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Meet the Staff: Rick Watson, Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Rick Watson started at the Ransom Center as one of the first graduate interns in 1989 and now oversees the graduate intern program alongside his work as Head of Reference Services for the Manuscript Collection. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in English from the University of Tulsa.

 

What does a typical day at the Ransom Center look like for you?

A typical day for me includes answering emails and phone calls about our collections, meeting with patrons in the reading room, and helping them find materials in our manuscript collections. I also direct them toward collection materials that they may not have known about. Many of our manuscript items are not cataloged to the item-level, or cataloged onsite, and therefore not online.

 

You started out at the Ransom Center as a graduate intern. Can you tell me about that experience and how your career has developed since then?

I started in 1989 as one of the first graduate interns. It was a very exciting time to be at the Ransom Center, and there were lots of new collections coming in. My career has taken a lot of ups and downs, but I’ve been able to stay at the Ransom Center since then. I worked with previous director, Thomas F. Staley, managing the Joyce Studies Annual, which is no longer in production. I started working in the performing arts collection as a research associate in 2001 or 2002, and the art collection in 2004,and that’s what led me to this position, Head of Reference Services for the manuscript collection.

 

What do you like most about working at the Ransom Center?

Well, what is there not to like? It’s just a constant discovery. There is such a wealth of material here, and I like being able to help people find things. Whether they are doing genealogical research or biographies or theoretical or critical studies—when you have over 42 million manuscripts in your collection, there is a nugget in there for everybody. I was told that I would know if I liked it from the day I stepped inside, and I have. I really appreciate being here every day.

 

Is there a favorite collection you have worked with here?

There are so many! That’s a tough question, but I’ve been drawn to a couple different collections lately. One is the Peter Matthiessen collection. I’ve been looking at the notebooks for his travel journal, The Snow Leopard, which documents a fascinating trip through the Himalayas, a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.

 

Also, the J. M. Coetzee archive has been getting a lot of use, so I’ve been trying to familiarize myself with it. The wealth of materials in that collection is just amazing, but one thing in particular I like is a list of banned books from when he was teaching in South Africa. It’s an amazing list of books. It’s not just English and American literature, but it’s literature from all over the world. I usually pull that one out for classes that visit.

 

Have you read any on that list?

Yes, I have! A few. It’s actually a really good reading list.

 

Tell us a little about managing the graduate intern program.

Typically we get around 30 to 40 applications per year to fill six positions. Each graduate intern is enrolled full time in a University of Texas at Austin’s Master’s program or a Ph.D. program, and we get people from the Information School, American Studies, English, Radio-Television-Film, Art History—really all over the place. The graduate interns amaze me because they are some of the smartest people I know. They are all really good in their own field, great learners, and super valuable to us in Research Services. They’re hilarious too—just great people to work with.

 

Have you lived anywhere else outside Texas?

Most of my family is from the Pittsburgh area of Pennsylvania, where I was born, but my parents relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma. After living there for a while, I moved to the Austin area, and I’ve been here ever since. I do love to travel, though!

 

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Well, for the past two years, a lot of my time has been spent with my wife and my little girl who is about to be two. It has been a great adventure and a lot of fun. We like to get outdoors as much as possible, and now that she’s a little older, we’ve started to get into rock climbing again and a little bit of camping. We have a long agenda of things we want to do, but most of it includes travel and being outdoors. Introducing our daughter to the outdoors is really important to us.

 

Have you always been interested in rock climbing?

Yes, I’ve been part of the rock-climbing community since I moved to Austin. I’ve done a lot of volunteer work, and I’m still on the board of the Friends of Enchanted Rock. I was a rock-climbing instructor and guide for many years and then co-owner and operator of a rock-climbing guide service for a little over 10 years. I started climbing when I lived in Oklahoma. There are rocks in the Midwest, believe it or not.

 

Have you gotten to travel anywhere interesting for your outdoor adventuring?

Most of my interesting travel involves rock climbing. I spent some intense times in Mexico, California, Colorado, and various other places. I also love spending time at Padre Island National Seashore, which is about 65 miles of undeveloped barrier island in South Texas. It’s a wonderful, wild place.

 

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Acclaimed writer Ian McEwan’s archive acquired

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer Ian McEwan (b. 1948), one of the most distinguished novelists of his generation.  The archive documents McEwan’s career and includes early material from his childhood and adolescence, as well as his earliest abandoned stories dating from the late-1960s and early 1970s. The archive includes drafts of all of McEwan’s later published works including his critically acclaimed novels Amsterdam and Atonement up through On Chesil Beach and Solar.

