The man who became famous as Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832. Dodgson, the third of 11 siblings, grew up in northern England surrounded by his brothers and sisters. Together they put on plays and created family publications like The Rectory Magazine, named for their home in Croft-on-Tees. Dodgson’s father was an Archdeacon in the Church of England and lived in a rectory, or a residence for the parish clergyman.
This edition of The Rectory Magazine includes essays, poems, and short stories, as well as hand-drawn and colored illustrations. The sense of humor and parody that appear in much of Carroll’s later work is already evident in The Rectory Magazine, produced when Dodgson was 18 years old.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6, can turn the pages of a digital version of The Rectory Magazine on a touchscreen in the galleries.
Share information about the exhibition with #aliceinaustin.
To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On theOrigin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center.
Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries”—as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.
From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beaglewas in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.
We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.
The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:
Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. 
My dear Sir John Herschel
I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge
With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin
James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.
The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:
We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.
Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.
Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.
Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:
He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.
Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.
The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.
The papers of American author James Purdy (1914–2009) at the Ransom Center include a missive written to Purdy in the spring of 1971 by the actress Margaret Hamilton (1902–1985). Hamilton is, of course, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
The communication fills three pages of a whimsical Rosalind Welcher greeting card and continues onto both sides of a sheet of the actress’s personalized note stationery. From internal evidence in Hamilton’s letter, as well as from an earlier one in the collection from playwright Neal Du Brock to Purdy, it’s evident she had starred in Du Brock’s dramatization of Purdy’s novel The Nephew. The production was presented by the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York in early 1971.
Du Brock’s adaptation wasn’t particularly well received and closed with considerable gloom among the play’s company. Purdy evidently wrote a consoling note to Du Brock, which led Du Brock to suggest that Miss Hamilton, who had clearly felt stung by the reviews, might be cheered by a positive word from the original author.
Purdy’s ensuing note to Hamilton seemingly helped lift the actress’s spirits, and she responded in her letter of April 23, 1971, “how very dear of you to write me…and perk up such a dismal Easter.” She went on to say she was then in Boston at her alma mater, Wheelock College, recovering from the flu and looking forward, upon her recovery, to appearing in a play with the school’s drama department.
After recounting the hectic events surrounding the production of The Nephew and its treatment in the press, the scarcely wicked witch continued with the observation that “it is amazing how vulnerable we all are—to negative criticism—we remember each phrase—do we remember the kind or approving phrases? No! It really boils down to one man’s opinion. And we do ask for it!” Hamilton closed with an invitation to Purdy to “come & have tea or a drink… sometime this summer if you are in New York.”
The James Purdy papers are currently being processed and will be available to scholars once cataloging is complete.
Spanning more than half a century, García Márquez’s archive includes original manuscript material, predominantly in Spanish, for 10 books, from One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) to Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004); more than 2,000 pieces of correspondence, including letters from Carlos Fuentes and Graham Greene; drafts of his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; more than 40 photograph albums documenting all aspects of his life over nearly nine decades; the Smith Corona typewriters and computers on which he wrote some of the 20th century’s most beloved works; and scrapbooks meticulously documenting his career via news clippings from Latin America and around the world.
Highlights in the archive include multiple drafts of García Márquez’s unpublished novel We’ll See Each Other in August, research for The General in His Labyrinth (1989), and a heavily annotated typescript of the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). The materials document the gestation and changes of García Márquez’s works, revealing the writer’s struggle with language and structure.
Born in Colombia, García Márquez began his career as a journalist in the 1940s, reporting from Bogotá and Cartagena and later serving as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Cuba. In 1961, he moved to Mexico City. Alongside his prolific journalism career, García Márquez published many works of fiction, including novels, novellas and multiple short story collections and screenplays. He published the first volume of his three-part memoir Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale) in 2002.
Future plans relating to the archive include digitizing portions of the collection to make them widely accessible and a university symposium to explore the breadth and influence of García Márquez’s life and career. The García Márquez materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
Letters poured into producer David O. Selznick’s office on the proper use of Southern accents in Gone With The Wind. One woman wrote, “Come South and study our dialect. I don’t know your people as you do, but it cuts deep when we see our lovely old Southern life ‘hashed up.’”
