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The Letters of Hemingway: a scholar’s work in the Ransom Center archives

By Kelsey McKinney

Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.
Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.

The recent publication of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I, 1907-1922 has re-ignited public interest in Hemingway’s personal life and documents. In the introduction to the book, editor Sandra Spanier writes: “Hemingway’s letters constitute this autobiography in the continuous present tense. They enrich our understanding of his creative processes, offer insider insights into the twentieth-century literary scene, and document the making and marketing of an American icon.” Four of the letters from the Ransom Center’s  Hemingway collection can be found in the book.

Liesl Olson, a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, visited the Ransom Center in October 2011 to study the letters of Hemingway. In January she will become Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She shares some of her findings from the Hemingway collection here:

“In October I spent a few days working in the Hemingway collection at the Harry Ransom Center. I was looking to learn more about the relationship between Hemingway and his Oak Park roots—especially his fraught relationship with his artistic mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. I also mined the collection for materials relevant to Hemingway’s time in Chicago, particularly during 1920-21 when he lived with friends on the north side and wrote for a fraudulent periodical called the Cooperative Commonwealth. What I found at the Ransom Center will help to complete a story that I tell about Hemingway in my book-in-progress, which is about the literary and artistic centrality of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most fantastic letter that Grace Hall Hemingway sent to her son is dated July 24, 1920, and it is contained in the Hemingway collection at the Ransom Center. The letter is an elaborate reprimand for Hemingway’s late-night lake escapade with friends up in Michigan. In Grace Hall Hemingway’s ten-page letter—for which she composed many drafts (also in the collection)—she conceives of the metaphor of a bank to describe their relationship, and she is quick to point out that he is “overdrawn.” Most Hemingway scholars know about this letter. But in looking at the letter in context of so many others at the Ransom Center, it is striking to learn that Hemingway’s father (who received a copy) called it a “masterpiece” and that the letter itself entered into family lore. Grace Hall Hemingway’s construction of motherhood—in a letter written in flourishing cursive script—is a striking analogue to Hemingway’s own construction of himself, much later in life, as a popular, bearded “Papa.”

I found many other collections at the Ransom Center  that help to illuminate the literary and cultural life of Chicago—especially the Alice Corbin Henderson collection. Henderson was Harriet Monroe’s editorial assistant at Poetry magazine, published in Chicago, where Hemingway’s poems first appeared in 1923. Though Hemingway’s letters to Monroe have been published—and the spectacular multi-volume Hemingway letters project will complete what has been missed—the materials at the Ransom Center provide the other side of the correspondence, the incoming letters to Hemingway. Like the 1920 letter from Grace Hall Hemingway, these letters give voice to the people and places that shaped Hemingway’s life and work.”

Denis Johnson papers open for research

By Amy Armstrong

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

Gobsmacked: Professor Recounts Class’s Tour of the Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.
Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.

In October, University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Marc Lewis brought his freshman Plan II Honors class on a trip to the Ransom Center. Professor Lewis has won numerous teaching awards, including the Regents’ Outstanding
Teaching
Award and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. Below, Professor Lewis writes about his class’s private tour of the Ransom Center, led by Director Thomas F. Staley.
 

Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.
Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.

Over 30 years of teaching, I can remember many occasions where students were excited and interested, but my Plan II Honors Signature class’s visit to the Ransom Center on October 4 marks the first time that I have heard audible gasps of astonishment. The class arrived with high expectations, knowing that even among the “gems of the university,” the Ransom Center is unique. They had ordered an eclectic collection of treasures to view: the original manuscript of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a Shakespeare first folio, Robert De Niro’s jacket from Taxi Driver, Volume 1 of the 1609 Douay Old Testament, original notes from a Woodward and Bernstein interview with Deep Throat, Abraham Ortelius’s 500-year-old map of the New World, a set of original architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rare items. The students came expecting that those exhibits would be the highlight of the day; what they did not expect was that the real magic would be a talk by Director Tom Staley followed by a personal tour of the closed, nonpublic sections of the building.

These freshmen students knew what they experiencing. As one student wrote afterwards: “Walking through rooms filled with original movie posters, books filled with presidential autographs, and other priceless historical artifacts spread casually along shelves was incredible in and of itself, but the places and people Dr. Staley took us to were even more remarkable. Seemingly without ever planning to do so, he showed us the full scope of the Ransom Center’s activities and their significance, everything from the meticulous preservation of the cover from a first edition of The Great Gatsby to colorful sketches of Macy’s parade floats from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Another student was as struck by the excitement of the Center as fully as he was by the items: “Having a backstage pass with Director Tom Staley as guide was a spectacular experience. Simply observing his reactions to the artifacts we saw being restored revealed to me the passion that goes into maintaining this Center.”

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

And: “Around a corner, we encountered an original poster for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—you just don’t find this sort of thing anywhere else. Sometime later in the trip, we were taken to a room where an ancient map a dozen-and-a-half feet long was undergoing a preservation process. You see this sort of artifact on the Discovery Channel and think, ‘Oh, that’s neat!’ but it is only when you see it first-hand that you get a true appreciation for the talent, dedication, and effort that goes into it all.”

Other students commented on the way that the Ransom Center’s collections connect the dots to show artistic flows of thought: “The Ransom Center’s pursuit of an understanding of the creative process and the artistic mind made me completely rethink the process of bringing together collections of art and writing.”

These students had never seen anything like the Ransom Center, and I am pleased that they were wise enough to understand how rare an opportunity they were given. I understood that opportunity as well, and I am not embarrassed to admit that my own jaw dropped more than once during the visit. What an astounding afternoon.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett

By Jennifer Tisdale

'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'
'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'

Last fall, Cambridge University Press published The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 2: 1941–1956. Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, the volume is the second in a four-part series offering a comprehensive range of Samuel Beckett’s letters.

