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Shakespeare scholar explores the Bard’s role in American culture

By Gabrielle Inhofe

James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, discusses Shakespeare in America at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 1, at the Harry Ransom Center. A reception and book signing follow, and books will be available for sale.

 

Shapiro’s newest work, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, explores Shakespeare’s role in American culture.  The anthology, published by the Library of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, comprises 71 pieces from American poets, politicians, essayists, novelists, and more.  It includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Cole Porter, Isaac Asimov, and James Agee.

 

The anthology aims to show that, although America declared its independence from Great Britain, Americans have adapted Shakespeare for use in cultural expression.   In a recent interview, Shapiro said, “American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity.”  The full interview may be viewed in the above video.

 

The Ransom Center holds three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and several quarto editions of the plays, along with prompt books, costume designs, and many other materials relating to productions of the plays from the eighteenth century to the modern era.

 

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Arthur Machen, Welsh horror fiction author, turns 150 this week

By Edgar Walters

The Welsh horror fiction author Arthur Machen turns 150 this week. Machen, an influential figure in the budding supernatural fiction scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is best known for his novella “The Great God Pan,” and for accidentally proliferating a legend about angels protecting the British army at the Battle of Mons in World War I.

The Ransom Center houses an extensive collection of items pertaining to the author, comprising 20 archival boxes of material. The Machen collection features handwritten drafts, page proofs with Machen’s notes, correspondence with family and friends including A. E. Waite and Oliver Stonor, and miscellaneous ephemera. Additionally, the Center’s Arthur Machen literary photography collection contains portraits of the author and his residences.

Machen’s accomplishments in fantasy and supernatural fiction inspired the admiration—and multiple pastiches—of a later generation of authors. “The Great God Pan” drew praise from such giants of the genre as H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. King credited it as the inspiration for his own novella N, proclaiming “Pan” to be “one of the best horror stories ever written, maybe the best in the English language.” Lovecraft, a contemporary of Machen’s, lauded “The Great God Pan” in his 1926 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” saying: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.”

The many who praised Machen often compared his writing to that of his American predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter to a fan, which resides in the Ransom Center’s Poe collection, Machen addresses the sentiment with humility: “A good many people have compared my work with that of Poe… This was an immense compliment to me—but quite an undeserved one.” But Machen was also quick to differentiate his writing from Poe’s. He continues, “[Poe’s] terrors are as distinct as possible,” whereas Machen’s own are “vague, irrational, something like the broken recollections of a nightmare.”

Indeed, Machen’s style is of a uniquely Welsh variety. His works frequently cite those of his fellow countrymen, including George Herbert, who published a book of religious poems in 1633. The storied and ominously beautiful Welsh landscape is a frequent setting for Machen’s writing, particularly his childhood home in Monmouthshire, a county in southeastern Wales of significance to Celtic, Roman, and medieval history. In a letter housed at the Ransom Center, Machen describes his obsession with the eerie scenery behind the rectory where he lived: “From the windows one looked across a strangely beautiful country to the forest of Wentwood, above the valley of the Usk. Beneath this forest, on the slope of the hill there is a lonely house called Bertholly, and to my eyes and imagination this house was a symbol of awe and mystery and dread.”

Machen paints a similar picture—one “written to fit Bertholly”—in the opening scene of “The Great God Pan,” which describes the view from a rogue surgeon’s unsettling house-turned-laboratory: “A sweet breath came from the great wood on the hillside above, and with it, at intervals, the soft murmuring call of the wild doves. Below, in the long lovely valley, the river wound in and out between the lonely hills.”

150 years later, Machen’s influence lives on. Stephen King novels are widely read, having sold 350 million copies worldwide. Supernatural horror dramas permeate popular culture, with successful television series like American Horror Story capitalizing on themes prominent in Machen’s own works. Were he to witness many of horror fiction’s modern incarnations, Machen might detect a familiar scene, reminiscent of the lonely house called Bertholly situated in the misty hills of Monmouthshire.

