When the papers of a renowned author like Gabriel García Márquez arrive at the Ransom Center, there’s always a sense of excitement among staff, who take great pride in being able to preserve and make accessible materials that are unavailable anywhere else and that offer students and scholars entirely new insights into the author’s life and work. When the acquisition of such a notable Read more
Bajo las pinceladas finales de las grandes pinturas, debajo de la superficie, existen en ocasiones marcas de duda, líneas escondidas y colores suprimidos. Estas pinceladas casi invisibles se llaman pentimenti: arrepentimientos, rectificaciones, remordimientos. Me gusta la palabra pentimentiRead more
Underneath the final brushstrokes of great paintings, below the surface, there are sometimes marks of doubt, hidden lines, and suppressed colors. These nearly invisible brushstrokes are called pentimenti—repentances, compunctions, remorses. I like the word pentimenti because it evokes a sense of drawn-out struggle and internal debate. Read more
One of the delights of processing the papers of an author I enjoy reading is seeing evidence of the work taking shape, unfolding, and ultimately becoming the final story that is published. Revised drafts with lines crossed out and new passages added, early jottings of ideas and character names, original “working titles”…it’s as if I am being let in on a secret. Read more
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.
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.