I am already missing Rust Cohle, Marty Hart, and sinister references to the “Yellow King.” If you are not sure what I am talking about, it’s the first season of the HBO crime series True Detective. A ritualistic murder investigation set against a backdrop of oil refineries in the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, True Detective is full of philosophical musings and obscure literary references including spiral symbols, black stars, yellow kings, and a fictional place named Carcosa. What does any of this have to do with the Ransom Center?
As I watched Rust and Marty enter into a wicked, sunken maze of brick tunnels, I thought “I bet the Ransom Center has a link to this show.” With the Center’s many collections in literature, film, photography, art, performing arts, and rare books, I am quite sure it is possible to connect almost any news story or popular culture reference to one of the Ransom Center’s collections in fewer than six degrees. Can I link Matthew McConaughey to the Ransom Center?
1. Journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote the horror story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. The story explores death, light, and darkness and is about a man who awakens from a sickness-induced sleep to find himself lost in an unfamiliar wilderness. Sound familiar?
2. Writer Robert W. Chambers borrows the name of Ambrose’s ancient city, Carcosa, and builds it into a mysterious and cursed city in his collection of short stories The King in Yellow. The stories in the book are linked by a fictional play of the same name, which induces despair and insanity in those who read it or see it performed. Considered “weird fiction” under the subgenre of speculative fiction, Chamber’s The King in Yellow has inspired many writers, including H. P. Lovecraft.
Despite being out of copyright and freely available on the internet, the book has created literary buzz and climbed into a best-selling spot on Amazon. According to the Wall Street Journal, after episode five of True Detective, sales increased 71percent, elevating The King in Yellow into spot No. 7 on Amazon.com.
The Ransom Center also has some letters by Chambers and the handwritten draft of his short story “The Maker of Moons,” which was the title story of his 1896 short story collection (collection: Robert W. Chambers in Little Alphabet and Uncataloged Little Alphabet).
3. The HBO series True Detective is full of direct quotes and visual references to Chamber’s The King in Yellow.
4. Matthew McConaughey stars as detective Rust Cohle in True Detective.
Alright, alright, alright. Your turn!
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Biographer Judith Major’s recent book Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age (University of Virginia Press) highlights the work of the pioneering landscape critic, and Major quotes from one of the letters in the Ransom Center’s Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell papers for her book. Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was one of America’s premier etchers and illustrators. He found a commercial success as a magazine illustrator, turning out well-received renderings of American and, later, European scenes.
The Pennell collection includes correspondence that documents a notable creative project undertaken by Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) and Mariana Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) in which they published illustrated articles on the cathedrals and churches of England and France. Their two series of illustrated articles appeared in issues of The Century Magazine between 1887 and 1899; the first series, English Cathedrals, was issued in book form in 1892.
In 1882, when the idea for the articles on the cathedrals of England was first conceived by Van Rensselaer, she had been a published author and critic on art, architecture, and landscape architecture for six years. Pennell had been working as an illustrator, first in his native Philadelphia and then nationally, since the late 1870s. He had done illustrations in Scribner’s Magazine, Century, and other publications. His best-known work at that point was the illustrations he executed to accompany George Washington Cable’s text for The Creoles of Louisiana, issued serially in The CenturyMagazine during 1883 and published in book form in 1884.
Van Rensselaer likely invited Joseph Pennell to provide the illustrations for her English cathedral articles because both Van Rensselaer and the Century’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, knew and respected Pennell’s work. In 1884, Pennell was living in London, married to Elizabeth Robins, a writer and fellow Philadelphian.
The work on the English cathedrals got off to a rocky start when, in the summer of 1885, Van Rensselaer, returning to New York from Germany, stopped in York, England, expecting to meet with Pennell. Pennell didn’t appear or account for his absence, and when later they were able to meet, he related to his wife, Elizabeth, “his frank impressions of Mrs. Van Rensselaer, who had ideas for the cathedral [at Salisbury] which were not his.” Despite this initial awkwardness the English cathedral series was completed “without unpleasantness” (in Elizabeth Pennell’s words), and the final article published in The Century Magazine by 1889.
