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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

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Biographer mines Ransom Center’s collections to uncover “The Unknown Henry Miller”

By Alicia Dietrich

Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.

 

Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.

 

The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.

 

The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.

 

The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.

 

Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.

 

Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.

Editor of “Reading Magnum” explores Magnum Photos collection

By Steven Hoelscher

Steven Hoelscher, editor of Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World, will discuss the book at The Contemporary Austin tonight in an event hosted by Austin Center for Photography, University of Texas Press, and The Contemporary.

 

The arrival in December 2009 of some 200,000 press prints from Magnum Photos’s New York bureau represented a remarkable opportunity for scholarship—and a substantial challenge. Although Magnum’s photographers had received considerable individual attention and lavish coffee table books have reproduced their iconic images, no scholarly work to date had assessed the photo agency’s visual archive. Important retrospectives have been published, but their textual brevity and the fact that the photo agency itself produced them suggested the opportunity for a critical, independent study.

 

Thus, the time seemed ripe to dig into the collection, to see what’s there, and to consider how the photographs fit into a larger cultural history. Here, of course, is where the challenge arises. How to approach the photo collection? What sort of organizational frameworks would seem to be most appropriate? What should the resulting publication look like? I spent roughly six months combing through the 1,300 archival boxes to find answers to these questions.

 

During this preliminary research, several things occurred to me.  First, while nearly limitless possibilities of scholarly frameworks existed, a half dozen themes kept emerging as I studied the contents of the archival boxes. War and conflict, of course, was important, but so too was portraiture and geography. What’s more, cultural life, social relations, and globalization stood out as recurring themes.

 

Second, it became immediately evident that three years would not be nearly long enough for me alone to take on such a project, and it was always my intention for the volume to be published in conjunction with the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, which was curated by Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger. The book would necessarily be one of collaboration. Here, I was fortunate to be joined by seven distinguished scholars for this project. They are trained in a range of academic fields—art history, journalism, literature, cultural history, geography, cultural studies, communications, and visual studies—for the simple reason that no one perspective can adequately encompass the Magnum archive’s reaches. Each contributor spent considerable time with the collection at the Ransom Center, and each brings his or her unique point of view to the collection’s materials.

 

What each chapter shares is a concern for historical and cultural context that is so often missing when photographs are disconnected from their original settings.

 

Finally, I wanted the book to reflect the dual nature of photographs: that they were both physical objects and the bearers of compelling imagery. With this in mind, two sets of works—bookends, if you will—surround each chapter. I included a set of “Notes form the Archive,” which emphasizes the materiality of the photograph and traces its trajectory, from annotated press prints to distribution to eventual publication. A “Portfolio” then follows each chapter, illustrating something of the depth and range of the images carried by a photograph.

 

Putting this book together has been a real labor of intellectual love. The deeper I dug into the Magnum Photos collection, the more impressed I was by the depth, range, and artistry of the contents. It’s my hope that Reading Magnum reflects something of the collection’s power.