 

McEwan composed his novels partly in longhand, typically in uniform green, spiral-bound notebooks, and party on the computer. After an initial draft, he would transfer the entire text to a computer, printing out multiple drafts, which he would revise further by hand. McEwan’s Booker Prize-winning novel Amsterdam is represented in the archive in its earliest form as a handwritten notebook, followed by two further revised drafts. McEwan often notes details of composition in these drafts, including their completion or revision dates.

 

“The writer tends to forget rapidly the routes he or she discarded along the way,” McEwan said, commenting on his manuscripts. “Sometimes the path towards a finished novel takes surprising twists. It’s rarely an even development. For example, my novel Atonement started out as a science fiction story set two or three centuries into the future.”

 

Read a Q&A with McEwan, where he shares insights about his archive, writing process, and more.

 

McEwan’s archive will reside at the Ransom Center alongside the archives of many of his peers and contemporaries, including his longtime friend Julian Barnes, as well as J. M. Coetzee, Doris Lessing, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Tom Stoppard. The McEwan materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

 

McEwan will visit Austin and speak at the university on Sept. 10. More details about this event will be posted here later this summer.

 

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Ransom Center to host more than 80 scholars in fellowship program’s 25th year

By Bridget Ground

The Ransom Center will support more than 80 research fellows for 2014–2015, the 25th anniversary of the fellowship program. Since the program’s inception, the Center has awarded fellowships to more than 900 scholars from around the world.

 

The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.

 

The 2014–2015 fellowship recipients, more than half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “J. M. Coetzee and the Idea of the Literary,” “Imagined Heartlands: Post-Postmodern Literature and the American Midwest,” “The Films of Powell and Pressburger,” “Norman Hall: Photo-Editing and International Connections in Mid-Twentieth Century Photography,” and “Dawn of a New Day: New York City Between the Fairs.”

 

The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.

 

The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, and The University of Texas at Austin’s Office of Graduate Studies, Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, and program in British Studies.

 

The Ransom Center will host eight additional scholars in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) International Placement Scheme (IPS). This program, funded and administered by the U.K.-based AHRC, offers early-career researchers and AHRC-funded doctoral students from U.K. universities the opportunity to enhance their research with a fellowship at one of its six participating host institutions.

 

Image: Cover of Eric Gill’s Twenty-five Nudes (1938; reprint, London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951); James Salter’s notes on possible titles for his novel Light Years, ca. 1974–5; cover of Paul Hayden Duensing’s 25: a quarter-century of triumphs and disasters in the microcosm of the Private Press & Typefoundry of Paul Hayden Duensing (Kalamazoo, Mich.: The Private Press and Typefoundry of Paul Hayden Duensing, 1976); signaled message from the Royal Air Force to John Pudney requesting a poem for the organization’s 25th anniversary, March 24, 1943; photograph of 25th Street Theater, Waco, ca. 1962.

 

Research at the Ransom Center: “To Cape Town and back, via Mongolia”

By Abigail Cain

A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.
A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of J. M. Coetzee’s 1981 novel Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting—an imaginary empire, one lacking a specified place and time. Yet, when Coetzee penned the first draft of the novel, it was set in Cape Town, South Africa.

David Attwell, a Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K., provides an in-depth look at the development of Coetzee’s third novel. He visited the Ransom Center this year to explore Coetzee’s archive.

Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town, enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Paper Conservator Jane Boyd treats a scrapbook with newspaper clippings of cricket stories from the J. M. Coetzee papers for the summer exhibition “Literature and Sport,” which opens June 11. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Paper Conservator Jane Boyd treats a scrapbook with newspaper clippings of cricket stories from the J. M. Coetzee papers for the summer exhibition “Literature and Sport,” which opens June 11. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Fellowship recipient Teal Triggs views photographs from the Fleur Cowles archive as part of her research project on Flair magazine. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Fellowship recipient Teal Triggs views photographs from the Fleur Cowles archive as part of her research project on Flair magazine. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Students from the Butler School of Music set up for Saturday's concert crawl of Austin's Cultural Campus. Photo by Sydney Reed.
Students from the Butler School of Music set up for Saturday's concert crawl of Austin's Cultural Campus. Photo by Sydney Reed.
Students from the Butler School of Music perform in the atrium of the Ransom Center as part of a music crawl of Austin’s Cultural Campus. Photo by Ryan Goodland.
Students from the Butler School of Music perform in the atrium of the Ransom Center as part of a music crawl of Austin’s Cultural Campus. Photo by Ryan Goodland.

J. M. Coetzee’s association with The University of Texas at Austin

By Jennifer Tisdale

April 1, 1965, letter to J. M. Coetzee from C. L. Cline, Chairman of the Department of English at The University of Texas.
April 1, 1965, letter to J. M. Coetzee from C. L. Cline, Chairman of the Department of English at The University of Texas.

