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Fellows Find: Scholar explores eleventh-hour additions to George Bernard Shaw’s corrected proof of play “Saint Joan”

By Alex Feldman

Alex Feldman, an Assistant Professor in the English Department at MacEwan University, Alberta, visited the Ransom Center to consult the papers of George Bernard Shaw, Lillian Hellman, and Arthur Miller, among others. His research, supported by the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, focused on the dramatization of historical trials specifically those of Joan of Arc and the witches of Salem, in twentieth-century drama. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The Ransom Center’s cataloging card describes the volume on my desk as a “Rough Proof” of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan (1923). On the title page—the book is missing a cover—a faint pencil inscription in Shaw’s hand reads, “the old copy showing where the corrections come.” According to Brian Tyson’s account of the play’s development (The Story of Saint Joan), the revisions that appear in this copy date from Shaw’s holiday in Parknasilla, County Kerry, in September 1923, three months before the play’s New York premiere and six months prior to its first performance in London. The ink annotation below, made almost eight years later, reads, “This is an authentic ‘revise’ for the printer, or possible [sic] a copy of one made by me as a precaution against the loss of the other…”

 

What this copy and its corrections reveal is that a collective voice of great prominence in Shaw’s trial scene was added at a very late stage in the play’s composition. Here, in Shaw’s hand, “The Assessors” make their first appearance.

 

Sixty or so French and English clerics of assorted order and rank, the assessors fulfilled a quasi-juridical function at Joan’s trial, acting in a consultative capacity under Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who presided over the proceedings, and Jean Lemaitre, vicar of the Inquisition at Rouen and Joan’s second judge. The likelihood is that, whether intimidated, coerced, or otherwise incentivized, many of the assessors could be counted on to lean, as Cauchon directed, in favor of Joan’s excommunication (and subsequent execution.) But their presence in Rouen and their substantial role in the trial did indicate a serious regard for procedural fairness. According to the trial transcripts, Cauchon, eager to present them as incorruptible, described the assessors as “ecclesiastical and learned men, experienced in canon and civil law, who wished and intended to proceed with [Joan] in all piety and meekness.” Shaw, by contrast, though he deviates from the melodramatic tradition that portrays the assessors as “malignant scoundrels,” presents them as a shrill chorus of righteously indignant imbeciles.

 

Here’s a representative interjection, which affords some insight into the rationale behind Shaw’s eleventh-hour additions to the text. Under Cauchon’s interrogation, refusing to disavow the heavenly provenance of her “visions and revelations,” Joan declares that she will continue to be guided by God’s will. “In case the Church should bid me do anything contrary to the command I have from God,” Joan declares, “I will not consent to it, no matter what it may be.” Here, in the proof copy, the following insertion appears (see below image):

 

THE ASSESSORS [shocked and indignant] Oh! The Church contrary to

God! What do you say now? Flat heresy. This is beyond everything.

 

The playwright isolates the objectionable detail—“The Church contrary to God!”—in case the audience has missed it, and offers it up to the spectator’s scrutiny once again, via the medium of the assessors’ protest. Here and throughout, the assessors perform a mediating function, clarifying, for Shaw’s audience, the nature of Joan’s heresy, as contemporary clerics perceived it. (See images below for further examples.)

 

The development of this choric voice, identifying and decrying Joan’s seminal transgressions, adds weight to the anti-Joan sentiment building throughout the trial among the clergy. The assessors’ interjections are crucial to Shaw’s establishment of his protagonist’s perceived theological-legal guilt (in the identification of her heresy), but they are also instrumental in advancing Shaw’s argument that the world is always unprepared for the saints in its midst. A rabble of censorious mediocrities, these men are not evil—“there are no villains in the piece,” Shaw insisted—but they do contribute to the sense that middlebrow opinion (ever the object of Shaw’s critique) and unthinking conformity to the conventional canons of belief create insuperable obstacles to the recognition of genius.

