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Fellows Find: “How to Revise a True War Story”

By John Young


Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.
Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

John K. Young, a professor of English at Marshall University, reflects on the production history of Tim O’Brien’s novels and their implications for the kinds of narratives that are possible for soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Young received a fellowship from the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” As the O’Brien papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveal, perhaps the most prominent American novelist of the Vietnam War has kept on telling true war stories not only by mining his experience as a foot soldier across numerous works that often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also by continuing to revise those books, from the initial appearance of selected chapters in magazines, across typescripts and page proofs for first editions, and even to paperback reprints. While the Center’s collection does not include O’Brien’s earliest manuscripts (most of which he destroyed), it does enable scholars to trace O’Brien’s process of revision across multiple stages of a work’s production. In keeping with this refusal to let a text settle into a fixed, final form, O’Brien returned most recently to The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterwork, for a 2009 edition that contains substantial changes to the stories “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Ghost Soldiers,” although these revisions are too recent to have made their way to the Austin archive yet.

During a month-long fellowship in the summer of 2012, I made my way through five of O’Brien’s major works: If I Die in a Combat Zone, his Vietnam memoir; Northern Lights, his first novel; Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for 1979; The Things They Carried; and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien’s fictional response to the My Lai massacre. In each case I found fascinating instances of what the editorial theorist John Bryant calls “revisions sites,” moments in a text that offer divergent readings in response to author’s and publisher’s multiple versions. While many of these changes seem minor—adjusting punctuation or reworking the order of a sentence—even such small moments can take on striking interpretive implications. The closing lines in the opening chapter of Cacciato, for instance, describe the protagonist, PFC Paul Berlin, as he watches the title character on his AWOL escape from the war: “‘Go,’ whispered Paul Berlin. It did not seem enough. ‘Go,’ he said, and then he shouted, ‘Go!’” The exclamation mark did not appear in the book’s first edition or in the versions of the first chapter that had been previously published in Ploughshares and Gallery. For a 1986 paperback reprint, O’Brien changed the punctuation, subtly heightening Paul Berlin’s emotional connection to the runaway soldier and, by extension, to his own fantasies of flight, which make up much of the narrative. Similarly, one of Cacciato’s several “Observation Post” chapters—in which Paul Berlin reflects on his tour of duty so far and the comrades who have been killed—first included a paragraph in which he attempts to reconstruct the sequence of those deaths, ending with the line “Then Cacciato.” This suggests the possibility that Cacciato has himself been dead from the time the novel begins, a reading that would add another layer of imagination to the platoon’s journey from Vietnam to Paris. But O’Brien deleted this line for a later paperback edition, returning Cacciato’s fate to greater levels of ambiguity.

Some revisions are much larger in scope. To take one example, the typescript of The Things They Carried originally included a chapter entitled “The Real Mary Anne,” which followed “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a powerful narrative about a high school girl from Cleveland who visits the war and eventually so embraces its chaos and moral rupture that she leaves the Green Berets behind, disappearing into the jungle. Whereas Things often returns to an episode to announce that it was not “true,” at least not in the factual sense, “The Real Mary Anne” (in Box 15, Folder 7) insists on perhaps the book’s most improbable story as entirely accurate, declaring, “there is substantial evidence that the pivotal events in this story actually occurred.” At the suggestion of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, O’Brien cut this chapter altogether from the published book, an omission that locates “Sweetheart” along the same lines as the book’s other chapters, in which the truth of a reader’s experience of the war trumps fidelity to historical detail. Readers often take this story to be the most clearly “made up,” even as such reactions may say as much about ongoing social assumptions about gender and war. While the inclusion of “The Real Mary Anne” might have more overtly interrogated those cultural biases, without it Things still oscillates artfully between metafiction and real expressions of trauma.

It is at this level that the array of revisions in the O’Brien archive is most telling: how they depict the ongoing effort in O’Brien’s texts to represent the trauma of war, and of Vietnam in particular. On the one hand, O’Brien’s work articulates the impossibility of not telling these stories; on the other hand, “How to Tell a True War Story” and other texts respond to the intractable problem of only a few readers—other Vietnam veterans—being able to truly understand the stories. Dr. Jonathan Shays, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains in his book Achilles in Vietnam that “Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs.” For Shays, one of the most important steps in addressing—which is not to say “curing”—the effects of post-traumatic stress comes from “rendering it communicable, however imperfectly.” Readers of Cacciato and Things, especially, have long known the ways in which these texts respond to the difficult necessity of rendering the war communicable at the level of fractured plots and thematic resistances to closure, but the materials in the Ransom Center allow them to discover as well the ways in which O’Brien’s processes of writing and revising themselves speak to the undying truths of war.

