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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Eggers sends an email (a pretty new technology, by the way) to all his friends and writers he knows soliciting their unpublished work for a new literary quarterly.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

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.

Fellow’s Find: Annotations in early editions of “Canterbury Tales” show how readers connected with Chaucer’s text

By Hope Johnston

Hope Johnston is an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Baylor University. She received a grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment to study “Owner Markings in Early Printed Chaucer Editions” at the Ransom Center and shares some of her findings below.  The Ransom Center celebrates the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014-2015.

 

Geoffrey Chaucer’s early and enduring fascination among English readers has become a source of interest in itself among modern critics. The Harry Ransom Center is home to one of the largest collections of early printed Chaucer editions in the world. While other major collections might have 8 or 12, the Ransom Center has 36 copies of these extremely rare books. A grant from the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment made it possible to study notes added to them by generations of readers since the time of their publication.

 

Chaucer (ca. 1340–1400) grew up in a well-to-do merchant family. The macabre silver lining for those who survived the Black Death, which killed more than 30 percent of England’s population between 1348 and 1350, was the inheritance of wealth from lost family members and increased opportunities for upward social mobility. Chaucer is an example of this: he became a retainer in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster, which led in turn to service as a royal administrator. He pursued his career as a writer at the same time, and he gently pokes fun at himself in the House of Fame for being the medieval equivalent of a geek. He describes how he would spend his days poring over records at the custom house, then, “Instead of reste and newe thynges thou goost hom to thy hous anoon, and also domb as any stoon, thou sittest at another book, til fully [dazed] is thy look.” His travels to Italy for the king benefitted his literary career as he became familiar with the works of Petrarch, Dante, and Boccaccio. One of his last works is the one modern readers know best, the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s literary achievements received acclaim during his lifetime and high praise from his literary successors. William Caxton made the Canterbury Tales one of the first books printed in English, ca. 1477. The first collected edition of Chaucer’s Works appeared in 1532, and it was so popular that it went through six editions by the start of the seventeenth century.

 

Knowing who owned the books can also help researchers map the dispersal of copies from London. One of the Ransom Center Chaucers contains pages from another copy of Chaucer’s Works at Trinity College, Cambridge: both belonged to members of the extended Grenville family during the early nineteenth century, and it appears that an owner took pages from a rather raggedy Trinity College copy to replace pages missing from the book now at the Ransom Center, which is in better overall condition. Two other Ransom Center Chaucers accompanied their owners on travels abroad even before their eventual arrival in Texas. One belonged to a sixteenth-century naval explorer, Sir Robert Dudley (1574–1649), who left his wife and daughters to elope with a younger woman to Florence, Italy, where he lived the rest of his life. “J. Abdy,” an Englishman traveling the Continent in 1650, acquired Dudley’s 1602 Chaucer edition and brought it back to England. Another copy of the Canterbury Tales, from the 1687 edition of Chaucer’s Works, accompanied Charles Montagu Doughty (1843–1926), a nineteenth-century explorer, on a two-year trek through the Saharan Desert. Chaucer’s pilgrims travel from London to Canterbury, but all of the books in Texas have traveled much farther, and every book has a story about its journey from the Renaissance to the present day.

 

What can the surviving copies tell us about the reading habits of early owners? First, we have proof that Chaucer’s sixteenth-century audience included women as well as men based on the names of female readers inscribed in the books. Dedications also provide glimpses of the personal lives of the readers, such as the romantic promise made by Peter Wood when he gave his book as a gift: “Take in good worth from him that gives this present and his heart to you while he lives. Esteem not the gift after its value, but regard the goodwill of the giver, not as I now would but as I now may, to command him both night and day—Said Peter Woodde.” Expressions of affection accompany several of the books as they were passed along: “to my welbeloved brothers,” and another “to my loving frind Carls.” There is even a polite thank you note in one of the Ransom Center Chaucers: “Master George Manning, I thank you for your book. Mary Buckmore.”

 

Annotations also provide insights into the reasons why readers enjoyed Chaucer’s writing. One early owner of a book at the Ransom Center notes with satisfaction how Criseyde is laid low and cursed by the gods in Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid: “A just rewared for untrothe,” the comment observes. Another reader takes delight in Chaucer’s caustic depiction of corrupt religious officials, writing the following under the woodcut of the Pardoner: “Chaucer in this prologue (as in diverse other places) very excellently describes the great craft and abominable deceit of all the popish prelates, varnished over with a fair face and color of feigned religion and false pretended holiness.” In another book, the margins are so full of phrases copied by hand from the printed text that the effect is similar to the overzealous use of a highlighter in a modern textbook: the reader has copied so many phrases that none of them truly stand out.

 

“Father Chaucer” was seen as a source of wisdom for Renaissance book owners, and it comes as no surprise that readers would choose to add favorite sayings from other sources to their copies of Chaucer’s Works. One writes, “Give me that worthy whose true judgment can distinguish ‘twixt the ill and honest man, and not be swayed by others…” Another book declares (rather disingenuously) that the owner will not pass judgment on lazy individuals:

he that may thryue and wyllnot
and his maysters commaundement fullfylnot
ffor to be hys Iuge I wyllnot
and he neuer thryue that skyllnot
Be me katerynne leke
He that may thrive and will not,
And his master’s commandment fulfill not,
To be his judge I will not
And he never thrive that skill [has] naught.
By me Katherynne Leke

 

A more serious contemplation can be found in another book, where Thomas Churchar expresses concern about being judged by unjust standards: “Though of the sort there be that feign and cloak their craft to serve their turn, shall I alas that truly mean for their offense thus guiltless burn; and if I buy their fault so dear that their untruth thus heat my fire, then have I wrong?” The vehemence of religious persecution meant that words could lead to spiritual and physical danger; wisdom could be a subjective matter. Comments by Catholics and Protestants show how they found echoes of their own Christian faith in his religious writings.

 

The Ransom Center’s collection of early printed Chaucer editions shows how the medieval poet continued to speak to readers through the centuries, and through owner markings, we can still hear the voices of early readers today.

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.