Pestilence, famine, war, and death: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were close companions to life in the fourteenth century. The Church was compromised by political corruption and worldliness, and the pope resided not in Rome but at Avignon, where he remained a virtual pawn to the king of France. During this calamitous phase of European history, a devotional text called the Book of Hours emerged as a medieval bestseller. Ten of these volumes reside in the Harry Ransom Center collections. Learn more about Books of Hours in the first of a three-part series on Books of Hours.
A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.
In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:
And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.
Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.
The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.
Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.
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Timothy Ferris has recently blogged about Edmund Wilson’s “decline letter,” a form postcard listing all of the things the crotchety literary critic refused to do: read manuscripts, advise authors, address meetings, donate and inscribe books—the list goes on and on. The same postcard may be found in the Ransom Center’s collections, and on our copy Wilson has checked “WRITE ARTICLES OR BOOKS TO ORDER” and added “I have nothing interesting to say about Pound and haven’t been influenced by him.”
I have “collected” such items in the Center’s collections for several years without a pigeonhole (the catalogers like to call them “genre headings”) to throw them into, but now I do. The term “decline letter” has a certain rightness and precision about it. In my view, a decline letter shouldn’t be confused with a rejection letter (Ferris himself goes on to make this error in his blog). The purpose of a rejection letter is to turn down book manuscripts or deflate one’s aspirations of attending an Ivy League university. A decline letter, on the other hand, is a form letter used to decline all the various impositions on an author’s (or celebrity’s) time.
Authors are subjected to many annoying demands from various quarters, but the autograph collector is probably the most feared. In P. G. Wodehouse’s story “The Autograph Hunters,” the esteemed novelist Mr. Montagu Wilson “was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women.” Mr. Wilson could have employed a decline letter or postcard, sparing his secretary many hours of work.
Most of the examples of the genre I have seen in the Center’s manuscript collections are actually postcards. A printed postcard answer to an appeal is, by its very nature, a putdown even more offhanded than a form letter. The George Bernard Shaw collection contains a whole folder of these postcards, many of them with autograph revisions. Because of his fame and strong views on all topics, the playwright was constantly solicited by journalists and fans and had an entire repertoire of brightly-colored decline postcards. A form postcard on vegetarianism, though not a decline card, carries a handwritten addition to the printer: “Any color except pink!”
Evelyn Waugh spent most of the later part of his career escaping from London literary life and importunate autograph seekers, aspiring authors, and Americans of all descriptions. Yet the mail still had to be dealt with, and Waugh eventually developed a card carrying this notice: “Mr Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed.”
Even more mild-mannered authors, such as Marianne Moore, could be driven to the use of decline postcards. Moore’s list* includes “recommend editors favorable to verse by children or work bequeathed for publication,” suggesting that she had received more than a few requests along this line.
I expect that few contemporary writers use decline postcards; they simply ignore annoying requests or have a form email on file for the same purpose. Too bad—at its best the decline postcard is a small gem of negativity.
*This example is from an entry in a dealer catalog.
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.
In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.
Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.
John Cage pushed classical music’s limits. He stuck screws and weather stripping into pianos, composed a silent piece, and chose notes at random based on ancient Chinese divination. The Ransom Center holds Cage correspondence in several different collections. These letters reveal Cage’s early efforts to establish a center for experimental music, his mushroom expertise, his friendships, and his vision for classical music. Read more about the letters of this leading figure of experimental music.
Bonnie Nadell, longtime literary agent of David Foster Wallace, shares her thoughts on what scholars can learn from Wallace’s archive about his creative process:
Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.
But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.
We want readers to see how he thought because how he thought was unique and beautiful and precise. So anyone looking through his drafts and even his books will see the levels of thinking that went into every sentence and every page. The corrections on Infinite Jest for the paperback edition even after a master copyediting job, David’s love of language in his dictionary and in his notebooks, and how he deconstructed other writer’s stories and sentences so he could teach his students how to write better and how to read better. The archives are a window into his mind, and I really think scholars and readers will appreciate seeing that for the first time.