 

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Sangorski and Sutcliffe: The Rolls Royce of Bookbinding

By Kelsey McKinney

Jeweled bindings, which use metalwork, jewels, ivory, and rich fabrics to decorate a book, date back at least to the Middle Ages, but the form was revived around the turn of the twentieth century by the English binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe met in evening bookbinding classes in 1896. After a few years teaching bookbinding at Camberwell College of Art, they opened their own shop in a rented attic in Bloomsbury despite the difficult economic climate. Then on October 1, 1901, they founded Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Quickly, they became known for their sumptuous multi-colored leather book bindings complete with gold inlay and precious jewels. Their designs were intricate, bold, and creative. These early years were the golden age of the company. During this time Sangorski & Sutcliffe created dozens of fine bindings and grew in both popularity and notoriety. More than 80 Sangorski & Sutcliffe originals are housed in the Ransom Center’s collections.

Many of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe books at the Ransom Center are high-quality bindings but rather plain in appearance, while a few of them are quite ornate. A Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, for example, has semiprecious stones inlaid inside the front and back covers. An edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark is bound in leather with stingray onlay, and semiprecious stones are inlaid inside the front and back covers. Two works, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Hermit and James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfal, are handwritten in calligraphy on parchment by Alberto Sangorski with decorative borders and illuminated miniatures.

One famous book that the Ransom Center doesn’t hold is a book known as the Great Omar, which was a magnificent Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a narrative poem about the importance of living in the moment. Set in a Persian garden, the lyrical verses are filled with imagery of roses, celebrations of wine, and questions about mortality, fate, and doubt.

Sangorski & Sutcliffe was commissioned in 1909 to design the luxurious binding for the Rubáiyát. The front cover was to be adorned with three golden peacocks with jeweled tails, surrounded by heavily tooled and gilded vines. The Great Omar was the pride of Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Sadly, it was fated for disaster. The book was sent on the Titanic in 1912. The Great Omar went down with the ship and was never recovered. A second copy of the Rubáiyát was bound on the eve of World War II. This copy was kept in a bank safe vault to protect it. However, enemy bombing during the war destroyed the bank, the safe vault, and the second version of the Great Omar. Stanley Bray, the nephew of George Sutcliffe, created a third version of the book after he retired. This third version follows the original design and is housed in the British Library.

View a video that chronicles the story of the Great Omar, a story that was highlighted in the Ransom Center’s 2009 exhibition The Persian Sensation: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ in the West.

Sangorski drowned in 1912, but Sutcliffe continued the firm until his death in 1936. The business changed hands and names in the postwar years as interest in fine bindings declined. The firm was bought by Shepard’s in 1998, and the name of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was restored.

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Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

By Alyssa O'connell

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Visitors examine manuscripts on display at 'The King James Bible: Its History and Influence' exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith
Visitors examine manuscripts on display at 'The King James Bible: Its History and Influence' exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith
Graduate intern Laura Wellen places Albert Einstein's molecular kit in a display case for visiting students. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Graduate intern Laura Wellen places Albert Einstein's molecular kit in a display case for visiting students. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Graduate intern Chelsea Weathers places a lock of Edgar Allan Poe's hair in a display case for visiting students. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
Graduate intern Chelsea Weathers places a lock of Edgar Allan Poe's hair in a display case for visiting students. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.

Video encourages discovery at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

What’s the result of 565 minutes of interview recordings with 12 people, 480 minutes of b-roll footage, and nine separate music tracks? The answer is a ten-minute video that provides a broad overview of the Ransom Center’s collections, scholarship, conservation, exhibitions, and programs.

Watch the video to hear curators, students, members, and conservators discuss their work and learn how the Center shares and celebrates the creative process. From a Houdini movie poster to letters by Edgar Allan Poe, from Jack Kerouac’s notebook to Robert De Niro’s make-up stills, the video showcases the range of materials that are housed at the Center.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

By Elana Estrin

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.