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Jorge Luis Borges muses on his desert island book selections

By Francisca Folch

Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.
Jorge Luis Borges with Dr. Miguel Gonzalez-Gerth at The University of Texas at Austin. Photo by Larry Murphey.

Ever since Daniel Defoe set the paradigm for the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe, desert-island lists have remained a popular setting for apocalyptic scenario decisions. Considering the books he would choose should he suffer the fate of the character, the poet André Gide included Cousin Bette, Dangerous Liaisons, and Madame Bovary. Faced with the same problem, G. K. Chesterton’s sensible selection was Thomas’ Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. In a query made by The New York Times at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ten most popular books for a desert island included “the Bible for comfort, . . . Boswell in lieu of society,” and—with self-conscious irony—“Robinson Crusoe for guide.” Doubting the sincerity of its readers, the article qualifies these as “books of the silent times,” adding that “The suburbanite . . . would die so soon on a desert isle, where there were no trains to run for; that the burial service should be all the literature he could want.”1 Notably, the character of Robinson Crusoe himself did not subsist on such a strict textual diet, since he was able to rescue several volumes from the shipwreck. Aside from books on navigation, he found “three very good Bibles,” “some Portuguese books. . . two or three Popish prayer-books, and several other books.”

In the short essay “La biblioteca de Robinsón” (“Robinson’s Library”), an unpublished manuscript recently acquired by the Ransom Center, readers can now discover Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s take on this issue.

Despite the slightly facetious title, Borges considers the task of selecting these life-sustaining texts rather seriously. The act of reading was essential for the erudite author, who in fact claimed that his had been “a lifetime dedicated less to living than to reading,” adding in his poem “A Reader”: “let others boast of the pages they have written; / I am proud of the pages I have read.” Libraries were of primordial importance to him, and in his “Aubiographical Essay,” he remarked that “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library.” Although he frequently contributed to literary magazines in Buenos Aires and had become an established writer in his forties, Borges was forced to take on a job as cataloger for 10 years at a minor municipal library. The Perón regime to which he was opposed later fired him and appointed him Inspector of Poultry and Rabbits at a public marketplace, a position that Borges declined, declaring himself incompetent. To remedy this humiliation, after Perón was deposed in 1955, the writer was appointed director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires, although, ironically, by this time he was almost completely blind due to a congenital eye disease. Repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, rumors have it that his conservative political views kept him from winning the award. Borges visited the United States for the first time when he held the Tinker Foundation visiting professorship at The University of Texas at Austin from 1961 to 1962, and, after the death of his mother, with whom he had a very close relationship, he travelled widely, giving lectures on literature and writing.

As a poet, essayist, and short-story writer, Borges was known for creating metaphysical fantasy worlds in which men search for meaning in an infinite universe. In his famous short story “The Aleph,” which tells the story of a writer who discovers a peephole that contains all the points of view in the universe, past, present, and future, Borges quotes Hamlet as an epigraph: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count / myself a King of infinite space.” A believer in the Hinduist and Buddhist idea that reality is illusive and anchored in the mind, Borges appreciated the richness held in the world of imagination. Riddled with labyrinths, Borges’s texts convey the disquieting sense that ultimate knowledge is elusive, residing in textual codes guarded by confused librarians. The short story “The Library of Babel” imagines the universe as a library, which includes the dizzying catalog of all possible books:

All: the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon the gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all the books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.2

Borges’s fiction often turns into mystical disquisitions that lend themselves particularly well to the essay form, in which his intricate style shines through with polished eloquence. The manuscript of “Robinson’s Library,” which is signed by Borges and displays his small neat handwriting, is dated circa 1940, at a time when the author’s eyesight was starting to show signs of fading. Given his obsession with books as repositories for knowledge—both actual and potential—this brief piece is a rare exercise in minimalism.

Borges begins by setting the rules of his quest, with the warning that the three individual volumes are not supposed to be “the three most important books in the universe or even. . . the three most memorable books in our personal experience.” Since his selection is not based on the desire to maintain a historical record of literature, nor act as a biographical composite of his personality, he finds little sense in choosing books from the established canon or books he already knows by heart. Playfully toying with several answers, Borges is sobered by the daunting thought of choosing texts that will accompany him for all eternity. Dismissing famous novels and books of verse for their dangerous nostalgic value, the author bans texts that discuss human relationships altogether and suggests instead those that deal with “the relationship man-God, man-numbers, man-Universe.”

The metaphysical concerns that appear in Borges’s fiction form the basis of his required island literature. On his last visit to Austin in April 1976, he gave an interview to The Daily Texan where he commented on his writing methods and offered suggestions to future writers. Asked about his idea of God, he stated: “I say what Bernard Shaw said, ‘God is in the making.’ God is not something prior to the universe. We are all creating God. When we think, when we feel, when we write, we are simply creating that being.” In a similar philosophical vein, in his essay he selects books that will provide eternal food for thought, “books that one must conquer little by little and that can populate the unchanging years.”