As Pennell began his work on the churches of France in the fall of 1889, a new source of discord between artist and writer made itself evident. Pennell had begun working with churches in the south of France when he discovered several of those chosen for illustration had undergone recent restoration or were currently under restoration. This situation and the artist’s response to it had a significant impact upon his choices of subjects and the drawings he sent back to New York.
In a long letter Van Rensselaer wrote to W. Lewis Fraser of the Century art department on January 30, 1890, she reviewed Pennell’s drawings, and while on the whole she was pleased, she found problems with the cathedrals in Angoulême and Périgueux and the St. Sernin church in Toulouse.
Pennell had not supplied exterior views of any of the three that she found acceptable. Of St. Sernin she wrote “In some way or the other I must have at least one picture of the exterior of the church; if not from Mr. Pennell, then drawn by someone else from a photo.” In other cases Pennell had supplied views she hadn’t asked for; several of these she had turned down as “entirely useless for my purpose.”
In this file there is a six-month hiatus until the next piece of surviving correspondence. This was Mariana Van Rensselaer’s letter of July 31, 1890 to editor R. W. Gilder in which she responded to Joseph Pennell’s “recent letters to Mr. Fraser.”
Van Rensselaer opened with the comment that “I am sorry he finds some of the buildings in question ‘unillustrate-able’…” and goes on to assert that “ they are unrivalled in historical and, I venture to say, in broad and deep architectural (which means artistic) interest.”
Further along in the letter she notes that her choices of subject were intended to illustrate the significant regional variation seen in medieval French ecclesiastical architecture and, for this reason, “we must have the great typical buildings, however restored, and not less typical unrestored ones, or attractive bits gathered here and there.”
In Pennell’s letters he referred to his practice of using shading and other effects to ameliorate the problems posed by unsympathetic restoration and unfinished repairs, provocatively referring to this process as “cooking.” Van Rensselaer responded by observing that he had been “engaged to illustrate what he saw, not to make fancy sketches.” Later in the letter, however, she modified her position, stating the hope that Gilder “will give me the privilege of rejecting any that are ‘cooked’ in too palpable a way.”
Van Rensselaer’s 12-page response to Pennell was supplemented by a briefer letter from Gilder to the artist. In it he stated that The Century Magazine regarded the series as “an intellectual & historical” work “conducted by the writer of the articles” and that the magazine had “surely endeavored to meet your views in every way.” Gilder closed with the observation that the series upon that Pennell and Van Rensselaer labored was not, commercially speaking, a “hilariously ‘popular’ performance,” but one which demanded “great exertions and no little drudgery on the parts of both writer & artist.”
In his reply from Luchon, France, dated August 20, 1890, Pennell responded to Gilder’s letter by once again stating the impossibility of making tangible the intent of the original builders of the churches when they had been unsympathetically restored. “I can look beneath the restoration but Mrs. Van Rensselaer should remember that I must draw what is on the surface. [Henry Hobson] Richardson [whose sympathetic description of the churches had been mentioned by Van Rensselaer earlier] would never have dreamed of taking the modern restoration of St. Sernin as anything but a model of very ordinary work of the most uninteresting kind.”
Pennell defended “my cooking or faking … [of] these drawings [by asserting] when I come to one of these old churches … and find, instead of beautiful stained glass which ought to be there, blank white windows, or windows at times which are even yet unfinished … I have got to intensify, for example, my lights and shadows and try to give some sort of pictorial effect which really is not there.”
Pennell concluded his reply with the statement that “I never should think of criticizing Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s scheme or methods, but I cannot help repeating that she ought to bear in mind that I cannot draw the ideas of the old men when their work is not visible.”