Clark Gable employed a dialog coach, but two days before filming, Selznick learned that Gable was refusing to use an accent. Selznick then had Will Price, from the casting department, and Susan Myrick, a technical advisor, work on coaching the actors in the use of an appropriate accent.
Price and Myrick, in a memo to Selznick and director George Cukor, wrote, “we find that the script includes innumerable attempts at written southern accent for the white characters. Both Miss Myrick and I strongly agree that this is extremely dangerous as it prompts the actors immediately to attempt a phony southern accent comprised merely of dropping final ‘ings’ and consonants. A phony southern accent is harder to eradicate than a British or western accent.” They then advise that the script should be retyped, without the written southern accents.
Filming went on hiatus as Selznick replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming. Selznick wrote to studio manager Henry Ginsberg about his concerns over the accent during this period: “We know that Leslie Howard has made little or no attempts in the direction of accent and since he is on our payroll there is little excuse for this…. I am particularly worried about Vivien Leigh since she has been associating with English people and more likely than not has completely got away from what was gained up to the time we stopped.” Leigh was already under fire from the media and many Southerners for being British, so it would have been doubly ruinous for the film if she were unable to employ an accent.
Memos related to the actors’ accents are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available. Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.
Gone With The Wind’s scriptwriter Sidney Howard had the difficult task of converting the 1,000-page novel into a film script that was not too long, without sacrificing key elements of the novel. One of producer David O. Selznick’s concerns was that all problems be caught before filming started, because cutting scenes out would be more expensive than having an appropriately long script written in the first place. To help Howard, Selznick and his story editor Val Lewton employed the skills of other scriptwriters and authors.
In October 1938, Selznick sent the script to two top MGM scriptwriters, Lawrence Stallings and Bradbury Foote, for help editing. The men, under confidentiality, had eight days to make their suggestions.
Foote’s editing gave the film a happy ending, destroying one of the novel’s most emotionally powerful scenes. In Foote’s rewrite, Rhett does indeed leave, but Mammy thrashes the famous “Tomorrow is another day!” speech, telling Scarlett, “Never you mind tomorrow, honey. This here is today! There goes your man!” The scene dissolves to a shot of a railroad station. Scarlett corners Rhett in the car of a train, entreating, “Oh, Rhett! Life is just beginning for us! Can’t you see it is? We’ve both been blind, stupid fools! But we’re still young! We can make up for those wasted years! Oh, Rhett—let me make them up to you! Please! Please!” He kisses her hands, and the scene fades out. Selznick considered this rewrite “awful.”
Selznick employed a host of other writers to help find creative ways of combining scenes from the novel, and almost all of the writers who worked on the script did so after filming had commenced. Writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, John Van Druten, John Balderston, Ronald Brown, and Edwin Justus Mayer briefly worked on the script. In a memo from Fitzgerald to Selznick, Fitzgerald proposes that Scarlett’s miscarriage be cut. The death of Bonnie, Scarlett’s miscarriage, and Melanie’s death in childbirth, all in rapid succession, would be too much for the audience to endure. Fitzgerald mentions that the miscarriage seems less sorrowful in the book because Scarlett already had three children. He writes, “There is something about three gloomy things that is infinitely worse than two, and I do not believe that people are grateful for being harrowed in this way.”
Pages from various drafts of the screenplay are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available. Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.
A production of Tennessee Williams’s iconic play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on campus last week, and director Jess Hutchinson delved into the Tennessee Williams collection at the Ransom Center to guide some of her work on the play.
Set in New Orleans, William’s Pulitzer Prize–winning classic centers around fading Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she seeks refuge in her sister’s home, only to clash with her brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski.
Hutchinson, a third-year MFA Directing candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, was especially interested in digging deeper into the ending of the play, and in the Williams collection, she found multiple drafts of endings that were quite different from the published version.
“Williams tried on different ways to end Blanche’s story and handle her departure,” said Hutchinson, noting one discarded draft included Blanche being forced into a straightjacket. “And he chose this very specific, relatively controlled exit. That tells me a lot about what that moment is for her, how to stage it, how to think about where she is mentally and emotionally at the end of the play.”
Hutchinson worked with a group of undergraduate actors in the production, and exploring the drafts and ideas that Williams discarded helped guide how she and the actors approached the ending of the play.
