Hermione Lee is a well-known biographer of literary figures, admired for scrupulously researching her subjects. Her recent book, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), details the life of the late-blooming author as Lee discovered her in the archives.
Lee will speak at the Ransom Center about her experiences pursuing subjects through their archives on Wednesday, April 8 at 4 p.m. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is first-come first-served.
In anticipation of Lee’s visit, Cultural Compass reached out to her about her work and research.
How do you choose your subjects for a biography?
I choose my subjects out of a passionate admiration for their work, a desire to communicate that admiration and interest in their lives as broadly as possible, and a sense that I haven’t yet read the biography I want to read about them–so had better write it myself.
During her lifetime Penelope Fitzgerald wrote three biographies. What was it like applying the same act of analysis to her?
I would have liked to take a leaf out of her book and write a very slim, cryptic, suggestive book about her, since she felt it “insulted the reader to explain too much.” But as I was writing the first biography of her and as she is not a mainstream, popular writer, I felt I needed to write at more length and with more detail than she would have done herself. However, my motives were the same as the motives which led her to write biography: a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible the heart and meaning of her life and work. Fitzgerald’s biography of Charlotte Mew, an unjustly neglected early-twentieth-century English woman poet, was particularly in my mind when I was writing my biography.
There are more than 800 footnotes in your book. Is that average or unusual in a biography?
Some biographers put their footnotes on line, some don’t have many, some have many more. I like readers to know where the facts have come from.
Fitzgerald was a private person. How does that make the work of a biographer more challenging?
There were times when I felt she would have resisted what I was doing, had she still been alive, but there were also times when I hoped that the attention I was drawing to her writing would have pleased her. Many of her secrets remain with her, and I admire and appreciate that, even though it can also be frustrating.
Can you talk about your research in the Ransom Center’s Penelope Fitzgerald archive? What insight did her personal papers provide?
My work in the archive was invaluable to me. It contains many of her manuscripts, letters to readers and publishers, notebooks, and first drafts. I understood her writing much better-particularly her brilliant use of sources for her novels–when I had worked in the archive.
Were you drawn to a particular item in the collection?
I was very moved by the last, unfinished story in her notebook, which ends, like so much of her life, with a mystery and a secret. I end my biography with it.
You are working on a biography of Tom Stoppard. Have you worked with the Stoppard papers in the Ransom Center’s collections?
I am starting work in the archive now, with great excitement and anticipation.
James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.
The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:
We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.
Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.
Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.
Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:
He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.
Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.
The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.
Matthew McFrederick visited the Harry Ransom Center’s Reading Room as an international fellow from the University of Reading. He conducted research for his thesis, “Staging Beckett in London: Constructing Performance Histories of Samuel Beckett’s Drama.”
McFrederick’s research is part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded “Staging Beckett” project, which is a joint research project involving the University of Reading, the University of Chester, and the Victoria and Albert Museum. This project will study the impact of Beckett’s drama in theater culture and theater practice in the UK and Ireland from 1995 to present day and develop a publicly accessible online database of productions of Beckett’s drama in the UK and Ireland.
McFrederick’s thesis will catalog and analyze significant productions of Beckett’s drama in London and chart the development of Beckettian performance in a number of London theaters such as the Royal Court, the National Theatre, and Riverside Studios. During his time in the reading room, McFrederick, looked at material from the Center’s collections, including those of Samuel Beckett, Peter Glenville, and the English Stage Company.
McFrederick’s research was funded by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of the International Placement Scheme.
Kamran Javadizadeh, an assistant professor in the English Department at Villanova University, visited the Ransom Center this fall to conduct research for his current book project, “Bedlam & Parnassus: The Institutionalization of Midcentury American Poetry.”
The idea for Javadizadeh’s book began when he discovered that Ezra Pound and Elizabeth Bishop could both see the U.S. Capitol from their very different positions in 1950—one was a patient at St. Elizabeths Hospital and the other the poet laureate. He argues that the combination of these two poets creates an understanding of what poetry meant culturally and societally in post-war America. While at the Ransom Center, Javadizadeh studied the Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound collections.
Javadizadeh’s work was jointly funded by the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship and the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, as part of the Ransom Center’s fellowship program.
Alison Stone, a doctoral student at the University of Exeter, recently spent time in the Ransom Center’s reading room conducting research for her thesis, “Contemporary British Poetry and Objectivism.”
Her thesis will chart the exchange of ideas and influences between a group of British poets of the 1950s and 1960s, including Andrew Crozier and Gael Turnbull, and a group of late-Modernist Americans, called the “Objectivists.” She explored the archives of Charles Tomlinson, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and others to pinpoint exactly what the British poets borrowed from their American counterparts.
