The Ransom Center’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland exhibition includes a commonplace book kept by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) with information about ciphers, anagrams, stenography, and labyrinths. As Kelsey McKinney, a former public affairs intern, writes, these “personal anthologies” functioned as “literary scrapbooks”. While these scrapbooks were “commonplace” in Victorian culture, modern means of communication fulfill the same desire for people to record and share their life experiences.
The exhibition—and Dodgson’s commonplace book—are on view at the Ransom Center through July 6, 2015.
Before the affordability of personal libraries, and before people were able to access the world’s knowledge through the Internet, readers and writers had to find reasonable ways to consolidate and store information that could be useful to them. There were no social media to help them aggregate and share stories, quotes, recipes, or images. That doesn’t mean they didn’t do exactly that. They created personal anthologies called commonplace books. Read more
This week, The University of Texas at Austin prepares its podiums and fireworks for Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the 131st in the school’s history. Countless graduating seniors can be seen in front of Littlefield Fountain, posing for photographs beneath the Tower, wearing gowns and mortarboards and smiles. Some smiles are of elation, others, somewhat apprehensive: as anyone who has graduated from college will probably agree, the event creates conflicting emotions—happiness at having achieved a milestone and uncertainty about what the future may hold. Commencement is a bittersweet time for the staff at the Ransom Center, as we send former undergraduate interns Alyssa O’Connell, Alyse Camus, Alexandra Bass, Elizabeth Barnes, Patrick Naeve, Emily Neie, and Kelsey McKinney out into the world to seek their—no doubt impressive—fortunes. Our interns have been valued colleagues and friends, and we will miss their energy, intelligence, and good company.
The navigation of this crossroads of school’s ending and adulthood’s beginning has resulted in a genre of address practiced each spring in colleges across the country: the commencement speech. In honor of our graduating seniors, we’ve investigated the myriad drafts of commencement speeches held in the manuscript collections at the Ransom Center, searching for advice that might help as the new alumni move forward to jobs, graduate schools, new cities, and unknown adventures.
Throughout the past few decades, writers and thinkers as disparate as Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Diane Johnson, Lillian Hellman, Nancy Wilson Ross, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Spalding Gray have advised graduates entering post-university life using a wide range of strategies, from the sprawling anecdote to the political call to action to the spiritual meditation. Some, like David Foster Wallace in his acclaimed 2005 speech at Kenyon College, have used humor (the diploma? “An eviction notice written in Latin”) to mesmerize the audience before presenting graduates with the difficult challenge of maintaining a heightened awareness of the choices they make each day, each hour.
Playwright Terrence McNally, speaking to a group of graduating artists at Julliard, encouraged a policy of absolute honesty with one’s self: to create beauty and meaning according to one’s own standards, not the standards of the outlying world.
While scribbled notes reveal the difficulties writers faced in settling on the right topic for a graduation speech (“The one thing you do not do at a graduation is talk about depressing matters,” wrote Norman Mailer), many of the manuscript collections reveal writers’ deep misgivings about being qualified with enough wisdom to address a graduating audience at all, or feeling overwhelmed by the importance of the task. Spalding Gray, for example, known for the self-effacing humor that made his autobiographical performances and writings so popular, assured graduating seniors in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, that, “My heroes are still the ones that do their best in the face of not knowing.” His speech emphasizes modesty and reverence for a large, mysterious world. Alongside this speech is a one-page document titled “The Graduation Speech I Never Made,” in which Gray questions his ability to recognize the importance of his diploma (he couldn’t remember where it was) or of a commencement ceremony (admitting he skipped his own). Accepting his spurious relationship to official commencement traditions, he encourages students thusly: “Feel free to make up a life. If you don’t like the one you have, make up another. This could be a very creative outlet.”
In a 1976 address to Mount Holyoke graduates, dramatist Lillian Hellman encouraged students to advocate free speech, individual liberties, and public service: “The highest compliment I can pay you, or any group that calls itself educated, is that you believe it is your duty to make reforms in this great country.” Hellman had famously been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities in the early 1950s.
