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Fellows Find: Finding humanity in the Isaac Bashevis Singer correspondence

By Alexandra Herzog

 

Undated photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, with wife Alma in the background. Unidentified photographer.
Undated photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, with wife Alma in the background. Unidentified photographer.

Alexandra Tali Herzog, PhD candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, visited the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 on a dissertation fellowship to investigate the Isaac Bashevis Singer collection. In her dissertation, she examines the interplay between demonology, libertinism, and religion in Singer’s work. Drawing from the theoretical frameworks of both Kabbalah and gender theory, Herzog analyzes Singer’s unorthodox conception of love and sexuality, attending to his recreation of an erotic, subversive “underworld” in the Eastern Europe of his writings—one permeated with mysticism, magic, demons, and antinomianism.

With the very generous support of a dissertation fellowship, I had the incredible opportunity to spend four weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the treasure trove that is the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive. With its 176 boxes and adjacent collections, the impressive Singer archive covers the period from 1935 until Singer’s death in 1991—although I found a few manuscripts from as early as 1923 and as late as 1995.

As a Singer scholar, the most striking discovery for me was the Center’s impressive holdings of unpublished correspondence, a testament to how prolific a letter writer Singer was. These letters show Singer’s constant reflection on ongoing political and social events, the complexity of his writing process, as well as his interest in literature in general. A prominent Jewish American, a Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize winner, Singer was also—as this unique collection of correspondence reminds us —a complex human being who was witty, charming, brilliant, and not to be trusted in the matters of the heart!

Exceptionally poignant are the exchanges between Singer and his second wife Alma—or “Papa-Pu” and “Mama-Pu,” as they used to call each other—before and during their marriage: “You have all the qualities of a lover—none of a husband,” Alma writes to Singer. These invaluable letters shed much light on their relationship and the tormented life Alma had before she left her first husband and their children to marry Singer. It is well known that Singer was unfaithful to his wife and had multiple affairs. However, it is less acknowledged that Alma was aware of his infidelity and seemed to accept it under the condition that what Singer felt for her was true love and not some volatile feeling.

In a letter, she writes: “As far as your letter is concerned, I am not disappointed. I took it for granted that you have a girlfriend there and I don’t see why you are so embarrassed—you are not even in N.Y. in the least faithful to me—and why should you be so in the country? I have only the choice to come to you and to surrender finally or to put up with the matters as they are.”

In a note hand-written in pencil, dated 19.1.38, Singer writes: “I must tell you that I love you so very much—you will not believe nor understand—but it is true, you are my life. What happens besides you is only framework—but I only love you—and this is all that matters.”

Similarly, years later on September 6, 1970, he still presents the same honesty: “I hope you are well and that you can forgive me my follies. No one is perfect. Nothing can diminish my love for you.” He signs this letter to her (as he did many others): “Your most devoted pig.” As with many other women in Singer’s life, Alma not only nurtured him romantically, but she was also involved in his writing career, pushing him to publish in certain journals and helping him get some business contacts.

Aside from the rich personal life to which the correspondence attests, it is also interesting to uncover Singer’s interactions with other writers. For example, I was not aware of his friendship with the American writer Henry Miller. It is well known that when Henry Miller turned 86, he went on a heavy campaign to get the 1978 Nobel Prize. He encouraged his friends, publishers, and acquaintances to participate in a letter-writing campaign in his support. In this context, he asked Singer to write him a letter of support for the prize. Interestingly (and ironically) that is the year that Singer received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Their correspondence is very interesting as it is both personal and professional.

The Harry Ransom Center houses a treasure of marvels, and I am very much looking forward to analyzing the data that I have assembled, which offers a glimpse of the charm and genius of a Yiddish writer who became part of the American literary canon.

The Letters of Hemingway: a scholar’s work in the Ransom Center archives

By Kelsey McKinney

Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.
Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.

The recent publication of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I, 1907-1922 has re-ignited public interest in Hemingway’s personal life and documents. In the introduction to the book, editor Sandra Spanier writes: “Hemingway’s letters constitute this autobiography in the continuous present tense. They enrich our understanding of his creative processes, offer insider insights into the twentieth-century literary scene, and document the making and marketing of an American icon.” Four of the letters from the Ransom Center’s  Hemingway collection can be found in the book.

