The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
It’s 1997. Dave Eggers is working at Esquire magazine. From his Brooklyn apartment at 394A Ninth Street, Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly. Eggers explains the publication will be called McSweeney’s, named after a man claiming to be a relative who wrote “long, tortured, and often incomprehensible letters” to the Eggers family. The email, which was forwarded extensively to other friends and writers, notes: “There will be an emphasis on experimentation. If you have a story that’s good, but conventional, you’d be better off sending it somewhere legitimate. This thing will be more about trying new and almost certainly misguided ideas.” Rejected works, unfinished stories, and cartoons without pictures had found their home.
Expecting to be around for only a few years, McSweeney’s is still going strong 15 years later and still publishes the flagship McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the monthly magazine TheBeliever, and an ever-expanding catalog of books published under various imprints.
Each issue of the Quarterly Concern is completely redesigned, but the McSweeney’s house style is immediately recognizable, often influenced by vintage typography and a distinct design aesthetic that honors the craft of bookmaking. Always willing to experiment, McSweeney’s has published issues with two spines, a magnetized binding, and a cigar box housing. They’ve also published an issue that resembles a bundle of mail, an issue printed as a complete daily newspaper, and an issue that gave readers a look inside the head of one sweaty man. Many issues focus on a theme, and selected issues have paid tribute to Donald Barthelme; acquainted readers with the art of comics and modern forms of extinct literary genres; introduced international voices by featuring contemporary writing from Icelandic, South Sudanese, and Australian Aboriginal writers; and provided thoughtful non-fiction essays.
Issue 16 was the first edition designed by former editor Eli Horowitz and can be considered the first to really experiment with book form and function. Horowitz wanted “something that could sit on a shelf, pretend to be a normal book, but then unfurl into something else entirely.” The jacket unfolds three times, resembling a pair of pants when completely unfolded, and contains four pockets. One pocket holds the novella Mr. Nobody at All by Ann Beattie, another holds a book of short stories, the third holds Robert Coover’s story “Heart Suit” presented as a deck of 15 playing cards, and the final holds an object: a comb. Horowitz noted that they wanted the fourth pocket to hold an item, but it had to be something long and thin. McSweeney’s considered a ruler and magnifying glass but didn’t want readers to ascribe a meaning to the item or think they were supposed to use it in a certain way. Horowitz decided on a comb. McSweeney’s printer in Singapore subcontracted with a comb maker, and they considered various samples, which can be found in box 17, folder 5 of the archive.
The bulk of the McSweeney’s archive comprises mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs used to produce McSweeney’s publications, but every publication isn’t fully documented. The materials related to issue 16 provide a good look at the publishing process. The archive contains Beattie’s and Adam Levin’s manuscripts with edits by Horowitz, partial proofs with copy-edits, color swatches, the comb samples, and an early homemade design mockup.
Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”
After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.
So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.
Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.
The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.
My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.
It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.
Stephen Graham was a British traveler and writer largely responsible for shaping British and American perceptions of Russia in the early twentieth century. He later traveled throughout Europe and North America, writing many novels and biographies that established him as an important author during his lifetime. Graham’s work, however, is little known among readers today.
In his recent biography, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham, Michael Hughes re-establishes Graham as a significant literary and cultural figure.
While researching, Hughes drew from the Ransom Center’s collection of Graham’s archival materials, which includes manuscripts and letters from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Zona Gale, and Ernest Hemingway. Below, Hughes discusses Graham’s personal life and public contributions.
Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham is now available to be ordered or read for free through Open Book Publishers.
In your introduction, you write, “The writing of a ‘Life’ is, it goes without saying, an intensely personal process.” What does your biography reveal about Graham beyond the persona presented through his texts?
When you read Graham’s books today—particularly his early travel books about Russia—they often seem intensely personal. Graham’s autobiography, which he published when he was 80, also seems to be very candid and open in tone. In reality, though, Graham was careful to manage the way he presented himself to his readers. When writing about Russia he described at length his love of the Russian Orthodox Church—its liturgies and its architecture—but he said little about his interest in Theosophy (which greatly influenced his views when he was a young man). He said nothing about his unusual family background—his father was a well-known journalist who abandoned his wife and children to establish a second family but without ever divorcing his first wife. Nor did Graham acknowledge that for the last 25 years of his first marriage he was living with another woman. In a sense, these are private matters, but they did greatly influence his own view of the world. Graham suffered a kind of emotional crisis in the 1920s when his parents died and his marriage collapsed, which led him to reassess many of his earlier ideas. He increasingly abandoned his belief that the world was a ‘miraculous place’—his phrase—and spent more time writing biographies and novels. It was only towards the end of his life that he once again began to return to the ideas of his youth.
