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Fellows Find: H. P. Lovecraft letter sheds light on pivotal moment in his career

By James Machin

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.

 

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A note from James Purdy cheers up “Wicked Witch of the West” actress Margaret Hamilton

By Bob Taylor

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.

 

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Ransom Center acquires archive of Gabriel García Márquez

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014). The archive documents the life and work of García Márquez, an author who obtained nearly unanimous critical acclaim and a worldwide readership.

 

Read the news in Spanish.

 

Spanning more than half a century, García Márquez’s archive includes original manuscript material, predominantly in Spanish, for 10 books, from One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) to Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004); more than 2,000 pieces of correspondence, including letters from Carlos Fuentes and Graham Greene; drafts of his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; more than 40 photograph albums documenting all aspects of his life over nearly nine decades; the Smith Corona typewriters and computers on which he wrote some of the 20th century’s most beloved works; and scrapbooks meticulously documenting his career via news clippings from Latin America and around the world.

 

Highlights in the archive include multiple drafts of García Márquez’s unpublished novel We’ll See Each Other in August, research for The General in His Labyrinth (1989), and a heavily annotated typescript of the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). The materials document the gestation and changes of García Márquez’s works, revealing the writer’s struggle with language and structure.

 

Born in Colombia, García Márquez began his career as a journalist in the 1940s, reporting from Bogotá and Cartagena and later serving as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Cuba. In 1961, he moved to Mexico City. Alongside his prolific journalism career, García Márquez published many works of fiction, including novels, novellas and multiple short story collections and screenplays. He published the first volume of his three-part memoir Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale) in 2002.

 

Supporting the university’s acquisition is LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections, a partnership between the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. LLILAS is regarded as one of the strongest Latin American studies programs in the country, and the Benson Collection is recognized as one of the world’s premier libraries focusing on Latin American and U.S. Latina/o studies.

 

Future plans relating to the archive include digitizing portions of the collection to make them widely accessible and a university symposium to explore the breadth and influence of García Márquez’s life and career. The García Márquez materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

 

 

Image: Gabriel García Márquez working on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Photograph by Guillermo Angulo.

In the Galleries: “Gone With The Wind” producer David O. Selznick demanded proper Southern accents from actors

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Letters poured into producer David O. Selznick’s office on the proper use of Southern accents in Gone With The Wind. One woman wrote, “Come South and study our dialect. I don’t know your people as you do, but it cuts deep when we see our lovely old Southern life ‘hashed up.’”

 

Clark Gable employed a dialog coach, but two days before filming, Selznick learned that Gable was refusing to use an accent. Selznick then had Will Price, from the casting department, and Susan Myrick, a technical advisor, work on coaching the actors in the use of an appropriate accent.

 

Price and Myrick, in a memo to Selznick and director George Cukor, wrote, “we find that the script includes innumerable attempts at written southern accent for the white characters. Both Miss Myrick and I strongly agree that this is extremely dangerous as it prompts the actors immediately to attempt a phony southern accent comprised merely of dropping final ‘ings’ and consonants. A phony southern accent is harder to eradicate than a British or western accent.” They then advise that the script should be retyped, without the written southern accents.

 

Filming went on hiatus as Selznick replaced director George Cukor with Victor Fleming. Selznick wrote to studio manager Henry Ginsberg about his concerns over the accent during this period: “We know that Leslie Howard has made little or no attempts in the direction of accent and since he is on our payroll there is little excuse for this…. I am particularly worried about Vivien Leigh since she has been associating with English people and more likely than not has completely got away from what was gained up to the time we stopped.” Leigh was already under fire from the media and many Southerners for being British, so it would have been doubly ruinous for the film if she were unable to employ an accent.

 

Memos related to the actors’ accents are on view through January 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind. A fully illustrated exhibition catalog of the same title is available. Co-published by the Harry Ransom Center and University of Texas Press, the catalog includes a foreword written by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and film historian Robert Osborne.

 

 

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