The last item in the Pennell-Van Rensselaer correspondence file is Van Rensselaer’s letter of August 13, 1893 to Joseph Pennell, and its tone is in marked contrast to the preceding letters in the file. Having just returned to Marion (where she was living) from “that extraordinary and enchanting [World’s] Fair at Chicago,” she recounts her work rewriting the English cathedral book (by now entitled Handbook of English Cathedrals) and makes suggestions for Pennell’s work at Bourges, Le Mans, Chartres, and Le Puy. In closing, Van Rensselaer returns to the world’s fair, writing “I suppose you will come home to see the Fair. If not, you will miss the great sight of the century.”
Mariana Van Rensselaer withdrew from the project before the fourth article in the French cathedral series appeared in the September 1899 issue of The Century Magazine. Since Pennell had finished drawings on hand, the editors of the magazine asked Elizabeth Pennell to write the articles, allowing the series to be completed between 1907 and 1909. The cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais, and Rouen concluded the project; these three were the only edifices in the series that Joseph Pennell etched on site.
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On the surface, it is a correspondence between friends: Did you read the book I sent? Did you like it?
Generic questions for most, perhaps, but the inquiry was from Stanley Kubrick, and the questions concerning Arthur Schnitzler’s book Traumnovelle were addressed to Anthony Burgess. A series of letters in 1976 between Kubrick and Burgess in the Ransom Center’s Anthony Burgess collection shed light on the early stages of the work that would later be translated into Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
In 1976, Kubrick, sensing his research for his planned biographical film about Napoleon Bonaparte would not pan out due to financing problems, was looking for a post-2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) project. He first read Schnitzler’s dream story in 1968 and was so enamored of it, he sought the film rights, but, fearing his involvement would inflate the price, he convinced Jay Cocks, a journalist at the time, to acquire the rights by proxy.
Kubrick even had in mind an actor for the role of Fridolin: Woody Allen.
During this time, screenwriter Terry Southern, who helped Kubrick turn the script for Dr. Strangelove(1964) into a hip satire, gave Kubrick a copy of A Clockwork Orange.Kubrick put the Schnitzler project on a back burner, which placed Southern in a bit of a bind with Mick Jagger and The Beatles.
It was understood that once the rights for A Clockwork Orange had been optioned by producer Si Litvinoff, Southern would write the screenplay, Jagger was to play the part of Alex and the rest of the Rolling Stones would play Alex’s droogs. The Beatles were to compose and record the music. Litvinoff had shopped the idea around to a dozen different directors without success. As the original plan was coming apart at the seams, it was reported that actor David Hemming, star of Blowup (1969), was under consideration for the lead. A petition signed by Marianne Faithful, each of The Beatles, and a few hangers-on in the London Bohemian underground of the time—including The Flasher and Strawberry Bob—was sent to Southern denouncing his perceived treachery.
The rights for A Clockwork Orange sold for $500, $2,000, or $5,000, depending which account you read. Burgess was unimpressed with his financial gain on the deal and dismayed that he had suddenly, in the eyes of the press and public alike, become an “expert” on juvenile violence. He was thankful though, that in conversation with Kubrick, he did get the idea for his next novel, Napoleon Symphony.
After the release of the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick used his Napoleon research in the making of Barry Lyndon (1975). It would be another 20 years before the Schnitzler project would culminate in the film Eyes Wide Shut, which is listed in Guinness World Records as the film with the longest continual shoot: 400 days. In retrospect, 400 days isn’t long at all, considering the making of the film took 30 years from gestation to final cut.
But in 1976, Burgess still felt undercompensated after the film version of A Clockwork Orange had become a critical and commercial success, and it must have rankled him that a few critics pointed to satirized authority figures in the film as resembling rumpled versions of Burgess himself. As for the exchange of letters between Kubrick and Burgess, you can sense a certain edginess in Burgess’s response to Kubrick’s complaints that in Traumnovelle “[t]here is, I fear, a narrative anti-climax which I have not been able to improve without doing violence to what I believe were Schnitzler’s ideas …”
“The question is,” Burgess writes, “do you want me to do anything about it? If so, how and when and for how much?”
