Dr. Erik Tonning is Research Director of the “Modernism and Christianity” project at the University of Bergen, Norway. He visited the Ransom Center in June 2011 to view a range of its modernism holdings and to gather information on behalf of his research team from several of the Ransom Center’s rich collections.
Tonning writes about his research and his findings, including manuscripts that highlight George Bernard Shaw and D. H. Lawrence’s approaches to a new theology, as well as a letter from T. S. Eliot, one of the most famous modernist converts to Christianity.
Cultural Compass: Can you tell us about some of your most memorable guests?
Martha Campbell: Oh, heavens!
Martha Campbell, 73, is not your typical B&B owner. During the time she hosted Ransom Center scholars at her home between 1995 and 2010, Campbell helped one renter woo her future husband, competed with a guest in a bake-off, hosted a frequent renter’s book launch, and became a close friend and confidante to many of the scholars who stayed with her.
“When I first started doing this, I thought: ‘How would I feel if I were a stranger in a strange place? How would I want to be treated?’ That’s guided me through the years,” Campbell said.
Campbell quickly became a legend among the Ransom Center scholars, in part for her breakfasts. Vanessa Guignery, past guest and former Ransom Center fellow, reports that Campbell served fruit, juice, muffins, and either waffles, pancakes, or french toast every morning.
“Other scholars stayed with other people who were very nice, but there was no breakfast. So each time I arrived at the Ransom Center and said, ‘Mmm I had waffles for breakfast!’ the other scholars would say, ‘Stop it!’ Everybody wanted to stay with Martha,” Guignery says.
Campbell’s hospitality didn’t stop at breakfast. She invited her guests to dinner parties with her friends and to Austin’s famed live-music concerts. (“I got a kick out of introducing them to Texas music.”)
“It wasn’t just coming back, closing the door, and that’s it. She didn’t make you feel as though you were actually paying to be there. It truly felt like home,” Guignery says.
Campbell’s guests have formed a network, and many of them became close friends and colleagues. During one of Guignery’s stays, Campbell invited two Norman Mailer scholars staying elsewhere, Michael and Donna Lennon, over for a wine and cheese party. Guignery told Michael Lennon about her work on British writer Julian Barnes, whose archive Guignery was researching at the Ransom Center. He suggested that she publish a collection of interviews with Barnes, put her in touch with an editor, and three years later Guignery published Conversations with Julian Barnes. The book now sits on Campbell’s table.
Campbell made her own contributions to her guests’ work. She introduced a few scholars studying spiritualist writers like W. B. Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle to a spiritualist church down the street. During one of his stays with Campbell, Michael Lennon was invited to read at the Ransom Center’s monthly Poetry on the Plaza event. He asked Campbell if she happened to have any beat poetry around, and he ended up reading from her copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which she bought at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1960.
Built in 1910, exactly 100 years before Campbell hosted her last guest, the home is a registered historical landmark in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Campbell started housing renters in 1994, soon after her husband passed away.
“I had never had a job. I always thought I couldn’t do anything since I always had my husband,” Campbell says. “Every time I did something like change a light bulb or carry something heavy or fix a toilet, I kept getting more and more self-confidence to live by myself. So I grew as a person along with the house. It really made me a different person. The house is kind of the third big chapter of my life.”
Before hosting Ransom Center scholars, Campbell housed mathematicians and scientists visiting The University of Texas at Austin. Her very first renter was a Japanese man who spoke little English.
“When he left, he looked really forlorn, so I gave him a hug. Then I thought, ‘Am I supposed to do that?’ When I cleaned his room, I found five or six beautiful origami cranes placed around the room. I found out later that was a compliment. He came back once to say hello, so I figured I must’ve done a pretty good job,” Campbell said.
Though she stopped renting in 2010, Campbell periodically hosts informal gatherings for current Ransom Center scholars and staff.
“Somebody said I fall in love with all my guests. I think it’s true. I have a charming man who has breakfast with me, talks to me like what I have to say is important, he stays for a month, then another one comes and takes his place,” Campbell laughs.
Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.
Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”
Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.
When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.
My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?
The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.
Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.
Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.
Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.
Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.
The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.
For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.
For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.
In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.
The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.
From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.
Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.
Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.
Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.
“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”
“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”
Shane Graham, Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. His work at the Ransom Center was funded by an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship.
An Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship allowed me to spend a month at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the connections between African-American poet Langston Hughes and black writers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I began this research some time ago at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where the great majority of Langston Hughes’s papers are deposited. The Ransom Center holdings allowed me to expand and enrich my investigation into these transatlantic connections in innumerable ways.
For instance, the Knopf records and the Nancy Cunard papers contain correspondence with Hughes, typescripts of his poems, essays, and speeches, and media clippings about his books. Moreover, the Transcription Centre records include information about its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established important links between African and diasporic writers. The Transcription Centre papers also contain records and reports from the important “Conference for African Writers of English Expression” held at Makerere College in Uganda in 1962, which the CCF co-organized and which Hughes attended as a guest of honor. These holdings provide small but important pieces to the jigsaw puzzle I am trying to complete sketching the transnational connections between Hughes and his many friends and correspondents.
Among other unexpected treasures I discovered were dozens of letters that Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote to his agent and to Nancy Cunard in Paris, from a period when McKay himself was living in Marseille, Spain, and Morocco. While not proving an immediate link to Langston Hughes, these letters do establish McKay as an equally transnational figure and have prompted me to return to the Langston Hughes papers to investigate the two men’s relationship. I’m happy to report, then, that my time at the Ransom Center opened up an important new area to explore in my book-in-progress.
Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.
Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.
As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?
My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.
The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.