Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.
Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.
The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.
The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.
The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.
Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.
Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.
Dariusz Pachocki, an assistant professor in Polish studies at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin in Poland, worked in the Bolesław Leśmian papers at the Ransom Center in 2013. While here, he investigated the provenance of the collection and pieced together the long journey the papers took before their arrival at the Ransom Center in 1970, and below, he writes about that journey. Pachocki’s research was supported by the Edwin Gale Fellowship.
Manuscripts of many outstanding writers are stored in the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, and there are even archival materials from writers who never visited the United States and never wrote anything in English. For example, the Ransom Center has a great collection of manuscripts by Polish writer Bolesław Leśmian. How did the manuscripts of one of Poland’s greatest writers end up in the United States? This is the short story of a long and complex tale that brought these manuscripts to Texas.
Bolesław Leśmian (1877–1937) came from an assimilated family of Jewish intelligentsia. In importance, he ranks with other such poets of his time as T. S. Eliot or Rainer Maria Rilke. However, his work was appreciated only at the end of his life. Scholars of literature have described him as a great poet with a brilliant style of language, which he used skillfully in his creation of numerous neologisms. A man of great culture, he combined old philosophies with modern skepticism. He wrote fables, essays, and dramas, among other things, but poetry was the most important. Though he published only three books of poems during his lifetime, he influenced the history of Polish literature. Few manuscripts have been preserved, so the collection at the Ransom Center is very important for Polish culture.
The journey of the manuscripts begins in 1944 during the Warsaw Rising, a rebellion during World War II that was violently supressed by Nazi Germany. Many civilians, including Leśmian’s wife Zofia Chylińska and his daughter Maria, left the city because of military action. Leśmian had died two years before the outbreak of World War II, and so his wife and daughter were forced to manage on their own during the occupation. Before the women left the city, Chylińska divided his literary output into two parts and placed them in suitcases. The first included manuscripts of literary works that had been published, and the other contained manuscripts that were unknown and unpublished. The women did not know what their fate would be, and so they took with them only the most necessary and most valuable items. They could not take both suitcases, so they decided to leave the suitcase with published manuscripts in the basement of their acquaintance. Leśmian’s daughter Maria recalled these events after the war in her memoir:
“Notebooks in a black cover made from oilcloth. Lost manuscripts. It was impossible to save them all and take from the burning house. Mother was weak from despair. She could not lift a leaf from the ground. But Warsaw was burning. And despite this I carried bulging suitcase on Rakowiecka Street to the house which was not in flames. It was opposite to the fortress improvised by Germans. There, on the ground floor, lived our friend. Her surname was Czarnocka. We placed the manuscripts in her basement […]. These were published literary works.”
The second half of Leśmian’s works travelled with his family on a long and dangerous journey:
A few essays, unfinished poems had a similar fate as their owners, they travelled with us to Mauthausen concentration camp. They, through work camps, got to another hemisphere. I remember when I was carrying them. I was exhausted, with terrible pain of heart, after three days and nights of trip with a sealed train. We were surrounded by soldiers with torches. We climbed the hill, we carried valuable bundle with difficulty, in the light of these torches whose scrappy, fiery flames reflected darkness of the night. It was in August 1944.
The German Mauthausen concentration camp was built in Austrian territory. As in other concentration camps, people from across Europe were exterminated, and inmates who survived lived in unimaginable conditions. The most important thing was to survive, and in such circumstances, bread outranks manuscripts. However, Leśmian’s wife and daughter did not part with the manuscripts. They protected them as their most valuable treasure.
After a few months of appalling living conditions, they were freed by the American Army in May 1945. Starving and ailing, they made it to Italy with the aid of the International Red Cross, and they decided not to return to Poland because the Soviet Army was not only a liberator but also an occupier.
After World War II, Poland was under the influence of the Soviet Union. It had been placed within the communist bloc, where thousands of soldiers maintained order. Consequently, many members of the intelligentsia—writers, artists, or soldiers, and Leśmian’s family—chose not to return to communist Poland. After leaving Italy, Chylińska and Maria Leśmian lived for some time in London, where they published some of the saved manuscripts. Soon after that, they emigratedto Argentina and settled in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. While it seemed like the women and manuscripts would be safe there, both women had problems finding jobs, and they experienced poverty and suffered from illnesses. Also, despite being treated with care and reverence, the manuscripts were deteriorating because of the damp climate in Argentina.
The women could not afford professional conservation, and so they made a dramatic decision to sell the materials both to save themselves from starvation and to preserve the manuscripts. Polish intelligentsia emigrants and people connected with Polish culture were interested in the materials, but no agreement could be reached with Polish institutions, even though Chylińska’s health and the condition of the manuscripts were worsening.