J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

Coetzee’s archive now resides in the Ransom Center and is available for research.
Below, Coetzee writes of his association with The University of Texas at Austin.

Somewhere among the boxes of letters included in this collection is one from the Chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas to John M. Coetzee at an address in Surrey, England. It is dated April, 1965; it thanks young John for his application to come and study in Austin and is pleased to offer him a teaching assistantship at a salary of $2,000 per annum while he works toward a graduate degree.

Thus was initiated my association with The University of Texas, an association by now nearly half a century old. In the 1960s the Ransom Center already had a certain fame, worldwide, for having struck out into a new field for collectors, the field of living authors and their manuscripts. The word “brash” tended to find its way into comments on the Ransom Center and its activities, as did the phrase “oil money.”

I am not sure that such supercilious attitudes would find much traction nowadays. The present-day Ransom Center has custody of one of the world’s great collections of twentieth-century manuscripts, a collection that will bring scholars to Texas for many years to come.

It is a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here.

I write these words from my home on the south coast of the Australian mainland, an area prone to destructive bushfires. It is a secondary source of satisfaction to me that, even if this house itself goes up in flames, the work of my hands will have been whisked away to a place of safety in the vaults of the Ransom Center.

A glimpse into J. M. Coetzee’s bound drafts: "Life & Times of Michael K"

By Molly Schwartzburg

The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.

The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.

Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.

This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.

But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.

Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.

The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.

 

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Coetzee’s ties to Texas date back almost 50 years

By Alicia Dietrich

The acquisition of Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s archive by the Ransom Center is a fitting tribute to the writer’s long-standing ties to The University of Texas at Austin and, in a way, brings his relationship with the University full circle.

Coetzee enrolled in the University in 1965, and he earned his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages in 1968. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

In a 1984 essay for the New York Times titled “How I Learned About America—and Africa—in Texas,” Coetzee writes about working in the collections at the Ransom Center:

“In the Manuscripts Room of the library, I found the exercise books in which Samuel Beckett had written “Watt” on a farm in the south of France, hiding out from the Germans. I spent weeks perusing them, pondering the sketches and numbers and doodles in the margins, disconcerted to find the well-attested agony of composing a masterpiece had left no other traces than these flippancies. Was the pain perhaps all in the waiting, I asked myself, in the sitting and staring at the empty page?”

Once the Coetzee archive is cataloged, students will have access to Coetzee’s own papers for scholarly work and perhaps will explore some of these same questions about the writer’s process.

Coetzee was on campus during the Charles Whitman shooting in 1966, and in the same essay, he recalls hiding under a desk during the ordeal. He also recalls happier times on campus spent with cricket teammates and traveling to College Station to play the Aggie team, also composed mostly of students from colonial countries. Coetzee lived in Austin with his wife during those three years, and their son Nicholas was born here.

Coetzee returned to the University as a guest of the linguistics department and again in 1995 to teach students in the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers. Student evaluations from his time at the Michener Center are included among his papers, and the anonymous responses are almost unanimous in their praise.

“John Coetzee has an astonishing mind,” wrote one student.

“I feel very fortunate to have had him as a teacher,” wrote another. “His intellect is world-class. I admire his writing as well as his teaching. He parses meaning with rather exquisite precision, displays humor, never loses the larger sense. He has high standards but was always approachable. He guided classroom discussions with a light hand—they were spontaneous but not chaotic. He was, in short, very great—interesting and interested.”

The Texas Exes, the alumni organization for The University of Texas at Austin, awarded Coetzee the Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2004.

Coetzee returned to the University once more in May 2010 to give a talk as part of the Graduate School‘s 1910 Society Lecture Series, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the school.

In his talk, Coetzee said of his time in Austin: “My free hours I spent in the library, which I cannot praise more highly than to say it did not know all the treasures it contained.”

Scholars, researchers, and students will no doubt be mining the Coetzee archive in the coming years in search of the many treasures that it contains.

 

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Nobel Prize-winning writer J. M. Coetzee's archive acquired

By Alicia Dietrich

A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.
A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Nobel Prize-winning writer and University of Texas at Austin alumnus J. M. Coetzee. Spanning more than 50 years, the archive traces the author’s life and career from 1956 through the present.

“My association with The University of Texas goes back almost half a century,” said Coetzee. “It is very satisfying to me to know that my papers will find a home at the Ransom Center, one of the world’s great research collections.”

Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the university, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

Coetzee is an acclaimed novelist, academic, and literary critic. Influenced by his personal history of growing up in South Africa, he writes with strong anti-imperialist feelings. He has published 13 books, including Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999. Both novels received the Man Booker Prize, awarded each year for best full-length novel, making Coetzee the first author to receive the award twice.