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Two Ransom Center archives illuminate Doris Lessing’s life, work, and relationships

By Megan Barnard

Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing died on Sunday at the age of 94. She was born in what is now Iran, grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe, lived briefly in a boarding house in South Africa, and settled as an adult in London. She was deeply influenced by the racial and social injustices she witnessed, and her books reflect a lifetime of experience observing racism, colonialism, communism, and terrorism. She wrote frankly about relationships between women and men and is heralded as an early feminist writer, though she never embraced that distinction. She was an avid reader and was largely self-educated through books, as her formal education ended when she was just 15 years old. Yet she remained unsentimental about books. In one letter in her archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, Lessing noted, “[I] wish that people would just read books and get all the sustenance from them they can—and then throw them away and go on to the next useful sustaining book.”

 

Early in her career, Lessing applied this same attitude toward her manuscripts. As a young writer in England, she had little space and less money. She moved frequently and saw little value in her cumbersome stacks of manuscripts and papers, so she discarded them. As a result, manuscripts of many of her most notable books, including The Golden Notebook, have been lost.

 

Fortunately, Lessing later changed her ways. The drafts and working papers of more than 50 of her novels, plays, stories, and other works are available for research at the Ransom Center, where they have resided since 1999. The 45-box collection includes Lessing’s Canopus in Argos series, her two autobiographies, and novels such as The Good Terrorist and Mara and Dann. Although few of Lessing’s early works appear in the archive, another Ransom Center collection offers a rare glimpse of Doris Lessing from this period.

 

American author Clancy Sigal lived with Lessing in London in the late 1950s. In many ways, they were kindred spirits. The two writers were passionate about many of the same social concerns. In the photograph above, the two can be seen, according to Sigal, “in a bus, in the mud, on our way to cut through the barbed wire of a nuclear air base.” Their relationship may have been intellectually deep, but it was emotionally fraught and stormy. It also provided great fodder for literature. It’s no secret that Lessing modeled the infamous Saul Green of The Golden Notebook on Sigal. Once at a party, Lessing even boasted to the guests, “I invented Clancy.” Sigal was less than thrilled to appear in Lessing’s novel, a book that is widely hailed as a cornerstone of feminist literature. Yet he, too, looked to their relationship for inspiration, even decades after it had ended. Rose O’Malley from Sigal’s 1992 novel Secret Defector, is just one of many characters he created who bear a striking resemblance to Lessing.

 

The journals in Clancy Sigal’s archive detail the difficulties of their relationship, and traces of their time together appear throughout his writings. His archive includes letters from Lessing, some dated long after their relationship had ended, showing that they remained friends for decades. In one such letter, written in November 2001, not long after the September 11th attacks, Lessing harkened back to their earlier years of social activism, “Do you think the world is even madder now than [w]hen we knew it was?” she asked. “God, what a world.”

 

Image: Clancy Sigal and Doris Lessing, ca. late 1950s. 

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”

By Alicia Dietrich

Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a thin paperback that resembles an industrial manual of the 1960s, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book. The book is exactly what the title describes: 26 images of gasoline stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha was living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and frequently traveled the route between the two cities to visit his family.

 

“I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California,” Ruscha told NPR earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the book. “It just, it kind of spoke to me.”

 

In an interview with Avalanche magazine in 1973 he said, “I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.”

 

So, Ruscha documented gas stations along that route in black-and-white photographs and labeled them with their locations, from “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” to “‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona” to the final image “Fina, Groom, Texas.”

 

Ruscha published the book at age 26 in a run of 400 numbered copies in April 1963. Though it was the same year as Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the book didn’t initially receive a warm reception. In a 1963 letter, the Library of Congress declined to add a copy to their collection, noting the book’s “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.”

 

The book gradually acquired cult status in the 1960s, and a second edition was published in 1967 and a third in 1969. Surviving first editions of the book are rare.

 

Ruscha’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, includes snapshots of the gas stations, Ruscha’s notes about the project, the Library of Congress letter, and an advertisement with the headline “REJECTED Oct. 2, 1963 by the Library of Congress.”