As Elizabeth Bennet commented in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, poetry is not always the food of love. “If it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination,” she tells Mr. Darcy, “I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”
For Hartley Coleridge’s sake, let us hope Ms. Bennet was wrong. Hartley, the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, composed this sonnet for Valentine’s Day in 1810, at the age of 14. Throughout his youth he was considered a bright and imaginative child. In “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” William Wordsworth described six-year-old Hartley as the “best philosopher” who “read’st the eternal deep.”
Hartley led a troubled life, however. Estranged from his parents at a young age, he was raised by poet Robert Southey. He attended Oxford and went on to receive a scholarship from Oriel College. Although expected to excel, alcoholism and inattentiveness to his studies caused him to lose his scholarship. His sister Sarah dubbed him “our Trouble in the North.”
Soon after losing his scholarship Hartley moved to London, where he worked as a private tutor and published poetry in the London Magazine. He excelled at writing sonnets and published a short collection, Poems, in 1833. It was received positively, as was his collection of author biographies Biographia Borealis; or Lives of Distinguished Northerns, which came out the same year.
Hartley’s continued instability, however, cut short his literary career, forcing him to return home to the Lake District at Grasmere. Although this valentine hints at a romantic streak, he never married. Yet he occasionally wrote sentimental musings from the point of view of “a whimsical Old Bachelor acquaintance of mine,” and many of these bear a resemblance to this early sonnet.
In 1943, the Allies of World War II established the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program—an organization tasked with recovering, restoring, and returning stolen or lost cultural artifacts. The members of the MFAA, known as the Monuments Men, included over 300 artists, architects, educators, directors, and scholars. Together, they made an unprecedented effort toward cultural conservation.
Lincoln Kirstein—art critic, writer, and co-founder of the New York City Ballet—served the Monuments Men in France and Germany from 1944 to 1945. While abroad, he maintained a close correspondence with Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchew, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center.
Through his letters, Kirstein expresses a deep reverence for his responsibilities and appreciation for the artwork itself. His solemnity is, however, shrouded by a veil of casual quips. On March 10, 1945, Kirstein candidly opens his letter to Tchelitchew by writing, “As you know, my work is to help prop up what war has knocked down, and to try to pick up the pieces if there are any left, to try to keep people from scratching names on carved stone and if an armoire is broken it need not be used for kindling.” Yet, to be sure, Kirstein does not ignore the severity of the situation. He closes the same letter by writing, “Do not believe that the war will either be over early or easily. I don’t read the newspapers, but I don’t have to.”
By May, Kirstein’s “work” was more exciting. He writes to Tchelitchew on German stationary—which he claims belonged to Nazi leader Hermann Göring—of a recent near-disaster.
“This is my lovely new note-paper. It used to belong to Göring. He had 50 Cranachs, and some fine German medieval sculpture, he also had a lot of expensive Gobelins and some christ awful modern things. Hitler did much better. Picture little Lincoln in a salt mine, facing the van Eyck Transfiguration of the Lamb, the Czernin Vermeer and most wonderful, the Bruges Madonna and Child of Michaelangelo, and the Dirk Bouts Louvain altar. Criminal bandits and murderers, they had planned to destroy the mine by bombs in each chamber and then flooding with salt water. The nice (and heroic) austrian museum guards and miners saved the mine by taking out the bombs, and blowing up the entrances to save the things. Marvelous Polish, french, belgian, and italian things. As you can imagine it was very funny and saugrenu. The “Peace” was even more comic, and I saw a lot of German army surrender in a most unbeaten way.”
By July, however, this excitement again waned. Kirstein complains to Tchelitchew of “nothing but tedious work and horrible Germans,” laments that there is “absolutely no one to talk to,” and describes himself as a “gloomy intellectual misfit.”
