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Claude McKay and the "Making of Home to Harlem"

By Alicia Dietrich

Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay (1889–1948) is probably best-known for his poem “If We Must Die.” McKay, however, also published three novels and a collection of short stories. His most popular novel, Home to Harlem (1928), grew out of a short story of the same name. He was encouraged in his work by his literary agent William Bradley, an American whose agency operated out of Paris. Claude McKay’s correspondence can be found in the Center’s William A. Bradley Literary Agency collection.

An optimistic McKay wrote to Bradley from Antibes, France in February 1927, “Everything is clear and I can see through the whole story to the end. I ought to have the thing done by the end of March.” However, a series of difficulties beset McKay and slowed his writing process. In mid-March, McKay’s friend Max Eastman was planning to return to the United States and to take his typewriter with him. McKay thought he might have to write long-hand, but on March 26 happily reported “The typewriter problem is almost solved” after he purchased a used typewriter for 550 francs. He noted, however, it “doesn’t work so well. I have already had to take it back to Nice twice…and now it is on the blink again.” In early April, McKay was still working on the manuscript and struggling through financial and creative challenges, writing to Bradley, “I am without any money and should be very obliged to you for sending me two hundred francs….. I got into an impasse for a week nearly and had to destroy everything I wrote. But I got out and am going along smoothly again.”

McKay continued to work, and by June the manuscript was complete. In February 1928, McKay finally received the publisher’s “dummy” of the book and had concerns about the dust jacket featuring an illustration by Aaron Douglas:

“I like the cover of the book & the color of the jacket but I don’t like the drawing. It looks so much like the stiff skeleton of a black ape. Has no life and one looking at it will naturally link it with Jake [the novel’s protagonist]. Covarrubias could have done something striking & sympathetic, but I suppose I should not grumble & criticize but be loyal and patriotic as the artist is a colored man.”

A week later he followed-up with Bradley:

“Yes, I think my first opinion about the cover was wrong. It is effective and grows on me. The Senegalese fellows at the café were enchanted with it at first sight. Maybe my plastic sense is a little corrupt and sentimental.”

Harper and Brothers released the book with the Aaron Douglas illustration and Home to Harlem went on to become a success, surprising even McKay who was tickled with its popularity “I see Home to Harlem like an impudent dog has nosed right in among the best sellers in New York!” The New York Times declared of McKay’s talent, “it is not a strained, a half-hearted or skimpy talent, but one that is eminently worth more play than one novel.” While McKay went on to write Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933), these novels failed to live up to the success of Home to Harlem.

 

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The "curiously" illustrated Moll Pitcher

By Alicia Dietrich

The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.

As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.

Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.

 

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Writer: "Shakespeare in Love" screenplay shows Tom Stoppard's edits

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Early draft of the screenplay for 'Shakespeare in Love' by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, 1998.
Click image to enlarge. Early draft of the screenplay for 'Shakespeare in Love' by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, 1998.
Of all the elements of filmmaking, the screenplay is arguably the most important. It is also the element most debated, discounted, discarded, and arbitrated. More often than not, the screenplay is an adaptation of another work—a novel, play, news story, biography, or even another screenplay.

The screenplay expresses character and narrative and is therefore the focus of interpretation by the director, actors, and designers. Furthermore, the screenplay is the foundation on which all the other artists and technicians base their work. Whether a scene takes place indoors or outdoors, for example, may affect the sets the art director designs and builds and the clothes the costume designer creates for the characters to wear. A scene set at night will have implications for the cinematographer and might be played differently by the actor than a scene set during daylight hours. Special effects, exotic locations, and action scenes will also have implications for the budget, the shooting schedule, and for everyone on the production team. All these elements must be spelled out in the screenplay in order to budget, plan, and successfully incorporate them into the film.

In this early draft of Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay for Shakespeare in Love (1998), handwritten notes and edits by Stoppard are visible. Scripts from 16 films are featured in the exhibition.

This is just one item from the “Writer” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us February 12 on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Author Andre Dubus's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999). Dubus was widely considered a master of the short story. His story collections include Separate Flights (1975), Adultry and Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), We Don’t Live Here Anymore (1984), and Dancing After Hours: Stories (1996), among others.