“It focuses our range of choices in rehearsal,” said Hutchinson. “I feel that it would be disingenuous to the play for Blanche to be completely out of control at the end. She isn’t taken away in a straightjacket. In other drafts, she is. So that tells me Blanche still has some lucidity, that she retains the ability to make choices in that moment. The actress and I have looked for Blanche’s power in that scene, her control. Where can we see her consciously make decisions, and how do they fuel her departure with the doctor and matron? The actors and I have come to see that as a moment of recognition. Something in this doctor—this stranger—reaches a place in her that is whole and hasn’t been broken by this experience. And really, we got to complicate what some might write off as a moment of clear ‘insanity’ because I was able to see to see the other drafts that Williams tried first.”
As Hutchinson sifted through various early drafts of the play in the Williams collection, she was struck by how “not good” many of them were and how it was a great reminder that the creative process includes false starts and dead ends even for the most talented writers and artists.
“Something about seeing documents in a famous, iconic writer’s handwriting revealed that this person who wrote this thing that I love was closer to me than I might have thought,” she said. “He was a human and an artist and was trying to make something that spoke to the core experience of what it is to be a person—what it means to interact with other people in the world and have your heart broken and have moments of incredible joy. Just the humanity that’s present in these archival materials and what we can see in these drafts and false starts and moments of inspired genius made it possible, at least for me, to be bolder in my own work in the rehearsal room.”
A Streetcar Named Desire runs through October 19 at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at The University of Texas at Austin. Tickets are available online.
On Thursday, October 23, at 7 p.m., novelist Jayne Anne Phillips reads from Quiet Dell, a novel based on the true story of a murderous West Virginia con man who preyed on widows, in a Harry Ransom Lecture. A reception and book signing follow. View a trailer for the book.
Stephen King said of Quiet Dell: “In a brilliant fusion of fact and fiction, Jayne Anne Phillips has written the novel of the year. It’s the story of a 1931 serial killer’s crime and capture, yes, but it’s also a compulsively readable story of how one brave woman faces up to acts of terrible violence in order to create something good and strong in the aftermath. Quiet Dell will be compared to In Cold Blood, but Phillips offers soothing Capote could not: a heroine who lights up the dark places and gives us hope in our humanity.”
Phillips, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, is the author of Lark and Termite, a National Book Award finalist. Known for her poetic prose and in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.
Below, Phillips discusses the inspiration behind her novel Quiet Dell, her archival research for the book, her writing process, and her own archive.
Your work often seems to draw upon your own family history for inspiration. The murders in Quiet Dell, for example, took place near your hometown in West Virginia. Can you talk about how history and family memory evolved into your novel?
My mother remembered holding her mother’s hand at age 6, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August—cars parked on either side as far as she could see—past a “murder garage” being taken apart piece-by-piece by souvenir-seeking crowds. Ever after, when we drove past the hamlet, ten miles or so from my hometown, she would point out “the road to Quiet Dell.” Thousands walked past the scene in the summer and fall of 1931, attracted almost as though to a religious site: an unimaginable slaughter of innocents. A con-man led a double life, found “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and skillfully courted them in letters for months. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow and her three children, 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression-era nation, and the media spun it as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer was christened a modern Bluebeard, but the deeper story was far more complex. Quiet Dell is true to an evolving real event, but creates the world in which it happened, beginning the Christmas before the crime. I was interested in the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world,” in creating lives for the women that reveal why they were vulnerable. For me, the tale began in 9-year-old Annabel Eicher’s voice at the magical turning of the year. Quiet Dell meets the history of a family that vanished with a counterpoint story in which that family is alive, and then alive in memory, directly influencing the lives of those who seek justice for them. The reader is endowed with a foreknowledge of event, but the fact of the event touches only the surface of its effects.
Can you tell us about the archival research you conducted with primary materials while writing Quiet Dell?