Your biography largely draws from Graham’s personal papers and archive, including materials at the Harry Ransom Center. Which materials at the Ransom Center did you find most interesting? What insight did they offer?
The biggest “find” I had at the Ransom Center was an unpublished book written by Graham when he was a young man. He called it Ygdrasil—the name of the great ash tree that in Norse mythology connects the different worlds—and it served as a metaphor for Graham’s conviction that the material world was only a kind of emanation of something more profound. When he went to Russia, he convinced himself that the country was a kind of liminal zone, that is a place where the sacred ran through the mundane. Finding Ygdrasil showed me how greatly Graham was influenced by the ideas of nineteenth-century German Romanticism—admittedly filtered through the pen of Thomas Carlyle. The Center’s collection also contains many letters to and from Graham that helped me to piece together the chronology of his life and the various influences on him. The collections at the Ransom Center allowed me to understand better what Graham was actually trying to do in his books.
Graham extensively documented and reflected on his travels through Russia, and his written works ultimately influenced the United States’ and Great Britain’s opinions on the country. How did Graham portray Russia through his books and articles? What unique perspective did he offer?
Graham’s Russia was a fantasy world. Although he was skilled at writing sketches of everyday scenes, the Russia he saw (or thought he saw) was a place spared the ravages of industrialization and urbanization. Graham was realistic enough to know that the country was changing, but he still believed that Russia offered a kind of “seed of hope,” a place where everyday life was free from the banalities of western civilization. He was not alone. In the years before 1914, both in the USA and Britain, there was a huge growth of interest in Russian culture. Translations of the great nineteenth-century novelists were popular, whilst the Ballets Russes attracted large audiences when it toured the capitals of Western Europe. Many people in the West appeared to see in Russia a place of beguiling difference, an exotic country with a culture richer and more vibrant than anything that existed elsewhere. This was something of a fantasy of course—but a fantasy that was widespread. Graham’s books played an important role on both sides of the Atlantic in shaping the image of Russia as a place with a unique “soul.”
In your book, you aim to reintroduce Graham as a significant literary figure of the twentieth century. What were the writer’s greatest contributions to British and American culture?
Graham originally intended his 1964 autobiography to be less an account of his life and more a memoir of the numerous people he had known from the literary and political worlds. One of the ironies of Graham’s life is that he was often closest to writers who have since rather fallen into obscurity (in many cases rather unjustly). He was a good friend of the poet Vachel Lindsay and knew a number of other people involved in the Chicago literary renaissance of the inter-war period. He served as a kind of mentor to the author Wilfrid Ewart, author of The Way of Revelation, which is in my view of the best novels to come out of the First World War. He also helped the young poet and writer John Gawsworth launch his literary career. (Gawsworth himself became an important figure in British literary life and was a friend of numerous writers, ranging from Lawrence Durrell to M. P. Shiel.) I should say, though, that some people despised Graham’s brand of what Rebecca West called his “mechanical” mysticism. I think Graham’s career reminds us that literary life in both Britain and America was, in the twentieth century, not only about the peaks—the “great writers” whose memory survives today—but instead consisted of a far more complex milieu of writers, critics, and journalists. It’s probably worth adding that, in more recent times, Graham is often best-remembered by environmentalists and scholars interested in landscape. Annie Dillard mentions him in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. The British writer Robert Macfarlane, whose books about walking and mountaineering have been very popular, also writes warmly of Graham. In fact—and despite the fact that I am a Russian specialist by profession—I first came to know Graham through his books about walking. His 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping is still popular with many walkers today.
Explore Michael Hughes’s blog about Stephen Graham
Listen to Michael Hughes’s lecture on Stephen Graham through the Anglo-Russian Research Network blog
See Stephen Graham’s signature on the Ransom Center’s Greenwich Village Bookshop door.
The Ransom Center’s extensive David Foster Wallace collection was recently enriched by a donation of the original manuscript of a little-known, unpublished story, titled “Shorn.” Wallace wrote the two-page story, about a boy having his hair cut by his mother, while a graduate student at the University of Arizona. The manuscript was donated by Karen Green, who was married to Wallace and now heads the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.
