objected. Evelyn Waugh was at the next table with three men—one of whom had an exceedingly ugly voice. I was glad when he separated from Evelyn & went to the other end of the table with a companion where his voice was more subdued. Later I had a better opinion of him when he was reproached by a woman at another table for having left his wife. She urged him to return, but he said it was out of the question – he could not live with her. I became impatient at the bad service & called out to a wine waiter – “I ordered a glass of port half an hour ago & a Welsh rarebit three quarters of an hour ago.” I wondered whether the bad service was due to the way I was dressed.3
Currently, only a brief and sanitized collection of these dreams exists in published form.4 Greene fans must relish the day when his recorded dreams can be transcribed and published in their entirety.
1The Times, Aug. 22 1953, p. 7.
2 ‘The Joke That Went Wrong’, Jan. 29 1974, Box 19.1, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
3 ‘Dream Diaries’ (1979–81), Jan. 17–18 1981 (p. 15), Box 38.3, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
4A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (London: Viking, 1992).
Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society
Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.
When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.
I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.
Stephen Watt is a Professor of English and Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. He spent the month of June reading both manuscripts and published works in the Ransom Center’s Irish literature and Judaica collections. The result of this and further research, he hopes, will be a scholarly monograph that examines cultural interactions between Irish and Jewish immigrants in later nineteenth-century America, particularly theatrical ones, and the ways in which Irish-Jewish relations of the early twentieth century help define our sense of modern and modernist writing. His research was funded by a fellowship from the Dorot Foundation.
Occasionally at the end of the evening, I find myself “channel surfing” on the television seeking a momentary diversion or, even better, an effective sedative. Over the years, The Late Show with David Letterman has reliably provided both, and I have often enjoyed a skit on the show entitled “Is it Something or Is t Nothing?” Typically, the “it” in question is some kind of bizarre performance or an unlikely combination of objects, and it occurs to me that the scholarly book might be described in just these terms: a bizarre performance and/or an assemblage of facts or ideas that, at least at first glance, don’t necessarily appear related. Perhaps more relevant, the gestation of a scholarly book—the emotional highs produced by a surprising discovery and discouraging lows caused by doubt or lack of confidence—often reminds me of the Letterman show’s question: Is the project “something,” an intellectual intervention or creative achievement of some consequence, or is it “nothing?”
The fortunate recipient of a one-month fellowship at the Ransom Center generously provided by the Dorot Foundation, I came to Austin with an idea for a monograph, the working title of which is Irish Schlemiels: The Irish-Jewish Unconscious and American Modernism. I hoped it was “something” or would become such, but I wasn’t certain. The genealogy of the project includes the phrase “Irish schlemiels” in a wonderful poem by Northern Irish writer Paul Muldoon; a problematic analogy in Bernard MacLaverty’s 1997 novel Grace Notes between the horrors of World War II and those of the “Troubles” in Belfast and Derry; and my ongoing interest in the representation of Irishmen and Jews on the later nineteenth-century popular stage, both in New York and in the Dublin of James Joyce and Sean O’Casey’s adolescence in the 1890s. How, for example, did post-Famine Irish immigrants in the 1850s and 1860s affect representations of the Irish in America? How did the later diaspora of largely Eastern European Jews arriving in America in the 1880s and 90s inflect the cultural work done by theater at the fin de siècle? How does the popularity in both America and Ireland of such plays as Paul Potter’s Trilby and widely-seen revivals of The Merchant of Venice relate to the emergent populations of immigrants in America? Most important, how does this cultural interface affect American drama and fiction of the modernist period?
To be a little more candid, I actually arrived in Austin with rough drafts of the chapters dealing with later nineteenth-century immigrant drama and theater. But I was uncertain if I could outline and structure effectively the chapters on modernist writing. The Ransom Center’s collections of the manuscripts of such figures as Elmer Rice, Edward Dahlberg, and, in a more theatrical vein, Stella Adler helped enormously in clarifying this matter. In fact, the center’s holdings of Jewish American and Irish writing are enormous; a scholar could spend a blissful summer reading materials on any one of these artists—or on George Bernard Shaw, Kay Boyle, or Samuel Beckett, all of whose works I read while in residence. Dahlberg and Rice in particular, both under-studied and underappreciated, grew to assume great importance in my plans, which now include a chapter on Joyce, Dahlberg, and Henry Roth; and another on Synge and Shaw, Rice and Adler.