The actual names and facts of the crime seemed a Victorian fairy tale set in the ’30s: Sherriff Grimm, Judge Southern, Duty (the Eicher dog, “twice bereft,” whose photograph appeared in newspapers across the country), the Gore Hotel—and the fact that the trial took place on the stage of an Opera House before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees, left over from a previous production. The Clarksburg Harrison County Public Library allowed me to Xerox numerous pages of newsprint, and many pages of a haphazard “scrapbook” on the crime assembled by a 13-year-old boy, James Law (who grew up to own the most important bookstores in the area). I’ve always found photographs, particularly of strangers, to reveal whole dimensions of information, and I carried a small copy of the last known photo of the Eicher family in my wallet for years. Annabel’s gaze in that image, so wary and adult, suggested her character in the novel. As I was beginning my research, a family friend who knew I was writing about the Quiet Dell crime gave me an envelope he’d found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, West Virginia. Across the front in faded pencil, it read, Piece of sound proof board used by Harry Powers during his notorious Murdering in the fall of 1931. I opened the envelope and held in my hand a thick felt square marked with a 3. As Rilke said, “Every angel is terrifying.” I came to know the woman who grew up in the Eicher home in Park Ridge, Illinois, and lives there today; the playhouse, and the mural Asta Eicher painted on the walls for her children, still exists. I gleaned hints from newspaper interviews with those who said they’d known Harry Powers under one alias or another; the statements were wildly contradictory. Not so the obituaries I was able to find online: the phrasing and tone implied specific narratives. I found the grandchildren of photographer Floyd E. Sayres through a hint in his obit; they allowed me to include his images of scenes associated with the crime, though the images are far more beautiful than the versions that appear in Quiet Dell. Letters from Powers and women who wrote to him appeared in newsprint; the trial transcript was a matter of record. These events took place nearly 85 years ago; the history was distant enough that I could use real names, yet invent the perceptions, thoughts, relationships, of the characters to tell my own “dark fairy tale.” The scant patterns of a real history, for me, cast a spell that is almost bewitching.
As a writer, how do you approach establishing a sense of place and time for your reader?
There is the Pound dictum, “No ideas but in things,” to guide the writer: specific physical fact infused with sensory detail. Words, in careful association, are sensual triggers for the reader; each reader brings a world of unconscious and subconscious memory to the text. Certain sense memories, smells, sounds, can connect us to pasts we did not experience. Readers have said to me, “When I read your work, I don’t feel as though I’m reading a story; I feel I’m inside the story.” Another said, of Termite (from Lark And Termite), “You make us want to be him.” Every art is a form of alchemy: transforming one element into another, widening, deepening, until one world connects to worlds before and beyond it. Literature is a crafted seduction in which the reader actively participates.
Can you tell us about your writing process? (For example, do you write on a laptop or desktop? Do you have an office or studio space dedicated to writing? Do you write during certain hours of the day? How do you go about revising your work?)
I began writing as a poet, and I continue to compose line by line, slowly, aware of the music and stress of the syllables in the lines. I write both by hand and on the computer (laptops and desktops, since I live in three cities), and print out every page, not only because I distrust machines, but because I revise on paper. I write in the daytime, never at night, in front of a window. I often work on longer projects in the summers, when I’m not engaged in my labor-intensive day job. Editing, teaching, discussing literature, advocating for talented students, is far too compelling.
Your archive is now open and accessible to researchers. What do you hope people will be able to learn from your papers and work?
Those spiral notebooks in which I composed my early stories seem to belong to another universe I once inhabited, while the archive of the present, boxes of more recent drafts, artifacts, lists, and correspondence, piles up around me. Access to an archive, not in a writer’s rooms but in a neutral, sacred space, the clean well-lighted place that is the Ransom Center, is a privilege, an intimate investigation. Touching actual pages, photographs, letters, comparing small and large changes from one draft to another, takes the reader inside the books, into the works themselves. It’s delicious.
You are the director of the Rutgers University- Newark MFA program. How does teaching influence your writing, and how do your experiences as a writer shape how you teach?
I don’t think teaching influences my writing, except to intensify the pressure of not writing—a tool I have always used, pre-dating teaching. Part of writing is the yearning toward what is still unseen and unknown. For me, ideas, rumination, research, are not the true thing; they only swirl around it. A book begins with language: a line of prose, a paragraph. The book is inside those words and the long struggle is to deepen and sustain what is genuine. I suppose I teach that one’s relationship to writing is as complex as one’s relationship to the self: it’s endless and mysterious, full of the mundane and the celestial in shifting quantities. No writer approaches words the same way; the “why,” unique as a fingerprint, is ineffable. The writer creates meaning where none is obvious, invents the dots and connects them. We’re like practitioners of the same unrecognized religion: the process itself is the experience. It’s witchcraft and soothsaying, and hard, grinding work.