The typed manuscript now resides at the Ransom Center alongside drafts of Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and Wallace’s other celebrated works; his childhood writings; correspondence; teaching materials; and his library of annotated books. The Ransom Center acquired David Foster Wallace’s archive in 2010 and has supplemented the archive in the years since with materials from Wallace’s literary agent, his publisher, and others.
These materials offer an unparalleled opportunity for researchers to gain deeper insight into Wallace’s work and his creative process, and they are among the Center’s most frequently researched collections. Biographers, literary scholars, students, and teachers have all studied the collection to learn more about Wallace’s writing. Since the Wallace archive became accessible in 2010, the Ransom Center has extended more than 14 research fellowships to support scholarly projects related to Wallace’s archive. The recent gift of Wallace’s story “Shorn” makes the archive an even richer resource.
This week, The University of Texas at Austin prepares its podiums and fireworks for Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the 131st in the school’s history. Countless graduating seniors can be seen in front of Littlefield Fountain, posing for photographs beneath the Tower, wearing gowns and mortarboards and smiles. Some smiles are of elation, others, somewhat apprehensive: as anyone who has graduated from college will probably agree, the event creates conflicting emotions—happiness at having achieved a milestone and uncertainty about what the future may hold. Commencement is a bittersweet time for the staff at the Ransom Center, as we send former undergraduate interns Alyssa O’Connell, Alyse Camus, Alexandra Bass, Elizabeth Barnes, Patrick Naeve, Emily Neie, and Kelsey McKinney out into the world to seek their—no doubt impressive—fortunes. Our interns have been valued colleagues and friends, and we will miss their energy, intelligence, and good company.
The navigation of this crossroads of school’s ending and adulthood’s beginning has resulted in a genre of address practiced each spring in colleges across the country: the commencement speech. In honor of our graduating seniors, we’ve investigated the myriad drafts of commencement speeches held in the manuscript collections at the Ransom Center, searching for advice that might help as the new alumni move forward to jobs, graduate schools, new cities, and unknown adventures.
Throughout the past few decades, writers and thinkers as disparate as Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Diane Johnson, Lillian Hellman, Nancy Wilson Ross, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Spalding Gray have advised graduates entering post-university life using a wide range of strategies, from the sprawling anecdote to the political call to action to the spiritual meditation. Some, like David Foster Wallace in his acclaimed 2005 speech at Kenyon College, have used humor (the diploma? “An eviction notice written in Latin”) to mesmerize the audience before presenting graduates with the difficult challenge of maintaining a heightened awareness of the choices they make each day, each hour.
Playwright Terrence McNally, speaking to a group of graduating artists at Julliard, encouraged a policy of absolute honesty with one’s self: to create beauty and meaning according to one’s own standards, not the standards of the outlying world.
While scribbled notes reveal the difficulties writers faced in settling on the right topic for a graduation speech (“The one thing you do not do at a graduation is talk about depressing matters,” wrote Norman Mailer), many of the manuscript collections reveal writers’ deep misgivings about being qualified with enough wisdom to address a graduating audience at all, or feeling overwhelmed by the importance of the task. Spalding Gray, for example, known for the self-effacing humor that made his autobiographical performances and writings so popular, assured graduating seniors in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, that, “My heroes are still the ones that do their best in the face of not knowing.” His speech emphasizes modesty and reverence for a large, mysterious world. Alongside this speech is a one-page document titled “The Graduation Speech I Never Made,” in which Gray questions his ability to recognize the importance of his diploma (he couldn’t remember where it was) or of a commencement ceremony (admitting he skipped his own). Accepting his spurious relationship to official commencement traditions, he encourages students thusly: “Feel free to make up a life. If you don’t like the one you have, make up another. This could be a very creative outlet.”
In a 1976 address to Mount Holyoke graduates, dramatist Lillian Hellman encouraged students to advocate free speech, individual liberties, and public service: “The highest compliment I can pay you, or any group that calls itself educated, is that you believe it is your duty to make reforms in this great country.” Hellman had famously been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities in the early 1950s.