Speaking to the all-female class at Bennett Women’s College in 1957, novelist Nancy Wilson Ross discussed the freedoms already achieved by women—the freedoms to vote, to receive higher education, to pursue careers, and to divorce—and encouraged the graduates to think deeply about the spiritual satisfaction that these freedoms bring. “Serenity comes from inside; it is not something you can lay on from the outside or acquire with objects and possessions and in a world like the present we are going to have to get it, if we get it at all, by interior disciplines.”
We wish to assure graduates that the Ransom Center archives bear witness to the fact that the individual road to “the eviction notice written in Latin” is not always easy. Often alongside drafts of commencement speeches, usually delivered late in a writer’s career, are papers that document a writer’s own struggles in college: citations for drinking, notices of academic probation, and letters home threatening to drop out of school. In the interest of discretion, we will restrain from naming names, but rest assured that even literary luminaries had their share of troubling transcripts, embarrassing yearbook photos, and take-home essays abysmally flunked. And the failures and successes that followed the diplomas? Too numerous too count. The individual roads to the podiums were certainly paved with highs and lows—and, perhaps most importantly, perseverance. We send the class of 2014 best wishes for the education that begins once commencement ends.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
Each academic year, the Ransom Center hosts undergraduate interns sponsored by various programs and departments at The University of Texas at Austin. For the 2012–2013 academic year, the Center is pleased to announce the addition of four Ransom Center–sponsored undergraduate intern positions. Students do not need to be affiliated with any particular program or department but must be full-time undergraduate students at The University of Texas at Austin. Application materials should be delivered to the Administrative Suite on the third floor of the Ransom Center by April 9, 2012. Below, current undergraduate intern Kelsey McKinney discusses her internship experience at the Ransom Center.
I fell in love with the Ransom Center at first sight. It was my freshman fall semester at The University of Texas at Austin, and my English class visited the Ransom Center to view Anne Sexton manuscripts in the reading room. In addition to the manuscripts, we saw Anne Sexton’s Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter. That typewriter showed me that the Ransom Center is a diverse place with hidden gems to discover. As an undergraduate intern, that belief has only been confirmed.
I began working at the Ransom Center in August 2011. At the time, The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925 exhibition had recently opened, and I was offered the opportunity to work on a related project with the Ransom Center’s own authors’ door. The door, located deep within the fifth-floor stacks, began as a tribute to the Greenwich Village bookshop door. Since the 1970s, visiting artists and writers have been invited to sign the door. As of today, the door has 212 signatures. I began a project to document all of the signatures, many of which verged on being illegible. Having horrible handwriting myself, the match was ideal. I spent hours with the door, and it allowed me to interact with author archives and Ransom Center staff. The work was exciting and fulfilling. Each time I deciphered another signature was just as exciting as the first. Today, 206 of the 212 signatures are identified.
There are so many collections and so many incredible projects to take on that there is something for everyone here. More than any specific project I have worked on during my time as an intern, I value most the knowledge I have gained through interaction with Ransom Center staff and scholars. Each day here, I learn more. As an intern in the public affairs department, I have researched and written blog posts. For these, I have learned from the Ransom Center collections and holdings. That knowledge, though, is only the beginning. Ultimately, the benefit of working with intelligent, interesting, and passionate people is that they share those passions willingly. I have learned about the evolution to digital photography, how to conserve a decaying book, how exhibitions are formed, and how collections are organized. Every person at the Ransom Center is a person to learn from. The greatest testament to this, I believe, is how unmanageably tall my book stack has grown during my time here. The tasks and projects I have completed have improved my writing and research skills, but it is the level of intelligent, jovial, and interesting conversation that has taught me the most.
The University of Texas at Austin not only provides an excellent education for its undergraduate students, but also works to couple that education with compelling undergraduate experiences. Ideally, these experiences encompass the core values of the University: learning, freedom, discovery, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. My time at the Ransom Center has developed within me every one of those values. I have learned more than I could ever describe, discovered dozens of new authors, encountered new ideas, and was granted the freedom to enjoy every step of the process. This undergraduate experience is one I would never trade.