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Letters in Knopf archive show challenges Ray Bradbury faced early in his career

By Jean Cannon

Legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author of the classics Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, died last Wednesday at the age of 91. In his long writing career, Bradbury published hundreds of novels and short stories, becoming an icon in the world of literature that describes aliens, space ships, faraway planets—and the future of books.

Like the 13-year-old characters in his Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury spent much of his boyhood visiting the public libraries of his Midwest hometown, where he was inspired by the works of such writes as Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Throughout his life he was an enormous supporter of libraries, advocating them as some of the most important institutions in American life and culture. The son of an electrician father and a Swedish immigrant mother, Bradbury lacked the means for a formal college education and prided himself on being largely self-taught. In 1971, in aid of a fundraising effort for public libraries in southern California, he published the essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” Like the characters in his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury feared a future wherein books would become obsolete.

Bradbury faced an arduous challenge in making his own futuristic novels part of the libraries he so dearly loved. Early in his career, he had difficulty garnering interest for his science fiction stories from mainstream publishing houses. He was famously “discovered” by a young Truman Capote, then a staff member at Mademoiselle, who picked Bradbury’s 1947 short story “Homecoming” out of the slush pile of submissions to the magazine and encouraged its publication. The Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, reveals that despite Capote’s early advocacy, Bradbury continued to meet with difficulties when seeking a home for his work. In a rejection letter from 1948, a reader at the publishing house professes hesitation toward Bradbury’s first novel, Dark Carnival. The evaluator states that though there is “much talk about town” of Bradbury’s “weird, unusual, and tricky” stories, “the style, while adequate, lacks distinction.”

Three decades later Bradbury, by then a seasoned author with dozens of publications to his credit, became a highly valued writer at the Knopf firm. During the 1970s he worked closely with editors Robert Gottlieb and Nancy Nicholas, who published his Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns, Dandelion Wine, and When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, among others. In a letter to Nicholas (shown in the slideshow above), Bradbury, who often wrote nostalgically of childhood, included a picture of himself at the age of three. He jocularly describes the photograph as “beautifully serious, as if the young writer had just been disturbed in the midst of some creative activity.”

The Ransom Center also houses manuscripts and letters related to Ray Bradbury in its Lloyd W. Currey, Sanora Babb, Eliot Elisofon, Lillian Hellman, B. J. Simmons, and Tim O’Brien archives. Additionally, the Ransom Center’s Lewis Allen collection contains screenplay drafts, correspondence, casting notes, call sheets, and promotional materials for François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

The Adventure of the Immortal Detective: Discovering Sherlock Holmes in the Archives

By Arcadia Falcone

The BBC’s modernized television adaptation Sherlock and the steampunk-inspired Hollywood blockbuster Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows are only two of the most recent incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective. The Ransom Center holds an eclectic array both of Sherlockiana and of materials illustrating Doyle’s diverse pursuits.

Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in the novel A Study in Scarlet, which received several rejections before being published in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual (alongside the forgotten tales “Food for Powder” and “The Four-Leaved Shamrock,” as well as some truly terrifying Victorian advertisements—“Steiner’s Vermin Paste, It Never Fails!”). The Center holds one of the 11 complete copies known to exist, as part of the Ellery Queen book collection. The Queen collection also includes books from Doyle’s true crime library, many of which previously belonged to W. S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame).

The character of Irene Adler plays a significant role in both the mentioned recent adaptations, but she appears in only one Doyle short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle papers include the handwritten manuscript for this story, as well as a manuscript page from the most famous Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Doyle papers also contain some interesting oddities, such as Doyle’s laconic answers to an autobiographical questionnaire (His favorite food? “Anything when hungry—nothing when not”) and a fan letter Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker in praise of Dracula.

The popular image of Sherlock Holmes owes much to Sidney Paget, who illustrated the original publication of many of the stories in The Strand Magazine. It was he who put Holmes in the iconic deerstalker, never specifically mentioned by Doyle (Sherlockians will tell you that the “ear-flapped travelling cap” described in “Silver Blaze” is the closest reference). The Center’s Sir Arthur Conan Doyle art collection includes two original Paget drawings featuring Holmes and Dr. Watson—but no deerstalker.