A Life Beyond Crime: The Papers of Nicolas Freeling

By Emily Neie

The papers of British author Nicolas Freeling (1927–2003), best known for his internationally acclaimed crime novels, have opened for research at the Ransom Center.  The collection consists of Freeling’s manuscript drafts, correspondence, journals, clippings, and other documents. Freeling is the author of more than 40 novels and has won several prestigious awards for crime fiction, including the British Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award (1964), the Grand Prix de Roman Policier (1964), and the Edgar Allan Poe Award (1966).

Freeling began his writing career in 1959 while serving a three-week jail sentence in Amsterdam after being accused of stealing food. Although he was deported to England shortly after being released, his experience with an Amsterdam detective inspired him to write the first of his famous Piet Van der Valk detective novels, Love in Amsterdam. Freeling continued the series for ten years, and, to the dismay of readers and publishers alike, killed off the beloved detective in the final book.

Two years after writing the tenth and last van der Valk novel, Freeling introduced readers to French police detective Henri Castang, who appeared in 16 novels. He also penned four non-fiction titles, including two books inspired by 12 years of experience working as a restaurant chef, a book of essays about literature’s best crime writers, and his memoir, The Village Book.

Freeling resisted his classification as a crime writer, preferring to focus instead on human psychology and social institutions. The images featured in the slideshow largely represent Freeling’s novel Gadget and excerpts from his journals. His attention to detail in the research process and commitment to realism reveal talents that extend beyond writing excellent crime fiction.

Gadget paints an alarmingly factual account of the implications of the nuclear age and its effects on human behavior and motivation. Freeling worked closely with American physicist Peter Zimmerman to achieve accurate renderings of nuclear instruments, and the two men exchanged notes, research, and drawings throughout the novel’s development, all of which can be found in the archive.

The Freeling papers are a rich and varied resource, with documents ranging from recipes that reveal Freeling’s affinity for cooking, detailed drawings of a nuclear bomb referenced in Gadget, journal excerpts about the effects of drinking wine while writing, and more. While Freeling may be known primarily for his detective dramas, his dedication to the analysis of the human mind is preserved in his papers.

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Image: A drawing by physicist Peter Zimmerman with his and Nicolas Freeling’s notes as part of research for “Gadget,” 1971–1975.

Fellows Find: Scholar explores varied creative processes in David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives

By Mary Holland


Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Mary Holland  is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. She recently spent time working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Ransom Center. Her work, which was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, will be used in her article “‘Your head gets in the way’: Distortion, Vision, and Influence in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”


Last August, I spent six glorious days working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Harry Ransom Center, research made possible by a travel stipend generously awarded by the Center. A week is a strange amount of time to spend in a place filled to the gills with archival treasures beyond the imagination of an academic wearied by paper-grading and class prep. At first, encountering this abundance in the framework of a week’s stay threatens to trigger an unhelpful paralysis in reaction to intense frustration. I managed to combat such stultification by using every available moment to gather information that I could examine in stolen moments of leisure once I was home.  During my stay, I looked at most of the Wallace materials and a good portion of the DeLillo materials.

For a longtime lover of Wallace’s work, the archive of his drafts, letters, and annotated books is exhilarating and revelatory. I read with glee his comments, written with his trademark tiny handwriting, in the margins of books I’ve never seen him quote from but knew in my gut he had to have mindfully read; I found in drafts of his work scribblings about other pieces he’d written much earlier or later, establishing how fluid and overlapping his creative process was—that his process for creating fiction was as recursive as the fiction he created.

The DeLillo archive is far vaster than the Wallace one and requires more time for full exploration than I could wrench from my life last August. But I did examine research folders for several of DeLillo’s novels, as well as multiple drafts of a few novels: one could not paint a clearer picture of the enormous differences between Wallace’s and DeLillo’s writing processes than by putting the two authors’ drafts side by side. Whereas DeLillo builds a novel like a house, crafting it room by room, paragraph by paragraph, all aiming to fit a blueprint he’s mapped out well ahead, Wallace’s novels spilled out of him like water, going where they would, joining other unexpected streams, requiring repeated and concerted acts of containment, reshaping, and solidification before becoming the complex crystalline structures they are. I also found some startling connections between novels by DeLillo I had previously not read as connected, and these kinds of discoveries will certainly fuel my next critical work on DeLillo.

Landing at such a place as the Ransom Center with only a week to stay before shoving off again is certainly a real test of fortitude and focus. (Yet I gladly set both aside for lost hours when I became passionately absorbed in this or that planned or unplanned thing: I think I spent an hour just reading letters from Gordon Lish to DeLillo. Lish’s cocky, melodramatic persona is not to be missed.) But every time I jogged up the stairs to the reading room on an energized morning, or down again on a tired evening for that well-earned beer on Sixth Street, I did so with enormous gratitude that the Center exists, that its staff members are so helpful and kind, and that I was afforded my week of work there.