Approximately 200 books from David Foster Wallace’s library arrived at the Ransom Center with his papers. When the staff unpacked the collection to check its condition, we could see immediately that the library was not simply a supplement to the archive but an essential part of it. Wallace annotated many of the books heavily: he underlined passages, made extensive comments in the margins, and utilized the front and back inside covers for notes, vocabulary lists, brainstorms, and more. As a reader of Infinite Jest, one book in particular caught my eye: a battered paperback copy of Pam Cook’s edited volume The Cinema Book (New York: Pantheon, 1985). This reference work is heavily used: it lacks both its front and back cover, its spine is held on with two pieces of tape, and the exposed inside cover is inscribed “D. Wallace ’92,” four years before the publication of Infinite Jest.
Infinite Jest is a book about many things, and the mesmerizing power of movies is one of its most dominant themes. One of the book’s central figures is the late James O. Incandenza, an auteurwhose filmography has left an indelible mark upon all of the novel’s characters in one way or another. Early in the novel, the reader learns of the extent of his importance in endnote 24. Endnote 24 comprises Incandenza’s entire filmography, which fills eight pages in tiny print. The reader discovers here that it is essential to actually read Wallace’s footnotes (spoiler alert), because only in this endnote do we learn that Infinite Jest is the title of an Incandenza film.
Traces of The Cinema Book may be found throughout Wallace’s novel, beginning with the basic format of the filmography itself: notably, Wallace penned a bracket around the “Special Note” at the front of The Cinema Book, in which Cook outlines the format her citations will take, and Wallace’s citations of Incandenza’s films resemble these closely. Wallace may also have gathered much film knowledge from this volume. The Incandenza filmography is a virtuosic pastiche of film history, technology, and vocabulary. We are told that Incandenza made every kind of film: “industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic noncommercial, nondramatic (‘anti-confluential’) noncommercial, nondramatic commercial, and dramatic commercial works” (985). Wallace annotated passages throughout The Cinema Book, with the exception of two theoretical chapters. He noted concrete information such as the names of actors, directors, production companies, film journals, and significant events in film history. His annotations show his interest in a wide range of terms and themes covered in the volume, with particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the “the gangster/crime film,” the only genre lacking any Wallace annotations).
At two points in the volume he explicitly mentions Infinite Jest. In the section on “National cinema and film movements,” he underlines much of the section on Roberto Rossellini’s place in the neo-realist Italian tradition, writing in the bottom margin “Rossellini + ‘ad-hoc’ structure—Infinite Jest” (39). More dramatically, he writes the letters “IJ” no less than four times in the three-page section on “The Hollywood Star Machine.” He underlines several passages with particular attention to the following, which will not come as a surprise to readers of Infinite Jest:
It has been argued that the erotic play of the “look” around the female star figure in classic Hollywood cinema is an integral part of the narrative drive towards closure and the reinstatement of equilibrium (Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” 1975). This argument uses psychoanalytical concepts to address the question of the fantasy relationship between spectators and film and the role of the star in that relationship (see also Cook, “Stars and politics,” 1982; Friedberg, “Identification and the star,” 1982). 
Finally, my favorite set of annotations surround the section on the genre of the musical, written by Andy Medhurst. Medhurst spends a considerable amount of time discussing this genre’s dominant theme: entertainment. Wallace has underlined passages discussing the ways in which this genre taps into viewers’ nostalgia and their desire to experience a “vision of human liberation” in a utopian entertainment experience. Wallace has penned “ENTERTAINMENT” at the top of the page and circled the page number (107). This word is central to the project of Infinite Jest, and it is enlightening to read one of the sources from which its meanings in the novel likely derive.
Unpacking Wallace’s library was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this reader; once this and his other books have been cataloged, I look forward to seeing what insights scholars will derive from the hundreds of books and thousands of annotations beyond the few I have noted here.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.
Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.
We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.
In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.
Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.
Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.
The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. The collection is made up of more than 300 boxes of material, covers his entire career through 2007, and contains manuscripts, journals, office and production files, correspondence, and multiple drafts of each of his works, including the acclaimed plays American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and screenplays The Untouchables (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Wag the Dog (1997). These materials record the writing and revision of all of his published texts, as well as several that are unpublished or unfinished.
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