The Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition includes a commonplace book kept by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) with information about ciphers, anagrams, stenography, and labyrinths. As Kelsey McKinney, a former public affairs intern, writes, these “personal anthologies” functioned as “literary scrapbooks”. While these scrapbooks were “commonplace” in Victorian culture, modern means of communication fulfill the same desire for people to record and share their life experiences.
The exhibition—and Dodgson’s commonplace book—are on view at the Ransom Center through July 6, 2015.
Before the affordability of personal libraries, and before people were able to access the world’s knowledge through the Internet, readers and writers had to find reasonable ways to consolidate and store information that could be useful to them. There were no social media to help them aggregate and share stories, quotes, recipes, or images. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do exactly that. They created personal anthologies called commonplace books. Read more
Among the papers of Mary Mowbray Clarke included in the Sunwise Turn archive is Ms. Mowbray Clarke’s personal correspondence. The major portion of these letters span the years 1905–1917, from about the time she married John Mowbray Clarke up to the opening of the Sunwise Turn bookshop in partnership with Madge Jenison. A large portion of this correspondence was with her friends in the artistic and cultural community of New York in those early years of the twentieth century. A good number of these correspondents were public figures whose names are still recognized—Vachel Lindsay, Jerome Myers, Ezra Pound, Beatrice Wood—but others are essentially forgotten. One such person was the artist Howard Kretz Coluzzi.
Kretz Coluzzi was born in New York in 1876 or 1877 to Dr. F. Henry and Thekla Kretz. He was brought up in a cultured household in comfortable circumstances and first came to public attention in May 1899 when he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge into the East River. Fished from the water by the crew of a passing boat, the 22- year-old National Academy of Design student told the magistrate at his hearing the following day that he couldn’t explain his jump but that he “felt sure I would not be injured and that I would come out all right.” He added that he’d previously made high jumps into Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks that had seemed more dangerous to him than this leap.
While Kretz Coluzzi continued to display eccentricities, along with, apparently, considerable artistic ability and a fair measure of ordinary human sociability, he never again attempted a feat of such bravado. Howard Kretz’s acquaintance with Mary Mowbray Clarke was probably a result of her husband’s role in presenting the 1913 Armory Show, at which Kretz Coluzzi exhibited. With the Mowbray Clarkes and Madge Jenison hard at work readying their shop for its late 1915 opening, Kretz Coluzzi pitched in with freely offered decorating ideas and practical woodworking skills.
The Sunwise Turn quickly became a springboard for another creative venture for the artist: the Lewisohn sisters’ Neighborhood Playhouse. Alice and Irene Lewisohn had been pupils, and eventually good friends, of Mary Mowbray Clarke, so Howard Kretz’s artistic association with the playhouse was, if not inevitable, at least not surprising. Kretz Coluzzi produced ideas for set designs for several productions at the playhouse between 1915 and 1919.
His theatrical work was significant and appreciated, notwithstanding his notable absence at a critical juncture during the preproduction of Lord Dunsany’s The Queen’s Enemies in 1916. When he finally showed up just before dress rehearsals, he explained his absence as having been provoked by the cutting down of his favorite tree on his mother’s estate. Years later Alice Lewisohn Crowley wrote, “This was the way Howard functioned. Still, this uncertain source contributed a spark to the family spirit and was as indefatigable in work as in mourning.”
At some point in the 1920s Kretz Coluzzi forsook New York, where he’d spent years commuting between Manhattan, with its cultural excitement, and the Adirondacks’ green solitude, for northern New Mexico. In Santa Fe he spent his last years drawing and painting, teaching (at least some of the time at the Santa Fe Art School), and engaging in various hijinks. He died on March 27, 1942 from an infected cat scratch.
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The book, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, celebrates the importance of the Armed Services Editions. Published between 1943 and 1947, these inexpensive paperback editions were given to servicemen on the frontlines. As Manning points out, not only did the editions achieve their principal purpose of raising morale, they encouraged a whole generation of readers who retained their appetite for reading when they returned home. Possibly a few stopped bullets or shrapnel. It’s necessary to remember that the cheap paperback edition was still a novelty at the beginning of the war, having been pioneered by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany during the 1930s.
Armed Services Editions were made possible by a group of publishers called the Council of Books in Wartime. This group collaborated by eliminating royalty payments and arranging for the production and distribution of paperbacks in the most inexpensive possible formats. The Ransom Center has a couple of connections with these books. Although there are larger collections at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress, we own more than 1,400 of the books, most of them shelved together as a discrete collection in the stacks, while some are kept with other editions of our major authors, such as John Steinbeck. Because they were printed on poor-quality wartime paper that is now brittle and brown, each is protected in a simple acid-free enclosure, invented by the Center’s Conservation department in the 1980s, and called a “tuxedo case.” Students of publishing history can use the collection to study which books were most successful (Manning concludes that books with a touch of nostalgia or sex were particularly popular with soldiers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the best-selling titles, even though it was considered a flop when first published in hardback during the 1920s). The books were generally published in an oblong format, with the cover notation “This is the complete book—not a digest.” In all, some 125 million copies were produced.
Among the founding members of the Council of Books in Wartime was Alfred A. Knopf, the eminent literary publisher (the massive Knopf, Inc. archive is here at the Center). Ironically, Knopf was famous for encouraging high production values in his own trade books, but he immediately recognized the importance of encouraging reading and raising morale and contributed a number of series titles by familiar authors in the Knopf stable, including thrillers by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and more literary works by Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset.
In the postwar era, a number of paperback reprint publishers capitalized on increased demand for books, the availability of new outlets for cheap editions, such as chain department stores and drugstores, and Americans’ newly enhanced disposable income. Pocket Books debuted in 1939 and became well known after the war for its lurid covers, which, as Louis Menand points out in an illustrated recent New Yorker piece, graced not only the unabashed pulp of Mickey Spillane but also higher-toned works by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Ballantine and Bantam editions flourished, and the era of the mass market paperback had arrived. Nearly every prominent American hardback publisher developed a line of paperback books. Oddly, Knopf, Inc. was a holdout, arriving late to the game with Vintage Books in 1956. But it was the Armed Services Editions that gave the American paperback its big push.
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.