In the spring of 2009, the Harry Ransom Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog the Morris L. Ernst papers. The collection will be closed to researchers until the project is completed in the fall of 2011. During that time, a team of one full-time project archivist and two part-time assistant archivists will arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. They will also produce a standard finding aid (or guide to the collection), which will be available online.
During the cataloging process, the archivists aim to achieve two goals: access and preservation. The Ernst papers, despite being uncataloged, have been used frequently since their acquisition. Several lists and indexes to the papers exist, but they are incomplete, unreliable, and difficult to navigate. This project will replace those various guides with a standardized, online finding aid, which will be searchable and generally much easier to access and use.
The other goal is to make the physical material last as long as possible, so that the information contained in the papers will remain a part of the cultural record. To this end, project staff will re-house the papers in acid-free boxes and folders. At-risk items—those that have been damaged by water, age, or other environmental factors—will be treated by the Center’s Conservation Department. The Ransom Center has a state-of-the-art lab where materials can be stabilized for long-term preservation.
When the cataloging project is complete, the Ernst papers will be housed with the Center’s other collections in secure temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, ensuring the papers’ availability to researchers.
The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.
The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.
Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”
The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.
Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.
You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.
You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.
You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.
Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”
Before the Atkins, South Beach, and Cabbage Soup diets was the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet from the 1920s, which demanded fewer than 600 calories per day. One of its earliest practitioners was American novelist Fannie Hurst, who wrote extensively about her weight loss struggles in the early 20th century, when obesity began turning into a cultural stigma. As a Fellow at the Ransom Center last year, Dr. Julia Ehrhardt, Associate Professor of Honors and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, studied Hurst’s papers for her upcoming book about the literary history of dieting in the United States.Ehrhardt’s fellowship was funded by the Henriette F. and Clarence L. Cline Memorial Endowment Fund.
In 2007, I spent a fabulous two months in residence at the Ransom Center, thanks to the generous research fellowship program, which allowed me to travel and live in Austin in close proximity to the Center. My research project concerns the relationships among body weight, dieting, and American literature from the turn of the last century until 1939. The book that I hope will result from my research will discuss the emergence of dieting as a widespread cultural practice in the United States and the ways in which authorial concerns about excess weight manifested themselves in American drama, short stories, novels, and memoirs. I am also particularly interested in how the rise of mass-market fiction—a genre that many renowned American authors and critics believed was wreaking havoc on literary taste—Influenced cultural ideas about weight and writing.
I first became interested in these issues when I read Fannie Hurst’s dieting memoir, No Food With My Meals, published in 1935. Although Hurst is best known today as the author of the bestsellers Imitation of Life, Back Street, and Lummox, she was equally known in literary circles as an avid dieter. I applied for a Ransom Center fellowship knowing that the majority of Hurst’s personal papers and memoirs were housed there, and hoping that I might find materials relevant to my project in the archive.
On the very first day of my fellowship, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of weight-loss pamphlets, printed diets, and calorie charts that filled an entire box in the Hurst collection. As I continued my research in the vast collection, I found letters Hurst composed to friends, relatives, and editors about her struggles to lose weight and to maintain her svelte figure. I also learned from Hurst’s correspondence that several prominent members of the writer’s social circle—including Irvin Cobb, Blanche Knopf, and Helena Rubenstein—regularly commiserated with her about dieting and gave her their sympathy as well as their own weight-loss hints. My research in Hurst’s date books and diaries indicated that she was a diehard devotee of a popular 1920s fad diet known as the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet, and I also found a fascinating folder of letters about Hurst’s concern about the cover image her publisher had selected for the hardcover version of No Food With My Meals.
The most important discovery I made at the Ransom Center were several draft versions of an autobiography Hurst composed in the early 1940s and intended to title Self-Portrait. In the approximately 350 pages of this manuscript, Hurst tells the painful story of growing up fat in the era when thinness emerged as an essential component of normative American identity, and describes the lack of self-confidence she felt as an overweight child and young woman. This manuscript and others attest that even when celebrating her many literary accomplishments, unless a coincident weight loss accompanied them, Hurst would berate herself for not achieving the artistic and personal goals she had set out to realize. Her personal papers thus demonstrate the immense power weight wielded over her self-perception and her identity as an author—a story that is sadly not a unique one during the era I am researching.
Thanks to the Ransom Center fellowship, as well as the staff members, archivists, librarians, and other fellows I met who shared my enthusiasm for the materials I found, my book manuscript now includes extensive discussions of materials I never imagined existed. I hope that my research will help scholars in a variety of disciplines re-think their ideas about weight, authorship, and citizenship during the Modernist period, and to appreciate the fascinating life and work of Fannie Hurst as well. I also look forward to making future visits to the Ransom Center, one of the best literary archives in the world.
What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common?All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:
This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.
In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.
I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.
I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.
Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.
Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection:
2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”
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 Beagle was 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 recently 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
The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.
While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.
Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.
Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.
English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”