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As a Singer scholar, the most striking discovery for me was the Center’s impressive holdings of unpublished correspondence, a testament to how prolific a letter writer Singer was.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

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.”