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Creepy, macabre, and bloody: Halloween assignment illustrates breadth of Ransom Center's collections

By Bethany Johnsen

Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.
Arthur Conan Doyle's Ouija board. Photo by Pete Smith.

Bethany Johnsen is an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center who has been working with Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg to gather materials for students for a visit on Halloween.

For the students in University of Texas at Austin English Professor Janine Barchas’s freshman honors seminar, a Ransom Center visit on October 31 will bring more than the usual bag of treats: a Halloween-themed presentation introducing students to the Center’s resources.

I assisted Ransom Center Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg in putting together the presentation, and this process revealed the provocative connections that such a subject affords, and will, we hope, suggest to these students ways they might use the collections over the remainder of their time as students. With so many items relating to the supernatural, morbid, or just plain unusual to choose from, limiting the presentation to a manageable size was perhaps the most difficult part of the process.

With a topic as huge as Halloween and all its creepy associations, where does a curator begin? We wanted to pull from various collections to display the richness of the Center’s holdings. So while hours could be spent on the objects of horror from just, say, film, we restricted ourselves to the torso model of Robert De Niro’s makeup for his role as the monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Frankenstein and the mask of (imitation) human skin from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Of course, the modern scary movie invokes a tradition long predating the twentieth century. The presentation will highlight older examples of fascination with the occult, from a sixteenth-century book entitled The discouerie of witchcraft,: wherein the lewde dealings of witches and witchmongers is notablie detected, the knauerie of conjurors, the impietie of inchantors…, (and so forth) to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Ouija board. And in case such historically important artifacts lack a certain flavor of whimsy, we were sure to include a blood-stained handkerchief from the personal effects of  printer T. J. Cobden-Sanderson, accompanied by a note reading “Dickie’s first cut sometime in November 1885.”

But many of the picks were not as immediately obvious candidates as century-old child blood.  Following a suggestion to investigate the Edward Gorey collection, given the American illustrator’s enormous influence on the contemporary Gothic aesthetic, I combed through his manuscripts to and came across a page that had—in addition to such phrases as “gothic,” “flamboyant,” and “arc cassé”—the words “danse macabre” scrawled across it. This page was not immediately remarkable in a series of brittle papers covered by Gorey’s doodles, but we were intrigued by “danse macabre” anyway. The dance of death, as we call it in English, is an artistic and literary genre that arose in the late medieval period to represent allegorically that death unites everyone, regardless of station or class; we must all dance with death. This symbol must have had special resonance in an age when death, and the harshest class distinctions were so ubiquitous. The Center holds wonderful examples of “dance of death” iconography from many periods, images that can be rather jarring.

Like Halloween traditions themselves, the Center’s holdings span many nations and centuries, and it is this diversity that allows the researcher to pursue unexpected links, like those that arise between twentieth-century artists and late medieval allegories.

In the Galleries: "The Harp Weaver" by Edna St. Vincent Millay

By Kelsey McKinney

Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).
Edna St. Vincent Millay's 'The Ballad of the Harp Weaver,' published by Frank Shay at the bookshop and illustrated by his wife, Fern Forrester Shay (1922).

In 1923, Edna St. Vincent Millay was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921). That prize-winning book was an expanded commercial edition of the poems in this volume. The longer book was published by Harper and Brothers and contained these poems, another poem published first by Frank Shay, The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver (1921), and a handful of additional new verses.

Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver was one of four volumes that came to represent the chapbook series Salvo that Shay published from the shop. A “salvo” is a burst of gunfire, and these little volumes were likewise meant as small but powerful bursts of energy. Millay’s volume was the most influential of the series.

Shay, the owner of the Greenwich Village bookshop, was a natural salesman. Actor and playwright Holland Hudson wrote that Shay used his windows wisely to draw customers into his shop. Millay’s bibliographer Karl Yost noted that for the total edition of 500 copies, Shay printed most of the copies in orange, but he also printed a small number of each in “red, dark green, apple green, yellow, and blue.” Yost explains Shay did this so that he could create striking window displays. Shay’s wife, the artist Fern Forrester Shay, created the cover art and interior illustrations for this volume. The Ransom Center only owns covers in green, blue, and red. The imprint inside the volume reads, “printed for Frank Shay and sold by him at 4 Christopher St., in the shadow of old Jefferson Market, 1922.”