Finally, a Polish antiquarian bookseller from New York, Aleksander Janta-Połczyński, was travelling throughout Argentina, met with Leśmian’s family, and was interested the manuscripts. He searched for an institution that could purchase the manuscripts and preserve them properly. When that proved impossible, he decided to pay for them with his own funds in 1967. Sadly, Leśmian’s wife had died three years earlier.
The antiquarian bookseller came to an agreement with the then-Humanities Research Center (now the Ransom Center). House of El Dieff auction house brokered the transaction, and after a long journey across three continents, the manuscripts arrived in Austin in 1970.
This collection of manuscripts includes seven literary works that are very interesting. While there is evidence that the family rescued more manuscripts from burning Warsaw, a considerable part of them seem to have been lost. However, the manuscripts that survived are perfectly protected and available to scholars interested in the literary output of Leśmian. The Ransom Center’s collection is now the largest collection of manuscripts of Bolesław Leśmian in the world. However, that could change one day if the other suitcase that was hidden in the neighbor’s basement resurfaces. The building survived bombardment and all military actions, but the suitcase has never been found.
Biographer Judith Major’s recent book Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer: A Landscape Critic in the Gilded Age (University of Virginia Press) highlights the work of the pioneering landscape critic, and Major quotes from one of the letters in the Ransom Center’s Elizabeth and Joseph Pennell papers for her book. Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) was one of America’s premier etchers and illustrators. He found a commercial success as a magazine illustrator, turning out well-received renderings of American and, later, European scenes.
The Pennell collection includes correspondence that documents a notable creative project undertaken by Joseph Pennell (1857–1926) and Mariana Van Rensselaer (1851–1934) in which they published illustrated articles on the cathedrals and churches of England and France. Their two series of illustrated articles appeared in issues of The Century Magazine between 1887 and 1899; the first series, English Cathedrals, was issued in book form in 1892.
In 1882, when the idea for the articles on the cathedrals of England was first conceived by Van Rensselaer, she had been a published author and critic on art, architecture, and landscape architecture for six years. Pennell had been working as an illustrator, first in his native Philadelphia and then nationally, since the late 1870s. He had done illustrations in Scribner’s Magazine, Century, and other publications. His best-known work at that point was the illustrations he executed to accompany George Washington Cable’s text for The Creoles of Louisiana, issued serially in The CenturyMagazine during 1883 and published in book form in 1884.
Van Rensselaer likely invited Joseph Pennell to provide the illustrations for her English cathedral articles because both Van Rensselaer and the Century’s editor, Richard Watson Gilder, knew and respected Pennell’s work. In 1884, Pennell was living in London, married to Elizabeth Robins, a writer and fellow Philadelphian.
The work on the English cathedrals got off to a rocky start when, in the summer of 1885, Van Rensselaer, returning to New York from Germany, stopped in York, England, expecting to meet with Pennell. Pennell didn’t appear or account for his absence, and when later they were able to meet, he related to his wife, Elizabeth, “his frank impressions of Mrs. Van Rensselaer, who had ideas for the cathedral [at Salisbury] which were not his.” Despite this initial awkwardness the English cathedral series was completed “without unpleasantness” (in Elizabeth Pennell’s words), and the final article published in The Century Magazine by 1889.
As Pennell began his work on the churches of France in the fall of 1889, a new source of discord between artist and writer made itself evident. Pennell had begun working with churches in the south of France when he discovered several of those chosen for illustration had undergone recent restoration or were currently under restoration. This situation and the artist’s response to it had a significant impact upon his choices of subjects and the drawings he sent back to New York.
In a long letter Van Rensselaer wrote to W. Lewis Fraser of the Century art department on January 30, 1890, she reviewed Pennell’s drawings, and while on the whole she was pleased, she found problems with the cathedrals in Angoulême and Périgueux and the St. Sernin church in Toulouse.
Pennell had not supplied exterior views of any of the three that she found acceptable. Of St. Sernin she wrote “In some way or the other I must have at least one picture of the exterior of the church; if not from Mr. Pennell, then drawn by someone else from a photo.” In other cases Pennell had supplied views she hadn’t asked for; several of these she had turned down as “entirely useless for my purpose.”
In this file there is a six-month hiatus until the next piece of surviving correspondence. This was Mariana Van Rensselaer’s letter of July 31, 1890 to editor R. W. Gilder in which she responded to Joseph Pennell’s “recent letters to Mr. Fraser.”