In compiling this edition, the editors consulted the Samuel Beckett papers at the Ransom Center, from which more than 15 percent of the letters in this volume were drawn.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett,” a project of the Emory Laney Graduate School, will result in the publication of two additional volumes that feature Beckett materials from around the world.

The Modern Language Association of America recently announced that the first book in the series, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940, will receive the eleventh Morton N. Cohen Award for a Distinguished Edition of Letters.

The Ransom Center acquired its first substantial group of Beckett books and manuscripts in 1958 and continues to add to its holdings.

Handwritten manuscripts and typescripts make up the bulk of the collection, supplemented by Beckett’s correspondence and a wide range of his writing, including poems, stories, and plays spanning most of his career.

Drafts of both the French En attendant Godot and the English Waiting for Godot are present, as are versions of All That Fall, Comment c’est, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Watt. A handwritten manuscript of Whoroscope, Beckett’s first published poem, is also in the collection.

The Ransom Center’s web exhibition “Fathoms from Anywhere” traces Beckett’s (1906–1989) career, drawing materials from the Ransom Center’s collection.

Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium in April

By Alicia Dietrich

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.

The Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium on April 5 and 6 at the Ransom Center. The symposium includes a public program on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium.

Symposium
registration is limited and opens January 23 at 11 a.m. CST. Participants must register online. The $55 registration fee includes access to all events on the schedule.

All symposium events will be webcast live.

The Ransom Center holds Wallace’s archive, which was made accessible for research in September 2010. For the symposium, writers, editors, journalists, and critics gather to discuss Wallace’s life and work in panel discussions on such topics as “Editors on Wallace” and “A Life through the Archive.”

Symposium moderators and participants include Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell, editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin.

Storytellers from The Moth tour Spalding Gray archive

By Elana Estrin

Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Helen Adair shows Maggie Cino and Faye Lane a notebook from Spalding Gray's archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

Last Thursday at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, monologist Mike Daisey told the audience he had a confession to make.

Before coming to Austin, Daisey said, he asked his Facebook friends where he should eat in town. He received an onslaught of barbeque suggestions from Austinites passionately defending their favorites. “People were un-friending each other about where I should eat barbeque,” Daisey reported.

Mike arrived in Austin too starving to search for any of the barbeque suggestions. He did, however, find himself in front of a McDonalds, considering a McRib.

“I know!” Daisey said, acknowledging the audience’s gasp of horror. “How can someone come to Austin and eat a McRib?”

So he re-evaluated and concluded, “I am a sinner, but I will not eat a McRib on this day.” The audience sighed in relief, but too soon. “I will have a cheeseburger instead.”

This was just one of the many stories spun at the Paramount, where Daisey hosted an evening of storytelling with five raconteurs from The Moth, a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling.

The Moth comes out of the storytelling tradition led by monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004), whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. In November, The Moth held a tribute to Gray in New York hosted by Garrison Keillor and they presented the 2011 Moth Award, “celebrating the art of the raconteur,” to Gray’s family.

The day after The Moth’s Austin appearance, Ransom Center Associate Curator of Performing Arts Helen Baer shared highlights from Gray’s collection with Moth touring coordinator Maggie Cino, who directed the Austin performance, and performer Faye Lane.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Lane said upon arrival at the Ransom Center. Lane said she watched Gray’s film Swimming to Cambodia, a performance film of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, three or four times when it was released.

“I just sat there with my mouth open and thought, you can do this? It was so exactly what I wanted to do and I’d never seen anybody do it before,” Lane said. “I started journaling furiously. I realized these stories are important.”

Baer showed Cino and Lane two photographs of Gray which the Ransom Center recently acquired from photographer Ann Rhoney; the Ronald McDonald notebook which appears at the beginning of Swimming to Cambodia (“Oh my gosh, I remember that part: ping pong, coke bottle, banana,” Lane said); one of Gray’s journals (“That looks exactly like my journal!” Lane said); and a psychoanalytic questionnaire (“I’m suddenly fixated on this. I’m like: must read it till the end,” Cino said).

Baer explained that Gray devised the questionnaire, asking himself questions a therapist might ask.

“For him, even the most personal becomes a performance,” Baer said.

Cino and Lane read every word of the questionnaire, occasionally reading passages aloud.

“I was offered a free apartment. I turned it down with the excuse that I had to get back to work. When I got back home, I couldn’t work because I was so upset with the choice I made.”

“Puberty. Lost all confidence. Weak, ugly, and dumb. Too strange for anyone to like or love.”

“I’ve often felt like a kept woman, a housewife.”

Near the end of the tour, Cino explained how Gray’s simple aesthetic influences The Moth. As technology has evolved in the past two decades, Cino said, people are hungrier than ever for simplicity.

“You get into this question of how little do you need to communicate,” Cino said. “Spalding Gray is such a force in having made it seem possible that you can do it in a very straightforward way without a lot of bells and whistles. I think he started a whole world of possibility that people are continuing to explore.”

This Veteran’s Day Weekend: Free Book Giveaway of Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"

By Io Montecillo

Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'
Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is an account of soldiers’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Like his other National Book Award-winning work, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried offers readers a glimpse of war that neither glorifies nor camouflages its realities. O’Brien himself has said he is only attempting to tell a “true war story.” Because of O’Brien’s frank depiction of war and strong use of language, The Things They Carried has been challenged and banned by some counties and schools.  In connection with the Ransom Center’s exhibition Burned, Banned, Seized, and Censored, visitors are invited to see the exhibition during Veteran’s Day weekend, Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, and receive a free copy of The Things They Carried while supplies last. Tim O’Brien’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.