Ransom Center receives gift of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis letters

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has acquired a collection of letters written by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Ray Roberts, who was her colleague at Doubleday & Co. The letters date from 1978 to 1992 and are from the Roberts’ collection. Kennedy began her publishing career at Viking in 1975 and became an associate editor at Doubleday in early 1978. There are 50 letters from Kennedy to Roberts, more than half of which were sent between 1978 and 1980 while Kennedy and Roberts were colleagues.

"Publishing isn't just about contacts; it's equally a matter of human relationships"

By Richard Oram

Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.
Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus in a tragic car accident. Yet, as the online review The Daily Beast observes, he remains “the most widely read of all the postwar French writers and [is] hip enough to inspire a comic-book series.”

In addition to the manuscript of his novel The Misunderstanding and other items in the Carlton Lake Collection of French Literature, the Ransom Center holds several fascinating few folders of correspondence between Camus and the publisher Blanche Knopf, to which a couple of additional letters have recently been added.

Few of the firm’s authors were closer to Blanche Knopf than Albert Camus. After Blanche’s death, her husband Alfred recalled that “she became very, very friendly with Camus…They were frequently closeted in our room discussing and working over his book-in-progress. I think she had the right to feel that she was part of his work, and I don’t think she ever got over his death.”

The special nature of this publishing relationship is also apparent in Blanche’s 1960 memoir “Albert Camus in the Sun,” in which she writes, “That he was a writer, I knew. In short, I believed in him from the very beginning.” Blanche Knopf even gave him the trademark tan trench coat that the author wore in his most famous dustjacket photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

Blanche Knopf played a significantly larger role in shaping Camus’s career and promoting his reputation—and not merely in the English-speaking world—than has been recognized. Three weeks after V-E Day, Blanche swept into France (one journalist commented, “I knew the war was over when [she] turned up in Paris”) and almost immediately signed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus. During her first meeting at the Ritz Hotel, she and Camus “talked about his writing, his future, his past, his plans, young writers in France, Pasternak, English writers, American writers, ourselves, everything, in these curious sessions we had together.”

The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert, was published by Knopf on April 11, 1946. Camus was in New York at that time for his first and only trip to the United States, and the Knopfs threw a large party in his honor. The novel initially sold fewer than 10,000 copies and was in the short term only a modest success, although it’s now regarded as a classic of modern literature. He and his publishers had agreed that his second novel, The Plague, would be published in the United States before any of his earlier dramatic or philosophical works were translated. Later, Blanche put in a plea for intensive marketing of the novel, and her faith in The Plague was borne out: the hardback went on to sell 50,000 copies up to 1960. Camus was now able to go out and purchase a motorcycle.

In the middle years of their relationship, Blanche Knopf insisted on publishing translations of his more philosophical works, such as The Rebel, although they generally did not sell well in the United States. She desperately tried to steer the author, who was distracted by his theatrical pursuits, back to novel-writing—in particular The First Man, which was not published until forty years after his death. Near the end of his life, the firm published his short novel The Fall. It was in part due to active promotion by Blanche Knopf that Camus received his Nobel Prize in 1957. Alfred and Blanche Knopf accompanied him on a snowy train ride to see him accept the award and deliver a memorable speech.

As Alfred Knopf said, Blanche could be a “bulldog” when it came to advancing the case of authors she particularly admired. This was certainly the case with Camus, who may have owed much of his international success to her. Research in the Knopf archive shows that publishing isn’t just about contracts and balance sheets; it’s equally a matter of human relationships.

The Curious Colophon: Some Observations of HRC 44 in the Ransom Center

By Micah Erwin

Micah Erwin is a student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin specializing in rare books and special collections librarianship. He earned a masters degree in medieval studies, and his research interests include the preservation and cataloging of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. He shares some discoveries he made about a medieval manuscript in the Ransom Center’s collections. HRC 44 is the unique number assigned to this particular manuscript in the Center’s Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection. Early manuscripts in the Ransom Center’s collections are often identified by a unique number called a shelfmark that is assigned during the cataloging process.

