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Errol Morris book highlights photos from Ransom Center's collections

By Kelsey McKinney

Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" with cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.
Roger Fenton. "Valley of the Shadow of Death" without cannonballs. 1855.

Writer and filmmaker Errol Morris, winner of an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, an Emmy, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, drew on the Ransom Center’s photography collections for his most recent book, Believing is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, published by Penguin in September 2011.

Morris’s interest in the mysteries of photography grew around the debate over two nearly identical Roger Fenton photographs in the Ransom Center’s collections.  The photographs were taken in sequence in a place called the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” during the Crimean War.

In one photo, the road through the valley is bare and the ditches full of cannonballs. In the other, the road is scattered with cannonballs. The photographs were taken on April 23, 1855, between 3 and 5 p.m., but photography scholars debate which photograph was taken first. The discrepancy between the images inevitably leads to a question of Fenton’s involvement. In which photograph did Fenton manipulate the scene?

Morris’s interest led him to Crimea to investigate. He borrowed a cannonball, found the valley, and came to a conclusion that caused him to question whether we can, 150 years later, recover the truth of Fenton’s intentions. Morris wrote extensively about this adventure for The New York Times.

Through the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” photographs and a few others, Morris reveals how much of a photograph can be obscured by the viewer’s beliefs. A photographic detective story, Believing is Seeing is an exploration of the origins, intentions, and products of photographers.

Related content:

Fighting Heat, Dust, and Glare: Roger Fenton and the first photographic documentation during the Crimean War

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).
"Believing is Seeing: Ovservations on the Mysteries of Photography" (Penguin Press, 2011).

Newly cataloged collection of science materials now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.
A drawing of Halley's Comet by Sir John F. W. Herschel in 1835–1836.

A collection of science materials from the family of Sir John F. W. Herschel (1792–1871) is now open for research after a grant enabled staffers to rehouse the collection and to create an online inventory.

The Herschel family papers, acquired in 1960 with subsequent smaller accessions of additional materials, largely represent the life and work of Herschel, the English mathematician, astronomer, chemist, and experimental photographer/inventor. John Herschel has been called Britain’s first modern physical scientist, and his correspondence has been noted as one of the most valuable archives for 19th-century science.

The Herschel family papers at the Ransom Center form a significant resource for the study of the history of science in general and also for studies in astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. The lives of the Herschels, their ground-breaking achievements, their interactions with other leading scientists of their time, and their influence on their colleagues’ work are topics scholars may pursue in the papers. The Ransom Center’s Herschel collection is exceeded in size only by the collection at the Royal Society in London.

The cataloging project was funded by a $10,000 grant from the Friends of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics.

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

By Carolyn Durham


Undated photos of Diane Johnson.
Undated photos of Diane Johnson.

Carolyn A. Durham, Inez K. Gaylord Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the College of Wooster, spent the month of June (2011) at the Harry Ransom Center on a fellowship.  Her research in the Diane Johnson collection informs her book, Understanding Diane Johnson, which will be published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2012 as part of a series on “Understanding Contemporary American Literature.”

During the summer of 2011, I had the good fortune to spend a productive and fascinating month in residence at the Harry Ransom Center thanks to a research fellowship funded by the Center’s Filmscript Acquisitions Endowment. The extensive holdings of the Diane Johnson collection, which reflect the remarkable diversity of the novelist’s work in biography, criticism, reviewing, screenwriting, and fiction, allowed me to complete Understanding Diane Johnson, a biographical and critical study that will be published in 2012 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Johnson is always significantly concerned with the shape and form of her fiction, and the Ransom Center holdings allowed me to compare different versions of her manuscripts so that I could better understand her strategies for composition and revision. I was able to see the effect that her work in screenwriting, beginning with the co-writing of The Shining with Stanley Kubrick, had on the drafting of her novels, whose outlines increasingly resemble cinematic storyboarding. I also discovered that she habitually outlined classical novels while she was working on her own. One folder, for example, juxtaposed preliminary plans for The Shadow Knows with several outlines of Jane Austen’s Emma, a fascinating pairing given Johnson’s training as a Victorian scholar. At the same time, the sequences and charts she designed while working on Lying Low confirmed in interesting ways the affinity that she has often expressed for the narrative innovation practiced by the French New Novelists.

Because Johnson writes novels of manners that focus on the concept of America, cultural context is extremely important in the interpretation of her writing, and the Ransom Center’s collection provided me with significant data about what she was thinking and experiencing throughout her life. Johnson’s papers range from elementary school coursework to childhood and adolescent diaries to college and graduate school papers and lecture notes from her 20-year career as a college professor to such unexpected treasures as a 1968 letter from Hubert Humphrey asking her to reconsider her decision not to vote for him, a letter from Johnson objecting to being overcharged for gas written in the same ironic voice evident in her fiction, and an account of the summer she spent as a Mademoiselle guest editor, made famous by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Even knowing that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique described a climate for women and a concept of marriage reflected in Johnson’s early novels, I had not expected to discover that her correspondence with Alison Lurie, beginning in the late 1950s, provided a remarkably detailed illustration of what Friedan called “the problem that has no name.”

The Ransom Center’s collection also gave me access to a good deal of information that is not available anywhere else, which includes Johnson’s first and only unpublished novel and her unpublished screenplays written for films that were to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wim Wenders. Her correspondence, often with other major writers, revealed the same humor, irony, and sense of satire that informs her novels and gave me important insight into what was on Johnson’s mind while she was drafting her own work.

Africa and the Archive: Researching the Transcription Centre

By Kelsey McKinney

Samantha Pinto received a research fellowship to work in the Transcription Centre collection.
Samantha Pinto received a research fellowship to work in the Transcription Centre collection.

Georgetown University Assistant Professor of English and Women and Gender Studies Samantha Pinto is a fellow in the African and American Diaspora Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin for the 2011–2012 year. She writes about her research in the Transcription Centre, an organization founded for African Literature and Culture based in London during the 1960s.

Pinto’s article explains the historical context of the Transcription Centre and the contemporary voices of the time. Her discoveries stem from her thorough examination of the Centre’s radio program “Africa Abroad.”

The Ransom Center annually awards more than 50 fellowships to support scholarly research projects that require on-site use of its collections.

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.