Speaking to the all-female class at Bennett Women’s College in 1957, novelist Nancy Wilson Ross discussed the freedoms already achieved by women—the freedoms to vote, to receive higher education, to pursue careers, and to divorce—and encouraged the graduates to think deeply about the spiritual satisfaction that these freedoms bring. “Serenity comes from inside; it is not something you can lay on from the outside or acquire with objects and possessions and in a world like the present we are going to have to get it, if we get it at all, by interior disciplines.”
We wish to assure graduates that the Ransom Center archives bear witness to the fact that the individual road to “the eviction notice written in Latin” is not always easy. Often alongside drafts of commencement speeches, usually delivered late in a writer’s career, are papers that document a writer’s own struggles in college: citations for drinking, notices of academic probation, and letters home threatening to drop out of school. In the interest of discretion, we will restrain from naming names, but rest assured that even literary luminaries had their share of troubling transcripts, embarrassing yearbook photos, and take-home essays abysmally flunked. And the failures and successes that followed the diplomas? Too numerous too count. The individual roads to the podiums were certainly paved with highs and lows—and, perhaps most importantly, perseverance. We send the class of 2014 best wishes for the education that begins once commencement ends.
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The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer Ian McEwan (b. 1948), one of the most distinguished novelists of his generation. The archive documents McEwan’s career and includes early material from his childhood and adolescence, as well as his earliest abandoned stories dating from the late-1960s and early 1970s. The archive includes drafts of all of McEwan’s later published works including his critically acclaimed novels Amsterdam and Atonement up through On Chesil Beach and Solar.
McEwan composed his novels partly in longhand, typically in uniform green, spiral-bound notebooks, and party on the computer. After an initial draft, he would transfer the entire text to a computer, printing out multiple drafts, which he would revise further by hand. McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam is represented in the archive in its earliest form as a handwritten notebook, followed by two further revised drafts. McEwan often notes details of composition in these drafts, including their completion or revision dates.
“The writer tends to forget rapidly the routes he or she discarded along the way,” McEwan said, commenting on his manuscripts. “Sometimes the path towards a finished novel takes surprising twists. It’s rarely an even development. For example, my novel Atonement started out as a science fiction story set two or three centuries into the future.”
McEwan’s archive will reside at the Ransom Center alongside the archives of many of his peers and contemporaries, including his longtime friend Julian Barnes, as well as J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Tom Stoppard. The McEwan materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
McEwan will visit Austin and speak at the university on Sept. 10. More details about this event will be posted here later this summer.
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Sebastian Barry’s play The Steward of Christendom tells the story of Irishman Thomas Dunne, the former chief of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who is now confined to an asylum. He reminisces about his personal and professional life, going back and forth between lucidity and seeming incoherence. A Roman Catholic still loyal to the British crown, Dunne looks back at the consequences of that loyalty.
The play opens with a monologue by Dunne as he appears to be reliving a scene from his childhood, but that wasn’t always the opening monologue. The first opening monologue was cut from the original production of the play due to transition challenges it presented for the actor.
In the omitted speech, Dunne describes breaking up the famous 1913 labor protest at which Irish trade union leader James Larkin appeared to address a crowd of 20,000 striking transit workers who had been locked out by their employers.
Director Steven Robman first read about the deleted monologue in an academic essay written by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Elizabeth Cullingford. The essay appeared in a compendium about Barry’s work called Out of History: Essays on the Writings of Sebastian Barry (Catholic University of America Press, 2006). Robman asked Barry about the deleted monologue, and the playwright asked the Ransom Center to send scans of the original manuscript material to Los Angeles.
“This [event] is extremely important in Irish history, but it is little known to Americans,” said Robman. “It is also a crucial event in Thomas’s personal history, as it underscores his fall from grace in the eyes of Irish republicans.”
In the published version of the play, Dunne makes multiple references to Larkin, but there is no detailed description of the 1913 protest. Robman thought that adding the speech back in might help the audience understand the context of Dunne’s “vanished world.”
Robman learned that the monologue was cut from the original version because the transition between the Larkin speech—intended as a sort of prologue—and the speech as he’s reliving a childhood memory felt too awkward for Donal McCann, the lead actor in the original production.
Robman experimented with different placements of the monologue, finally inserting it later in the play almost as an aside that Dunne delivers to himself while one other character is on stage. Barry himself called the Larkin protest “the moment that made Thomas hated in Irish folklore and history.”
Robman also worked with the playwright to add a few words or substitute words throughout the script to allow an American audience to have an easier time with certain historical references or unfamiliar vocabulary, though the monologue is the largest change.