Perhaps partially instigated by boredom, Kirstein then shifts his rhetoric from that of dismay to that of veneration. He writes:
“Yesterday I had a very exciting day, as I was left alone and went down to Hitler’s house which is our art-collection depot, and spent the whole day looking at really amazing pictures. They are stacked up like books against the wall, and the frames are often heavy, but the glories are undiminished. Painting is so wonderful. Few people but you know the secrets of the renaissance attitude, the absolute devotion to the métier, the rewards of glorious workmanship and heavenly color.”
He continues by praising Titian and Raphael, Watteau and Vermeer, while also adding a bit of personal, poetic color:
“Also a lot of other unimportant pictures, a picture I guess you would not like but which is so wonderful, a lot of cowy cows and very tawny horsy horses, in a wild later summers landscape with all the leaves madly tossing against wild clouds, and the horses sniffy and neighing with pleasure, in the midst of which a very heavy healthy pink sexy goaty old man is flirting with Mercury who wears a sort of orange satin Turkish towel, Rubens, on an oak panel, fresh as a daisy and absolutely the packed-up glory of sensuality.”
These accounts of his service constitute a small part of Kirstein’s letters, usually claiming only a paragraph here and there. He preferred, it seems, to write to Tchelitchew about what was to him most familiar and precious: art, artists, friends, and ballet. Between insults directed at the Germans, he playfully teases the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ezra Pound. While writing of recovered Rembrandts, he begs to be sent copies of contemporary magazines. Thus, through his letters, Lincoln Kirstein displays a fundamental characteristic of the Monuments Men: he was one of many artists working in the service of art.
The film The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney and starring Clooney, Matt Damon, and Bill Murray is in theaters now. The film is based on Robert Edsel’s book of the same title.
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According to Mary Evelyn, the wife of John Evelyn, a renowned English intellectual, diarist, and horticulturalist in the late seventeenth century, it cost £313 and 1 shilling to set up a proper upper-class household for eight people in London in 1675. In today’s dollars, the dishes, silver, glasses, linens, and kitchen equipment required would cost approximately $62,000—without buying any furniture. It would then cost £480, 4 shillings per year (approximately $95,000/year today) to maintain and staff that house and a small, two-horse stable. This household would then have a weekly budget of £2, 13 shillings, 4 pence for meals and £4, 12 shillings, 3 pence for other household supplies like soap, candles, and fuel (approximately $1,444 today).
On her own account, this imagined household was quite frugal. Mary Evelyn wrote this set of itemized household management instructions to the Evelyns’ young family friend, the newly married Mrs. Margaret Blagge Godolphin, who was about 22 years old at the time. (The document can be viewed in full in the Ransom Center’s Carl H. Pforzheimer digital collection.) As she remarks in a short preface, Mary Evelyn provides in her accounting for “some variety, but [no] Dainties or Entertainments,” because Mrs. Godolphin has such a “just & regular life” and her husband is “so good & soe reasonable.”