Liesl Olson, a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, visited the Ransom Center in October 2011 to study the letters of Hemingway. In January she will become Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She shares some of her findings from the Hemingway collection here:

“In October I spent a few days working in the Hemingway collection at the Harry Ransom Center. I was looking to learn more about the relationship between Hemingway and his Oak Park roots—especially his fraught relationship with his artistic mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. I also mined the collection for materials relevant to Hemingway’s time in Chicago, particularly during 1920-21 when he lived with friends on the north side and wrote for a fraudulent periodical called the Cooperative Commonwealth. What I found at the Ransom Center will help to complete a story that I tell about Hemingway in my book-in-progress, which is about the literary and artistic centrality of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most fantastic letter that Grace Hall Hemingway sent to her son is dated July 24, 1920, and it is contained in the Hemingway collection at the Ransom Center. The letter is an elaborate reprimand for Hemingway’s late-night lake escapade with friends up in Michigan. In Grace Hall Hemingway’s ten-page letter—for which she composed many drafts (also in the collection)—she conceives of the metaphor of a bank to describe their relationship, and she is quick to point out that he is “overdrawn.” Most Hemingway scholars know about this letter. But in looking at the letter in context of so many others at the Ransom Center, it is striking to learn that Hemingway’s father (who received a copy) called it a “masterpiece” and that the letter itself entered into family lore. Grace Hall Hemingway’s construction of motherhood—in a letter written in flourishing cursive script—is a striking analogue to Hemingway’s own construction of himself, much later in life, as a popular, bearded “Papa.”

I found many other collections at the Ransom Center  that help to illuminate the literary and cultural life of Chicago—especially the Alice Corbin Henderson collection. Henderson was Harriet Monroe’s editorial assistant at Poetry magazine, published in Chicago, where Hemingway’s poems first appeared in 1923. Though Hemingway’s letters to Monroe have been published—and the spectacular multi-volume Hemingway letters project will complete what has been missed—the materials at the Ransom Center provide the other side of the correspondence, the incoming letters to Hemingway. Like the 1920 letter from Grace Hall Hemingway, these letters give voice to the people and places that shaped Hemingway’s life and work.”

Scholar discovers missing bassoon line in Ravel manuscript

By Elana Estrin

While studying the 1911 manuscript of Maurice Ravel’s “Mother Goose” ballet suite, housed at the Ransom Center, scholar Arbie Orenstein discovered the largest error in all of Ravel’s scores: a bassoon line that’s been missing from the published edition for the last century.

Orenstein’s discovery comes just in time for the centennial of “Mother Goose,” which premiered in Paris 100 years ago this Saturday.

“The first time I looked at that bassoon part, I thought, ‘What on earth is this instrument doing here?’” Orenstein told Cultural Compass. “But it’s perfectly written, complete with dynamics and phrasing, and it makes absolute sense according to all the rules of orchestration. I said, ‘Wow, this is really something.’”

The “Mother Goose” manuscript is housed in the Ransom Center’s Carlton Lake collection, which also includes manuscripts by Claude Debussy, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Igor Stravinsky.

In addition to the bassoon line, Orenstein, Professor of Music at Queens College, found other discrepancies between the 1911 manuscript and the widely used 1912 published score. Orenstein plans to publish a new edition this year presenting all of the differences between the manuscript and the published score. Philadelphia Orchestra librarian Clinton F. Nieweg will help communicate the changes to orchestras around the world.

While preparing the new edition, Orenstein consulted with musicians from the New York Philharmonic, and the Philharmonic became the first orchestra to incorporate Orenstein’s changes in a concert on December 28, 2011.

“It was quite exciting to hear that bassoon part for the first time in 100 years (not that I’m 100 years old!),” Orenstein wrote in an e-mail after the performance.

Though the “Mother Goose” manuscript contains more errors than any other manuscript he’s ever worked with, Orenstein says he doesn’t criticize Ravel. Ravel had his mind on the new ballet he’d already begun composing, “Daphnis et Chloë,” the manuscript of which is also housed at the Ransom Center. On top of that, Stravinsky was composing what would become his seminal ballet “The Rite of Spring” and playing it for Ravel.