In a contribution to George magazine titled “If I Were President,” T. C. Boyle states that as President of the United States, he would establish a litocracy, fight to change the illiteracy that has America in its grip, and replace currency with books. Although Boyle has not achieved the presidency, he has used his roles as an author and teacher to advocate for a more literary society. The correspondence in the T. C. Boyle papers at the Ransom Center provides evidence of Boyle’s tireless promotion of books and reading, and not just of his own (although his often hilarious promotional letters to Viking representatives and booksellers show that as well).
Boyle writes to one of his former high school students, Chris Finer, now a high school librarian in New Hampshire, that “My object is to fire people up about literature.” Students in English classes from around the country send letters to Boyle, and his responses are often included in the archive. In a letter to a class at Weymouth High School (East Weymouth, Massachusetts), Boyle tells the students—half of whom intended to enroll in junior college after graduation and half with no plans for the future—that he had not read very much as a teenager, either, but later discovered that “reading and books were my weapons against the world. I could take myself away from my life, I could learn things school didn’t teach me, I could seize power and grow into the monster I now am. All because of reading. And, of course, writing.”
Boyle encourages not only readers but also writers, from students to colleagues to strangers from all walks of life. He praises their work, exhorts them to write, and sends blurbs to their publishers. One reason Boyle is supportive of other authors is because as a young man, he himself had received inspiration and encouragement from older mentors, the teachers and writers whom he has referred to as “guiding lights” and “heroes.” In 1971, he wrote to Harry Roskolenko asking for career advice and direction. Roskolenko wrote back with praise for Boyle’s talent, contact information for a magazine editor, and especially the advice to “WRITE.” Boyle followed both Roskolenko’s advice and his example of supporting aspiring writers.
Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.
Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.
The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.
The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.
The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.
Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.
Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.
I must thank you for the chocolate and snuff you intend to send me, if it be perfumed with anything but orange or jessamin [jasmine] flowers, I had rather have plain, for I find all musk etc. hurts my head.
William Bridgeman, Clerk to the English Secretary of State, London, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, May 23, 1686 (PFORZ-MS-0317)
In a series of over 150 letters that the Ransom Center is publishing online as part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, clerks from England’s Office of the Secretary of State reveal the intimate relationship they enjoyed with one of England’s chief diplomats in Northern Europe during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. This diplomat was Sir Richard Bulstrode, a nobleman loyal to the Stuart dynasty throughout his life, who fought on the side of the Royalists during the English Civil Wars and supported the Jacobites after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. He was an immensely pragmatic and skilled lawyer and politician who managed to maintain official government positions even during the Commonwealth Period.
Passages from letters like the one quoted above illustrate just how Bulstrode’s political savvy operated. He and his agents took care to interweave practical and personal matters into his official dealings with his government superiors and their clerks. For example, it seems like it was quite common for Bulstrode to procure luxury commodities from the markets of Europe for these clerks as a favor for keeping him up to date on significant political news from London. As can be seen in the second item pictured below, which is part of a series of official communiqués that ask him to perform certain diplomatic tasks for the realm, the clerk acknowledges receipt of a chocolate and snuff shipment in between news about the apprehension of a military embezzler in Bruges and the results of an important trial involving the Church of England (PFORZ-MS-0318).
Newsy tidbits in letters were not the only way Bulstrode kept his finger on the pulse of English politics, though. These letters represent just one small part of how Bulstrode sought to satisfy his voracious appetite for news. His main sources for current events from his homeland were handwritten newsletter services. At the Ransom Center, 1,469 newsletters that were sent to Bulstrode between 1667 and 1689 comprise the largest portion of the Pforzheimer collectionof English manuscripts. Originating in London, these newsletters form direct parallels with the letters from the Secretary of State’s office in that they reveal the same sorts of personal relationships that Bulstrode fostered with his official correspondents. For example, in two newsletters from 1679 (PFORZ-MS-1008 and PFORZ-MS-1023), a clerk includes personal notes thanking Bulstrode for sending chocolate to him and his boss, Sir Joseph Williamson. Williamson was able to provide his subscribers an insider’s perspective on current events because, along with his journalistic enterprises, he also served a term as Secretary of State and maintained a high position at Court.
