The Ransom Center recently acquired a collection of letters and photographs relating to novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007), co-founder of TheNew York Review of Books and one of the most brilliant literary critics of the late-twentieth century. The newly acquired material complements Elizabeth Hardwick’s archive, which she donated to the Ransom Center in 1991.
This new material was acquired from Jon R. Jewett, a personal friend of Hardwick—or “Lizzie,” as her closest friends called her. They met in Castine, Maine, in the early 1980s, where Hardwick had a summer residence that she once shared with her former husband, the poet Robert Lowell.
The collection includes more than 20 handwritten letters from Hardwick to Jewett spanning their three decades of friendship. The letters showcase Hardwick’s sharp wit and are filled with details of her daily activities, reflections on current events, and kind words of advice for her friend. In a letter dated January 21, 1991, she writes of the Gulf War, “The situation is really bizarre indeed, no jobs and a war that is not over in a week, as expected. I can’t tear myself away from the TV, but I suppose the worst thing will be that it is all to become repetition, nothing new happening and so the great happening, the war itself, just becomes another little repetitive show.”
On April 10, 1994, in a letter peppered with typos, she offers valuable advice about editing and proofreading but self-reflexively notes, “I can’t proofread my own work. It’s embarrassing how many mistakes there are in something I have read more than a dozen times.” She concludes, “I am aware of all the mistakes in this letter, but it is a rush and even the typing room is such a mess I can hardly see the page.”
The correspondence in the collection is supplemented with a number of photographs and candid snapshots—including one of a frail but smiling Lizzie taken just days before her death in 2007.
Pim Verhulst of the University of Antwerp visited the Ransom Center to work with the Samuel Beckett papers, in particular the radio plays and related correspondence. His research, funded by a dissertation fellowship, seeks to bring together all the existing draft versions in a digital space and study the writing process. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In 2013 the Harry Ransom Center awarded me a dissertation fellowship for a research project on the radio plays of the Irish-French author and Nobel Prize Winner (1969) Samuel Beckett. My dissertation is part of the recently launched Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Its goal is to reunite all extant draft material of Beckett’s bilingual work, scattered over a dozen libraries all around the world, in an interactive digital environment. Each of its 27 online modules is supplemented with a book that reconstructs the writing process of the highlighted texts on the basis of their available writing traces, as well as letters and even Beckett’s personal library. My dissertation covers Beckett’s six radio plays: All That Fall, Embers, Pochade radiophonique, Words and Music, Esquisse radiophonique, and Cascando. They were written in English and French between 1956 and 1962 and translated by the author himself around the same time.
My week’s stay at the Ransom Center came at the end of a three-year research period, during which I visited all the major European research institutions and libraries preserving Beckett material. The Ransom Center was my last stop, and while most pieces of the puzzle were already in place, a few crucial gaps remained. The collection includes draft material for Beckett’s first two radio plays, All That Fall and Embers, as well as many important letter collections from close friends. My trip to the Ransom Center followed a short research stay at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where it was unusually hot and damp for my Northern European temperament. The cold front causing ice storms in Houston and Dallas had made the December weather in Austin resemble more closely what I was used to in Belgium, so I felt immediately at home when I arrived. To warm myself a little, I decided to turn to Embers first. The typescript of the French version (Cendres) is very interesting because it shows just how intensely Beckett reworked the translation made by his friend, the French writer Robert Pinget. In three kinds of writing material—grey pencil, blue ink, and red ballpoint—you can see him trying out five or six variants of a phrase, the differences being ever so slight. This great attention to detail was all the more impressive because the Center allowed me to consult the original documents, which even showed the traces of previous erased alternative, a rare luxury that only archives offer.