There were many manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages whose scribes remained anonymous. For this reason, it is interesting when one stumbles upon a manuscript text that can be attributed to a particular scribe. The best form of evidence for the origin of a manuscript and its creator is a scribal colophon—that is, an inscription that a scribe writes at the completion of a manuscript in which he or she provides information about when, where, and by whom it was created. An early sixteenth-century northern European manuscript in the Harry Ransom Center presents just such a case. Although in this case, the identification of the scribe based upon the colophon happens to be a particularly tricky task.

HRC 44 contains a single, complete text in Latin: Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam Johannis Bonaventure. The well-known author of the original work of this text is St. Bonaventure, a doctor of the Catholic Church (1221-1274). St. Bonaventure is known for his great philosophical and mystical writings. Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam is a short treatise on how properly to prepare oneself for the reception of the Eucharist at Mass—a relevant topic at the time that HRC 44 was produced, as the Reformation was just beginning to take hold in Europe.

A number of factors allow us to conclude that this manuscript was produced no later than the year 1520: a watermark is located in the center of the gutter of every other leaf that can be identified with paper produced in Paris between 1468 and 1515; the text is written in a hybrida or semihybrida script, which was developed and popularized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and the scribal colophon itself contains a date. The unusual part about the manuscript is that it contains not one, but two colophons.

The first colophon is written in a Late German cursiva hand, and there is a strange zoomorphic doodle around it . Curiously the text has been literally scribbled over. No date is legible:

Folio 11v of HRC 44
Folio 11v of HRC 44

Here is a translation of the first colophon:

“Here ends the tract on the preparation for the mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure[…………..]”

The second colophon appears to be much like the first, except for one very important difference: the addition of a name and a date. It is written in a secretary hand—an even later script than the first colophon. The translation is as follows:

“Here ends the Tract on the Preparation for Mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure written by me, brother Johann Laenstein a Carmelite of Boppard, [in the] year 1520.”

The work of Franze-Bernand Lickteig, an extensive study of German Carmelites in medieval universities, records a certain “Joannes Laynstein de Boppardia” as a monk who studied at Cologne between 1520 and 1522. It is possible that he copied the colophon from the exemplar manuscript, realized his error, and perhaps later wrote a new colophon with his name and the date of its completion.

Based on the above evidence, HRC 44 was therefore produced by a Carmelite monk named Johannes Laenstein from Boppard, Germany, in 1520. It was either copied in Paris (where the paper was made), Cologne (where Laenstein studied), or at the priory of Boppard itself. If we are not convinced of the date 1520, then we can use the watermark evidence to suggest that it was produced no earlier than 1468.

I believe that HRC 44 represents a fascinating example of manuscript book production post-1450. Scholars interested in the production of manuscript books after the invention of the printing press will likely benefit from an examination of HRC 44 and should conduct further research to identify other works produced by its scribe. Additionally, the presence of three different types of script (the text and two colophons on folio 11v) on the same page make this an excellent manuscript for students of paleography.

Cataloging the Morris L. Ernst papers

By Jennifer Hecker

In the spring of 2009, the Harry Ransom Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog the Morris L. Ernst papers. The collection will be closed to researchers until the project is completed in the fall of 2011. During that time, a team of one full-time project archivist and two part-time assistant archivists will arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. They will also produce a standard finding aid (or guide to the collection), which will be available online.

During the cataloging process, the archivists aim to achieve two goals: access and preservation. The Ernst papers, despite being uncataloged, have been used frequently since their acquisition. Several lists and indexes to the papers exist, but they are incomplete, unreliable, and difficult to navigate. This project will replace those various guides with a standardized, online finding aid, which will be searchable and generally much easier to access and use.

The other goal is to make the physical material last as long as possible, so that the information contained in the papers will remain a part of the cultural record. To this end, project staff will re-house the papers in acid-free boxes and folders. At-risk items—those that have been damaged by water, age, or other environmental factors—will be treated by the Center’s Conservation Department. The Ransom Center has a state-of-the-art lab where materials can be stabilized for long-term preservation.

When the cataloging project is complete, the Ernst papers will be housed with the Center’s other collections in secure temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, ensuring the papers’ availability to researchers.

Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out

By Molly Schwartzburg

The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.

The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.

Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”

The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.

Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.

You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.

You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.

“Existentialism for Beginners”

By Alicia Dietrich

Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”