The Ballad of the Harp Weaver includes some of Millay’s most famous poems and may be read in full in the online exhibition.

Several copies of Millay’s The Ballad of the Harp Weaver can be seen in the exhibition The Greenwich Village bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925, on display through January 22.

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.

Eric Cartier, a graduate student in the School of Information, works with an audio reel of William Faulkner reading his own short story "The Bear." Photo by Pete Smith
Eric Cartier, a graduate student in the School of Information, works with an audio reel of William Faulkner reading his own short story "The Bear." Photo by Pete Smith
Library Assistant Ancelyn Krivak uses the Digibook scanner to create digital images for a book of poetry. Photo by Pete Smith
Library Assistant Ancelyn Krivak uses the Digibook scanner to create digital images for a book of poetry. Photo by Pete Smith

Fellows Find: Graham Greene papers lift curtain on author’s psyche

By Christopher Hull


Photo of Christopher Hull by Pete Smith.
Photo of Christopher Hull by Pete Smith.

Dr. Christopher Hull from the University of Nottingham, UK, came to the Harry Ransom Center on a British Studies Fellowship to research the Graham Greene collection. His initial plan is to write and publish a book on Greene and Cuba, concentrating on the writer’s journeys to the island prior to writing Our Man in Havana (1958), his depiction of the island and the Cold War in this iconic novel, and his continuing relationship with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro after 1959. His larger project is to write a book on Greene and Latin America. He shares some of his findings in the collection here.

Supported by a British Studies Fellowship, I spent five profitable weeks at the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 researching its Graham Greene collection. I was particularly interested to read material related to Greene’s contacts with Latin America, specifically three of his novels: Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973). The Center holds all the manuscript drafts for these works, as well as Greene’s screenplays for film versions of the first two novels. They offer a fascinating insight into the gestation of storyline and characters by one of Britain’s most renowned twentieth-century novelists.

As well as full-length manuscripts, the Ransom Center holds many of Greene’s shorter works, including unfinished and unpublished scripts, journalistic articles and opinion pieces, and an assortment of personal letters. Among these, we can see that the writer’s reputation for practical jokes and a mischievous sense of humor sometimes got him into trouble. In 1953, Greene was returning from a visit to Edinburgh with a friend after meeting “two delightful Texan girls” in a hotel. After imbibing a few pints of Black Velvet on their southbound train to London, the author and his friend decided as a joke to set up a new society. They published an announcement in The Times: “May we beg the courtesy of your columns to announce the formation of the Anglo-Texan Society?” It had the avowed objective of “establishing cultural and social links” between Britain and the Lone Star state.1

Abroad on a journalistic assignment in Kenya to cover the Mau-Mau rebellion, Greene soon received the perturbing news that the Society had received 60 membership applications on its first day. By the time Greene had returned to Britain, the Anglo-Texan Society had already held an inaugural cocktail party. His friend was now the Society’s Chairman and Greene its President. There was, however, some cynical reaction from the United States. The New York Times wondered if Greene, known as a creator of “diabolisms and plenty of hells” and no great supporter of U.S. foreign policy, might have a dastardly plan underfoot to make Texas cede from the Union.  But the Society went from strength to strength, and during another of Greene’s absences in Vietnam, prior to the publication of The Quiet American (1955), his friend presided over a jamboree at a film studio outside London. The Houston Fat Stock Show lent four prime steers and three Hillbilly bands to delight 1,500 Texans and Society members. Double-decker “Texas to Piccadilly Circus” buses carried 300 of the overseas visitors from London to the event. 2

Greene diplomatically resigned his presidency of the Society, using his frequent absences abroad as a credible excuse. The sobering Anglo-Texan Society experience dampened his enthusiasm for large-scale practical jokes, but the Society was still holding events 25 years after its formation.