The English typescript of the radio play comes late in the writing process and does not show many alterations. One peculiar aspect of the typescript is its lack of a title. From my earlier research on the text, I knew that Beckett originally planned to call it “Ebb,” as it takes place by the seaside. Why it was changed to Embers is revealed by his letters to Ethna McCarthy, the wife of one of his best friends. The news of her terminal illness brought to Beckett’s mind an image of her “crouching all day over the fire in the front room” when he last saw Ethna in Dublin, a vivid depiction that recurs in some of his other letters to mutual friends. Beckett sent her his new radio script with the message: “there are bits that will murmur to you.” Embers must have been one of the last—if not the last—text that Ethna read during her life. Beckett’s change of title reflects these personal circumstances, as the cycle of ebb and flow makes way for the entropic decline of coals dying down. It is a beautiful though painful reminder of how art tries to staunch the wounds of life, even in the face of death.
The vaudevillian setup of All That Fall promised lighter entertainment, as fat Maddy Rooney painstakingly makes her way to the nearest train station. Fellow travelers offer a ride but they all break down, leading to ribald sitcom. She finally meets her blind husband on the platform and leads him home, but it soon becomes clear just how unfit a guide she is. The script’s closing pages become ever more grim, as tensions between Maddy and Dan rise and the weather takes a turn for the worse. The gorgeous manuscript notebook that holds the first version of the radio play shows how Beckett wrote the text in fits and starts, shuffling along the dreary road of composition much like his characters, switching between writing tools and colors as if to liven things up. When he got to the second, more gloomy part of the script—appropriately written in black ink—he returned to the first page of the notebook and changed the title from “Lovely Day for the Races” to All That Fall. The new title refers to Psalm 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In Beckett’s radio play, there is no sign of a merciful God. Ironically, as I approached the end of the manuscript, Ransom Center staff members were busy putting up Christmas decorations. As everyone was getting ready for the holiday season, it was time for me to go home. Still glowing with the kindness of Elizabeth Garver, Bridget Gayle-Ground, and their colleagues, and the excitement of a week’s archival exploration, I tried not to think of All That Fall as my flight sped across the Atlantic.
Image: Photograph of Samuel Beckett taken by a street photographer outside Burlington House in Piccadily, ca. 1954.
Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.
The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.
Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.
Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.
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 third in a four-part series highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.
In 2002, Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, and Ed Park began planning a long-format magazine featuring essays, interviews, and reviews. With the assistance of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s staff, TheBeliever was launched in 2003. The same year, Andrew Leland, former intern at McSweeney’s, was offered the job of managing editor to create the second issue of The Believer magazine. Leland dropped out of Oberlin College to take the job, and he continued in the post for eight years and 75 issues. TheBeliever, easily identified by its iconic cover template designed by Eggers and illustrated with drawings by Charles Burns, has become a monthly art and culture magazine featuring content unimpeded by arbitrary word limits and highlighting schematic drawings, illustrations by Tony Millionaire, and regular columns by Nick Hornby, Greil Marcus, and Jack Pendarvis. The Believer is also home to the “Sedaratives” advice column founded by Amy Sedaris and featuring guest contributors from Janeane Garafolo to Weird Al Yankovich. The magazine also puts out three special issues a year dedicated to art, film, and music.
Two notebooks filed in box 98, folders 3 and 4 were kept by Believer editor Andrew Leland and are among the most revealing items in the archive. One has a clean, earnest design, with a simple soft-yellow cover. The other is a NASCAR spiral with the image of Tony Stewart emblazed on the front. The notebooks begin in the summer of 2003 and contain daily “to-do” lists, editorial checklists, and other jottings. On one particular day, the numbered list reads:
1) Phillips images
2) Format letters
3) Rest of articles à Tony
4) Call Boy George
Numbers one through four are all crossed out, giving a brief glimpse into the creative, interesting, and mundane aspects of being a Believer editor.
TheBeliever attracts remarkable writers and remarkable readers. David Foster Wallace’s subscription postcard for TheBeliever is evidence that they’re sometimes both. It’s humorous and prized—the tape still adhered to the card with flecks of wall paint suggests it was hanging on Leland’s wall.
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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