Dear Child, Of ye 500 [pounds per annum]. which you tell me is what you would contract your Expenses to, and that you are to provide your Husbands Cloaths, Stable, and all other House-Expences (except his Pocket-money) I leave you 20 l. over, and for your owne Pocket [etc].40 l. (in all 60 l.) and that little enough considering Sickness, Physicians, and innumerable Accidents that are not to be provided ag[ain]st with any certainty. But (as ye Proverb you know is) I am to cut ye Cloake, according to ye Cloth; and I have done it as near as possibly I could, with some variety, but without Dainties or Entertainments; you living so just & regular a life, & having so good & soe reasonable a Husband; and I pray God to bless you both & pardon ye defects of my Obedience to your earnest Desires, who shall ever remaine,
April 13. 1675
While Mary Evelyn cautions her young friend that she must always be wary of surprise medical expenses that could impact her budget, she goes on to illustrate the variety of fare the Godolphins might enjoy on such a budget with a sample week-long menu of three-course meals. She summarizes these courses in a table as follows:
Additionally, Mary Evelyn provides the young Mrs. Godolphin with some very sound advice about how to pick a head housekeeper, advising the young woman to insist on firm bookkeeping practices without trying to micromanage her servants:
if you have a faithful Woman, or Housemaid it will cost you little trouble. It were necessary yt such a one were a good Market-woman, & whose Eye must bee from ye Garret to ye Cellar; nor is it enough they see all things made cleane in ye House, but set in ord.r also; That if any Good be broken or worne out they shew or bring it to her that she may see in what Condic?n it is, that nothing bee hid or imbezel’d. Use as seldom Charewomen and Out-helpers as you can they but make Gossips. She should bee ye first of servants stirring and last in bed, & have some authority over ye rest, & you must hear her and give her credit, yet not without your owne Examination & inspection, that Complaints come not to you without cause. It is necessary alsoe she should know to write and cast up small sums & bring you her Book every Saturday-night, which you may cause to be enter’d into another for your Selfe, that you may from time to time judge of Prices & things w.ch are continually altering. This Servant is to keep your Spicery, Sweet-meats Cordial waters [etc.] & ye rest of ye Servants are to account to her; & such a Server (I tell you) is a Jewel not easily to be found.
The recipient of these instructions, Margaret Blagge Godolphin, was renowned in her own time for both her beauty and religious devotion. In her teenage years, she was a Maid of Honor to the Queen in the court of Charles II. Her letters demonstrate her success at establishing a circle of admirers and friends at court, John Evelyn among them, but they also reveal an extreme frustration with the moral depravity of her fellow courtiers. She was especially impatient with her superiors’ endless card games and fashionable worldly activities that kept her from her prayers. After several years she managed to get away from the Restoration Court to serve Lady Berkeley but was soon obliged to go abroad with her while Lord Berkeley served as the English ambassador to the court of Louis XIV. From Paris, she wrote to John Evelyn of her admiration for the cloistered life of nuns even though life among Catholics exposed to her the superstitions of the Roman Church and confirmed her Protestant faith. Despite her desire to dedicate herself to a life of religious devotion after her time in Paris, John Evelyn—who had become a sort of spiritual mentor to her—persuaded her that her most pious act as a 22-year-old woman would be to follow through with a long-term engagement to be married to Lord Sidney Godolphin, the King’s Master of the Robes.
Not long after marrying, Margaret Godolphin asked the Evelyns for help with her home economics. This seven-page document thus reveals Mary Evelyn’s attempt to help her devout young friend establish a household that would provide her a refuge from the world of high society she found so tiresome. By Margaret Godolphin’s own account, it worked. She wrote of her thankfulness for the blessings she was able to enjoy after her marriage: her health, her husband, her time to herself, and her “house quiet, sweet, and pretty.” Sadly, Margaret’s enjoyment of this place of respite and meditation was cut short when she died after giving birth to her son Francis in her third year of marriage.
These household management instructions by Mary Evelyn were among Margaret Godolphin’s papers that John Evelyn set in order upon her death. Evelyn eventually turned these into a biography that remained unpublished until the nineteenth century. The Ransom Center possesses the instructions, which were enclosed in a letter sent to Samuel Pepys by Evelyn in 1685. Evelyn’s cover letter offers some humble commentary on the utility of the instructions that is tinged with regret for the loss of his dear young friend. Evelyn expresses his hope that the methodical recommendations of his wife might be helpful to other virtuous women Pepys knows. Evelyn hesitantly offers his own daughter, Susanna, as an example of such a virtuous woman who might benefit from these instructions. In parentheses, though, he adds a caveat that thinly veils a regret-filled critique of his other daughter who had recently eloped without the family’s consent and subsequently died of smallpox: “if God give her [Susanna] Grace to make a fitter Choice than her unhappy sister.” Evelyn’s rather bleak references to his own kin in this letter are strikingly juxtaposed against powerful and wistful expressions of love for Margaret Godolphin, now deceased for seven years, whom he calls “that concealed saint, and incomparable Creature, so well known to me, & my wife in particular.”