The Center’s collections also document fans’ longstanding obsession with Sherlock Holmes. Christopher Morley, whose papers the Center holds, founded the first American Holmes fan society, the Baker Street Irregulars, in 1934. Elsewhere in the collections, one may find a manuscript of Dorothy L. Sayers’s learned disquisition on the conflicting dates given in “The Red-Headed League,” a handwritten essay celebrating the centenary of Holmes’s purported birth by A. A. Milne, and T. S. Eliot’s perceptive review of the collected stories in a 1928 issue of the Criterion.

In later life, Doyle developed a strong interest in spiritualism and the supernatural. The Center holds a large collection of Doyle’s spirit photographs, in which ghostly apparitions hover over the living, as well as his copies of the Cottingley fairy photographs. Doyle used the photographs to illustrate an article he wrote for The Strand Magazine about fairies and interpreted the images as clear evidence of their existence. The Center’s personal effects collection includes Doyle’s Ouija board. (Also present: two pairs of his socks.)

Sherlock Holmes himself has had an afterlife to rival any of Doyle’s spirits. The Center holds some early examples of what today would be called fan fiction: Maurice Leblanc pits his gentleman thief against a Holmes substitute in Arsène Lupin versus Herlock Sholmes (1908); in the same year, the first in a series of Spanish plays paired Holmes with A. J. Raffles (himself a Sherlock-inspired figure from the pen of Doyle’s brother-in-law, E. W. Hornung). Holmes even went to Broadway in Baker Street: A Musical Adventure of Sherlock Holmes (1965). As a bumper sticker from the Baker Street Irregulars proclaims, “Sherlock Holmes is alive and well!”

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Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

By Micah Erwin


Many scholars rank the invention of eyeglasses among the most important contributions to humankind in the last 2,000 years. Yet, the inventor of this now thoroughly quotidian piece of technology remains anonymous. Indeed the inventor (or inventors) will almost certainly never be known, given the numerous conflicting claims, lack of specificity, and scarcity of surviving documentation.

What scholars do know about the history of eyeglasses is that they were probably invented at the end of the thirteenth century by a craftsman living near Pisa. The evidence originates from a passage by Friar Giordano da Pisa who recounts having met the anonymous craftsman in 1286. A friend of Giordano named Friar Allesandro della Spina learned how to make them shortly thereafter and shared the secret with the public. A number of other possible inventors of eyeglasses have been posited over the centuries, all of which have finally been proven spurious in recent scholarship.1


During the early period of the production of eyeglasses, they were referred to as vitreos ab oculis ad legendum (eyeglasses for eyes for reading) and oglarios de vitro (spectacles with glass lenses). Eventually these rather clunky terms were shortened to occhiali and ocularia. Either way, the evidence indicates that spectacles were probably invented in Italy at the end of the thirteenth century, and by the early fourteenth century, they were being produced and sold in Venice.

Scholars believe that by the end of the fifteenth century, spectacles were probably being sold and produced throughout most of Europe, with countries like England importing them by the thousands. Florence led the way in manufacturing and apparently produced some of the highest quality spectacles. Despite this widespread production, there are relatively few surviving specimens. Indeed, although Florence was known to be a major producer, archeologists have found only one pair of rivet spectacles in that city.

It is with this in mind that it becomes all the more significant to find evidence of a pair of medieval spectacles anywhere at all. One can imagine why the recent discovery of what appears to be an impression of a pair of medieval rivet spectacles in one of the Ransom Center’s early printed books was cause for excitement. While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).

A discovery like this is fairly uncommon. Among the many thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in U.S. libraries, only a handful of similar discoveries have been made: a pair of spectacles found in the Folger copy 46 of the First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library; the outline of a pair spectacles carved into the wooden boards of a sixteenth-century volume in the rare books department at Catholic University of America and in a fifthteenth-century Breviary at the Fribourg, Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire (seen in Christopher De Hamel’s History of Illuminated Manuscripts, fig. 193); and an impression in a manuscript at the Walters Art Museum. One medieval scholar who has conducted a survey of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the United States informed me that he had encountered only one such example.