“All of these exciting things are happening. He just may not have given his fullest attention to ‘Mother Goose,’” Orenstein said. “It’s a battle for perfection which you can never win. Ravel said the same thing: ‘My goal is technical perfection. I can strive unceasingly, but I know I’ll never be able to achieve it.’”

Nevertheless, Orenstein is doing what he can to help Ravel achieve perfection posthumously.

“The greatest battle of any composer is that of wrong notes. That’s why these new editions based on the manuscripts are so important. If you’re going to interpret the music, you have to do what Mahler said: read between the notes. But you have to have all the right notes.”

Working with music publisher Ernst Eulenburg Ltd., Orenstein plans to continue publishing new editions of Ravel’s major orchestral works, some of which are housed at the Ransom Center.

“The point of departure is the Harry Ransom Center. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” Orenstein said. “There’s a tremendous amount that needs to be looked at, sorted out, and new editions made. There will be plenty more coming out of Texas, I can tell you that.”

Learn more about Orenstein’s discovery in a Wall Street Journal article by reporter Anne S. Lewis.

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

Gobsmacked: Professor Recounts Class’s Tour of the Ransom Center

By Elana Estrin

Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.
Jacket worn by Robert De Niro in 'Taxi Driver' from the Paul Schrader collection.

In October, University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Marc Lewis brought his freshman Plan II Honors class on a trip to the Ransom Center. Professor Lewis has won numerous teaching awards, including the Regents’ Outstanding
Teaching
Award and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. Below, Professor Lewis writes about his class’s private tour of the Ransom Center, led by Director Thomas F. Staley.
 

Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.
Page from the Shakespeare First Folio.

Over 30 years of teaching, I can remember many occasions where students were excited and interested, but my Plan II Honors Signature class’s visit to the Ransom Center on October 4 marks the first time that I have heard audible gasps of astonishment. The class arrived with high expectations, knowing that even among the “gems of the university,” the Ransom Center is unique. They had ordered an eclectic collection of treasures to view: the original manuscript of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a Shakespeare first folio, Robert De Niro’s jacket from Taxi Driver, Volume 1 of the 1609 Douay Old Testament, original notes from a Woodward and Bernstein interview with Deep Throat, Abraham Ortelius’s 500-year-old map of the New World, a set of original architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rare items. The students came expecting that those exhibits would be the highlight of the day; what they did not expect was that the real magic would be a talk by Director Tom Staley followed by a personal tour of the closed, nonpublic sections of the building.

These freshmen students knew what they experiencing. As one student wrote afterwards: “Walking through rooms filled with original movie posters, books filled with presidential autographs, and other priceless historical artifacts spread casually along shelves was incredible in and of itself, but the places and people Dr. Staley took us to were even more remarkable. Seemingly without ever planning to do so, he showed us the full scope of the Ransom Center’s activities and their significance, everything from the meticulous preservation of the cover from a first edition of The Great Gatsby to colorful sketches of Macy’s parade floats from 40 or 50 years ago.”

Another student was as struck by the excitement of the Center as fully as he was by the items: “Having a backstage pass with Director Tom Staley as guide was a spectacular experience. Simply observing his reactions to the artifacts we saw being restored revealed to me the passion that goes into maintaining this Center.”

Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Conservator Ken Grant works in the paper lab, consolidating the paint layer on designer Norman Bel Geddes’s 1926 drawing for floats and participants in Macy’s parade. The drawing will be included in an upcoming exhibition on Bel Geddes, with support generously provided by an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.

And: “Around a corner, we encountered an original poster for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—you just don’t find this sort of thing anywhere else. Sometime later in the trip, we were taken to a room where an ancient map a dozen-and-a-half feet long was undergoing a preservation process. You see this sort of artifact on the Discovery Channel and think, ‘Oh, that’s neat!’ but it is only when you see it first-hand that you get a true appreciation for the talent, dedication, and effort that goes into it all.”

Other students commented on the way that the Ransom Center’s collections connect the dots to show artistic flows of thought: “The Ransom Center’s pursuit of an understanding of the creative process and the artistic mind made me completely rethink the process of bringing together collections of art and writing.”