But this scarcely describes the unique items—now exceptionally important to Irish Schlemiels—that I uncovered in the Ransom Center. These include Rice’s Shavian one-act play A Diadem of Snow, sandwiched in a 1918 issue of The Liberator between radical editorials concerning lynchings in the American South and Jack Reed’s reports from the revolution in Russia; Leslie Daiker’s remarkable “The Circular Road,” a radio play concerning a young Jewish Dubliner grieving over the shooting of his father during the civil war of the 20s; Stella Adler’s incisive and exhaustive workbook for actors of one of Synge’s masterpieces, Riders to the Sea; and an exchange of letters between Dahlberg and Kay Boyle that adds great clarity to the former’s complicated view of James Joyce in general and Ulysses in particular. All of these materials will contribute significantly to my book, as will countless passages I found in these and other writers’ works
Of course, no scholarship ever evolves in a vacuum. When I wrote my fellowship application, several essays in what might be called the “New Jewish-Irish Studies” had appeared, and today the list of works in this area has been graced by two recent and very considerable achievements: Mick Moloney’s album of Tin Pan Alley songs, If It Wasn’t for the Irish and the Jews, and George Bornstein’s study The Colors of Zion (Harvard, 2011). My Irish Schlemiels doesn’t look—or shouldn’t be mistaken for—either of these. But it is my hope that it will be “something,” not “nothing,” and that this emergent field will both grow in importance and promote greater understanding of the cultures of two immigrant groups that contributed so substantially to this country. In either case or in both, the Ransom Center collections and truly outstanding staff will have played and will continue to play a major, much appreciated role.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Matthew Sutton completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in May 2011. This June, he came to the Ransom Center, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship, to begin the process of revising his dissertation, Storyville: Discourses in Southern Musicians’ Autobiographies, into a book. A former archivist, Sutton worked extensively with the holdings of the performing arts collection, examining primary documents related to blackface minstrelsy in the United States. He shares some of his findings from the Center’s minstrel collection here.
Among the Ransom Center’s many treasures in its performing arts collections are the 4,000 items related to the minstrel show. Culled from private collections, these preserved photographs, programs, sheet-music arrangements, and first-person accounts reveal the world of the blackface minstrel from the Jacksonian age to the 1950s. These are not pleasant items to look at, but they represent an origin point for much of our present-day popular culture and our desire to imitate, borrow, or steal across class and racial lines in the name of entertainment.
One encapsulation of the hold the minstrel theater had on the antebellum working classes can be found in an anecdote from the unpublished memoir of impresario Samuel Sanford (1821–1905). To promote the opening of his Philadelphia minstrel theater in late 1855, Sanford announced plans to distribute toys to children (black and white) on Christmas Day and 5,000 loaves of bread to the city’s poor on New Year’s Day. For maximum impact, these “gifts” were thrown from the roof of the theater. After the Christmas spectacle, Philadelphia mayor Robert T. Conrad (a part-time playwright and defender of the “legitimate” theater) accused Sanford of inciting a riot. According to Sanford (a biased source, to be sure) and the newspaper clippings he saved and appended to his manuscript almost 40 years later, Philadelphians defied Conrad (one paper deriding the mayor as “His Majesty”), sided with the minstrel, and duly assembled for his New Year’s dispensation.
The indelible image of Sanford and his confederates heaving bread and toys off a theater roof to publicize their broad imitations of African Americans and ersatz “plantation melodies” connects on several levels. As a publicity stunt, it rivals the “ballyhoos” of Sanford’s contemporary P. T. Barnum, another showman who learned his tricks in the minstrel trade. As symbolism, it perfectly echoes Roman satirist Juvenal, who concluded that the masses could tolerate the injustices of their times so long as they had “bread and circuses,” that is to say, cheap and abundant food and entertainment. As history, it illustrates how blackface minstrelsy was sold to the white working class as a natural, even beneficial facet of urban life, when in fact its crude racial stereotyping was symptomatic of a nation struggling with its multiracial identity and nearing its end as a half-slave/half-free entity.