The earliest spectacles comprised two convex glass disks enclosed in metal or bone rims with handles centrally connected by a rivet and could either clamp onto the nostrils or be held before the eyes. Later specimens had wire and even leather rims. We know this not only from surviving examples but also from artistic depictions. A painter from northern Italy working in 1352 provides us with the first depiction of spectacles. It appears in a fresco that adorns the Chapter House of a Dominican monastery in Treviso, Italy. The Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher can be seen hard at work in his study with quill, parchment, and a pair of early spectacles on his nose. St. Jerome, the famous scholar-saint and translator of the Latin Bible, also was frequently depicted wearing spectacles in his study.

Advanced scientific methods for dating aside, we can get a good estimate of the age of the eyeglasses that left the impression on the parchment by first examining the script on the parchment (to establish the earliest possible date) and then by looking at the shape of the impression itself. The text is what is known as Southern Textualis or Rotunda. Southern Textualis was popular in Italy and Southern Europe between the late 1200s and the late 1400s. Alternately, the 1568 publication of the printed text provides us with a possible later date. Regardless, the spectacles conform to the physical features and rough time period for early medieval leather-framed spectacles.* But dare we hope for more? Because the book was printed in Venice, Italy, the tantalizing possibility exists that the wearer who deposited his spectacles in between the parchment leaves may have been using a pair of the earliest eyeglasses ever made, because Florence, where eyeglasses were invented, is less than 165 miles from Venice. Although we may never know exactly how (or when) these spectacles left their mark on the parchment, their faint impressions nevertheless offer an intriguing glimpse into the early history this important invention.

1This topic, and the history of spectacles in general, is thoroughly summarized in Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 2007).

*The author now concludes that the shape of the spectacles is closer to that of leather-framed spectacles, not rivet spectacles, as this post originally stated. Consequently, a better date range would be late 1400s and circa 1500s. Thanks to David Fleishman for his assistance with identification. For an example of leather-framed spectacles, see those of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530).

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Rear flyleaf: It’s difficult to tell exactly how the spectacles left their impression, but they must have been sandwiched between the two parchment endleaves for an extended period of time. Photo by Pete Smith.

Christine Brooke-Rose, experimental fiction writer

By Io Montecillo

Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.
Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.

“With news of the death of Christine Brooke-Rose, the world of letters has lost a significant and courageous writer,” said Karen Lawrence, President of Sarah Lawrence College and author of Techniques for Living: Fiction and Theory in the Work of Christine Brooke-Rose.

A writer known for her unorthodox and experimental style, Christine Brooke-Rose died on March 21. Her archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 16, 1923. She was the youngest of two daughters of Alfred Northbrook Rose and Evelyn Brooke Rose. After the dissolution of their marriage while Brooke-Rose was quite young, both became Anglican Benedictine monastics.

During World War II, Brooke-Rose served as an intelligence officer in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she met her first husband, Rodney Ian Shirley Bax. They married in May 1944 and divorced four years later. In February 1948, she married Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Pietrkiewicz. When Pietrkiewicz became ill in 1956, Brooke-Rose began to write novels after publishing Gold (1955), a metaphysical religious poem based on the anonymous fourteenth-century English poem Pearl.

After her own illness in 1962, Brooke-Rose’s fiction changed dramatically. Her next novel, Out (1964), discarded the traditional ideals of character and plot and began the play with language and form that has marked her work ever since. Some of her more famous works include Between (1968), which centers around the experiences of a professional translator and is written without the use of the verb “to be” in all its forms. Another, Xorandor (1986), is a science-fiction story about the discovery by two children of a silicon-based civilization that feeds on nuclear radiation. The story is written in the form of dialog and computer printouts by the children, who use an invented technological slang.

“As she herself pointed out, Christine Brooke-Rose escaped most would-be canonic labels,” said Lawrence. “She was a narrative theorist, literary critic, and novelist for whom new fictional techniques were necessary to represent the increased ‘unreality’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her fictions are rehearsals for living under the constraints of a new world, yet with comedy, nuance, and toughness, they draw creative vitality and moral inspiration out of the very limitations they evoke.