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside the Ed Ruscha archive

 

New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

By Elon Lang

The Ransom Center recently published a new finding aid for one of its richest collections of early manuscripts: the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired in 1986, along with 1,100 other rare early printed editions of English literature that form the Pforzheimer library. The manuscripts include nearly 2,000 items dating from 1485 to 1844 that feature original correspondence from European monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats. Represented are works and letters by notable figures in British history such as Oliver Cromwell, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, John Evelyn, John Locke, Samuel Pepys, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

 

The new finding aid represents the first-ever online description of the Center’s Pforzheimer manuscripts and provides a new wealth of detail about the collection. Each manuscript has been individually cataloged, and digitization of all of the Pforzheimer manuscripts is ongoing. As digitization is completed, the descriptions and images will be added to the Ransom Center’s publically available digital collections.

 

The Pforzheimer manuscripts have several thematic strengths. For example, there are letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I relating to the ultimately failed negotiations for her marriage to François, Duke of Anjou. Another theme encompasses letters and documents signed by participants in the regicide of King Charles I of England, including two letters by Oliver Cromwell. Another grouping is anchored by a significant collection of letters by philosopher John Locke and additional letters by other English Enlightenment-era thinkers from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Several founding members of the British Royal Society are represented in this group, especially Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn—two famous diarists of the period who provide modern-day historians with first-hand perspectives on English culture, politics, and science in the period. Among Evelyn’s materials are original hand-drawn sketches of gardens and naval battles, and letters to colleagues discussing the classification of herbs.

 

Another highlight is a beautifully extra-illustrated 1833 biography of Sir Walter Raleigh, created by nineteenth-century collector John Dillon to hold his extensive collection of original manuscripts by Raleigh and his contemporaries along with nearly 500 rare prints and original art. Other items of significance to the history of art and literature include letters by seventeenth-century poet John Donne and eighteenth-century playwright William Congreve; a rare early seventeenth-century copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar translated into Latin; and a vellum handwriting showcase book from 1606 by Esther Inglis, one of very few known women calligraphers of her era. There are also two letters by members of the early Quaker religious movement, Margaret Askew Fell Fox and Isaac Penington.

 

The largest group of manuscripts in the collection originated from the Bulstrodes, an aristocratic English family prominent in Middlesex in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By far the bulk and the most significant of these manuscripts are 1,469 handwritten newsletters dating from 1667 to 1689 received by Sir Richard Bulstrode (1610–1711) while he was stationed in Brussels as an English diplomat. These newsletters provided Bulstrode with information from England that could not be printed in public newspapers, such as parliamentary business. The reportage in the newsletters offers today’s readers a first-hand insider’s perspective on English history and London culture in a tumultuous time. Readers will find reports on England’s involvement in North America, hostilities with the Dutch and French, court hearings about government censorship, parliamentary debates on the right of habeas corpus, the formation of the Whig and Tory political parties, the Popish Plot and persecutions of Catholics, the uneasy succession of Charles II by the Catholic James II, the Rye House Plot, the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary, and accounts of court gossip in the 1670s and 80s that involved Mary’s sister—the future Queen Anne.

 

Supported by additional correspondence between Bulstrode, the newsletter office owner Joseph Williamson, and some of Williamson’s clerks, the Pforzheimer collection preserves one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. And through its digital collections, the Center will provide access to a large collection of manuscript newsletters from this era, showcasing the immense value these documents have as primary sources for historical and cultural research.

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

William Makepeace Thackeray’s chorus of witches

By Abigail Cain

Although best known for his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray was not always a writer. After college and a brief stint studying law, he moved to Paris to try his hand as a painter. Gambling and unsuccessful business ventures decimated his inherited fortune, however, and Thackeray was forced to move to London, where he supported his new wife by becoming a journalist.

 

Despite a career change, Thackeray did not forget his artistic background. His collection at the Ransom Center contains a number of sketches, including proofs of illustrations for comic tales and quick drawings in the margins of his letters. The archive also houses a small journal from 1840 that Thackeray might have taken with him on his travels. Within its three-inch-tall covers are pencil sketches of sailors lounging on the deck of a boat, a woman bent over a writing desk, and a child’s cradle. Although some drawings are more finished than others, all display a steady hand and an eye for form.

 

Thackeray also illustrated several of his own novels. The spooky sketch pictured above is one such illustration, taken from his 1859 novel The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century. As its name suggests, the book was set chiefly in colonial Virginia and follows the family of an English colonel, the title character from an earlier Thackeray novel The History of Henry Esmond. If these witches bear a resemblance to those from Macbeth, it might not be coincidence—in The Virginians, several characters attend a performance of the play.

 

For more sketches by Thackeray, as well as manuscripts of writings, drawings, and letters by and about this English author, explore his archive.

 

Image: Ink sketch by William Makepeace Thackeray.