Van Rensselaer opened with the comment that “I am sorry he finds some of the buildings in question ‘unillustrate-able’…” and goes on to assert that “ they are unrivalled in historical and, I venture to say, in broad and deep architectural (which means artistic) interest.”
Further along in the letter she notes that her choices of subject were intended to illustrate the significant regional variation seen in medieval French ecclesiastical architecture and, for this reason, “we must have the great typical buildings, however restored, and not less typical unrestored ones, or attractive bits gathered here and there.”
In Pennell’s letters he referred to his practice of using shading and other effects to ameliorate the problems posed by unsympathetic restoration and unfinished repairs, provocatively referring to this process as “cooking.” Van Rensselaer responded by observing that he had been “engaged to illustrate what he saw, not to make fancy sketches.” Later in the letter, however, she modified her position, stating the hope that Gilder “will give me the privilege of rejecting any that are ‘cooked’ in too palpable a way.”
Van Rensselaer’s 12-page response to Pennell was supplemented by a briefer letter from Gilder to the artist. In it he stated that The Century Magazine regarded the series as “an intellectual & historical” work “conducted by the writer of the articles” and that the magazine had “surely endeavored to meet your views in every way.” Gilder closed with the observation that the series upon that Pennell and Van Rensselaer labored was not, commercially speaking, a “hilariously ‘popular’ performance,” but one which demanded “great exertions and no little drudgery on the parts of both writer & artist.”
In his reply from Luchon, France, dated August 20, 1890, Pennell responded to Gilder’s letter by once again stating the impossibility of making tangible the intent of the original builders of the churches when they had been unsympathetically restored. “I can look beneath the restoration but Mrs. Van Rensselaer should remember that I must draw what is on the surface. [Henry Hobson] Richardson [whose sympathetic description of the churches had been mentioned by Van Rensselaer earlier] would never have dreamed of taking the modern restoration of St. Sernin as anything but a model of very ordinary work of the most uninteresting kind.”
Pennell defended “my cooking or faking … [of] these drawings [by asserting] when I come to one of these old churches … and find, instead of beautiful stained glass which ought to be there, blank white windows, or windows at times which are even yet unfinished … I have got to intensify, for example, my lights and shadows and try to give some sort of pictorial effect which really is not there.”
Pennell concluded his reply with the statement that “I never should think of criticizing Mrs. Van Rensselaer’s scheme or methods, but I cannot help repeating that she ought to bear in mind that I cannot draw the ideas of the old men when their work is not visible.”
The last item in the Pennell-Van Rensselaer correspondence file is Van Rensselaer’s letter of August 13, 1893 to Joseph Pennell, and its tone is in marked contrast to the preceding letters in the file. Having just returned to Marion (where she was living) from “that extraordinary and enchanting [World’s] Fair at Chicago,” she recounts her work rewriting the English cathedral book (by now entitled Handbook of English Cathedrals) and makes suggestions for Pennell’s work at Bourges, Le Mans, Chartres, and Le Puy. In closing, Van Rensselaer returns to the world’s fair, writing “I suppose you will come home to see the Fair. If not, you will miss the great sight of the century.”
Mariana Van Rensselaer withdrew from the project before the fourth article in the French cathedral series appeared in the September 1899 issue of The Century Magazine. Since Pennell had finished drawings on hand, the editors of the magazine asked Elizabeth Pennell to write the articles, allowing the series to be completed between 1907 and 1909. The cathedrals of Amiens, Beauvais, and Rouen concluded the project; these three were the only edifices in the series that Joseph Pennell etched on site.
Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.
On the surface, it is a correspondence between friends: Did you read the book I sent? Did you like it?
Generic questions for most, perhaps, but the inquiry was from Stanley Kubrick, and the questions concerning Arthur Schnitzler’s book Traumnovelle were addressed to Anthony Burgess. A series of letters in 1976 between Kubrick and Burgess in the Ransom Center’s Anthony Burgess collection shed light on the early stages of the work that would later be translated into Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
In 1976, Kubrick, sensing his research for his planned biographical film about Napoleon Bonaparte would not pan out due to financing problems, was looking for a post-2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) project. He first read Schnitzler’s dream story in 1968 and was so enamored of it, he sought the film rights, but, fearing his involvement would inflate the price, he convinced Jay Cocks, a journalist at the time, to acquire the rights by proxy.
Kubrick even had in mind an actor for the role of Fridolin: Woody Allen.
During this time, screenwriter Terry Southern, who helped Kubrick turn the script for Dr. Strangelove(1964) into a hip satire, gave Kubrick a copy of A Clockwork Orange.Kubrick put the Schnitzler project on a back burner, which placed Southern in a bit of a bind with Mick Jagger and The Beatles.