David Foster Wallace materials related to "The Pale King now open for research"

By Alicia Dietrich

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Materials related to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (April 2011) are now open for research at the Ransom Center. The materials related to The Pale King were acquired as part of the Wallace (1962–2008) archive in 2010 but were retained by publisher Little, Brown and Co. until after the book’s publication and the subsequent publication of the paperback edition.

The Pale King materials fill six boxes and  include handwritten and typescript drafts, outlines, characters lists, research materials, and a set of notebooks containing reading notes, names, snippets of dialog, definitions, quotations, and clippings.

The materials have been organized according to a spreadsheet developed by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch, then-executive vice president and publisher of Little, Brown and Co., spent months reading through and organizing the material and found what he called “an astonishingly full novel, created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David’s.”

In conjunction with the publication of The Pale King, the Ransom Center partnered with publisher Little, Brown and Co. to offer an online preview of materials from the archive in April 2011.

David Foster Wallace's notebook, which contains reading notes, clippings, and writings related to “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.
David Foster Wallace's notebook, which contains reading notes, clippings, and writings related to “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Daniel Stern archive opens for research

By Alison Clemens

Alison Clemens is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. She processed the Daniel Stern papers as part of her capstone project for her program, and she shares her experiences working in the collection, which is now open for research.

The Harry Ransom Center acquired the papers of Daniel Stern (1928–2007), novelist and short story writer, in 2009. In doing so, the Center gained an illuminating piece of New York and American literary culture. The collection is filled with Stern’s numerous manuscripts, material related to his careers in writing, advertising, media, and academia, and correspondence with major literary figures, including Bernard Malamud and Anaïs Nin. The material provides a fascinating glimpse of how Stern produced stories as a working writer.

Born in New York City, Stern was raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the Bronx. He displayed considerable musical talent from an early age. He attended The High School of Art and Music and, upon graduation, played the cello with the Indianapolis Symphony and with Charlie Parker’s band. Stern disliked life in Indianapolis and returned to New York, where he took courses in creative writing and wrote jingles and copy for McCann Erickson advertising agency. Stern rose through the ranks and eventually began working in television at Warner Brothers, where he served on the board of directors in the 1970s.

Throughout Stern’s corporate employment in the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to work on his writing and published numerous novels. The Suicide Academy (1968), to which Anaïs Nin dedicated an essay in her collection In Favor of the Sensitive Man, was popularly successful. In the 1970s, however, Stern would experience two major shifts. First, he left Warner Brothers and moved to the promotions department of CBS in 1979. During this time, he also began writing short stories and sending them to literary reviews, including to Joyce Carol Oates at her magazine Ontario Review. After achieving success as a short story writer, Stern left CBS in 1986 and served as humanities director of the 92nd Street Y until 1988. He assumed teaching positions, including at Harvard and Wesleyan Universities, and joined the University of Houston as Cullen Distinguished Professor of English in 1992.

Stern’s short story collections—including Twice Told Tales and Twice Upon a Time—revisit, revise, and reinterpret literary classics by other authors. Malamud described Stern’s prose as filled with “poetry, inventiveness, verve of style, wisdom in paradox, the argument, [and] wit and comedy.” Stern’s creative process and output is well documented in the papers at the Ransom Center, as the collection contains drafts, correspondence pertaining to specific works, and even unpublished material.


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Kraus map collection now accessible

By Alicia Dietrich

Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.
Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.

The Ransom Center recently launched an online database for its Kraus map collection. The 36-map collection, acquired in 1969 by Harry Ransom from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus, features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, atlases, a rare set of large terrestrial and celestial globes (ca. 1688) produced by the Italian master Vincenzo Coronelli, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius.

“Visitors can see the remarkable foundations of modern cartography in this digital collection,” said Richard Oram, the Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian. “From a medieval map that shows the world divided into three parts split by the Mediterranean Sea to an early portolan chart of the coast of Africa and a rare 1541 Mercator globe, it’s all accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.”

Because of size and conservation considerations—some maps are as large as six by nine feet—some of these maps have been seen by only a handful of visitors. This digital collection makes it possible for a broader public to examine the collection via the Ransom Center’s website. The maps are all zoom-able, and users can view detailed close-ups of images.