Archival holdings like the Sanford manuscript typically present scholars with more questions than answers. Yet they also open new avenues of inquiry, challenge past assumptions, and spur further research. Such is the value of primary sources from the “bit players” of history. Such is the value of the Ransom Center.
Independent scholar John Thornton came to the Ransom Center last year to research his upcoming biography of Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the House of Knopf. The Ransom Center’s Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection comprises 1,526 boxes. To navigate this extensive archive, Thornton says, he emulated biographer Lytton Strachey: “[Strachey] would look at the sources like someone rowing out over a great sea of information and lowering his bucket here and there and pulling up samples and examining them. So I think that’s the best I can do: row my boat through the Knopf collections and see what turns up.”
Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.
Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.
Dr. Jana Funke, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, U.K., visited the Ransom Center on a Hobby Family Foundation Fellowship in July and August 2010 to work on Radclyffe Hall’s short fiction. She is using the material she gathered for a monograph exploring the relationship between modernist sexualities and time. She is also preparing a critical edition of Hall’s unpublished works.
Radclyffe Hall is best known for her infamous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), with its bleak depiction of female sexual inversion—a sexological term that combines traits we might nowadays classify as lesbian and transgender. It might therefore come as a surprise that spending several weeks in the archive working on Hall was tremendous fun! The Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge papers at the Ransom Center offer many delightful surprises, such as a box filled with kennel club information, show clippings, and photographs of Hall’s prize-winning dogs. While going through the drafts of The Well, I also came across a notebook in which she lists the “contents of an invert’s pocket.” Apparently, the female invert would not leave the house without a letter from her present love, three snapshots of her last love, a powder box, and lipstick.
While my visit gave me the opportunity to survey the archival material more generally, I spent most of my time working on Hall’s short fiction. Hall only published one collection of short stories, Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934), but among her papers are more than 15 additional, mostly complete, unpublished stories, which were written in the 1910s and 1920s.
One group of unpublished works—including the unfinished novel The World—deal with the Great War. Whereas published texts like The Well or Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself focus on women’s experience of the war, the unpublished stories explore how men who were “unfit” to serve their country coped with the resulting sense of exclusion.
Other short stories deal with female experience; “The Modern Miss Thompson,” for instance, depicts the struggle for female autonomy and shows interesting parallels to Hall’s New Woman novel The Unlit Lamp (1924). Yet another set of stories provides insight into Hall’s engagement with religion, spirituality, and the supernatural. These texts deal with a range of subjects including the life of the medieval Saint Ethelflaeda, time travel, and mystic human-animal relationships.
The reasons why Hall did not publish more of these short stories are unclear. Hall’s notebooks reveal that she thought about publishing a larger number of short stories and sent a selection to her agent in 1924. We do not know why this publication did not materialize at the time. In her memoirs, Hall’s partner, Una Troubridge, suggests that by the time Hall was preparing the collection Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself in the early 1930s, she decided against including an earlier short story since it had “missed the boat.” It is possible that Hall felt her other short stories had also gone out of fashion by the time she was given the opportunity to publish them.
Returning to these texts almost a century after they were written, I found them anything but untimely. To be sure, the short stories confirm a certain image of Hall as an author with deeply conservative and often troubling national, racial, sexual, and class politics. However, my archival work also allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of Hall. Her unpublished work shows a writer keen to explore vastly different interests and stylistic approaches, and her investigation of questions of difference, outsiderism, and the struggle of belonging relates to scholarly concerns today. My time in the archive certainly did not present me with a radically new image of Hall, but it did allow me to explore a body of texts that is much more conflicted and less orthodox than I expected. I am very grateful to the Ransom Center, with its wonderful staff and sense of scholarly community, and the Hobby Family Foundation, for giving me this opportunity.
Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.
Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.
Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?
A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.
Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?
A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.
Q: What surprised you?
A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.
Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.
What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.
Q: How did you choose the title of your book?
A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.
In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.
Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?
A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.
Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?
A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.
Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?
A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.
On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.