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Poe Mania: Can you out-decode Poe?

By Alicia Dietrich

In 1839, while working as an editor for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe encouraged his readers to send in cryptographs, or short encrypted texts, that he would then attempt to solve. He explained that the “ciphers” should be simple substitution ciphers, that is, readers should substitute a particular symbol for a particular alphabet letter every time it appeared in a statement. The readers responded, sending, by Poe’s estimate, “nearly one hundred ciphers.” He claimed to have solved all but one, and that one, he argued, was not a true cipher.

Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. In this story, the character William LeGrand must solve a puzzle to find a buried treasure.

Learn more about how to solve cryptographs and then practice your decoding skills on the Poe Project website.

Poe Mania: Be the first to see photos of the Poe exhibition

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center Galleries have been closed the past month for the installation of the Ransom Center’s fall exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.

The exhibition doesn’t open until next Tuesday, but you can visit our Flickr page to see behind-the-scenes photos of curators and staff preparing the galleries and to get a peek at some of the items that will be in on display.

Apply for a fellowship at the Ransom Center and "watch works develop in their different stages"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces its application process for the more than 50 fellowships that are awarded annually to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must apply by February 1, 2010, and demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Recent fellow Daniel Worden, who received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, describes his experience at the Ransom Center:

This summer, I worked in the Norman Mailer papers at the Harry Ransom Center, through the support of a Dorot Foundation Fellowship. This research trip allowed me to begin work on my new book project, “Cool Realism: The New Journalism and American Literary Culture.” This book will focus on literary non-fiction from the 1960s and 1970s that adopts techniques from fiction writing. Norman Mailer is key to this project, and the Ransom Center’s collections proved to be a perfect starting point for my research.

Since I was primarily interested in Mailer’s non-fiction writing, I was able to focus the first two weeks of my research on a few key texts, namely, The Armies of the Night, The Fight, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. On my first day at the Ransom Center, I was thrilled to find an early introduction to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s book about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, that compared his journalistic method to Truman Capote’s, as realized in In Cold Blood. Mailer argued in this draft introduction that he relies less on fact and more on “mood” in documenting events. It is precisely this type of comparison, and the resulting ideas about what constitutes “true” writing and meaningful journalism, that I was hoping to find.

Working at the Ransom Center was a joy. The curators and librarians were incredibly helpful, and I was able to accomplish much during my stay because the environment at the Ransom Center is so conducive to archival work. As an added bonus, Austin is such a vibrant city—there was always something to do after the reading room closed.

Watch the video of Worden discussing his research and describing how one “can watch works develop in their different stages.”

Poe Mania: Parody Poe for the chance to win

By Alicia Dietrich

“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

Written by: Alicia Dietrich

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. The tradition of writing parodies of “The Raven” dates back at least as far as 1853, when Graham’s Magazine published “The Vulture: An Ornithological Study.” Its first stanza begins:

Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O’er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping
Suddenly there came a ripping whipping, at my chamber’s door.
“’Tis the second-floor,” I muttered, “flipping at my chamber’s door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!”

Visit the Poe Project website to compose your own parody of “The Raven,” and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win Poe-centric prizes.

Items from Dress Up: Portrait and Performance in Victorian Photography

By Harry Ransom Center

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)<br />The Rising of the New Year, 1872<br />Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Rising of the New Year, 1872
Albumen print

Julia Margaret Cameron did not take up photography until she was 48 and the last of her children had left for college. Over the next 14 years she made over 1,200 images. She promoted her photography as fine art through sales and exhibitions, once writing that her passion was “to ennoble photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and the ideal and sacrificing nothing of Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” Cameron was more artistically ambitious than her predecessors, and the bulk of her work consists of allegorical, mythological, literary, and Biblical illustrations, using as models friends, friends of friends, neighbors, family, and servants.

Cameron’s technique also distinguished her from her peers. By using a lens with a short focal length, she produced images in which only a small region of the sitter’s face would be in focus. Although this technique evolved from her early, awkward attempts at mastering photographic technique, she embraced and exploited this style for maximum expressive effect.

This was a controversial decision, however, as many critics felt she was turning her back on photography’s unique ability to capture detail. H. P. Robinson, her art photographer colleague and competitor, was blistering in his criticism, writing, “It is not the mission of photography to produce smudges. If studies in light and shade only are required, let them be done in pigment or charcoal, with a mop, if necessary, but photography is pre-eminently the art of definition, and when art departs from its function it is lost.”

