The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.
Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.
Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.
Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.
Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.
It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey. The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.
About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script. I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger. I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.
In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.
Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.
The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.
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 fellowship recipients, half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “Postirony: Countercultural Fictions from Hipster to Coolhunter,” “Elliott Erwitt: Early Work,” “Obsession: The Films of Brian De Palma,” “David Foster Wallace: The Form of His Fiction,” “Matisse’s Illustrations for Ulysses,” and “Doris Lessing’s Intuitive Style.”
“Support of scholarly research is one of the primary goals of the Ransom Center,” said Director Thomas F. Staley. “With what has become one of the largest fellowship programs of its kind, we encourage scholars from around the world to make new discoveries about the writers and artists who have shaped our culture.”
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 Hobby Family Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
If under some truly unfortunate circumstances you found yourself imprisoned on a penal colony thousands of miles from home and infamous worldwide for its unlivable conditions, a talent for writing might be your best bet for survival. A considerable amount of perseverance and good luck would also come in handy.
Such was the case of René Belbenoit, a native Parisian who, after returning from the front lines of World War I as a teenager, was sentenced in 1921 to eight years of hard labor in French Guiana for a series of thefts. He first arrived at the penal colony in Saint-Laurent du Maroni in 1923 at the age of 24, and after 14 years of misery, punctuated by several hapless escape attempts, an emaciated and toothless Belbenoit snuck his way into Los Angeles.
Short in stature, slight of build, and cheerful by nature, Belbenoit felt isolated among his fellow inmates, many of whom had committed far more violent crimes than his own. But his classification by the administration as “incorrigible,” a distinction that landed him in solitary confinement on the particularly hostile Devil’s Island, was in one sense entirely fitting: no matter what punishment he faced, Belbenoit continued to make escape attempts until he’d secured his freedom. His final count totaled four prison breaks and two illegal escapes as a libéré, a “freed” ex-convict who, despite having finished his sentence, is forbidden to leave Guiana.
Belbenoit wrote about the experience in his memoir Dry Guillotine, which takes its title from the disdainful nickname the prisoners gave to their penal home. The Ransom Center’s René Belbenoit collection contains the book’s manuscript, a 900-page tome including illustrations, an official prisoner booklet, and several flattened cigarette packets with notes written on the back, presumably from the time Belbenoit spent in prison. He began keeping a written record of his time in Guiana in 1926, but many of his early notes were destroyed by prison guards. When possible, he solicited help from the mother superior of a local nunnery to safeguard his writings. He brought them along on every escape attempt, wrapping them in oilskins for protection from the elements, but many were ruined en route. When something was lost, he would simply rewrite it.
Detailed recollections of prison misery constitute much of the first half of the memoir. The backbreaking labor, often performed naked and shoeless, was a traumatic shock for Belbenoit, as were the swarming mosquitoes and sweltering heat of the tropics. The prison administration took no pains to preserve the inmates’ health, as ships full of replacements arrived regularly. According to Belbenoit, of the average 700 annual arrivals in Guiana, approximately 400 would die in their first year. He writes, “The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.”
In addition to his accounts of the prisoners’ suffering and the guards’ brutality, Belbenoit offers unique insight into the social structure of the all-male group of the condemned. Complex hierarchies emerged as the older, more aggressive inmates battled each other to win younger boys as their môme, or submissive sexual partners. Subterfuge became a requisite skill for survival in French Guiana. Bribery was ubiquitous but risky, as the possession of money was strictly forbidden. The most experienced prisoners were also adept malingerers, often smoking quinine to sham fever for a day of rest in the infirmary.
Belbenoit, a charming storyteller and known exaggerator, wields compelling narrative at the expense of incomplete veracity. But even his likely embellished accounts, the most dramatic of which would find a comfortable home in soap opera subplots, are revealing. Foremost among these are the tales of Belbenoit’s affair with a 16-year-old daughter of an administrator, and that of a complicated love triangle involving a prisoner, his môme, and a guard’s wife. Fourteen years of enduring both physical torture and torturous monotony honed Belbenoit’s ability to captivate an audience, winning him a network of friends that was essential to his survival.
So while the inmates’ complaints about their merciless treatment fell on deaf ears in Guiana, Belbenoit found an eager readership in the developed world, where headlines announced the departure of penal ships in heavy terms: “Broken Men Sail for Devil’s Island” and “Condemned to a Living Death.” Selling off his notes to visiting reporters turned out to be his most lucrative enterprise, which in turn afforded him a number of unlikely prospects for escape. Blair Niles, a travel writer and novelist, encountered Belbenoit in 1926. She visited with him for several days, buying the notes he had dutifully collected and preserved for 100 francs. Belbenoit used the money to stage an unsuccessful escape, which resulted in extreme, nearly fatal punishment. Niles returned to the United States, publishing her bestselling biography of Belbenoit in 1928, titled Condemned to Devil’s Island. The book, which was adapted into the 1929 film Condemned, was influential in international prison reform movements.