His list results in a lucid, yet unexpected trio: a metaphysical book (his examples are spearheaded by Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation, which is influenced by Eastern mysticism), a book “on history that is sufficiently remote” (Plutarch, Gibbon, and Tacitus battle it out for this title), and a good algebra text, with many exercises—the latter a revelation that can be traced to his fascination for the elegance present in mathematics, and that has been recently explored by scholars.3

The Jorge Luis Borges collection at the Ransom Center includes some early letters and manuscripts, a notebook containing a collection of poems, and five of Borges’s personal notebooks dating from the period 1949–1960: four in Borges’s own hand, the fifth dictated to his mother. The collection also comprises working drafts of a number of published works and several manuscripts of texts, such as the first draft of one of his best known short stories, “Emma Zunz,” which forms part of El Aleph (1949). Also in the collection is a fair copy of his sonnet “Texas,” dated 1967, which was donated to the Ransom Center by Edward Larocque Tinker, an author and philanthropist whose collection of art, books, and artifacts focuses mainly on South America. Illustrating the curiously appropriate position that Borges holds as a unique figure in the Ransom Center’s archive, this poem recognizes the similarly vital tensions that arise in two distant places and backgrounds, the Texas plains and the Argentine pampas: “Here too. Here as at the other edge / of the hemisphere. . . / Here too the never understood, / Anxious, and brief affair that is life.”4

1September 22, 1900. The New York Times.
2Translated by William Goldbloom Bloch in The Unimaginable Mathematics. Oxford UP, 2008.
3This theme is explored in the collection of essays Borges y la matemática (Borges and Mathematics, 2003) by Argentine mathematician and writer Guillermo Martínez, and books such as The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel by William Goldbloom Bloch (2008) and Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics by Floyd Merrell (1991).
4Borges, Jorge Luis. Texas. Trans. Mark Strand. Austin: Humanities Research Center, UT, 1975.

Digital collection highlights photos taken in Corpus Christi during Great Depression

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center has made available online the digital collection “The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs of Corpus Christi Businesses in the 1930s.”

The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.

In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.

The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.

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Ransom Center receives $10,000 grant to catalog collection of science materials

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has received a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics to rehouse and rearrange its holdings of the Herschel family papers and to create an online finding aid.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792-1871), the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in several individual fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their pioneering achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers.

The Herschel family papers will be closed to scholars during the duration of the grant, which runs through Dec. 31, 2011.

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Fellows Find: Elizabeth Bowen and the Discourse of Propaganda

By Stefania Porcelli

Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.
Elizabeth Bowen. Unknown photographer, May 1953.

Stefania Porcelli of Libera Università- San Pio V in Rome, Italy, recently visited the Ransom Center on an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship to research the Elizabeth Bowen collection. She shares some of her findings.

With the support of an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship, I spent six weeks at the Harry Ransom Center this autumn, carrying out my project on Elizabeth Bowen’s attitude toward World War II and the language of propaganda, which also investigates her involvement in the “media ecology” of the time.

I worked mostly with unpublished material. Encouraged by Ransom Center Director Thomas Staley, and thanks to archivist Gabby Redwine’s help, I was able to access Bowen’s uncatalogued letters to Charles Ritchie. Although intensely focused on their love affair, these letters nonetheless provide ultimate evidence that Bowen constantly reflects upon ongoing political events, and on the language used by media to represent or censor them. This idea finds its perfect literary counterpart in the image of history sitting at the same table with the main characters in Bowen’s wartime novel The Heat of the Day (1949).

Bowen’s papers show that her attitude toward the war is at least ambiguous: while supporting Britain’s engagement in the conflict, she deconstructs the language of British propaganda. While appreciating Irish neutrality as an act of independence, she volunteers to spy on Ireland for the British Ministry of Information. Since my broader research also involves Dylan Thomas’s documentaries written for Strand Film, I was excited to find a contract for a propaganda script Bowen was supposed to write for the same company. I was also surprised to find some correspondence about the Italian translation of three of her novels. Apparently, neither Bowen nor her literary agents were satisfied with these translations. I look forward now to reading them and seeing how these early Italian versions metamorphosed Bowen’s peculiar, challenging style.

Conservation work begins on "Gone With The Wind" dresses with study of stitching and construction

By Elana Estrin

“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”

Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.

Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.

“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”

Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.

“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”

All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.

“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”

On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.

“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.

In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.

“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”

In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.

“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”

Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.

As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.

“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”

Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.

“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”

Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.

“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”

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Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

By Courtney Reed

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Additional Bernard Malamud letters, typescripts acquired by Ransom Center

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center recently acquired additional collection material for its Bernard Malamud collection, including 285 letters and 10 typescript stories from Malamud to his literary agent. This new collection complements the Center’s existing collection of Malamud papers.