It was understood that once the rights for A Clockwork Orange had been optioned by producer Si Litvinoff, Southern would write the screenplay, Jagger was to play the part of Alex and the rest of the Rolling Stones would play Alex’s droogs. The Beatles were to compose and record the music. Litvinoff had shopped the idea around to a dozen different directors without success. As the original plan was coming apart at the seams, it was reported that actor David Hemming, star of Blowup (1969), was under consideration for the lead. A petition signed by Marianne Faithful, each of The Beatles, and a few hangers-on in the London Bohemian underground of the time—including The Flasher and Strawberry Bob—was sent to Southern denouncing his perceived treachery.
The rights for A Clockwork Orange sold for $500, $2,000, or $5,000, depending which account you read. Burgess was unimpressed with his financial gain on the deal and dismayed that he had suddenly, in the eyes of the press and public alike, become an “expert” on juvenile violence. He was thankful though, that in conversation with Kubrick, he did get the idea for his next novel, Napoleon Symphony.
After the release of the film A Clockwork Orange (1971), Kubrick used his Napoleon research in the making of Barry Lyndon (1975). It would be another 20 years before the Schnitzler project would culminate in the film Eyes Wide Shut, which is listed in Guinness World Records as the film with the longest continual shoot: 400 days. In retrospect, 400 days isn’t long at all, considering the making of the film took 30 years from gestation to final cut.
But in 1976, Burgess still felt undercompensated after the film version of A Clockwork Orange had become a critical and commercial success, and it must have rankled him that a few critics pointed to satirized authority figures in the film as resembling rumpled versions of Burgess himself. As for the exchange of letters between Kubrick and Burgess, you can sense a certain edginess in Burgess’s response to Kubrick’s complaints that in Traumnovelle “[t]here is, I fear, a narrative anti-climax which I have not been able to improve without doing violence to what I believe were Schnitzler’s ideas …”
“The question is,” Burgess writes, “do you want me to do anything about it? If so, how and when and for how much?”
According to Mary Evelyn, the wife of John Evelyn, a renowned English intellectual, diarist, and horticulturalist in the late seventeenth century, it cost £313 and 1 shilling to set up a proper upper-class household for eight people in London in 1675. In today’s dollars, the dishes, silver, glasses, linens, and kitchen equipment required would cost approximately $62,000—without buying any furniture. It would then cost £480, 4 shillings per year (approximately $95,000/year today) to maintain and staff that house and a small, two-horse stable. This household would then have a weekly budget of £2, 13 shillings, 4 pence for meals and £4, 12 shillings, 3 pence for other household supplies like soap, candles, and fuel (approximately $1,444 today).
On her own account, this imagined household was quite frugal. Mary Evelyn wrote this set of itemized household management instructions to the Evelyns’ young family friend, the newly married Mrs. Margaret Blagge Godolphin, who was about 22 years old at the time. (The document can be viewed in full in the Ransom Center’s Carl H. Pforzheimer digital collection.) As she remarks in a short preface, Mary Evelyn provides in her accounting for “some variety, but [no] Dainties or Entertainments,” because Mrs. Godolphin has such a “just & regular life” and her husband is “so good & soe reasonable.”
Dear Child, Of ye 500 [pounds per annum]. which you tell me is what you would contract your Expenses to, and that you are to provide your Husbands Cloaths, Stable, and all other House-Expences (except his Pocket-money) I leave you 20 l. over, and for your owne Pocket [etc].40 l. (in all 60 l.) and that little enough considering Sickness, Physicians, and innumerable Accidents that are not to be provided ag[ain]st with any certainty. But (as ye Proverb you know is) I am to cut ye Cloake, according to ye Cloth; and I have done it as near as possibly I could, with some variety, but without Dainties or Entertainments; you living so just & regular a life, & having so good & soe reasonable a Husband; and I pray God to bless you both & pardon ye defects of my Obedience to your earnest Desires, who shall ever remaine,
April 13. 1675
While Mary Evelyn cautions her young friend that she must always be wary of surprise medical expenses that could impact her budget, she goes on to illustrate the variety of fare the Godolphins might enjoy on such a budget with a sample week-long menu of three-course meals. She summarizes these courses in a table as follows:
Additionally, Mary Evelyn provides the young Mrs. Godolphin with some very sound advice about how to pick a head housekeeper, advising the young woman to insist on firm bookkeeping practices without trying to micromanage her servants:
if you have a faithful Woman, or Housemaid it will cost you little trouble. It were necessary yt such a one were a good Market-woman, & whose Eye must bee from ye Garret to ye Cellar; nor is it enough they see all things made cleane in ye House, but set in ord.r also; That if any Good be broken or worne out they shew or bring it to her that she may see in what Condic?n it is, that nothing bee hid or imbezel’d. Use as seldom Charewomen and Out-helpers as you can they but make Gossips. She should bee ye first of servants stirring and last in bed, & have some authority over ye rest, & you must hear her and give her credit, yet not without your owne Examination & inspection, that Complaints come not to you without cause. It is necessary alsoe she should know to write and cast up small sums & bring you her Book every Saturday-night, which you may cause to be enter’d into another for your Selfe, that you may from time to time judge of Prices & things w.ch are continually altering. This Servant is to keep your Spicery, Sweet-meats Cordial waters [etc.] & ye rest of ye Servants are to account to her; & such a Server (I tell you) is a Jewel not easily to be found.
