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Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

By Micah Erwin

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.
These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

Memory as source in Jayne Anne Phillips’s “Machine Dreams”

By Ady Wetegrove

Known for the family dynamics she enmeshes in her work, Jayne Anne Phillips uses her own family history as a source for character and plot development in her debut novel Machine Dreams (1984). Phillips chronicles one family, the Hampsons, to explore narratives that span from the years leading up to World War II through the Vietnam War.

Phillips’s papers, which are now accessible at the Ransom Center, include letters, travel ephemera, army pamphlets, and public service announcements. Drawing on wartime and post-war letters written by her father, and addressed to his aunt, Phillips captures the distress of mid-twentieth-century America. The letters also inform character development in Machine Dreams.

Phillips incorporates specific language and usage from the letters throughout the novel. Her father continually sends love to “the kids,” but seldom makes specific mention of the names of his young cousins. Borrowing this language in a chapter titled “The House at Night,” Phillips writes:

“She heard faintly her brother breathe and whimper; in these summer days the artificial disruption of school was forgotten and the fifteen months of age separating them disappeared; they existed between their parents as one shadow, the kids, and they fought and conspired with no recognition of separation.”

Seeing Phillips’s papers is like gaining access to an era of American life. Family photographs in the archive supplement the early drafts of Machine Dreams, which Phillips scribbled in spiral notebooks. Annotations on photographs give meaning to otherwise nameless faces, revealing the ways Phillips develops her characters and narratives. It appears that personal relics guide Phillips’s process in the most intimate of ways—through family memories.

Phillips was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award for her novel Lark & Termite and is the author of MotherKind (2000), Shelter (1994), Black Tickets (1979), and Fast Lanes (1984).

Related content:

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read an excerpt from Lark & Termite

View a list of books that Jayne Anne Phillips recommends

 

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Beat Generation poet Peter Orlovsky’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Peter Orlovsky’s notebook titled Rolling Thunder, Oct. 29, 1975.
Peter Orlovsky’s notebook titled Rolling Thunder, Oct. 29, 1975.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Peter Orlovsky (1933–2010), an important figure in the Beat Generation.

Orlovsky was the companion of fellow poet Allen Ginsberg for more than 40 years, and his papers reflect significant aspects of their relationship. Orlovsky’s collection comprises manuscripts, journals and notebooks, correspondence, tape recordings, photographs, and other personal documents, including unpublished poetry and prose works.

Around the time that Orlovsky met Ginsberg, he began to keep a journal, filling more than 140 notebooks before his death. Some of Orlovsky’s published poems appear in the journals, yet none of the journals have been published.

Correspondence in the collection highlights Orlovsky’s many connections with other poets, authors, and artists. There are more than 1,600 letters written to Orlovsky and/or Ginsberg, including 165 letters written by Ginsberg himself. Some notable correspondents include Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ken Kesey, and Robert LaVigne. Orlovsky also wrote regularly to his parents and siblings, and more than 65 of his letters are included in the archive.

The collection features more than 2,650 photographs taken by or of Orlovsky, documenting the years between 1970 and 2010. Also included are eight reel-to-reel tapes from the 1960s and more than 120 audiocassettes made by Orlovsky during the 1970s and 1980s, some recording conversations with Ginsberg.

The Ransom Center has extensive collections of Beat Generation writers, including materials related to William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Corso , Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.

The Orlovsky materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Related content:
Ransom Center Humanities Coordinator Gregory Curtis writes about a piece of correspondence in the archive, revealing how a misunderstanding began between Allen Ginsberg and Diana Trilling.

Mark Twain letter has close geographical tie to University of Texas

By Edgar Walters

When Samuel Clemens—better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain—penned a letter in London in 1900 to the widow of his childhood best friend in Austin, he had no idea that it would be preserved more than a century later in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives just four blocks south. Today the letter resides in a collection of Twain-related materials that features correspondence with longtime friends and others, including one from Clemens to P. T. Barnum.

This letter’s addressee, Mrs. Dora Goff Bowen, lived at 2506 Whitis Ave. in a neighborhood just north of the burgeoning University of Texas campus. The address, now home to The University of Texas at Austin’s hulking Jesse H. Jones Communications Center, has an interesting past. A few years after Clemens wrote the letter, 2506 Whitis became the site of one of the University’s first sorority houses, that of the newly organized Pi Beta Phi chapter. Two lots down the street lay George Littlefield’s still-new Victorian mansion, built in 1893, which maintains a grandiose presence on campus to this day.

Dora’s husband, Will Bowen, had grown up with Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri. Their friendship and escapades along the Missouri River became the basis of Twain’s books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bowen and Clemens engaged in countless hijinks, including, as another letter reveals, stealing dinner from the town drunkard to feed “the hogs in order to keep them still till we could mount them & have a ride.”

Clemens’s letter to Mrs. Bowen begins abruptly: “Yes, I really wanted to catch the measles. I succeeded.” The statement refers to another episode of Will Bowen and Clemens’s childhood mischief. When a young Bowen came down with the measles, Clemens decided to join his friend in bed to catch the virus and “settle this matter one way or the other and be done with it,” as he revealed in a posthumously published autobiography.

But fans will notice in the letter a conspicuous absence of Twain’s characteristic humor and lightheartedness. The turn of the twentieth century was a difficult time in Clemens’s life. Will Bowen, with whom Clemens had been in correspondence for more than 30 years, had recently passed away. Shortly thereafter, in 1896, Clemens’s daughter Suzy died of meningitis. Around the same time, Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy after investing $300,000—worth approximately $8,000,000 today—in the Paige typesetting machine, a dysfunctional technology that quickly became obsolete.

Those hardships are reflected in the melancholy tone of Clemens’s letter: “[T]he romance of life is the only part of it that is overwhelmingly valuable, & romance dies with youth. After that, life is a drudge, & indeed a sham. A sham, & likewise a failure.” He fantasizes an alternate timeline, in which he would rather “call back Will Bowen & John Garth & the others, & live the life, & be as we were, & make holiday until 15, then all drown together.”

Despite his apparently bleak outlook, Clemens insists in the letter that he does not “say this uncheerfully—for I have seldom been uncheerful.” Indeed, in a post-script, he indulges in some characteristic playfulness in his response to Mrs. Bowen’s previous letter: “P.S. What we did to Brown? Oh, no, I will never reveal that!”

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