Malamud (1914–1986) was a novelist and short story writer, probably best known for his 1952 novel The Natural, which was adapted into a film in 1984 that starred Robert Redford.

In the new collection, the bulk of Malamud’s letters are addressed to his literary agent at Russell & Volkening, Diarmuid Russell. There are also three letters each to Henry Volkening and to Russell’s assistant, Connie Cunningham. In many of the letters, Malamud wrote his response on the bottom of the originals from contacts at Russell & Volkening and then returned them to the sender. Throughout his correspondence, Malamud discusses contracts, foreign editions, potential movie deals, money-matters, arranging meetings or visits, and sharing general updates about himself and his family. Various business documents are also included in the additional material.

In earlier letters, Malamud is more gregarious and “chatty,” divulging more about his work. In one letter from 1950, Malamud writes that he is hard at work on a new novel: “I’m writing a novel about a baseball player (not a baseball novel). It will deal with a man, an American hero, who does not understand what it means to be a hero […] I call the book THE NATURAL” (June 30, 1950). Though, by 1957, Malamud’s letters take on a more formal tone, shorter and more businesslike.

The collection also contains typescripts corrected in Malamud’s hand, including 23 pages of Zora’s Noise, which Malamud emended with pencil and ink and white-out, correcting grammatical errors. Three pages of a photocopied first draft of a biographical piece are also found in the collection.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).

‘What Every Girl Should Know': The birth control movement in the 1910s

By Alicia Dietrich

Layne Craig, a lecturer in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin, recently used materials from the Ransom Center’s collections to supplement her class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” She writes about discoveries she made in the Center’s collections and how the materials were used in the class.

As a graduate student, I visited the Harry Ransom Center for its literary artifacts: Virginia Woolf’s letters to her niece Angelica Bell, Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, the Hogarth Press edition of Elizabeth Robins’s Ibsen and the Actress. I only recently learned, however, of the breadth of the Ransom Center’s resources on social science movements connected to literary history. I wanted to incorporate those resources into my fall 2010 class “Literature of the Birth Control Movement.” With Cline Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg’s help, I collected texts significant to the English and American birth control movements of the 1910s, along with texts highlighting the connections between birth control and the literary landscape of the twentieth century.

Some of the texts were foundational to the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger wrote “What Every Girl Should Know” in 1916, during the most politically radical period of her career, before she was charged with obscenity and fled to England to escape jail time. My students were able to look at the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Book edition of that pamphlet, analyzing both Sanger’s left-wing, feminist activism and the working-class audience she sought to reach in that text.

In contrast, we looked at early editions of British “Mother of Birth Control” Marie Stopes’s decidedly middle-class-focused bestsellers, Married Love (1918) and Wise Parenthood (1919). Compared to Sanger’s mass-produced pamphlets, Stopes’s books look scientific and pedantic, with text-heavy dust jackets listing the author’s credentials. Inside, however, are flowery descriptions of “the sex tide in woman”: “If a swimmer comes to a sandy beach when the tide is out and the waves have receded, leaving sand where he had expected deep blue water—does he, baulked of his bathe, angrily call the sea ‘capricious’?” Stopes’s dual self-presentation as a scientist and a poet is a source of continual fascination for me, and these editions of her books helped bring that paradox to life for my students.

I also collected texts containing fictional depictions of birth control. Perfect for my uses was a manuscript of the third chapter of Mary McCarthy’s 1963 The Group, depicting a young woman’s visit to a birth control clinic in 1933. I love the title McCarthy gave this vignette: “Dottie Makes an Honest Woman of Herself.” I also made a serendipitous discovery: Charles Norris’s 1930 Seed: A Novel of Birth Control. The biblical imagery and art deco aesthetic of the dust jacket provoked conversation among my students, and the book itself, a family drama, has become part of my own work on the period.

Finally, with the help of Ransom Center graduate student intern Stephanie Bordy, I discovered a rich source of manuscript material in the newly cataloged British Sexological Society (BSS) collection. My students read a speech on “Sex Education before Marriage” given to the BSS by Jane Hawthorne, the clinician at Stopes’s Mothers Clinic, and pored over the handwritten notes of the society’s Heterosexual Study Group, to whom Sanger gave a paper in June 1920. We also perused the Society’s Library List, which included a section on “Birth Control” alongside sections on “Marriage,” “Homosexual and Intersexes,” “Venereal Disease,” and “Novels.”

My students completed a writing assignment based on the texts we examined, allowing them to visit the Reading Room themselves for a longer look at our materials. The project was as useful to me as to them, as it gave me a chance to explore the range of the Ransom Center’s collections, both in literary texts and in the cultures that influenced their production.

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