Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.
Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.
In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.
How do you choose your subjects for a biography?
I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.
During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies. What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?
I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.
There are more than 800 footnotes in your book. Is that average or unusual in a biography?
Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.
Fitzgerald was a private person. How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?
There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.
Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?
My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.
Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?
I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.
You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard. Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?
I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.
Haley Williams is a psychology/Plan I Honors senior in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Williams shares her experience in the class.
In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the “big glass buildings with the pretty pictures” on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibitions on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.
One of my classes in the Fall 2014 semester focused on reading several plays with visits to the Ransom Center to comb through the archives of these playwrights. The final was a research project on one of the plays we had read in class. I had previously written a paper about A Streetcar Named Desire and knew this is where my research would begin. To do this, I was fortunate to have access to not only the archive of Williams himself but also the wealth of manuscripts, books, papers, letters, and notes from the Audrey Wood and Stella Adler collections. While using the Audrey Wood collection, I found folders about the production of the 1951 movie starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. One letter I found inspired further research into the different endings of the play and how they affected the meaning of the play.
In the letter to Joseph Breen, head of Hollywood’s motion picture production code office, Williams notes he has heard about the production company potentially removing the rape scene from the movie. Williams explains to Breen that this is not possible, as the rape of Blanche by Stanley is “a pivotal, integral truth in the play, without which the play loses its meaning, which is the ravishment of the tender, the sensitive, the delicate, by the safe and brutal forces in modern society. It is a positive plea for comprehension.” He goes on to explain that he is willing to do whatever it takes to keep this within the movie because without the scene, the importance of the play will be completely removed.
What Williams really thought about the rape scene can be further examined when looking at some of the earlier drafts of the play. In an early draft of scenes 10 and 11, the rape scene that has become iconic thanks to the performance of Brando and Leigh is absent, and instead a consensual sex scene exists in its place. Following this scene is a morning of domestic bliss and tranquility between two consensual sexual partners. Instead of a brutal scene of violence, we see Blanche helping Stanley tie his tie and pick out a shirt to wear. The scene also ends with Blanche planning to leave using the bus ticket Stanley got her for her birthday, not with her removal to the asylum by the doctor and matron. By changing this one scene, Williams completely reworks the characters of Stanley and Blanche, showing that he experimented early on with alternatives for the rape scene that he later defends emphatically in his letter to Breen.
These endings to the play provide the path by which one can trace the progression of the play and possible reasons why Williams made these decisions. As these were early drafts of the play, the manuscript had lines marked out, suggestions for changing certain words, and even changes to names. Because he considered the rape of Blanche by Stanley to be important because of the symbolic message that it represented, he was able to understand, even early in the writing process, that this scene was imperative to his play. Having access to the Ransom Center’s collections as a student to discover these things for myself is something that few are able to claim and something that I am thankful we are able to do as students at The University of Texas at Austin.
Have you ever wondered how a play or film might have turned out differently? This was the guiding question in the new Humanities Honors course—titled “Drama in the Archives”—offered in fall 2014 by Dr. Elon Lang, lecturer and former part-time archivist at the Ransom Center. During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.
In the course, students studied several representative examples of modern and contemporary Anglophone drama, as well as Shakespeare and Shakespearean performance. These included Shakespeare’s King Lear, Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, David Mamet’s Oleanna, and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. All of these are supported by strong collections in the Ransom Center. Students were asked to read, analyze, and discuss printed editions of these plays during regular class meetings and then to examine selections from Ransom Center archives that illustrated how those plays were shaped by their authors and publishers and how they have been altered by various performances and interpretations over time.
For example, regarding King Lear, students compared the Ransom Center’s copy of the 1619 Second Quarto edition of the play to its three copies of the 1623 First Folio edition—noticing intriguing differences in key speeches that altered their perception of the characters. They then also viewed artistic representations of Lear’s throne room from the Ransom Center’s Boydell Shakespeare print collection (neo-classical style including architecture with Grecian columns, emphatic facial expressions and rippling musculature) and the Norman Bel Geddes collection (expressionist style with intense colors, outlines of figures, and primitive architecture resembling Stonehenge). Students compared all these variations to recent productions and films of the play and wrote extensively about how the archival context helped them understand the history and impact of choices made by directors and producers.
Lang came up with the idea for the class after describing some of his archival work on the Ransom Center’s Pforzheimer manuscript collection to his humanities students. Despite their interest in what Lang suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few students had actually visited the Ransom Center, and even fewer had contemplated doing research there.
“This struck me as a terrible shame,” Lang said, “but also a remarkable opportunity.”
As Haley Williams, a third-year student in the class and president of Liberal Arts Honors Student Council, wrote: “In my first two years of undergrad, I often passed the ‘big glass buildings with the pretty pictures’ on my way to and from class. I had even visited the exhibits on occasion and meandered over to listen to a lecture from time to time. However, in my mind, the Harry Ransom Center was for graduate students and professors, a place off limits to undergraduate students such as me. Thankfully, this semester I was proven wrong.”