The recipient of these instructions, Margaret Blagge Godolphin, was renowned in her own time for both her beauty and religious devotion. In her teenage years, she was a Maid of Honor to the Queen in the court of Charles II. Her letters demonstrate her success at establishing a circle of admirers and friends at court, John Evelyn among them, but they also reveal an extreme frustration with the moral depravity of her fellow courtiers. She was especially impatient with her superiors’ endless card games and fashionable worldly activities that kept her from her prayers. After several years she managed to get away from the Restoration Court to serve Lady Berkeley but was soon obliged to go abroad with her while Lord Berkeley served as the English ambassador to the court of Louis XIV. From Paris, she wrote to John Evelyn of her admiration for the cloistered life of nuns even though life among Catholics exposed to her the superstitions of the Roman Church and confirmed her Protestant faith. Despite her desire to dedicate herself to a life of religious devotion after her time in Paris, John Evelyn—who had become a sort of spiritual mentor to her—persuaded her that her most pious act as a 22-year-old woman would be to follow through with a long-term engagement to be married to Lord Sidney Godolphin, the King’s Master of the Robes.
Not long after marrying, Margaret Godolphin asked the Evelyns for help with her home economics. This seven-page document thus reveals Mary Evelyn’s attempt to help her devout young friend establish a household that would provide her a refuge from the world of high society she found so tiresome. By Margaret Godolphin’s own account, it worked. She wrote of her thankfulness for the blessings she was able to enjoy after her marriage: her health, her husband, her time to herself, and her “house quiet, sweet, and pretty.” Sadly, Margaret’s enjoyment of this place of respite and meditation was cut short when she died after giving birth to her son Francis in her third year of marriage.
These household management instructions by Mary Evelyn were among Margaret Godolphin’s papers that John Evelyn set in order upon her death. Evelyn eventually turned these into a biography that remained unpublished until the nineteenth century. The Ransom Center possesses the instructions, which were enclosed in a letter sent to Samuel Pepys by Evelyn in 1685. Evelyn’s cover letter offers some humble commentary on the utility of the instructions that is tinged with regret for the loss of his dear young friend. Evelyn expresses his hope that the methodical recommendations of his wife might be helpful to other virtuous women Pepys knows. Evelyn hesitantly offers his own daughter, Susanna, as an example of such a virtuous woman who might benefit from these instructions. In parentheses, though, he adds a caveat that thinly veils a regret-filled critique of his other daughter who had recently eloped without the family’s consent and subsequently died of smallpox: “if God give her [Susanna] Grace to make a fitter Choice than her unhappy sister.” Evelyn’s rather bleak references to his own kin in this letter are strikingly juxtaposed against powerful and wistful expressions of love for Margaret Godolphin, now deceased for seven years, whom he calls “that concealed saint, and incomparable Creature, so well known to me, & my wife in particular.”
Thus, this document reveals the trust John Evelyn placed in his wife Mary’s expertise in planning, budgeting, practical math, and management skills, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the details of how a small upper-class London home operated in the late seventeenth century. Its cover letter to Pepys also provides a context that allows us to glimpse this document’s status in its afterlife as a kind of talisman that preserved for the Evelyns a tiny bit of the intimacy and spirituality of their friendship with the young Margaret Blagge Godolphin.
Transcriptions of Mary Evelyn’s Household Management Instructions are provided by Catherine Harris and Patrick Naeve, student volunteers from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Liberal Arts Plan II Honors Program.
Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.
Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”
Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.
One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.
The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.
Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.
“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”
Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s. Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.
“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.
Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.
During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve. Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.
In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.
Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).
The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.
I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project. We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.
Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!
On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.
Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”
Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.
The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.
One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.
The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.
Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.
Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.
One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”
Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.
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