 

I am grateful to Jean Cannon and all of the staff at the Ransom Center for their expert guidance, to Willow White for her timely assistance, and to Sos Eltis and Peter Raby for their support of my fellowship application.

 

Related content:

Research at the Ransom Center: Modernism and Christianity in the collections

A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

Video: Helmut Gernsheim plays 20 Questions with George Bernard Shaw

 

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Fellow’s Find: Annotations in early editions of “Canterbury Tales” show how readers connected with Chaucer’s text

By Hope Johnston

Hope Johnston is an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Baylor University. She received a grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment to study “Owner Markings in Early Printed Chaucer Editions” at the Ransom Center and shares some of her findings below.  The Ransom Center celebrates the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014-2015.

 

Geoffrey Chaucer’s early and enduring fascination among English readers has become a source of interest in itself among modern critics. The Harry Ransom Center is home to one of the largest collections of early printed Chaucer editions in the world. While other major collections might have 8 or 12, the Ransom Center has 36 copies of these extremely rare books. A grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment made it possible to study notes added to them by generations of readers since the time of their publication.

 

Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) grew up in a well-to-do merchant family. The macabre silver lining for those who survived the Black Death, which killed more than 30 percent of England’s population between 1348 and 1350, was the inheritance of wealth from lost family members and increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Chaucer is an example of this: he became a retainer in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster, which led in turn to service as a royal administrator. He pursued his career as a writer at the same time, and he gently pokes fun at himself in the House of Fame for being the medieval equivalent of a geek. He describes how he would spend his days poring over records at the custom house, then, “Instead of reste and newe thynges thou goost hom to thy hous anoon, and also domb as any stoon, thou sittest at another book, til fully [dazed] is thy look.” His travels to Italy for the king benefitted his literary career as he became familiar with the works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. One of his last works is the one modern readers know best, the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s literary achievements received acclaim during his lifetime and high praise from his literary successors. William Caxton made the Canterbury Tales one of the first books printed in English, ca. 1477. The first collected edition of Chaucer’s Works appeared in 1532, and it was so popular that it went through six editions by the start of the seventeenth century.

 

Knowing who owned the books can also help researchers map the dispersal of copies from London. One of the Ransom Center Chaucers contains pages from another copy of Chaucer’s Works at Trinity College, Cambridge: both belonged to members of the extended Grenville family during the early nineteenth century, and it appears that an owner took pages from a rather raggedy Trinity College copy to replace pages missing from the book now at the Ransom Center, which is in better overall condition. Two other Ransom Center Chaucers accompanied their owners on travels abroad even before their eventual arrival in Texas. One belonged to a sixteenth-century naval explorer, Sir Robert Dudley (1574–1649), who left his wife and daughters to elope with a younger woman to Florence, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life. “J. Abdy,” an Englishman traveling the Continent in 1650, acquired Dudley’s 1602 Chaucer edition and brought it back to England. Another copy of the Canterbury Tales, from the 1687 edition of Chaucer’s Works, accompanied Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), a nineteenth-century explorer, on a two-year trek through the Saharan Desert. Chaucer’s pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury, but all of the books in Texas have traveled much farther, and every book has a story about its journey from the Renaissance to the present day.

 

What can the surviving copies tell us about the reading habits of early owners? First, we have proof that Chaucer’s sixteenth-century audience included women as well as men based on the names of female readers inscribed in the books. Dedications also provide glimpses of the personal lives of the readers, such as the romantic promise made by Peter Wood when he gave his book as a gift: “Take in good worth from him that gives this present and his heart to you while he lives. Esteem not the gift after its value, but regard the goodwill of the giver, not as I now would but as I now may, to command him both night and day—Said Peter Woodde.” Expressions of affection accompany several of the books as they were passed along: “to my welbeloved brothers,” and another “to my loving frind Carls.” There is even a polite thank you note in one of the Ransom Center Chaucers: “Master George Manning, I thank you for your book. Mary Buckmore.”