T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints
T. A. RUST (active 1900s) The Game of Life, ca. 1895 Albumen prints

T. A. RUST (active 1900s)
The Game of Life, ca. 1895
Albumen prints

The tableau vivant, or “living picture,” was one of the most popular forms of amateur performance and entertainment for the middle and upper classes during the nineteenth century. Tableaux required performers, dressed in suitable costumes, to arrange themselves in imitation of a literary or historical character, scene, or work of art. Tableaux were performed both privately and publicly, in venues ranging from aristocratic drawing-rooms for invited guests to large public theaters in front of a paying audience.

The Victorians’ interest in tableaux vivants carried into the popular imagery of the day. Commercial photographers who predominantly spent their time taking portrait photographs would, on occasion, produce genre-type scenes and other narrative images.

These types of images were most commonly produced as stereographs, which were collected by the thousands by Victorian households. These images were also issued in larger sizes, such as this one by T. A. Rust. It is unlikely that this photograph documents actual tableaux performed for an audience, as other photos in the exhibition with identical backdrops and floors would indicate that these were taken in Rust’s photographic studio.

“The Game of Life” is a moralizing tale of human existence, yet its humor playfully undermines the seriousness of its theme.

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives
Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901) The Lady of Shalott, 1861 Albumen combination print from three negatives

Henry Peach Robinson (English, 1830-1901)
The Lady of Shalott, 1861
Albumen combination print from three negatives

H. P. Robinson was one of the most prolific and vocal proponents of art photography in nineteenth-century Britain. One of his first attempts to link photography with literature was Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shalott.” In the poem, a lady is sequestered in a tower on an island near Camelot. She is forbidden to look directly outside, so she can only see the world through its reflection in a mirror. When Lancelot passes by one day, the temptation is too great and she looks directly out the window. A curse falls upon her, and she climbs into a boat, lies down, and sings to her death. This work was to become the most pivotal of Robinson’s career.

Robinson’s Shalott declared early in the medium’s history that photography could illustrate and interpret poetry, that is the imaginary. Critics felt otherwise, saying that the subject was beyond the appropriate boundaries for photography. After the negative reception to this work, Robinson vowed to stick to themes of “the life of our day,” and the rest of his career is dominated by genre themes, as is represented in his other photographs in this exhibition. Robinson’s photograph was also controversial because of his technique of combining multiple negatives to form the composition. Robinson and his supporters argued that any means should be available to a photographer in making a work of art (it was the final product that mattered, they argued, not the manner in achieving it). The majority of critics, however, argued that photography’s chief asset was its unique capability to accurately depict nature.

For these critics, slight-of-hand techniques such as combination printing were deceitful and inappropriate. Although Victorian England often embraced the blending of fiction with truth, it did not always approve of this approach when applied to photography.

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)
Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895) Highlanders, 1856 Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Joseph Cundall (English, 1818-1895)
Highlanders, 1856
Albumen print from The Photographic Album for the Year 1857 (London: Photographic Exchange Club, 1857)

Printer, publisher, and photographer Joseph Cundall produced some of the most attractive popular illustrated books of the 1850s and ’60s, as well as several important early photographic publications. He was a founding member of the Photographic Society of London and, in 1871, was sent by the British government to Bayeux to organize the first photographic record of the famous tapestry.

The Photographic Exchange Club, which published the album containing this photo, was a club comprised of amateur photography enthusiasts who promoted the technological development of photography by trading prints. Each image in the album is accompanied by detailed information regarding its process and chemistry.

In 1856, on the instructions of Queen Victoria, Cundall took photographs of these soldier heroes, newly returned from the Crimea.



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Texas House investigates purchase of rare books

By Harry Ransom Center

In celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, the Ransom Center has published Collecting the Imagination: The First Fifty Years of the Ransom Center, a richly illustrated chronicle of its history, which is available in the ONLINE STORE.  The following is an excerpt from Collecting the Imagination.

On April 19, 1943, the Texas House of Representatives voted 99 to 17 to order an investigation into the 1939 purchase of nine rare books by The University of Texas.  The resolution, submitted by C. S. McLellan of Eagle Lake, charged that Read more