The Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition includes a commonplace book kept by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) with information about ciphers, anagrams, stenography, and labyrinths. As Kelsey McKinney, a former public affairs intern, writes, these “personal anthologies” functioned as “literary scrapbooks”. While these scrapbooks were “commonplace” in Victorian culture, modern means of communication fulfill the same desire for people to record and share their life experiences.
The exhibition—and Dodgson’s commonplace book—are on view at the Ransom Center through July 6, 2015.
Before the affordability of personal libraries, and before people were able to access the world’s knowledge through the Internet, readers and writers had to find reasonable ways to consolidate and store information that could be useful to them. There were no social media to help them aggregate and share stories, quotes, recipes, or images. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do exactly that. They created personal anthologies called commonplace books. Read more
Galit Marmor-Lavie is a professor at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication. This semester she brought students in her undergraduate Advertising and Popular Culture class, offered at the Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations, to the Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition. Below, she explains the project that was inspired by the exhibition and what drew her to use the Ransom Center as a resource.
This week marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. I grew up in Holland where the fifth of May is celebrated as “Bevrijdingsdag,” named for the liberation from German occupation that my father, who was 14 years old in 1945 when he stood by the side of the road and cheered a stream of Allied tanks and trucks into The Hague, still vividly recalls.
The Ransom Center holds one unique war trophy “liberated” by an American G.I. that weighs in at 23 pounds of evil: a giant vellum-bound copy in heavy boards of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Emblazoned on the front with a golden eagle atop a swastika, this large-format edition of Hitler’s manifesto is likely one of fewer than a hundred such lavish presentation copies specially produced in München for Nazi leaders during the war.
The book is now kept in a large box, along with two typed letters from the Red Cross nurse-turned-army-wife, Carmel White Eitt, who donated it in 1988. She writes of its being “liberated by a lad named Willie, a cook in the headquarters company of the 143 regiment” (she could not recall the spelling of his Polish surname), during the search of Heinrich Himmler’s residence in Tegernsee, Bavaria, by the 36th division after the signing that ended the war. Once Stateside, this G.I. showed up at her doorstep to give her his war trophy as a thank-you. I get chills every time I read her letter; even now the hairs on my arms tingle a bit.
A rare wartime survivor, the book has physical features and injuries that tell tales. The battered copy suffers from a slightly “cocked spine,” which makes it want to open to the pages where in 1945 it was stepped on and bayonetted by members of the 36th. Those pages still bear the imprints left by muddy army boots and the ragged cuts and punctures made by bayonets. There is something visceral about the damage left behind—a muddy snapshot of a violent history more compelling than the braggadocio of Hitler’s lavishly printed pages.
This particular copy of this particular book is a powerful object that brings up important questions about why a library or archive painstakingly preserves even the ugly aspects of history. When I show this book to my students, the cover alone is usually enough to solicit disgust from them. Yet in 1988 the former Red Cross nurse wrapped this copy of Mein Kampf in “swadling clothes” [sic.] to protect it on its journey to the Ransom Center. Using language more suitable for a fragile and treasured infant rather than Hitler’s 23-pound screed, this army wife who had witnessed the horrors of war first-hand wanted to preserve her enemy’s book because, as she says, she held a “very deep and abiding affection for the 36th Division and those men who fought so long and so well.” Himmler’s copy of Hitler’s ideas had, over time, become a testament to something else entirely.
This semester I called it up for my undergraduate class “The Paperback,” which studies a number of collections in the Ransom Center to measure the impact that the new portability and packaging of the inexpensive twentieth-century book had on literary interpretation, distribution, and audience. Hitler’s monument to vanity served as my anti-paperback example. His massive commemorative edition demanded veneration with its high production values by mimicking an old book, complete with a blackletter typeface that harkens back to Gutenberg. During our show-and-tell it sat near a giant folio edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, dated 1596, which still bears remnants of clasps and a metal chain (it was likely locked to a desk) and is bound in leather over thick wooden boards. Both the Brobdingnagian edition of Mein Kampf and the heavy Renaissance tome embody the traditional elitist stance towards knowledge that the modern paperback combats. On the same table lay some of the first-generation Penguin Specials from 1938 and 1939, with their no-frills orange and black paper covers: Germany Puts the Clock Back by Edgar Mowrer and What Hitler Wants by E. O. Lorimer. These lightweight paperbacks were, some say, an effective instrument in the war of ideas that helped the Allies win WWII.