 

Annotations also provide insights into the reasons why readers enjoyed Chaucer’s writing. One early owner of a book at the Ransom Center notes with satisfaction how Criseyde is laid low and cursed by the gods in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid: “A just rewared for untrothe,” the comment observes. Another reader takes delight in Chaucer’s caustic depiction of corrupt religious officials, writing the following under the woodcut of the Pardoner: “Chaucer in this prologue (as in diverse other places) very excellently describes the great craft and abominable deceit of all the popish prelates, varnished over with a fair face and color of feigned religion and false pretended holiness.” In another book, the margins are so full of phrases copied by hand from the printed text that the effect is similar to the overzealous use of a highlighter in a modern textbook: the reader has copied so many phrases that none of them truly stand out.

 

“Father Chaucer” was seen as a source of wisdom for Renaissance book owners, and it comes as no surprise that readers would choose to add favorite sayings from other sources to their copies of Chaucer’s Works. One writes, “Give me that worthy whose true judgment can distinguish ‘twixt the ill and honest man, and not be swayed by others…” Another book declares (rather disingenuously) that the owner will not pass judgment on lazy individuals:

he that may thryue and wyllnot
and his maysters commaundement fullfylnot
ffor to be hys Iuge I wyllnot
and he neuer thryue that skyllnot
Be me katerynne leke
He that may thrive and will not,
And his master’s commandment fulfill not,
To be his judge I will not
And he never thrive that skill [has] naught.
By me Katherynne Leke

 

A more serious contemplation can be found in another book, where Thomas Churchar expresses concern about being judged by unjust standards: “Though of the sort there be that feign and cloak their craft to serve their turn, shall I alas that truly mean for their offense thus guiltless burn; and if I buy their fault so dear that their untruth thus heat my fire, then have I wrong?” The vehemence of religious persecution meant that words could lead to spiritual and physical danger; wisdom could be a subjective matter. Comments by Catholics and Protestants show how they found echoes of their own Christian faith in his religious writings.

 

The Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Chaucer editions shows how the medieval poet continued to speak to readers through the centuries, and through owner markings, we can still hear the voices of early readers today.

Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

By Gabrielle Inhofe

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Robert De Niro’s “Silver Linings Playbook” costume ensemble on view

By Jill Morena

Robert De Niro received his seventh Academy Award® nomination for his supporting role in Silver Linings Playbook (2012). The Ransom Center holds De Niro’s collection of papers and costumes and props, which includes materials from each of his nominated roles in Cape Fear (1991), Awakenings (1990), Raging Bull (1980), The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and The Godfather Part II (1974). De Niro won Oscars® for his leading role in Raging Bull and his supporting role in The Godfather Part II.

One of the costume ensembles worn by De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook is on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby, alongside his character’s television remote controls and Philadelphia Eagles handkerchief. Below, Assistant Curator of Costumes and Personal Effects Jill Morena writes about the importance of costumes and props to actors.

One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.
One of Robert De Niro's costume ensembles worn in 'Silver Linings Playbook.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Costumes and props aid an actor to arrive at the mental and physical place of inhabiting and expressing the character he or she is portraying. They can also help illuminate the physical aspect and embodiment of performance.

In director David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Robert De Niro plays Pat Solitano, Sr., a passionate Philadelphia Eagles fan who is struggling to reconnect with his troubled son, Pat Jr., and support his family with a bookmaking enterprise after losing his job. Costume designer Mark Bridges chose and modified clothing that would express Pat Sr.’s lifelong love of the Eagles. He imagined and selected clothing pieces that Pat Sr. would have worn and cherished through the years, such as this classic cardigan in the team color, green, to which Bridges added a patch representing a vintage Eagles logo.

The television remote controls are Pat Sr.’s game day talismans, which he deploys with anxious precision. They must be arranged in particular configurations or held by certain “lucky” persons, with the belief that the Eagles will prevail if these actions are followed. The Eagles handkerchief is held firmly by Pat Sr. throughout the game, or placed over the remote controls. Pat Jr. overtly expresses that Pat Sr. suffers from OCD and takes game day superstitions too far. The film implies that Pat Sr.’s obsessions may have been the genesis of Pat Jr.’s own mental health struggles.

