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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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Archivist seeks help in identifying manuscript waste material

By Micah Erwin

Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Ransom Center Project Archivist Micah Erwin holds one of the books with manuscript fragments that he's hoping to identify through a Flickr site he created. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Because manuscript waste is particularly difficult to identify due to its fragmentary nature, I started early on to think of ways to harness the knowledge of other rare book and manuscript enthusiasts to help describe these objects. Inspired by individuals who had made extraordinary discoveries about historical photographs by sharing them on the popular image-hosting site Flickr, I hoped that something similar could be done with images of medieval manuscript waste. This served as the inspiration for posting quick, point-and-shoot digital camera images on Flickr and inviting members of the rare book community to examine and share insights they might have about the items.

The response has been promising. Out of the 65 images (from about 40 items) posted thus far, we’ve had a total of 2,422 views, 26 comments and–thanks to the work of some very diligent people–more than 16 partial or full identifications of the fragmentary texts. This page is a great example of how users have offered up expertise on transcribing and dating one fragment. It’s likely that a majority of all known fragments in our collections will have been identified by Flickr members by the time this project is complete. Notifications about new images are posted on a related Facebook page. But plenty of work remains, and there are many fragments to be commented on.

Crowdsourcing is a popular buzzword these days and for good reason. By placing images of these rather obscure, archaic objects on a popular image hosting site, a twenty-first-century technology brings together the skills of a highly specialized and niche community and opens up these medieval objects to interpretation by potentially anyone.

* The author would like to add that although digitization and image sharing has many benefits, nothing compares with up close physical examination of medieval manuscripts. It should also be noted that the images we are posting are primarily for identification and rapid dissemination and are not publication-quality, high-resolution photos. Researchers may request high-resolution images through the Ransom Center’s website.

Artists’ books bring text to life through art

By Jacqueline Muñoz

The definition of what constitutes an artist’s book varies significantly depending on the social or critical circle observing the book.  Is it an artist’s book, a livre d’artiste, an artist’s illustrated book, bookart, pop art, or a fine press book?  If one were to look up the term and read any of the numerous essays about it, there would certainly be canonical titles offered and artists’ names as well—Henri Matisse, Ed Ruscha, and even William Blake, to name a few.  Seeing these three artists of vastly different periods, styles, and mediums is proof that a single definition would not suit all audiences.  In the preface in Artists’ Books: a Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, Dick Higgins writes, “There is a myriad of possibilities concerning what the artist’s book can be; the danger is that we will think of it as just this and not that.  A firm definition will, by its nature, serve only to exclude many artists’ books which one would want to include.”

Although the history of artists’ books is as vigorously debated as the definition, artists’ books truly began to proliferate in the 1960s and 1970s, in particular with the idea of the “democratic multiple”—well suited to the social and political climate of the times. Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations and George Brecht’s An Anthology of Chance Operations are just a couple of examples from this period housed at the Ransom Center.  Though it may be difficult to define artists’ books, often times you will know one when you see it because they can be quite unique—like a work of art.  Johanna Drucker in The Century of Artists’ Books offers one distinction as “books made as direct expressions of an artist’s point of view, with the artist involved in the conception, production, and execution of the work.”  A few of the more “artful” examples in the Ransom Center collection include Clair Van Vliet’s Aura and Countercode archeo-logic by Timothy Ely.  Some of the characteristics present can include plates or illustrations cut from wood, linoleum, stone, or even metal; the bindings can be made of leather, wood, metal, etc.; the paper can be handmade, stitched, rolled, cut, or folded; and there is no limit to shape, size, and sometimes even sequence. Some artists’ books are even designed to be shuffled like a deck of cards and read in any order.

Art, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  At the Ransom Center there are numerous examples of artists’ books, ranging from Henri Matisse’s famous Jazz to Henry Miller’s heartfelt Insomnia or the Devil at Large to smaller press items like the collaboration of artist Steven Sorman with poet Lee Blessing in Lessons from the Russian. There are even a few gems in the collection that have until now escaped categorization as artists’ books.  We are reviewing seminal bibliographies that address the evolving definitions of the genre and plan to revise and expand available resources to make the books in the collection more accessible.  To search for artists’ books in the Ransom Center’s collections, access the UT Library Catalog: type in “artists’ books” (in quotation marks) and limit the results to the Harry Ransom Center.  There is also a checklist of artists’ books available in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms.

Lynne Maphies also contributed to this blog post.

 

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