Not all books worth keeping look pretty or are even good books. Nor are books always studied for the words printed on their pages. In 1988, Eitt mused how “it is very possible that some feet are still walking around Austin that trod over this volume,” since many men in the 36th had been from Texas. Today, more than another quarter century onwards, these men are unlikely to still be with us in person. But this week, in particular, we remember them and their moment in history.
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Colin McLaughlin is a radio-television-film, rhetoric and writing, and Plan I Honors senior in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, McLaughlin shares his experience in the class.
You become accustomed to certain things after your tenth visit to the Ransom Center. The processes required for entry—presenting your ID card, dropping your backpack off in the locker, opening your computer —become automatic. What never becomes mundane is the experience of opening the folder, not knowing what you may discover inside.
I spent a lot of time with the Norman Bel Geddes concept pieces for the 1917 New York production of King Lear, both through class meetings and in my own time at the Ransom Center. These pieces represent some of Bel Geddes’s earliest work and are remarkable both because Bel Geddes was only 23 years old at the time and because the works have survived, despite the fact that the production they were commissioned for was never staged.
The almost abstract nature of the piece evokes the idea of a cultural subconscious and how—after centuries of productions and adaptations ranging from classic and minimal to bizarre (see the “King Lear: Godard Film” materials in Box 5 of the Thomas Fiske collection)—King Lear has transcended what can be normally preserved in photographs and film evidence.
I compared these pieces to the materials the Ransom Center holds on the Elia Kazan film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire for my final presentation in the “Drama in the Archives” class. I wanted to compare the photographic vs. non-photographic evidence in the archive. I was motivated by Matthew Reason’s words in Documentation, Disappearance, and the Representation of Life Performance: “performance only exists in the moment of its creation, and its only valid afterlife is in the memory of those who were there.”
Comparing the abstract Bel Geddes work on Lear to the more concrete publicity kits and script revisions for the Streetcar film led me to argue that, because of photographic documentation and the prevalence of the Kazan film and its iconic performances, modern texts like A Streetcar Named Desire are more solidified in the cultural consciousness, and thus performances of these texts are more concerned with preserving those original visions. Meanwhile, because no photographic evidence exists for the original productions of Lear, the text is freer to be interpreted and adapted in bold, artistic ways.
My final argument, the culmination of a semester studying drama in the archives, ended up being much simpler than I had originally intended. This surprised me. After weeks of coming to the archive, I learned that the answers we find in the boxes and folders of the archive, while extensive and often enlightening, may not always be as complicated as we expect them to appear.
After discussing his own work in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives with students in his Humanities classes, Dr. Elon Lang realized that despite his students’ interest in what he suggested could be learned from archival materials, very few had actually visited the Ransom Center and even fewer had contemplated doing research here.
Lang made it his mission to design a course that would show how the Ransom Center could serve as a valuable and approachable research tool for all interested users—especially The University of Texas at Austin’s undergraduates—and to show how much students could gain from working with archival materials.
With these goals in mind, Lang developed “Drama in the Archives,” a Humanities Honors course he taught in fall 2014.
During the semester, Lang brought students from his class to the Ransom Center at least once per week to learn about the Center and to learn how to conduct original primary research in the Center’s theater and performing arts collections.
He chose important plays as the subject matter for the class partly because of the Ransom Center’s impressive collections and partly because the consequences of creative choices that can be revealed in an archive become clear very quickly when analyzing dramatic texts.
After several weeks of guided readings and archival work, Lang had students develop their own research projects that involved close attention to an item in the Ransom Center’s collections and its historical and critical contexts.
Below, undergraduates describe the research they conducted and the discoveries they made while working with collections at the Ransom Center. They show how, with creativity and a bit of support, they were able to create a singular experience for themselves at the Ransom Center that greatly enhanced their undergraduate education.
Maureen Clark is a third-year government and Liberal Arts Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the course, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Clark shares her experience in the class.
After reading Samuel Beckett’s seminal work Waiting for Godot I was at a loss. I felt that there existed some sort of lack in the work (or at least my understanding of it). I felt that I needed to understand Beckett to understand the play. I entered the Harry Ransom Center keen on unearthing the history of an avant-garde playwright known for his works in the Theatre of the Absurd. What I found waiting for me were letters, journals, and manuscripts. As I looked through the letters, hoping to parse out some personal connection with Beckett and how he felt about Waiting for Godot, I felt like a detective. I was going through someone else’s mail, piecing together fragments from the past: postcards with aging purple portrait stamps and shiny photo fronts of exotic places where sepia had begun to creep in through the corners and long letters grieving the losses of beloved friends.