Lang decided that it should be his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially the University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials. He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.
“When you imagine a text being performed by actors, you are already engaged in a process of analyzing unstated elements of movement, intonation, emphasis—and these interpretations can change drastically when you see how the words in a speech or the sequence of actions in stage directions transform over time,” Lang said.
For A Streetcar Named Desire, students analyzed the numerous original drafts of the play in the Tennessee Williams collection (one of which includes an ending where Blanche DuBois does not go crazy). They then considered how the changes in the text correlated with Williams’s correspondence with his agent, Audrey Wood, about how to edit and then cast the play—and finally how to handle his objections to the famous 1951 screenplay starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh. For a final exercise, students attended a production of the play being staged on campus and had in-depth discussions with the director (Jess Hutchinson, M.F.A. candidate in directing in the College of Fine Arts at The University of Texas at Austin) about how she used the Ransom Center’s collections to inform her production process.
Viewing rare and valuable materials in the Ransom Center reading room offered students a chance not only to develop a critical eye but also to realize a new and sometimes spiritual appreciation for humanistic inquiry.
“The pages spoke like the hinges of a haunted house, [both] daunting and enticing,” wrote Abraham Kinney about the Shakespeare First Folio. A senior English major and long-time Austin resident, Kinney describes how, in the class, “we were able to see the meticulous care that goes into the preservation of the vast archives compiled at the Ransom Center… In this place of intellectual agency, my focus shifted from merely researching in the dull categoric [sic] way, talking, writing, getting a grade, and moving on, to digging deep within the traces that our cultural heritage has left us, in a way that sparked a serious level of critical thought about who we are and how we are bound in the ways we think.”
After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts. Students presented their research to an audience of Ransom Center staff and Liberal Arts faculty. Paul Sullivan, a lecturer in Plan II and the English Department who also volunteers at the Ransom Center, wrote, “Clearly, encounters with the archives made a big difference in how these bright young people will now read texts, and the world!”
Lang hopes to offer this course again in spring 2016, and in the meantime he is working to develop a summer workshop for high school English teachers through UTEACH to adapt some of his archive-oriented teaching methods for secondary education.
The man who became famous as Lewis Carroll was born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson in 1832. Dodgson, the third of 11 siblings, grew up in northern England surrounded by his brothers and sisters. Together they put on plays and created family publications like The Rectory Magazine, named for their home in Croft-on-Tees. Dodgson’s father was an Archdeacon in the Church of England and lived in a rectory, or a residence for the parish clergyman.
This edition of The Rectory Magazine includes essays, poems, and short stories, as well as hand-drawn and colored illustrations. The sense of humor and parody that appear in much of Carroll’s later work is already evident in The Rectory Magazine, produced when Dodgson was 18 years old.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s exhibition Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, on view through July 6, can turn the pages of a digital version of The Rectory Magazine on a touchscreen in the galleries.
Share information about the exhibition with #aliceinaustin.
To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On theOrigin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center. Read more
James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.
The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:
We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.
Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.
Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.
Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:
He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.
Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.
The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.
The papers of American author James Purdy (1914–2009) at the Ransom Center include a missive written to Purdy in the spring of 1971 by the actress Margaret Hamilton (1902–1985). Hamilton is, of course, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz.
The communication fills three pages of a whimsical Rosalind Welcher greeting card and continues onto both sides of a sheet of the actress’s personalized note stationery. From internal evidence in Hamilton’s letter, as well as from an earlier one in the collection from playwright Neal Du Brock to Purdy, it’s evident she had starred in Du Brock’s dramatization of Purdy’s novel The Nephew. The production was presented by the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, New York in early 1971.
Du Brock’s adaptation wasn’t particularly well received and closed with considerable gloom among the play’s company. Purdy evidently wrote a consoling note to Du Brock, which led Du Brock to suggest that Miss Hamilton, who had clearly felt stung by the reviews, might be cheered by a positive word from the original author.
Purdy’s ensuing note to Hamilton seemingly helped lift the actress’s spirits, and she responded in her letter of April 23, 1971, “how very dear of you to write me…and perk up such a dismal Easter.” She went on to say she was then in Boston at her alma mater, Wheelock College, recovering from the flu and looking forward, upon her recovery, to appearing in a play with the school’s drama department.
After recounting the hectic events surrounding the production of The Nephew and its treatment in the press, the scarcely wicked witch continued with the observation that “it is amazing how vulnerable we all are—to negative criticism—we remember each phrase—do we remember the kind or approving phrases? No! It really boils down to one man’s opinion. And we do ask for it!” Hamilton closed with an invitation to Purdy to “come & have tea or a drink… sometime this summer if you are in New York.”
The James Purdy papers are currently being processed and will be available to scholars once cataloging is complete.