Related content:
“Martin Scorsese” exhibition features items from Ransom Center.

R. Colin Tait, a PhD candidate and University Fellow at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).

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.

Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

By Io Montecillo

Anne Tucker, curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, discusses her research on wartime photography collections found at the Ransom Center. Her work covers collections ranging from Roger Fenton’s documentation of the Crimean War to the World War I photographs of Jimmy Hare to Edward Steichen’s images of the American Navy in World War II.

“To be able to look at the objects of the time in depth is an irreplaceable experience for understanding a time in which you didn’t live,” Tucker said.

Tucker’s research, “We Bear Witness: Photographers Responding to War,” was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2012–2013 fellowship program.

Fellows Find: Analyzing the fight scenes from "Raging Bull"

By Leger Grindon

 

Paul Schrader’s outline for the 1980 film ‘Raging Bull.’
Paul Schrader’s outline for the 1980 film ‘Raging Bull.’

Leger Grindon is a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College where he has taught since 1987.  He is the author of Knockout:  the Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Hollywood Romantic Comedy:  Conventions, History and Controversies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Shadows on the Past:  Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Temple University Press, 1994).  Grindon spent time working in the Robert De Niro collection in July on a Robert De Niro Fellowship.  He is preparing an essay, “Filming the Fights in Raging Bull,” for a forthcoming critical anthology on the films of Martin Scorsese edited by Aaron Baker and to be published by Wiley-Blackwell.

The object of my research was the film Raging Bull (1980). Robert De Niro’s performance in the film earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. I was particularly interested in the evolution of the nine boxing sequences in the film. With that in mind, I carefully examined five different screenplay drafts that were among the De Niro papers. These drafts by Emmett Clary, Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese demonstrated the development in thinking about the filming of the various boxing sequences and how they would be integrated into the other dramatic action in the movie.

Jake La Motta, the subject of the film, had 106 professional fights, so the question arises as to why these particular fights were chosen? As a result of my research in the archive, I now have a much clearer picture of the development and meaning of these choices. I was also able to get a better picture of how the staging of the fights changed over the course of the various screenplays. One lasting impression of my work in the archive was that the filmmakers of Raging Bull never stopped making adjustments and changes in their conception of the film. The notes I reviewed on the adjustments made in the final shooting script were illuminating. Furthermore, I was able to look at the many storyboard drawings of the boxing sequences. Some of the boxing sequences have more than 100 drawings and diagrams that were made in preparation for the filming. One sequence has only one drawing. These drawings, diagrams for figure and camera movement, and other notes, give me considerable insight into the planning, conception, and execution of these sequences. I have also received more than 50 photocopied pages from various screenplay drafts and storyboard images from the archives. I will continue to consult them while writing my forthcoming essay.

Scholar discusses work in Knopf publishing collection

By Elana Estrin

Independent scholar John Thornton came to the Ransom Center last year to research his upcoming biography of Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the House of Knopf. The Ransom Center’s Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection comprises 1,526 boxes. To navigate this extensive archive, Thornton says, he emulated biographer Lytton Strachey: “[Strachey] would look at the sources like someone rowing out over a great sea of information and lowering his bucket here and there and pulling up samples and examining them. So I think that’s the best I can do: row my boat through the Knopf collections and see what turns up.”

Video highlights scholar’s work in Beckett collection

By Elana Estrin

Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.

Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.

Scholar discusses relationship between Jewish and African-American culture in the early twentieth century

By Elana Estrin

Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan
Cover of 'The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary' by Lori Harrison-Kahan

Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.

Q: What inspired you to write this book?

A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.

Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.

Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?

A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.

Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?

A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.

Q: What surprised you?

A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.

Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.

What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.

Q: How did you choose the title of your book?

A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.

In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.

Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?

A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.

Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?

A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.

Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?

A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.

On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.

This interview has been condensed and edited.