These students had never seen anything like the Ransom Center, and I am pleased that they were wise enough to understand how rare an opportunity they were given. I understood that opportunity as well, and I am not embarrassed to admit that my own jaw dropped more than once during the visit. What an astounding afternoon.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett

By Jennifer Tisdale

'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'
'The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956'

Last fall, Cambridge University Press published The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 2: 1941–1956. Edited by George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck, the volume is the second in a four-part series offering a comprehensive range of Samuel Beckett’s letters.

In compiling this edition, the editors consulted the Samuel Beckett papers at the Ransom Center, from which more than 15 percent of the letters in this volume were drawn.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett,” a project of the Emory Laney Graduate School, will result in the publication of two additional volumes that feature Beckett materials from around the world.

The Modern Language Association of America recently announced that the first book in the series, The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume 1: 1929–1940, will receive the eleventh Morton N. Cohen Award for a Distinguished Edition of Letters.

The Ransom Center acquired its first substantial group of Beckett books and manuscripts in 1958 and continues to add to its holdings.

Handwritten manuscripts and typescripts make up the bulk of the collection, supplemented by Beckett’s correspondence and a wide range of his writing, including poems, stories, and plays spanning most of his career.

Drafts of both the French En attendant Godot and the English Waiting for Godot are present, as are versions of All That Fall, Comment c’est, Krapp’s Last Tape, and Watt. A handwritten manuscript of Whoroscope, Beckett’s first published poem, is also in the collection.

The Ransom Center’s web exhibition “Fathoms from Anywhere” traces Beckett’s (1906–1989) career, drawing materials from the Ransom Center’s collection.

Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium in April

By Alicia Dietrich

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.

The Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium on April 5 and 6 at the Ransom Center. The symposium includes a public program on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium.

Symposium
registration is limited and opens January 23 at 11 a.m. CST. Participants must register online. The $55 registration fee includes access to all events on the schedule.

All symposium events will be webcast live.

The Ransom Center holds Wallace’s archive, which was made accessible for research in September 2010. For the symposium, writers, editors, journalists, and critics gather to discuss Wallace’s life and work in panel discussions on such topics as “Editors on Wallace” and “A Life through the Archive.”

Symposium moderators and participants include Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell, editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin.

Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s papers open for research

By Elana Estrin

In the late 1970s, screenwriter Paul Schrader began writing a script titled Born in the U.S.A., and he asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for the film. The script sat on Springsteen’s table until one day, while working on a song called “Vietnam,” he noticed Schrader’s script, sang the title, and “Born in the U.S.A.” became the hit title song of one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Springsteen eventually wrote a new song for the script, which Schrader renamed Light of Day (1987).

Drafts of Schrader’s Born in the U.S.A. and Light of Day scripts and correspondence between Schrader and Springsteen are just a few of the many highlights found in Schrader’s archive, which opens for research today at the Ransom Center.

From drafts of the Taxi Driver (1976) screenplay to Schrader’s baby book, from an outline for Raging Bull (1980) to letters from Schrader’s parents, the archive encompasses Schrader’s career and personal life.

Photographs abound in the archive. Of particular note are film stills, on-set photos, and publicity shots for Taxi Driver, the film that launched Schrader’s career. One photo shows Schrader and a young Jodie Foster at the Cannes Film Festival, and another shows Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro laughing on set. Invoking De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle, Scorsese inscribed a photo of him with Schrader: “From one Travis to another.” In an e-mail, Schrader wrote that he felt like a Travis Bickle “at one time.”

Immediately following Jaws’s blockbuster success, Steven Spielberg asked Schrader to write a screenplay for what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg read Schrader’s script, but they didn’t agree on how the story should progress. Spielberg ended up writing the script himself, but drafts and notes for Schrader’s version are included in his archive.

In the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan asked Schrader to direct a music video shot in Japan for his song “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Unhappy with the result, Schrader later called the video “a source of embarrassment.” In addition to scripts, photographs, and film documenting the video production, Schrader’s archive includes a 2002 letter to an executive at Sony in which Schrader looks back on the project 16 years later:

“It was a disaster. Bob had asked me to do it but I really didn’t ‘get’ the new music video language. He didn’t want to do it and by the middle of the shoot I didn’t want to do it. I remember saying to him at one point, ‘Bob, if you ever hear I’m making another music video, just take me out in the back yard and hose me down.’”

When asked how he felt about his archive opening to the public, Schrader responded, “I hope to be too busy to even give it a thought.”

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