Thus, this document reveals the trust John Evelyn placed in his wife Mary’s expertise in planning, budgeting, practical math, and management skills, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the details of how a small upper-class London home operated in the late seventeenth century. Its cover letter to Pepys also provides a context that allows us to glimpse this document’s status in its afterlife as a kind of talisman that preserved for the Evelyns a tiny bit of the intimacy and spirituality of their friendship with the young Margaret Blagge Godolphin.
Transcriptions of Mary Evelyn’s Household Management Instructions are provided by Catherine Harris and Patrick Naeve, student volunteers from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts Plan II Honors Program.
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Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”
Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.
One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.
The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.
Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.
“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”
Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s. Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.
“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.
Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.
Farley P. Katz is a tax lawyer in San Antonio who collects rare books, manuscripts, and “too many other things.” He is one of the contributors to the medieval fragments project, a crowdsourcing research project headed by archivist Micah Erwin to identify fragments of medieval manuscripts bound into rare books at the Ransom Center. Katz describes a recent discovery below.
The Flickr posting noted only that the fragment includes a calendar possibly from a book of hours (a medieval devotional book containing prayers, hymns, and religious calendars and often painted miniatures). There was text below the calendar that included French words. I could make out “C’est mon” and “Et tout,” but little else was easily readable. The fact that each line began with a capital letter, however, suggested that it might be a poem.
Usually if a text is well known, it can be identified by searching on Google with a few strings of words (using quotation marks so that only the exact phrase is sought). While reading the words may not be so easy given the antiquated scripts and condition of the fragments, it helps to have some knowledge of the languages the texts are written in and the nature of the manuscripts themselves. Here, I tried a number of searches, but the few phrases I could make out were insufficient for this purpose. Then, I tried searching “C’est mon” and “book of hours.” Success! I found an article by two scholars, Kathryn M. Rudy and René Stuip, about a French prayer book that contained a calendar for each month that was followed by rhyming lines of poetry. Those for March appear to be close or identical with the first four lines on the Ransom Center’s fragment:
Au-bin dit que mars est pril-leux. (1 Albinus)
C’est mon, fait Gre-goir, il est feux. (12 Gregory)
Et tout prest de don-ner des eaux.
Ma-ri-e dit: il est caux. (25 Annunciation, Lady Day)
They translate as: “Albinus says that March is changeable. That’s right, says Gregory, it’s fire, and quite ready to give water. Mary says it’s hot.”
Rudy and Stuip explained that these are not mere amusing rhymes, but actually a complex mnemonic device known as a “Cisiojanus” (from Circumcisio Januarius, referring to the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, celebrated on January 1). The number of syllables in each poem equals the number of days in the month. So for March, which has 31 days, there are 31 syllables. The most important saints or holy days of each month are identified by name and numerical position in the poem. Thus, the first syllable of the March rhyme starts with the name Aubin and St. Albinus’s day was March 1. Similarly, the twelfth syllable of the rhyme starts with Gregoir, whose feast day was March 12.
Cisiojani (the plural form) originated in Germany in the twelfth century in Latin and were later produced in vernacular languages, ultimately making it into early printed books. Manuscripts written in French of Cisiojani, however, are quite rare. It’s difficult to date the manuscript fragment because the text is obscured, but an educated guess would be fifteenth century.
Although I have not seen the book “in person,” the catalog states that it has a “Fanfare” binding. Fanfare bindings are ornate bindings in which the covers are divided into many compartments often filled with gold tooling. They originated in France in the sixteenth century and spread throughout Europe. Since Uzielli 99 contains manuscript waste from France, it most likely was bound there.
Identifying this manuscript fragment at the Ransom Center thus not only adds to the limited body of knowledge about French Cisiojani but also provides evidence of where an early bookbinding was probably made.
During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve. Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.
In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.
Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).
The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.
I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project. We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.
Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!