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Meet the Staff: Archivist Amy Armstrong

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is a new Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlight the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. The series kicks off with a Q&A with Amy Armstrong, who has been an archivist at the Ransom Center since January 2009 and is head of the Archives Cataloging Unit in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Science in Information Studies degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Armstrong has processed many collections at the Ransom Center, including the papers of Sanora Babb, William Faulkner, Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, and the McSweeney’s publishing archive. She also catalogs non-commercial sound recordings in the Ransom Center’s holdings.  

 

Tell us about any current archives you’re working with.

I’m currently processing the records of McSweeney’s publishing house, which is a dream come true. I also catalog non-commercial sound recordings, which are sort of a “hidden collection.” We have almost 14,000 recordings, [including] some amazing recordings from Erle Stanley Gardner, Norman Mailer, and Denis Johnson. I’m committed to making them easier for patrons to find and use, and if they aren’t preserved, they’ll deteriorate.

 

What is your favorite collection that you have processed?

I actually love all of them, but one of my favorite collections is the Sanora Babb papers. Babb was an amazing woman who had big aspirations beyond the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, where she lived in the early 1920s. After immigrating to California, she wrote a novel about Dust Bowl migrants. However, the contract for her book was cancelled, because John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was simultaneously being published. Babb was also married to cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was Japanese, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. She loved life and didn’t take it for granted.

 

What is your favorite thing about your work?

My responsibility as an archivist is to ensure that the materials we’ve been entrusted to preserve are made available as widely as possible for anyone to use. I get such a thrill when I know someone has come into the Reading and Viewing Room and used a collection I have processed. After all, that’s why the Ransom Center exists and why are all so committed to the work we do here.

 

Have you had a favorite experience processing archives?

Denis Johnson autographed a book for my husband, who is a big fan. I was so touched by his kindness and generosity. It really made my year.

 

What is your favorite book?

The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.

 

What is one of your primary interests?

Culinary history!

 

Have you lived anywhere unusual?

I grew up in San Antonio and lived for three years in England when my mom worked at RAF Alconbury, an American Air Force Base.

 

Related content:

View other blog posts written by Amy Armstrong

 

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When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 1997. Dave Eggers is working at Esquire magazine. From his Brooklyn apartment at 394A Ninth Street, Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly. Eggers explains the publication will be called McSweeney’s, named after a man claiming to be a relative who wrote “long, tortured, and often incomprehensible letters” to the Eggers family. The email, which was forwarded extensively to other friends and writers, notes: “There will be an emphasis on experimentation. If you have a story that’s good, but conventional, you’d be better off sending it somewhere legitimate. This thing will be more about trying new and almost certainly misguided ideas.” Rejected works, unfinished stories, and cartoons without pictures had found their home.

 

Expecting to be around for only a few years, McSweeney’s is still going strong 15 years later and still publishes the flagship McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the monthly magazine The Believer, and an ever-expanding catalog of books published under various imprints.

 

Each issue of the Quarterly Concern is completely redesigned, but the McSweeney’s house style is immediately recognizable, often influenced by vintage typography and a distinct design aesthetic that honors the craft of bookmaking. Always willing to experiment, McSweeney’s has published issues with two spines, a magnetized binding, and a cigar box housing. They’ve also published an issue that resembles a bundle of mail, an issue printed as a complete daily newspaper, and an issue that gave readers a look inside the head of one sweaty man. Many issues focus on a theme, and selected issues have paid tribute to Donald Barthelme; acquainted readers with the art of comics and modern forms of extinct literary genres; introduced international voices by featuring contemporary writing from Icelandic, South Sudanese, and Australian Aboriginal writers; and provided thoughtful non-fiction essays.

 

Issue 16 was the first edition designed by former editor Eli Horowitz and can be considered the first to really experiment with book form and function. Horowitz wanted “something that could sit on a shelf, pretend to be a normal book, but then unfurl into something else entirely.” The jacket unfolds three times, resembling a pair of pants when completely unfolded, and contains four pockets. One pocket holds the novella Mr. Nobody at All by Ann Beattie, another holds a book of short stories, the third holds Robert Coover’s story “Heart Suit” presented as a deck of 15 playing cards, and the final holds an object: a comb. Horowitz noted that they wanted the fourth pocket to hold an item, but it had to be something long and thin. McSweeney’s considered a ruler and magnifying glass but didn’t want readers to ascribe a meaning to the item or think they were supposed to use it in a certain way. Horowitz decided on a comb. McSweeney’s printer in Singapore subcontracted with a comb maker, and they considered various samples, which can be found in box 17, folder 5 of the archive.

 

The bulk of the McSweeney’s archive comprises mock-ups, dummies, art, and proofs used to produce McSweeney’s publications, but every publication isn’t fully documented. The materials related to issue 16 provide a good look at the publishing process. The archive contains Beattie’s and Adam Levin’s manuscripts with edits by Horowitz, partial proofs with copy-edits, color swatches, the comb samples, and an early homemade design mockup.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

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Notes from the Undergrad: An undergraduate’s introduction to Anne Sexton

By Jane Robbins Mize

Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”

 

After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.

 

So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.

 

Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.

 

The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.

 

My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.

 

It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.

 

Unpublished David Foster Wallace story donated to the Ransom Center

By Megan Barnard

The Ransom Center’s extensive David Foster Wallace collection was recently enriched by a donation of the original manuscript of a little-known, unpublished story, titled “Shorn.” Wallace wrote the two-page story, about a boy having his hair cut by his mother, while a graduate student at the University of Arizona. The manuscript was donated by Karen Green, who was married to Wallace and now heads the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust.

 

The typed manuscript now resides at the Ransom Center alongside drafts of Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and Wallace’s other celebrated works; his childhood writings; correspondence; teaching materials; and his library of annotated books. The Ransom Center acquired David Foster Wallace’s archive in 2010 and has supplemented the archive in the years since with materials from Wallace’s literary agent, his publisher, and others.

 

These materials offer an unparalleled opportunity for researchers to gain deeper insight into Wallace’s work and his creative process, and they are among the Center’s most frequently researched collections. Biographers, literary scholars, students, and teachers have all studied the collection to learn more about Wallace’s writing. Since the Wallace archive became accessible in 2010, the Ransom Center has extended more than 14 research fellowships to support scholarly projects related to Wallace’s archive. The recent gift of Wallace’s story “Shorn” makes the archive an even richer resource.

 

The story is now accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room.

 

Image: First page of unpublished short story manuscript of “Shorn” by David Foster Wallace. © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.