Surviving manuscript newsletter collections the size of Bulstrode’s are rare and significant to historical research. This is because, until 1695, there were no independently printed newspapers in England and only one official Gazette controlled by the government. People in Bulstrode’s era who wanted uncensored news had to rely on what could be gathered from personal correspondence through the thrice-weekly post. To meet the growing demand for reliable reporting, a few entrepreneurs in London set up newsletter services to mail proprietary information to subscribers about proceedings in parliament, activities of the military and royal family, and court gossip that could not be printed in the public newspaper.
Bulstrode subscribed to two different newsletter offices that are represented in our collection. The smaller of the two sets is from the office of Edward Coleman, who was executed for treason during the anti-Catholic fervor stirred up by Titus Oates in the autumn of 1678. The larger set is from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, who, as an entrepreneur, was deeply connected to the burgeoning printing industry in London, and, as mentioned above, also served as Secretary of State from 1674 to 1679. The way Williamson set up his service, subscribers paid annual fees based on how frequently they wished to receive newsletters, but they were also obliged to mail accounts of news and politics back to London from their estates around the realm or stations in Europe. If subscribers were diplomats like Bulstrode, they received discounted service rates but were asked to send both first-hand accounts and printed newspapers from their localities. This information not only provided newsletter offices with news for future letters, but—for Williamson—it also provided valuable intelligence for his statecraft.
Taken together, these letters and newsletters in our collection preserve one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. Historians like Professor James Winn of Boston University are using the wealth of information in the collection to study the details of the Restoration period of English history. In his forthcoming book on Queen Anne of Great Britain, for example, Winn is using these documents to help pin down the precise course of events that led to Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark. This match for Anne occurred after a rumored engagement to Prince George of Hanover (who became her successor to the throne), and an unwanted courtship by the Earl of Mulgrave.
In the two newsletters from February and December 1680 pictured below (PFORZ-MS-1133 and PFORZ-MS-1219), the writer reports about Anne’s rumored engagement to George of Hanover—which turned out not to be true. Newsletters from autumn 1682 (such as PFORZ-MS-1392) reveal how Mulgrave’s pursuit of Anne may have gotten him expelled from court. Fortunately for Mulgrave, after Anne’s marriage to George of Denmark in July 1683 (discussed in PFORZ-MS-1460), Mulgrave staged a political comeback. As the newsletter from August 20, 1683, describes: “The Earl of Mulgrave has kissed the king’s and duke’s hand, and does now make the Court very constantly” (see PFORZ-MS-1466).
The newsletters also illustrate how such seemingly petty politics in the late years of the Second King Charles’ court were conducted against the terribly bloody and vindictive background of the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion in 1683. As the newsletter below from August 24, 1683, offers:
There was a very warme discourse the beginning of this weeke, that the duke of Monmouth would surrender himselfe, but it seems it was a mistake; but this much [break] I am informed from very good hands, that the duke of Monmouth has offered to come in & declare all he knows upon promise of pardon, but that it was rejected; & certainely the duke of Monmouth after the ill steps he has made ought not to pretend to capitulate with the King, ag.t whom he has in so high a degree offended.
Newsletter from the office of Sir Joseph Williamson, Whitehall, to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Brussels, August 24, 1683 (PFORZ-MS-1467)
The Ransom Center’s digital publication of the Bulstrode letters and newsletters marks the first time a large collection of seventeenth-century newsletters has been made freely available to a mass viewing audience with item-level descriptions. While the newsletters have been commercially microfilmed and partially transcribed in the past, these publishing efforts have all been incomplete and out of chronological order. This has made using newsletters for research incredibly difficult for scholars. As part of the Ransom Center’s effort to describe and digitize the Pforzheimer collection, the Center reorganized all 1,469 letters by date and recorded all of the days mentioned in each newsletter in database records for each individual item. One consequence of this activity has been the discovery of over two dozen “lost” newsletters that had been neither microfilmed nor transcribed in the past.
The Center’s cataloging and digitization efforts will provide unprecedented levels of access to primary source documents for seventeenth-century history. The online publication of the Bulstrode newsletters, along with the Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts, will provide a needed service to scholars and teachers and open up information to readers looking to discover important details and ephemera about English politics and culture during the Restoration. As other archives that hold major newsletter collections—such as the Folger Shakespeare Library—begin to publish them with item-level descriptions online, the Ransom Center will be able to open the door to a reexamination of an origin narrative for independent correspondence journalism in England.
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