Perhaps the biggest source of riches in the Harry Ransom Center’s Graham Greene collection is its series of “Dream Diaries.” As a troubled teenager, his headmaster father had sent Greene to London for six months of psychoanalysis alongside his pretty first cousin. Forty years later, when suffering from recurrent depression in the 1960s, a psychoanalyst recommended the peripatetic British author to write down the content of his dreams. The advice produced remarkable results, and gives an invaluable insight into the mind of the prolific author. Several volumes contain the writer’s memories of his dreams, intermittently, for the years 1964–66, 1972–75, 1979–81, 1983–86, and 1988. Greene’s “Dream Diaries” detail the writer’s nightly obsessions, fantasies, and episodes of repeated paranoia, as well as memories of past events. Among many fantastical accounts, the diaries recount his experiences from childhood and adulthood, his many travels to dangerous spots around the world, famous personalities (both living and dead), and time spent with several female partners in addition to his long-estranged wife. Four decades after his teenage experience of psychoanalysis, Greene was still fantasizing about an affair and possible marriage to his pretty cousin.

The recounting of most people’s dreams does not make for stimulating entertainment, but in Greene’s case they are riveting. Greene had served as an air-raid warden in Central London during the blitz. And his house in Clapham (South London) was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War II. One of his recurrent fears was evidently a German invasion of Britain and further bombing raids. He also feared persecution by Haiti’s voodoo-worshiping President-for-Life “Papa Doc” Duvalier, years after his novel The Comedians had painted a dark picture of the dictator’s rule.

From a writer described by Lord of the Flies author William Golding as the “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness,” even less dramatic nocturnal thoughts come alive. In his miniscule handwriting, for example, is the following dream from 1981:

Having dinner at Bentley’s I felt rather strange as I was wearing my dressing gown & had bare feet. I was relieved that no waiter objected. Evelyn Waugh was at the next table with three men—one of whom had an exceedingly ugly voice. I was glad when he separated from Evelyn & went to the other end of the table with a companion where his voice was more subdued. Later I had a better opinion of him when he was reproached by a woman at another table for having left his wife. She urged him to return, but he said it was out of the question – he could not live with her. I became impatient at the bad service & called out to a wine waiter – “I ordered a glass of port half an hour ago & a Welsh rarebit three quarters of an hour ago.” I wondered whether the bad service was due to the way I was dressed.3

Currently, only a brief and sanitized collection of these dreams exists in published form.4 Greene fans must relish the day when his recorded dreams can be transcribed and published in their entirety.

1 The Times, Aug. 22 1953, p. 7.

2 ‘The Joke That Went Wrong’, Jan. 29 1974, Box 19.1, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

3 ‘Dream Diaries’ (1979–81), Jan. 17–18 1981 (p. 15), Box 38.3, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

4A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (London: Viking, 1992).

Related posts:

Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society

Win a copy of Denis Johnson’s latest book

By Kelsey McKinney

Writer Denis Johnson, whose archive is currently being cataloged at the Ransom Center, is best known for his National Book Award–winning novel Tree of Smoke (2007), Jesus’ Son (1992), and several plays and poetry collections. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently published Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which was originally published in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002.

Johnson’s archive contains materials related to the novella, some of which can be seen in the above slideshow.

In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the novella. Email with “Johnson” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.


Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.



A glimpse into J. M. Coetzee’s bound drafts: "Life & Times of Michael K"

By Molly Schwartzburg

The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.

The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.

Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.

This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.

But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.

Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.

The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.


Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.


Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

By Harry Ransom Center


‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks.
‘The Sweet Hereafter’ by Russell Banks.


Dillon Welch is an undergraduate student studying violin performance at the Butler School of Music. He researched the Ransom Center’s Russell Banks archive for a class devoted to the author’s works. During the course, Banks was on campus for an event at the Ransom Center, and Welch was given the opportunity to meet Banks in person.


For the spring 2011 semester, as part of the new Signature Course program at The University of Texas at Austin, I took a class on the works of Russell Banks. I’d never heard of him before. But I soon got to know him through both his characters and themes. After we had thoroughly delved into the depths of Banks’s mind on the page, we got to do the same with the man. To me, this was the highlight of the course: a small group of people sitting around a table having an intimate conversation with the author that ranged from deep political questions on his frequent use of racial themes in his novels, to why his characters like to drink Canadian Club. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, for which I could scarcely stop asking questions. To know that we were learning things about Banks that few people actually knew was fascinating. We spent a semester reading close to half of his novels and several short stories. In addition, we spent time studying his archive at the Ransom Center, setting our eyes on rarely seen items. At the beginning of the semester, our professor, Evan Carton, said, “When you leave this course, you will be some of the foremost scholars on Russell Banks.” He was so right.

Related posts:
Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research
Russell Banks signs the authors’ door at the Ransom Center.
In the Galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor