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Fellows Find: Photos, playbills, news clippings document history of blackface in minstrel shows

By Matthew Sutton

Samuel Sanford (1821-1905) was a performer, promoter, and historian of blackface-minstrel entertainment. In an unpublished manuscript held by the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection, Sanford recorded his subjective impressions of the mid-1800s minstrel show.
Samuel Sanford (1821-1905) was a performer, promoter, and historian of blackface-minstrel entertainment. In an unpublished manuscript held by the Ransom Center’s performing arts collection, Sanford recorded his subjective impressions of the mid-1800s minstrel show.

Matthew Sutton completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in May 2011. This June, he came to the Ransom Center, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship, to begin the process of revising his dissertation, Storyville: Discourses in Southern Musicians’ Autobiographies, into a book. A former archivist, Sutton worked extensively with the holdings of the performing arts collection, examining primary documents related to blackface minstrelsy in the United States. He shares some of his findings from the Center’s minstrel collection here.

Among the Ransom Center’s many treasures in its performing arts collections are the 4,000 items related to the minstrel show. Culled from private collections, these preserved photographs, programs, sheet-music arrangements, and first-person accounts reveal the world of the blackface minstrel from the Jacksonian age to the 1950s. These are not pleasant items to look at, but they represent an origin point for much of our present-day popular culture and our desire to imitate, borrow, or steal across class and racial lines in the name of entertainment.

One encapsulation of the hold the minstrel theater had on the antebellum working classes can be found in an anecdote from the unpublished memoir of impresario Samuel Sanford (1821–1905). To promote the opening of his Philadelphia minstrel theater in late 1855, Sanford announced plans to distribute toys to children (black and white) on Christmas Day and 5,000 loaves of bread to the city’s poor on New Year’s Day. For maximum impact, these “gifts” were thrown from the roof of the theater. After the Christmas spectacle, Philadelphia mayor Robert T. Conrad (a part-time playwright and defender of the “legitimate” theater) accused Sanford of inciting a riot. According to Sanford (a biased source, to be sure) and the newspaper clippings he saved and appended to his manuscript almost 40 years later, Philadelphians defied Conrad (one paper deriding the mayor as “His Majesty”), sided with the minstrel, and duly assembled for his New Year’s dispensation.

The indelible image of Sanford and his confederates heaving bread and toys off a theater roof to publicize their broad imitations of African Americans and ersatz “plantation melodies” connects on several levels. As a publicity stunt, it rivals the “ballyhoos” of Sanford’s contemporary P. T. Barnum, another showman who learned his tricks in the minstrel trade. As symbolism, it perfectly echoes Roman satirist Juvenal, who concluded that the masses could tolerate the injustices of their times so long as they had “bread and circuses,” that is to say, cheap and abundant food and entertainment. As history, it illustrates how blackface minstrelsy was sold to the white working class as a natural, even beneficial facet of urban life, when in fact its crude racial stereotyping was symptomatic of a nation struggling with its multiracial identity and nearing its end as a half-slave/half-free entity.

Archival holdings like the Sanford manuscript typically present scholars with more questions than answers. Yet they also open new avenues of inquiry, challenge past assumptions, and spur further research. Such is the value of primary sources from the “bit players” of history. Such is the value of the Ransom Center.

Photo of Matthew Sutton by Pete Smith.
Photo of Matthew Sutton by Pete Smith.

Scholar explores work and career of writer Mulk Raj Anand

By Charlotte Nunes

 

Charlotte Nunes is a graduate student in English at The University of Texas at Austin. She used the Ransom Center collections to research her dissertation, “‘This Novel Social Fabric’: Transnational Anti-Imperialism and British Literary Modernity, 1913–1936.” One chapter examines Mulk Raj Anand’s novels Untouchable (1935) and Coolie (1936) in terms of Anand’s involvement in the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association in London during the mid-1930s.

The Harry Ransom Center’s notable holdings in international literature include both handwritten and typed manuscripts of the English-language novel Coolie (1935) by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand (1905–2004). Today, a Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition of Coolie is still in print. The novel chronicles the tragically short life of the young laborer Munoo in pre-independence India. The manuscripts available at the Ransom Center provide significant insights into Anand’s career-long investment in cross-cultural, cross-lingual, and cross-class exchange. Anand was born to a middle-class family in Peshawar and came of age in an increasingly anti-imperial political climate. He actively agitated against British imperialism in the years leading up to Indian independence in 1947. Yet at the same time, Anand’s early exposure to British culture and literature had a determinative effect on his literary-political career. He traveled to England in 1925 to study at University College London; he would remain based in London, though he frequently returned to India over the next two decades. Along with Ahmed Ali and other Anglophone Indian writers influential in the establishment of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) in London in 1935, Anand leveraged English-language fiction to advance the PWA objectives of affecting social justice in India and fostering interaction between writers internationally.

An examination of the Coolie manuscripts confirms Anand’s ambition to appeal to Anglophone audiences. On the back of page 571 of the handwritten version, for example, Anand scrawled a list of English-language newspapers including The Times of India, The Bombay Chronicle, The Sentinel, and The People. It’s fair to speculate that these were publications that Anand hoped might review and promote his novel once it was completed and published. The typed version, as well, bears evidence of Anand’s networking with British literary and political communities. A hand-printed note to the right side of the cover page reads, “typed 1935 by Celia Strachey.” Celia was the wife of the former British Labour Party politician John Strachey; that she typed the manuscript indicates Anand’s proximity to and engagement with British Labour and Marxist circles.

The manuscripts are yellowed, brittle, and slightly damaged in some areas. Nevertheless, they remain quite legible and offer insights into Anand’s writing process. For example, it’s interesting to observe in the handwritten version that several pages of continuous, unedited writing will often be followed by several pages of heavily marked-up material with entire sentences and passages vigorously scribbled out. It seems that Anand’s writerly flow was subject to considerable fluctuation. The typescript includes Anand’s extensive edits, in pencil; although he includes only a few notes about potential structural revisions, sentence-level edits abound. Compare the consequential last line of the novel as it appears in the handwritten version (page 646):

“But in the early hours of one unreal white night he passed away,—the tide of his life having reached the deeps of the sea and become one with the black waters of forgetfulness.”

And the edited, typed version (page 412):

“But in the early hours of one unreal white night he passed away,—the tide of his life having reached back to the deeps.”

Anand cut nearly the entire second half of the final line, including the phrase “black waters.” Notably, this phrase would appear in the title of his subsequent novel Across the Black Waters (1940), which tells the story of a division of Indian troops deployed in Flanders during World War I. The title references the Hindu prohibition of sea travel known as Kala Pani (“Black Water”). That Anand originally used the phrase “black waters” to denote the oblivion of death enriches the significance of the title of his later book.

It’s worth mentioning that in addition to the Coolie manuscripts, the Ransom Center holds several letters that Anand wrote to such influential literary figures as George Bernard Shaw, John Lehmann, and Henry Treece. The letters demonstrate that his attempts to promote his writing in England were frequently unsuccessful. In response to Anand’s submission, dated February 18, 1945, of a few pieces for publication in England, John Lehmann penciled notes directly on Anand’s letter (presumably in advance of composing an official rejection letter): “The story about ‘Appearances and Reality’ just might do, tho’ it follows a rather conventional pattern… The second story is quite appallingly written.” The letters also demonstrate Anand’s deep conviction that the circulation of literature internationally had a role to play in improving the material conditions of the world’s poor. He wrote to Shaw on March 2, 1949, “Unfortunately, the vast illiteracy in India makes for very poor sales of books. People prefer to buy bread when they can get it.” Yet, he wrote, “I need not emphasize how important is the need for the exchange of literature between the various countries of the world. In India we want to encourage the kind of thinking which is associated with European humanism and free thought.” Although a vocal anti-imperialist, Anand found much to admire in Britain’s cultural and intellectual traditions, and his career was saliently characterized by his investment in transnational literary and political solidarity.

Charlotte Nunes extends her thanks to Professor Snehal Shingavi for his feedback on this blog post.

Preview archive materials related to Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King”

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
A digital preview of archive materials relating to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. The preview, a collaboration between the Center and publisher Little, Brown and Company, includes a series of drafts of the “Author’s Foreword,” which eventually became chapter nine of The Pale King. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor, provides context about the pages and elaborates on the publication of the novel.

In 2010, the Ransom Center acquired and made accessible Wallace’s archive. The archive contains manuscript materials for Wallace’s books, stories and essays, research materials, Wallace’s college and graduate school writings, juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters, teaching materials, and books. Materials for The Pale King are included in the archive but will remain with Little, Brown and Company until after the book’s publication.

On Thursday, April 15, the Ransom Center celebrates the release of The Pale King with readings from the novel by Kevin Brockmeier, Doug Dorst, Amelia Gray, and Jake Silverstein. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Fellows Find: Not "The Well": Radclyffe Hall’s Unpublished Short Fiction

By Jana Funke

 

Dr. Jana Funke, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, U.K., visited the Ransom Center on a Hobby Family Foundation Fellowship in July and August 2010 to work on Radclyffe Hall’s short fiction. She is using the material she gathered for a monograph exploring the relationship between modernist sexualities and time. She is also preparing a critical edition of Hall’s unpublished works.

Radclyffe Hall is best known for her infamous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), with its bleak depiction of female sexual inversion—a sexological term that combines traits we might nowadays classify as lesbian and transgender. It might therefore come as a surprise that spending several weeks in the archive working on Hall was tremendous fun! The Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge papers at the Ransom Center offer many delightful surprises, such as a box filled with kennel club information, show clippings, and photographs of Hall’s prize-winning dogs. While going through the drafts of The Well, I also came across a notebook in which she lists the “contents of an invert’s pocket.” Apparently, the female invert would not leave the house without a letter from her present love, three snapshots of her last love, a powder box, and lipstick.

While my visit gave me the opportunity to survey the archival material more generally, I spent most of my time working on Hall’s short fiction. Hall only published one collection of short stories, Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934), but among her papers are more than 15 additional, mostly complete, unpublished stories, which were written in the 1910s and 1920s.

One group of unpublished works—including the unfinished novel The World—deal with the Great War. Whereas published texts like The Well or Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself focus on women’s experience of the war, the unpublished stories explore how men who were “unfit” to serve their country coped with the resulting sense of exclusion.

Other short stories deal with female experience; “The Modern Miss Thompson,” for instance, depicts the struggle for female autonomy and shows interesting parallels to Hall’s New Woman novel The Unlit Lamp (1924). Yet another set of stories provides insight into Hall’s engagement with religion, spirituality, and the supernatural. These texts deal with a range of subjects including the life of the medieval Saint Ethelflaeda, time travel, and mystic human-animal relationships.

The reasons why Hall did not publish more of these short stories are unclear. Hall’s notebooks reveal that she thought about publishing a larger number of short stories and sent a selection to her agent in 1924. We do not know why this publication did not materialize at the time. In her memoirs, Hall’s partner, Una Troubridge, suggests that by the time Hall was preparing the collection Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself in the early 1930s, she decided against including an earlier short story since it had “missed the boat.” It is possible that Hall felt her other short stories had also gone out of fashion by the time she was given the opportunity to publish them.

Returning to these texts almost a century after they were written, I found them anything but untimely. To be sure, the short stories confirm a certain image of Hall as an author with deeply conservative and often troubling national, racial, sexual, and class politics. However, my archival work also allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of Hall. Her unpublished work shows a writer keen to explore vastly different interests and stylistic approaches, and her investigation of questions of difference, outsiderism, and the struggle of belonging relates to scholarly concerns today. My time in the archive certainly did not present me with a radically new image of Hall, but it did allow me to explore a body of texts that is much more conflicted and less orthodox than I expected. I am very grateful to the Ransom Center, with its wonderful staff and sense of scholarly community, and the Hobby Family Foundation, for giving me this opportunity.

Managing editor at "The Strand" discusses publishing Dashiell Hammett story from Ransom Center's collections

By Elana Estrin

Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
Archival box from the Dashiell Hammett collection at the Harry Ransom Center.
After doing some detective work of his own, Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located a previously unpublished short story by Dashiell Hammett at the Ransom Center. Untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” the short story has been published for the first time in The Strand’s current issue, released today. (Learn more here about how unpublished manuscripts are unearthed at the Ransom Center.) Perhaps best known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, Hammett is considered the father of hardboiled detective fiction. Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center includes 14 other unpublished works, drafts, unfinished works, and personal correspondence. We talked to Gulli about his decision to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Out of the several unpublished Hammett manuscripts you read, how did you choose to publish “So I Shot Him” in The Strand?

All of the manuscripts I found were very, very, very strong works of fiction. “So I Shot Him” was my favorite one. It stood out because I thought it was something Hammett hadn’t tried to write before. It was sort of an experimental Hammett story.

How does “So I Shot Him” compare with Hammett’s other works?

It’s very different in some ways but at the same time has a lot of Hammett trademarks: tension, great characterization, and terse, realistic dialog. The trademark Hammett dialog is superb and seamless. You don’t feel like you’re reading something. It feels like you’re actually listening to what the characters are saying.

What I love about Hammett is the tension. This story has the feel that something sinister is about to happen. There’s such a build-up, and you keep turning page by page to see the conclusion.

This story stood apart because there was a psychological element to it. It’s not like a lot of his other stories that have a clear-cut plot and conclusion. With this story, the ending leaves you asking a lot of questions. I wanted to publish something that we’ll speak about for a long time. If you’re a suspicious person, you’ll think something sinister happens. If you’re not, you may not think so.

Why was it unpublished?

This is the $64,000 question. A lot of times, you’ll understand why writers decided not to publish something if the work was poor. But in this case, the story is very, very, very good. Hammett was a man of many contradictions, so it’s difficult to tell why he didn’t publish it. If I were to guess, I think he worked very hard on it but thought it wouldn’t work in the pulp fiction market. Sometimes writers don’t know what’s in their best interest. If he had published this story, I’m sure it would’ve been very successful. Looking at the story, you have to suspect that he held it dear to him. He was interested in keeping it to himself, especially since he didn’t destroy it. The Hammett estate told me they were aware that these materials have existed for a long time, so perhaps they’d have a better answer!

What do you think Hammett would say if he knew the manuscript were being published today?

I think that writers become less inhibited over time. Writers look at what they wrote when they were younger and can have one of two reactions: either shock that I can’t believe I was this bad. Or, my god, I was writing something very fresh, very new, very uninhibited. A lot of writers look back on old manuscripts and try to drink from that fountain of work that was uninhibited.

The manuscript is undated. When do you think Hammett wrote this story?

I would say the 1920s or 1930s. There’s a bit of a slinging, 1920s feel to it. I could be wrong. But I’m certain it wasn’t his first attempt at fiction.

What can you tell us about some of the other unpublished manuscripts in the Hammett collection at the Ransom Center?

I found 14 other unpublished manuscripts. The Ransom Center was very helpful. I did all of my research remotely with the help of an intern who was just incredible, Nick Homenda. If it weren’t for Nick, I don’t know where I would be.

It was all very time consuming because I would look up a manuscript, then I’d have to cross-reference at other libraries, and write to Hammett experts to check that the manuscripts I found weren’t published before. It took over 100 hours of work, but I managed to determine that these 14 other manuscripts weren’t published either.

In these stories, we see a lot of elements Hammett used later on in his career. We see colorful portraits of criminals in these stories. One story is about a regular, everyday private detective who’s a lot like Continental Op [a recurring character who appears in 36 of Hammett’s short stories]. The story ends like an Anton Chekhov story. There’s an ending, but not a resolution. You want a little more.

What made you decide to look through Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center?

I decided to look at the Ransom Center because someone had found an unpublished Graham Greene novel at the Ransom Center, which we published in The Strand. I did some more research and found that there were a lot of other interesting manuscripts at the Ransom Center.

Did anything surprise you in the Hammett archive?

The fact that I found 14 unpublished Hammett manuscripts was a huge surprise that will last a lifetime. I thought I’d be lucky if I found one. I’m now seeking permission to publish the rest in book form. Now I’m just waiting for the Hammett estate. I’m pretty certain it will be published. Several editors are interested.

It’s incredible what the Ransom Center has done preserving all these great writers’ works. It keeps a lot of these people alive for future generations. At the Ransom Center, you’re custodians of literary treasures.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

How are unpublished manuscripts unearthed at the Ransom Center?

By Elana Estrin

The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.

The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28 issue of The Strand.

This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?

Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.

“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.

When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.

“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.

Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.

When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.

“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.

Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.

Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.

“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”

On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Scholar discusses relationship between Jewish and African-American culture in the early twentieth century

By Elana Estrin

Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan
Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.

Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.

Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?

A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.

Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?

A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.

Q: What surprised you?

A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.

Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.

What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.

Q: How did you choose the title of your book?

A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.

In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.

Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?

A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.

Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?

A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.

Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?

A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.

On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

"The Library Chronicle" now available online

By Elana Estrin

Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'
Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'

Volumes of The Library Chronicle from 1970 to 1997 are now digitized and available online in a full-text, keyword-searchable digital library. The Library Chronicle was an award-winning journal that included scholarly articles on collection materials, complete exhibition catalogs, and descriptions of important rare book and manuscript holdings at the Ransom Center and other libraries at The University of Texas at Austin. Published from 1943 to 1998, The Library Chronicle is an important resource for information about the Ransom Center’s collections.

This project was funded by Google Books and the Hathi Trust.

These volumes are also searchable in two indexes: a subject index and an index of authors of journal articles.

More information about searching the database can be found here.

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.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.