But Belbenoit never succumbed to the discouragement of his previous failures, and in 1935, a similar opportunity ultimately led to his freedom. An American filmmaker, whom Belbenoit leaves unnamed in his memoir, apparently offered 200 dollars in exchange for intimate knowledge of how one would conduct a dramatic escape in the tropics. Despite Belbenoit’s answer that the only feasible strategy would be to leave by the sea, the filmmaker retorted, “This must be an escape through the jungles… combat with fierce animals, snakes, swamps… It makes a better picture.” Perhaps it was from this man that Belbenoit learned the fungible value of an exciting story.
Using the cash to secure a 19-foot boat and some provisions, Belbenoit escaped by sea with five other convicts. They were well-received by the British authorities in Trinidad, “true sportsmen” who opted not to have them deported. Belbenoit separated from the group and made his way to Central America, where he spent seven months capturing butterflies to sell and living with native tribes on his journey northward.
Belbenoit finally reached El Salvador, stowed away on a ship, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. He made his way to New York, where he published Dry Guillotine in 1938, by which time France had stopped sending prisoners to the penal colony. The prison at Devil’s Island was officially closed eight years later.
Though now largely forgotten, Belbenoit’s extraordinary experience captured media attention for the remainder of his life. He appeared on the television series This Is Your Life and in several articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he worked briefly at Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the 1944 film Passage to Marseille. Belbenoit made the most of his compelling story, understanding just how much power it could wield. After all, it had saved his life.
Additional archival materials for Belbenoit are located in the E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records at Syracuse University, in the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California, and in the Ralph Edwards Productions Production Records at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Paper Conservator Jane Boyd recently completed a treatment of the 1819 manuscript for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Battle of Marathon,” which was recently digitized. Browning’s method of revising involved sewing pieces of paper containing handwritten notes directly into the manuscript, which had to be removed and preserved during the digitization process.
Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.
Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!
True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.
In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”
Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.
I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen. I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.
1) A BOOK
Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]
The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.
2) A MAP
“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.
Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.
3) A MANUSCRIPT
Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.
Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:
In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.
He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.
Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Before spring of last year, I had only heard David Foster Wallace referenced by acquaintances and a TV show character with an affinity for oversized novels. When I was applying for my undergraduate internship at the Ransom Center, I noticed that the Center had acquired Wallace’s archive and opened it for research. I knew that a course on Wallace was being offered by the University as an English Honors seminar during the fall semester, and the opportunity to combine my academic studies with my new internship seemed like a perfect way to enhance my first experience with Wallace’s work. What I believed to be a simple coincidence turned out to be an unforgettable journey down the rabbit hole that is the mind of David Foster Wallace.
My first experience with Wallace was his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I immediately fell in love with his wit and intimate voice. I would need aforementioned love to lay the foundation for my relationship with Infinite Jest, which has been admittedly rocky, yet rewarding. My professor, Heather Houser, has done an excellent job planning our exposure to Wallace, introducing us to his style in shorter, more light-hearted bursts before throwing us headfirst into the waters of Infinite Jest. She also planned two class trips to the Ransom Center to view items pulled from Wallace’s archive so that we could read marginalia written in miniscule handwriting, correspondence with editors and fans, and annotations in books that he used for research. When I asked her why she thought it was so important to bring our class to see Wallace’s archive firsthand, she replied, “Wallace’s letters, manuscripts, and notes show him to be a painstaking writer and reader. Writing was a laborious, often distressing process for Wallace. Students see this in the sheaves of drafts and series of letters between Wallace and his editors and friends.”
There is something about looking at an author’s handwriting, and leafing through his personal library that grounds you. This was a person, with a life and loved ones: an actual person wrote these books I’m reading, you think, and that realization can be sudden and startling. I am not quite sure why it is easy to forget about the human element of literature, but my time with the Wallace archive helped me remember that I am studying a brilliant person’s imagination incarnate.
I agree with this statement from my classmate Aaron Levine: “We as a class are privileged… most people who read Infinite Jest do not get to read it in segments and then have hour-and-a-half conversations with a room full of inquisitive minds.” It has been an even greater privilege to be taught by a professor who understands the value of pushing the limits of undergraduate study, and to have access to the unique resources that the Ransom Center has to offer. The experiences I have had as an undergraduate scholar at the Ransom Center have enriched my adventures as an intern, as well as my future academic endeavors. In fact, I am planning to research the Ransom Center’s collections for my upcoming undergraduate English Honors thesis.