“In different modes, Brooke-Rose’s overtly valedictory last books (Invisible Author: Last Essays and Life, End of), as well as her brilliant novel Textermination, dramatize the ‘death of the author’ and the fragility and tenacity of the connection between language and being. In doing so, they offer what she has called ‘techniques for living,’ new forms for telling the human story within the unreality of contemporary life.”

In the Galleries: The Origins of WWJD

By Io Montecillo

In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.

Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.

Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.

Sheldon’s manuscript and pen holder, along with the works of other authors inspired by the King James Bible, are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.


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New David Foster Wallace materials to be on display during Wallace Symposium

By Megan Barnard

Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.
Letter from David Foster Wallace to Frederick Hill Associates, dated Sept. 28, 1985, containing a chapter from "Broom of the System." Bonnie Nadell collection.

On Thursday, April 5, the Ransom Center kicks off The David Foster Wallace Symposium with a public event featuring Wallace’s literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, and his editor, Michael Pietsch, in conversation with Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin. The free, public event will take place at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) at Jessen Auditorium, across the plaza from the Ransom Center on The University of Texas at Austin campus. Please note that seating will be limited. Registrants of the symposium will have reserved seating, and Ransom Center members will receive priority entry at 6:20 p.m. Doors will open to the general public at 6:30 p.m. Those unable to attend the event or the symposium can enjoy a live webcast.

Throughout the day on Friday, April 6, the symposium will continue with a series of panel discussions featuring esteemed writers, editors, critics, and journalists who will consider Wallace’s work, his life, and his contribution to contemporary literature. Registration is limited, and only a few spaces remain.

The Ransom Center acquired the David Foster Wallace papers and Wallace’s personal library in late 2009. Since that time, the Center has acquired several smaller collections related to Wallace, including:

  • Photocopies of Wallace’s completed “usage ballots” for the American Heritage Dictionary. Wallace was a member of the company’s board that governs decisions on usage, spelling, and pronunciation.
  • Items related to “Democracy and Commerce at the U. S. Open,” an article Wallace wrote for Tennis magazine in 1995, including correspondence with Jay Jennings, senior editor at Tennis.
  • A photocopy of a typed letter from Wallace to Brandon Hobson in which Wallace gives writing advice to the then-22-year-old Hobson.
  • Nine annotated drafts of “Host,” an essay Wallace published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2005, together with correspondence related to the essay between Wallace and Martha Spaulding of The Atlantic.
  • A small collection of correspondence, primarily from Wallace to recipients including collector Bernard Peyton Watson, who donated the materials.
  • An unpublished typescript essay titled Pearls & Swine by Wallace, written at the request of James Harmon, who wrote to well-known individuals requesting that they respond to the question, “If you could offer the young people of today one piece of advice, what would it be?”
  • A collection of correspondence and manuscripts Wallace sent to editor and literary critic Steven Moore between 1987 and 2004, together with photocopies of correspondence from Wallace to writer David Markson.

A two-case display of select items from these various collections will be on view in the Ransom Center’s lobby April 3–8.

Because of anticipated high demand for the use of the Wallace papers and associated collections during the symposium, all researchers intending to request access to these materials must inform curatorial staff of their research plans in advance of their visit, no later than March 30, 2012. To protect the materials, space and access will be limited. Walk-ins will not have access to the materials during this time.

We look forward to welcoming symposium participants, registrants, and other guests to the Ransom Center during the symposium to celebrate the life and work of one of the most creative and influential writers of our time.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

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.

Undergraduate intern Michelle Bennight updates the inventory of paintings in the Ransom Center’s art collection, which included documenting works and confirming measurements and other information. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Undergraduate intern Michelle Bennight updates the inventory of paintings in the Ransom Center’s art collection, which included documenting works and confirming measurements and other information. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
While visiting the Ransom Center on Tuesday, author T. C. Boyle signed the Center’s authors’ door. Photo by Pete Smith.
While visiting the Ransom Center on Tuesday, author T. C. Boyle signed the Center’s authors’ door. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visiting speaker, Shakespeare scholar, and Columbia University Professor James Shapiro views materials from the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection with Associate Curator for Performing Arts Helen Baer. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Visiting speaker, Shakespeare scholar, and Columbia University Professor James Shapiro views materials from the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection with Associate Curator for Performing Arts Helen Baer. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.