Spanning more than half a century, García Márquez’s archive includes original manuscript material, predominantly in Spanish, for 10 books, from One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) to Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) to Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004); more than 2,000 pieces of correspondence, including letters from Carlos Fuentes and Graham Greene; drafts of his 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech; more than 40 photograph albums documenting all aspects of his life over nearly nine decades; the Smith Corona typewriters and computers on which he wrote some of the 20th century’s most beloved works; and scrapbooks meticulously documenting his career via news clippings from Latin America and around the world.
Highlights in the archive include multiple drafts of García Márquez’s unpublished novel We’ll See Each Other in August, research for The General in His Labyrinth (1989), and a heavily annotated typescript of the novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). The materials document the gestation and changes of García Márquez’s works, revealing the writer’s struggle with language and structure.
Born in Colombia, García Márquez began his career as a journalist in the 1940s, reporting from Bogotá and Cartagena and later serving as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Cuba. In 1961, he moved to Mexico City. Alongside his prolific journalism career, García Márquez published many works of fiction, including novels, novellas and multiple short story collections and screenplays. He published the first volume of his three-part memoir Vivir Para Contarla (Living to Tell the Tale) in 2002.
Future plans relating to the archive include digitizing portions of the collection to make them widely accessible and a university symposium to explore the breadth and influence of García Márquez’s life and career. The García Márquez materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.
Image: Gabriel García Márquez working on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Photograph by Guillermo Angulo.
James Buhler is an Associate Professor in Music Theory and the Director of the Center for American Music at The University of Texas at Austin. Below, he writes about using materials from the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection to teach students in his Signature Course “Introduction to Music and Film Sound” about the business of being a music composer in Hollywood.
One of the innovative elements of Signature Courses at The University of Texas at Austin is that they require a visit by the class to one of the research centers, libraries, performing arts venues, or museums on campus. The idea is for the course to introduce students to one of the numerous Gems of the University. In my case, I selected the Harry Ransom Center because its David O. Selznick collection has extensive archival material on the music production for all the films made by Selznick International Pictures (SIP). (For an overview of the music holdings in this collection, see Nathan Platte’s blog post.)
My Signature Course is reasonably large (120 students), and it is not feasible to base a big project around our visit to the Ransom Center. And with students having only 50 minutes to examine materials, I cannot expect that students will be able to get anything more than a general impression of what’s available in the collection. Nevertheless, through careful selection of documents, I can use the collection to reinforce points made in lecture: films require coordinating the labor of a large number of people, much of it unacknowledged in the screen credits, and even the creative talent credited in the film in practice retained few rights over the products of their labor. Students are continually surprised to discover that Hollywood composers had few rights over their music.
Most of the material I have the students look at comes from the production Rebecca (1940). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock and with a score by Franz Waxman, Rebecca is artistically one of Selznick’s more successful films. We look at many documents, including these:
a contract between SIP and MGM for the right to use Waxman who was under contract at the time with MGM
various contracts between SIP and MGM for the right to use music Waxman wrote while working at MGM
contracts between SIP and various composers and orchestrators for work on Rebecca
time sheets documenting the orchestral players and pay rates at various recording sessions
a copyright registration under Selznick’s (not Waxman’s) name for the title music to Rebecca
a contract between SIP and Irving Berlin Music to manage the musical rights of Rebecca
and a letter from Waxman to Selznick asking for permission to play a suite from Rebecca on a radio show.
These documents all serve to emphasize the basic economic conditions of soundtrack production. Music is not something that just appears on a film’s soundtrack: it is made by people and at considerable time and expense. Moreover, the music and its production costs are carefully tracked throughout the process of production. The studio claimed complete ownership of the music, and composers did not even enjoy the right to play excerpts of their music at a concert or on the radio. (This situation would change only in the 1970s.)
Composers also had little control over the music in the film. Time constraints meant that composers nearly always used orchestrators, and as was the case with the score to Rebecca, frequently several composers beyond whoever was credited for it contributed additional music to the score. Moreover, cues could be replaced by other music without the composer’s permission. In at least one place in Rebecca, for instance, music by Max Steiner from an earlier SIP film replaced a portion of Waxman’s score. The insert is clearly visible in the working production score, which is another item I have the students examine. Because Selznick owned the rights to this music by Steiner, this change would not have cost the studio anything.
The students come away from their visit to the Ransom Center with a very concrete sense that music production costs a considerable sum of money, that numerous people are involved in it, and that composers, although well compensated, sacrificed most rights over their music during the studio era. These are points that I can and do make in lecture as well, but when students visit the Center and see the documents in person it seems to make a much larger impression.