What books are currently on your nightstand?
Fat City, by Leonard Gardner; The Beggar Maid, by Alice Munro; Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (all books I’m teaching); a galley of Colm Toibin’s new Nora Webster; HER, a memoir by Christa Parravani, and Prelude To Bruise, just-published poems by Saaed Jones (these last two both recent graduates of RU-N MFA program).
James Sitar is an editor at the Poetry Foundation and teaches literature classes at Loyola University Chicago. Sitar’s work in the Spalding Gray archive was supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. He discusses his digital project that allows comparisons between Gray’s performance notebooks. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Many who know of Spalding Gray’s storytelling first experienced it by watching the film version of Swimming to Cambodia or by reading the book. Gray performed over a dozen different monologues, but this one catapulted his career and ensured that his innovative performance style would influence a new generation of actors. I was certainly captivated by the movie when I was 10 years old (which was probably too young). And ever since my college days, I’ve been drawn to archival recordings, whether it was the all-encompassing lectures or “talks” of Robert Frost or the countless bootlegs of Bob Dylan. When I heard that the Harry Ransom Center acquired the archive of Spalding Gray, including scores of audio and video recordings, I knew I had to visit. After all, how often do your childhood fascinations align with your interests as an adult?
Thanks to a fellowship from the Ransom Center, I was able to spend a month listening to and comparing Gray’s performances of Swimming to Cambodia, which occurred over a span of about 20 years. Gray would record his one-man shows and then listen to them the next day, and this listening would inform his approach to the next performance. No performance is the same, which means that this monologue is what we refer to as a living text: there’s no one version of it that is more important or authentic than any others. It’s clear from interview and diary entries that he never thought of the film or the book versions as definitive or superior performances, though certainly he viewed them as successful versions that were true to the mediums of film and print.
By listening along, I discovered how important this flexible, evolving, experimental approach was to Gray. He never worked with a script, or even solidified particular details or vignettes. Instead, he’d only sparingly glance at the spiral-bound notebook he had on stage, in which he had written certain important words or phrases; if he got caught up in a tangent, as he was wont to do, his notes would help him find his way back to his narrative arc. The opportunity to perform in person, in front of small audiences, was crucial to Gray. His loose narrative style and method, and his desire to make each performance a unique connection to place and time and audience, make each performance different. This fact also reflects his avant-garde approach to theater and his artistic preoccupations with the evolving natures of memories, the construction of personal truths, the production and performance of a public self, and the complications of making art out of life through the problematic notions of authenticity and confession.
As a researcher and editor, I want to deliver remarkable materials into the hands and ears of fans and scholars and to present these materials in the most helpful, enjoyable, responsible, and authentic ways possible. I’m currently building a website devoted to Swimming to Cambodia that’s true to the living nature of the monologue, with audio and video recordings, notebooks, and different types of transcripts with annotations and background materials that allow visitors to experience the monologue’s myriad iterations. I want to present Gray’s performances as moments, as I look for innovative ways to preserve some of the fluid and ephemeral essences of speech and performance in the fixed form of text. It will serve as an archive that collects all of the Swimming to Cambodia’s that we can revisit.
You can take a look at a very early and small sample of the work, which uses an inventive piece of software called the Versioning Machine. This sample presents the same passage from many different notebooks and performances of the monologue, a passage in which Gray chronicles his difficulty remembering some lines in filming The Killing Fields (1984). It’s Gray’s inability to memorize lines that makes this part of the monologue so funny and painful, and this inability is also what makes his monologues so unscripted and alive. It’s a revealing moment behind the scenes of filmmaking, and I hope my digital project can similarly look behind the scenes of Gray’s craft.
I’m grateful for and indebted to so many people’s help in making Gray’s work available online, including Tanya Clement, Quinn Stewart, Daniel Carter, Erin Donohue, the entire Ransom Center staff, and the estate of Spalding Gray.