When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.
The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.
The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s 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.
The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.
“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”
The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.
The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.
Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.
On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.
Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.
Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.
Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.
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According to popular mythology, the publisher Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, formulated his idea for a press dedicated exclusively to paperbacks while visiting a railway station. Having spent the weekend visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the famed author of Murder on the Orient Express, Lane arrived at the Exeter railway station and realized he had forgotten his book. Frustrated and facing the boredom of a long train trip, Lane tried to buy a novel at the station but found that there was nothing available that he felt worth reading. Bookless for the next few hours, he sat on the train and planned a new line of cheap, pocket-sized, and travel-worthy books, which could be sold at railway stations, grocers, and department stores. Penguin Books—and the paperback revolution—were born.
While this version of Allen Lane’s epiphany may be slightly romanticized, there is no doubt that Penguin Books, launched in 1935, sparked a new phase of publishing that would change the printing industry irrevocably. Mass marketing of paperbacks not only brought classics to a wider audience but also brought pulp fiction—previously published in magazines—to the forefront of the book trade.
The Ransom Center’s book collection is known for first editions, many of them lush volumes with elaborate bindings. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the Ransom Center also houses multiple volumes that illuminate the development of the paperback book trade in both America and Britain. Alongside important editions of Lane’s Penguins, the Center also houses Tauchnitz editions of paperbacks that pre-date Penguin, as well as the “penny dreadfuls” and dime novels that slowly developed into modern pulp fiction. This slideshow exhibits numerous items from the library’s collections that represent landmarks in the history of the paperback book trade.
June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.
So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.
When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.
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Anita Desai, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, recently published The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas that ruminate on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities.
Born in India, Desai often explores themes related to her homeland in her work, and she has been short-listed for the Booker Prize three times for her novels Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999).
The Ransom Center acquired her papers in a series of purchases between 1989 and 2006. The collection contains manuscripts and typescript drafts for all of her novels, from her first book, Cry, the Peacock (1963), through Journey to Ithaca (1995); works for children; introductions, prefaces, reviews, essays, speeches, and lectures; and correspondence.
Desai visited the Ransom Center for the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium, which explored “The State and Fate of Publishing.” Read the talk she gave at the symposium about her experiences with publishing.
Before Lew Ney became the Mayor of Greenwich Village (and a signer of the door featured in the current exhibition The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925), he was a Longhorn. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, as Luther E. Widen, Lew Ney graduated from Austin High School and enrolled in The University of Texas in 1904. He began his undergraduate career in the College of Engineering but after one year transferred to the Humanities Department. He was an active member of the Glee Club as a second tenor for three years before leaving the University in 1907.
Ultimately, Ney received his undergraduate degree from Nebraska and his
master’s degree in psychology at Iowa State University. He moved to Greenwich Village in the early 1920s and married Ruth Thompson in 1928. He was known in the Village as a writer, printer, type designer, and publisher. Most notably, he published the magazine Parnassus and the early works of writers Parker Tyler and Maxwell Bodenheim. He is most famous for his creation of the exquisite typesetting font (L283) that was well suited for poetic works.
Eventually, Ney would become a community character proclaimed “the Mayor of Greenwich Village.”
The bookshop door with Ney’s signature is on display in The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925 through January 22. Also, visit the related web exhibition, which uses the door as an entryway into the lives, careers, and relationships of New York bohemians of that era.
Special thanks to The Alcalde for assisting with the yearbook images.