Postcards from France: Paul Fussell and the Field Service “Form-letter”

By Jean Cannon

May 23, 2012, marked the passing of literary scholar and public intellectual Paul Fussell, whose monumental 1975 study of World War I, The Great War and Modern Memory, brought widespread attention to how the experience of trench warfare helped foster a modern, ironic sensibility that still influences art and culture today. Fussell’s book was the first in-depth study of the cultural legacy of the First World War and remains a landmark in the scholarship of early twentieth-century literature. As critic Vincent Sherry has written, the book’s “ambition and popularity move interpretation of the War from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. [Fussell’s] claims for the meaning of the War are profound and far-reaching . . . . [he] has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

Staff members who are working on the Ransom Center’s 2014 centenary exhibition Looking at the First World War have certainly found Sherry’s claim for the importance of Fussell’s influence to be true. Fussell, a former patron of the Ransom Center, centered his work on many of the British trench poets and writers whose manuscript collections are held at the Center. The Great War and Modern Memory frequently refers to the poem drafts, letters, and diaries of writers such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden. Fussell maintained that these writers—all of whom were young officers in the trenches of the Western Front—developed a new and often satiric poetic language that served to subvert the “official” rhetoric that was used by the British government and army. Combining biting irony with graphic descriptions of newly industrialized warfare—gas attacks and machine guns, for example—the Generation of 1914 sought to tell the public the eyewitness truth about modern combat.

Numerous items that will be on display in the upcoming exhibition highlight Fussell’s observation that the First World War, as a watershed moment of the twentieth century, inspired soldier-poets to produce deeply personal accounts of their combat experience—often in direct response to government and army propaganda. One of The Great War and Modern Memory’s most memorable examples of the division between the “official” language of the War and the literary response to trench life is Fussell’s discussion of the standardized “Field Service Postcard” issued by the British Army in November 1914. Known as “Quick Firers,” these postcards were mass-produced in the millions and issued to infantry servicemen who would send them to family and friends as evidence of being alive and safe.

The Ransom Center’s Wilfred Owen collection houses more than a dozen of the Field Service Postcards that the young poet-officer sent his family while on active duty in France during 1916–18. As you can see from this image of a postcard sent by Owen to his mother in 1917, the card forces the sender to report his well-being by choosing between uniform, pre-printed sentences: “NOTHING” written in the margins of the card is allowed, or else the card will be destroyed instead of sent. Thus, soldiers such as Owen faced what Fussell refers to as the “implicit optimism” of the Field Service Postcard: they were forced to report that they were “quite well, “going on well,” or were to be “discharged soon” and happily sent back home. The standardized sentences of the card did not allow soldiers to report, for example, that they were facing an artillery barrage, had lost limbs, or were wounded beyond hope of recovery. Owen, who detested the army’s censorship, made an agreement with his mother that if he were advancing to the front lines of battle he would send her a Field Service Postcard with the sentence “I am being sent down to base” struck out twice. The double strikeout is apparent in this postcard, sent just days before Owen was transferred to the Somme region of France, where he participated in some of the heaviest fighting of the War.


In the years following the Great War, the Field Service Postcard, which Fussell calls the first widespread “form” letter, would be spoofed by poets and writers wishing to point out the lack of humanity in these standardized communications. As discussed in a blog post by Rich Oram, the Ransom Center’s Edmund Wilson and Evelyn Waugh archives reveal that both men mocked the “form-letter” model when sending or declining social invitations in the postwar period.  This 1929 letter from the poet Edmund Blunden to Siegfried Sassoon, housed in the Ransom Center’s Siegfried Sassoon collection, demonstrates that the memory of the standard Field Service Postcard stayed with soldiers long after the Armistice.

Blunden offers only alternative variations of “well” as a means of describing his mental state and mixes contemporary references with allusions to wartime objects or locations. When listing the possible enclosures of the letter, Blunden offers “H. Wolfe’s Poetical Works” or a “Signed Portrait of H. Williamson” (Humbert Wolfe and Henry Williamson were literary rivals of Blunden’s) alongside a “D.C.M. and Bar” (Distinguished Conduct Medal and insignia for a soldier’s uniform) and a “Silk Card” (an embroidered postcard that was often sent as a souvenir by British soldiers in France to their loved ones at home). Likewise Blunden brackets obsolete military destinations—“base hospital,” a “delousing station,” and “Red Dragon Crater” (a section of No Man’s Land where Blunden endured some of his worst combat experience)—with Lord’s, the famous London cricket ground beloved by both Blunden and Sassoon. In personalizing the “form-letter,” Blunden emphasizes the hollow and automated nature of the Field Service Postcard in its original form. As Fussell reminds us, such gestures of individuality were acts of defiance against the industrialization of war, death, and language during the First World War and its aftermath.

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory discusses several Great War poets and writers whose archives are housed at the Ransom Center, including Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Robert Graves, H. M. Tomlinson, and Isaac Rosenberg.

Related content:

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes


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