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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As a Singer scholar, the most striking discovery for me was the Center’s impressive holdings of unpublished correspondence, a testament to how prolific a letter writer Singer was.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.

Denis Johnson papers open for research

By Amy Armstrong

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

"Lisztomania" hits Austin

By Elana Estrin

Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.
Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.

Long before Beatlemania, mid-nineteenth-century European audiences went wild for Franz Liszt, the Hungarian pianist/composer with shoulder-length hair. Women fought over his broken piano strings and collected his coffee dregs in glass vials. One woman retrieved Liszt’s discarded cigar stump from a gutter and encased it in a diamond-studded locket monogrammed “F.L.” To describe this phenomenon, German poet Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania.”

Liszt took the classical music world by storm. Considered the best pianist of all time by his contemporaries, Liszt essentially created the piano recital. He was the first pianist to emerge onstage from the wings, he introduced the custom of performing in profile because he didn’t want the piano to block his face, and his unmatched technique and virtuosic piano compositions pushed the boundaries of what the piano could do.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On November 18 and 19, the Austin Symphony celebrates both birthdays when Anton Nel performs Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 with the Austin Symphony.

Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.
Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.

Liszt is well represented in the Ransom Center’s collections. The musicians collection contains photos of Liszt, one of which Liszt autographed; two collections hold notebooks, manuscripts, and other materials for two Liszt biographies; and the Carlton Lake collection includes a signed manuscript of Liszt’s Gaudeamus igitur and 150 letters between Liszt and his daughters, Blandine and Cosima.

In these letters, spanning from 1850 to 1862, Liszt comes across as a caring but demanding father. It is clear that his daughters’ musical education is a priority. In an 1854 letter addressed to both daughters, Liszt tells Blandine and Cosima to make the most of the approaching winter, when the only teacher around will be their piano teacher:

“How goes it with your piano strumming? Do you practice? Is M. Seghers giving you regular lessons?… Music being the universal language, and even to a certain extent able to dispense with ideas, it is by no means my intention to end your studies with M. Seghers. But try to learn yourselves what even the best teachers cannot convey through lessons; and, until the day when I try to shape your talents to my liking, I kiss you most tenderly.”

Liszt also discusses the difficulty of navigating his relationships with other composers. In an 1858 letter to Blandine, Liszt writes about German composer and conductor Richard Wagner, who later married Cosima and with whom Liszt had a notoriously tumultuous relationship:

“With his immense genius which becomes more and more indisputable through all the foolish disputes he has to embark on, he unfortunately can’t manage to rid himself of the most trying domestic vexations, not to mention all the disappointments of his fantastic expectations. In this way he resembles those lofty mountains, radiant at their peaks, but shrouded in fog up to their shoulders…Tell me something of him in your next letter, for I love him with all my heart and admire him as Germany’s finest génie-artiste.”

While living in Rome in 1862, Liszt tells Blandine that he’s a little annoyed with French composer Charles Gounod:

“You know what sincere esteem and liking I have always had for the talent of Gounod, and how affectionate our personal relations were. Well! Can you believe that he spent more than six weeks in Rome without taking the trouble to come and see me, and that we didn’t once see one another?”

Through these letters, we catch a glimpse of Liszt’s life as a rock-star pianist, at its height in the 1840s. But Liszt’s letters from the 1850s reveal that he cherished solitude and was tiring of public life. On May 4, 1858, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visit with Cosima in Berlin:

“The wholly public life (less and less to my taste) that I had been obliged to lead these last two months made me feel all the more, by contrast, the charm and intimacy of her affection.”

On July 19, 1862, Liszt sent his last letter to Blandine, who died two months later at the age of 26 following childbirth: “The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling.”

Selected items related to Liszt will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby from Tuesday, November 15 through Sunday, November 27.

Fleur’s Fleurs: "Flower Game" reveals friends and their favorite flowers

By Jennifer Tisdale

The personal archive of publisher, author, and artist Fleur Cowles (1908–2009) has been donated to the Ransom Center. The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged, but an initial assessment confirms that the archive is as dynamic as Cowles was herself.

In 1983, Cowles celebrated the publication of The Flower Game, a book that shared hundreds of responses from friends around the world, all answering the question of what ten flowers they would like to take to a lonely island, assuming anything would grow there.

When soliciting friends, Cowles wrote, “The replies will determine the best loved flowers everywhere (I am writing to many places around the world).”

Participants ranged from European to Hollywood royalty, proving that Cowles didn’t limit herself to a continent nor to small social circles. A detailed chart documents the progress of Cowles’s initiative, revealing the friends invited to participate and the dates for solicitation and receipt.

Just as these responses provide insight into Cowles’s broad personal and professional network, the hundreds of typed and handwritten, signed responses represent just a small fraction of the correspondence found in the archive.

Below are highlights from a handful of the participants.

Cecil Beaton:
Photographer Beaton provided not only his list of flowers but also a handwritten note stating “Any large white orchid of any variety, as long as it is white.”

Candice Bergen:
Actress Bergen’s list included wisteria and night-blooming jasmine, and she elaborated on her selections: “Flowers to see and smell—by day and night—that bloom underfoot and hang overhead, plus a few insect escorts—butterflies and caterpillars, the odd ladybug—for company.”
November 28, 1981

Olivia de Havilland:
Actress de Havilland gave herself an hour to construct her list, which contained water lilies, blue bells, and peonies.

Douglas Fairbanks:
Actor Fairbanks’s list includes a reference to his trademark carnation. Topping his list at number one is “The dark red (or Harvard red) carnation, as I have worn one in my button-hole actually since I have had a button-hole.”
March 6, 1979

Jane Goodall:
The challenge of selecting flowers was difficult for anthropologist Goodall, who wrote, “The first 6 flowers were very easy to chose—but the last 4 were much harder. Not because it is difficult to think of 4 flowers one loves, but because it is difficult to reject others.”
February 27, 1979

Princess Grace of Monaco:
Listed among her favorite flowers, Princess Grace included bamboo, noting, “I hope you will accept bamboo although I have never seen it flower.”
March 7, 1979

David Hicks:
Among his list of flowers, designer and interior decorator Hicks includes datura, hyacinth, and tuberose.
July 8, 1980

Lady Bird Johnson:
Former First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson touted resilient flowers, claiming “Since I am an intensely practical person, I would choose flowers which give the most results for the least work and Zinnias and Marigolds and white Daisies would have to be on my list of favorite flowers. In my lifetime experience, I have found them to be so hardy and they give a great profusion of color over long weeks—I’ve always saluted their generosity!”
February 8, 1979

Laurence Olivier:
Actor Olivier’s list focused on roses. He wrote, “At the moment my gardening mind is filled with roses, so let me offer you a dozen of these.” Some of the varieties included Papa Meilland, Panorama Holiday (an exquisite pink, commonly named Beautiful Flower) and Blue Moon.
August 10, 1981

Nancy Reagan:
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s list included sweet peas, freesia, and violets.

Liz Smith:
Journalist Smith, a native Texan, elaborated on her list, “But my favorites, the ones I would have to have, are the lovelies—the wildflowers of Texas: Bluebonnets, winecups, Indian paintbrush, wild daisies, wild poppies—a collage of color and nostalgia.”
June 10, 1980

Rufino Tamayo:
Among some of the Mexican artist’s favorites, Tamayo includes the calla lily, hibiscus, and the yucca.
April 3, 1979

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.