As I looked through his correspondence and journals, I learned that Beckett was a member of the French Resistance. He lost multiple friends and allies on the battlefield and in concentration camps. One such friend, a fellow member of the Resistance and the man that convinced him to join, was Alfred Péron. Beckett chose to live permanently in France, abandoning his home nation of Ireland for two main reasons. The first was the overwhelming sense of guilt he felt at the loss of his friends, and the second was to fulfill his final promise to Alfred: that he would take care of his wife, Maya “Mania” Lézine Péron, if anything were to happen to Péron during the war. Beckett kept his word and became close long-term friends with Mania, writing her often and discussing anything from vacation plans to manuscript ideas.
In one letter on June 12, 1969, Beckett provided a mimeograph from Edith Fournier, a former student of Péron, in which she explained the meaning of Godot. He explained to Péron that with the exception of a few “misconceptions” Edith’s analysis was “remarkable.” Finally, I was beginning to unearth Beckett’s understanding of the play, which was no small feat. Beckett is even famous for having said “[i]f I knew who Godot was, I would have said so in the play.”
Rather than focusing on describing the play through an Existential lens or even describing it as a piece for the Theatre of the Absurd, Fournier describes the play through a Nietzschean lens. Fournier does not explicitly cite Nietzsche, but focuses on themes found in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. For example, Fournier discusses the meaning of the play to be waiting, not Godot. Moreover, Fournier wrote, the reason the characters wait in the play is similar to a religious waiting for the afterlife: it is habitual and eternally repeating.
As a result, I pointed my external research toward a Nietzschean nihilistic reading of the text. I was pleasantly surprised when I found readings in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that were mirrored in Godot and Fournier’s analysis of it. Even more so, I found allusions to Nietzsche in Beckett’s journals, although never explicitly named. Much like his comments on Godot, Beckett’s journals and correspondence were vague and brief, but the research and meaning that I gleaned from them at the Ransom Center were comprehensive and clear.
Kenneth Williams is an English and Plan I Honors student in Dr. Elon Lang’s “Drama in the Archives” course. In the class, students used resources at the Harry Ransom Center to better understand plays, texts, dramatists, cultures from which they are drawn, and the archival process itself. Below, Williams shares his experience in the class.
About 65 years after its publication, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman remains one of the most recognizable pieces of American theater, telling the tragedy of Willy Loman as he falls from success and brings down his family with him. With almost seven decades of performances, what new effects can this play have on audiences, besides the ever-relative commentaries on capitalism? This question is what brought me to the archive at the Harry Ransom Center.
Many critics of the play comment on the patriarchal, abusive, and detrimental behaviors of Willy that bring down those around him and take away authority from characters that could rise above the play and stand up for themselves—specifically the play’s women. Not only are there very few women in the play, critics say, they are completely steamrolled by Willy’s selfishness and lack of respect. They characterize Linda as a slipper-bearing doormat who is only defined by domesticity, obedience, and a lack of self-respect. However, Miller’s stage directions and subtly in Linda’s lines, combined with the material available in the archive, reveal that she is not merely a plot device, but a wife and a mother who is fighting against the inevitable. Her character is defined by the psychology of caretaking—finding optimism in the darkest of situations and protecting the falling loved one from any form of hurt.
In the Ransom Center’s Stella Adler collection, there is a compilation of papers from her acting classes on Death of a Salesman. In one of her drafts of an introduction to a class, she laments the lack of respect paid toward Linda, wishing there were more scenes for the character because she is diverse and complex, but the text, as it is, leaves it up to the actress to add these extra layers. She teaches her actors that Linda’s overarching story is one that goes beyond the pages of the play and that she is a caring individual who has given up everything for herself to protect her family. Moreover, Miller himself, as expressed through his autobiography available at the Ransom Center, stands up for Linda and actresses playing her. He explains that Linda is a fighter who is able to keep the household running by herself while at the same time a strong caretaker offering her love and protection even in the darkest of situations.
Exploring the material available in the Arthur Miller collection and others at the Ransom Center was an absolute dream come true. It may seem nerdy, but the chance to analyze and inspect original documents and manuscripts has always been on my academic bucket list. There is so much to learn not just about a work from its archive, but also about all the things surrounding it, including biographical information, history, and correlations to other texts and archives. While it can seem overwhelming at times, archival work is truly rewarding, and the Ransom Center offers the perfect opportunity to experience such rewards.