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New book explores "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace"

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace."
Cover of "The Legacy of David Foster Wallace."

The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, a collection of essays that examine Wallace, his writing, and his place in literary history, has been published by University of Iowa Press.

Wallace’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

Molly Schwartzburg, former Cline Curator of Literature at the Ransom Center and current curator at Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia, contributed an essay about how Wallace’s manuscripts and personal library were handled and processed after they arrived at the Ransom Center.

Other contributors include Don DeLillo, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers, and David Lipsky, and Wallace’s Little, Brown editor, Michael Pietsch. The book was edited by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou.

Help identify unknown signatures from the Greenwich Village bookshop door

By Alicia Dietrich

This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.
This previously unknown signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by University of Texas at Austin English Professor Michael Winship.

Yesterday, the Ransom Center launched the web exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925. The exhibition uses a door from a bookshop owned by Frank Shay in Greenwich Village in the early 1920s as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era. The door is signed on both sides by more than 240 artists, writers, publishers, and other notable 1920s Village habitués, and the web exhibition uses the signatures to reconstruct the intersecting communities that made Greenwich Village famous as an epicenter of Modernism.

Although about 190 of the signatures on the door have been identified, more than 50 signatures are still unknown, and visitors are encouraged to submit information about any signatures they might recognize.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg shares that she received the first confirmed identification yesterday with the launch of the website. The signature was identified as the English publisher Jonathan Cape by The University of Texas at Austin’s own Michael Winship, the Iris Howard Regents Professor of English Literature. Cape’s distinctive signature includes a slash at the end of his last name, which worked as a red herring on the minds of the project’s curators until Dr. Winship made his suggestion. The identification was confirmed swiftly with a trip to the stacks and reviewing an inscription by Cape in a book.

Six more submissions have come in since, most from New York City. Staff will be investigating these leads in the next week, and the web exhibition will be updated accordingly.

Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.
Curator Molly Schwartzburg confirmed the signature identification by comparing the signature to this inscription by Jonathan Cape inside the cover of Christopher Morley's copy of "After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie" by Jean Rhys.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin signs books after his reading at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
U. S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin signs books after his reading at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
Robert Redford, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Mark Miller, Peter Baker, and Glenn Frankel discussed 'Could the media break a story like Watergate today?' on a panel presented by the Ransom Center and the LBJ Library and Museum. Photo by Pete Smith.
Robert Redford, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Dana Priest, Mark Miller, Peter Baker, and Glenn Frankel discussed 'Could the media break a story like Watergate today?' on a panel presented by the Ransom Center and the LBJ Library and Museum. Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg, center, leads an assessment for the upcoming exhibition 'Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Curator of Literature Molly Schwartzburg, center, leads an assessment for the upcoming exhibition 'Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925.' Photo by Pete Smith.

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.