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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Materials from Peter Matthiessen’s archive on display in Ransom Center’s lobby

By Alicia Dietrich

To honor acclaimed novelist, naturalist, and wilderness writer Peter Matthiessen (1927–2014), the Ransom Center is highlighting materials from his archive in its lobby.

 

Matthiessen was born in New York City to a well-to-do family and educated at Yale. Determined to pursue a writing career, Matthiessen moved to Paris where he became one of the founders of The Paris Review, which, he later admitted, he invented as a cover while working briefly for the CIA. In his 45-year career as a writer, Matthiessen produced more than 30 works, winning National Book Awards for The Snow Leopard (1978) and Shadow Country (2008), a one-volume revision of a trilogy of frontier Florida novels published in the 1990s. In writing to the Ransom Center about Shadow Country, Matthiessen confessed, “I was dismayed to find upon opening the finished product at long last that it was still unfinished.”

 

Matthiessen’s rich archive was acquired by the Center in 1995, and materials were added in succeeding years. It includes manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files that span his writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, and essays, often in multiple drafts.

 

Writer James Salter, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, paid tribute to Matthiessen in The New Yorker.

 

The materials in the lobby are on view through April 27.

 

Photo of Peter Matthiessen by Jesse Close.

Ransom Center exhibits “Gone With The Wind” materials at TCM Classic Film Festival

By Jennifer Tisdale

Turner Classic Movies (TCM), premier sponsor for the Harry Ransom Center’s upcoming exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, hosts its fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood April 10–13.

 

Within Club TCM, the gathering point for festival passholders in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Ransom Center will exhibit a selection of Gone With The Wind storyboards and concept art from the Center’s David O. Selznick archive.

 

Also at the festival, TCM will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Gone With The Wind (1939) with a screening of a recent restoration of the film in collaboration with Warner Bros. Studios.

 

Beginning September 9 at the Ransom Center, more than 300 original items from Gone With The Wind will be on display in the exhibition The Making of Gone With The Wind, including behind-the-scenes photographs, storyboards, correspondence, production records, audition footage, fan mail, and costumes worn by Vivien Leigh. Drawing from its extensive archive of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, the Ransom Center is in a unique position to tell, and share, the story of the making of this epic film.

 

Image: Dorothea Holt’s concept painting of Scarlett at the Butler House in Gone With The Wind.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.

Ransom Center acquires archive of poet Billy Collins

By Jennifer Tisdale

 

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.

 

Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.

 

“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”

 

Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s.  Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.

 

“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.

 

Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.


Related content:

Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

 

Image: Undated photo of Billy Collins. Unknown photographer.

Ransom Center acquires 21 J. D. Salinger letters

By Jennifer Tisdale

The Ransom Center has acquired 21 previously unrecorded and unpublished letters by author J. D. Salinger. The letters are accessible as part of the Ransom Center’s existing Salinger collection, which includes published and unpublished manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence.

 

Most of the newly acquired letters are written by Salinger to Ruth Smith Maier, a classmate and friend he met at Ursinus College. Salinger attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1938, but he quit midterm and returned to New York City. He and Maier maintained a 40-year correspondence in which Salinger commented on a wide range of topics including his literary ambitions, his writing, and his family life. A number of letters offer insight into his evolving attitude toward public exposure and cast light on his decision to withhold new work from public view.

 

In the earliest letter, the 22-year-old Salinger expresses confidence in his literary gifts: “Oh, but I’m good,” he writes Maier. “It will take time to convince the public, but [it] shall be done.” In later letters Salinger reminisces about his brief time at Ursinus College (“one of the last peaceful or simple or oddly comforting times of my life”) and comments on his second marriage and early fatherhood. Five letters from 1977 and 1978 are written to Ruth Maier’s son, Christopher. In one he offers an explanation for his decision to withhold his writing from the public, explaining “publication tends, for me, at least, to put all work still in progress in dire jeopardy . . . I distrust the finality of publication.”

 

The acquisition also includes copies of Ruth Smith Maier’s letters to Salinger and a draft of the first letter Christopher Maier sent the author.

 

Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss notes the correspondence will be of particular interest to those who wish to understand Salinger’s withdrawal from public life. He adds, “It also humanizes the author, showing him confronting a range of life-changing events from marriage to fatherhood and his own aging.”

 

The Ransom Center’s Salinger collection was established in 1968 and has been augmented with subsequent additions over many years. The Ransom Center is one of a handful of institutions that hold original Salinger manuscripts, including Princeton University, Harvard University, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Morgan Library.

Winter break hours

By Alicia Dietrich

Holiday hours for the Ransom Center are as follows:

 

Ransom Center Galleries
10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
10 a.m.–7 p.m. Thursday
Noon–5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

 

The Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and the following holidays:
Christmas Eve Day (Tuesday, December 24)
Christmas Day (Wednesday, December 25)
New Year’s Day (Wednesday, January 1)

 

Please also be aware that the Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office will be closed during the University holidays from Monday, December 23, through Wednesday, January 1.

 

Visitors can see the current exhibition, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age through January 5.

 

The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Docent-led gallery tours occur on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on Thursday, November 28.) The public tours meet in the lobby, and no reservations are required.

 

Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

The Cultural Compass blog will be on hiatus during the University’s winter break and will return the week of January 6.

Austin’s Cultural Campus hosts holiday crawl this Saturday

By Christine Lee

’Tis the season to shop local, and Austin’s Cultural Campus is offering an event to get everyone in the holiday spirit!

 

Participating museums include the Blanton Museum of Art, Bullock Texas State History Museum, Harry Ransom Center, LBJ Presidential Library, Texas Memorial Museum, and the Visual Arts Center.
Each institution will offer a discount on merchandise for those who mention Austin’s Cultural Campus. The Ransom Center will offer a one-day discount on membership on Saturday, December 7.

 

You can find distinctive gifts, such as original artwork, nature-inspired jewelry, dinosaur goodies, books and exhibition catalogs, souvenirs, or the official state ornament. For a gift that lasts all year, purchase a membership.

 

Sign up at any location to be entered in a special prize package drawing.

 

Thanksgiving holiday hours

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center will be closed on Thanksgiving Day. Please be aware that the Ransom Center Galleries are open on this Friday, November 29, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.  and from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, November 30, and Sunday, December 1.

 

Visitors can view the current exhibitions Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age and Eli Reed: The Lost Boys of Sudan. The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible remain on permanent display.

 

Docent-led gallery tours occur on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (There will be no public tour on Thursday, November 28.) The public tours meet in the lobby, and no reservations are required.

 

Admission is free. Your donation supports the Ransom Center’s exhibitions and public programs. Parking information and a map are available online.

 

The Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms and administrative office are closed on Thursday, November 28, and reopen on Monday, December 2.

 

Image: John Audubon’s illustration of a wild turkey from “Birds of America.” 1827.

Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

The Daily Beast: What can you learn about writers from their personal libraries?

The Daily Beast: Beautiful commonplace books by Lewis Carroll, Nancy Cunard, and more (slideshow)

Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.