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"The archives are a window into his mind"

By Alicia Dietrich

First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
Bonnie Nadell, longtime literary agent of David Foster Wallace, shares her thoughts on what scholars can learn from Wallace’s archive about his creative process:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

We want readers to see how he thought because how he thought was unique and beautiful and precise. So anyone looking through his drafts and even his books will see the levels of thinking that went into every sentence and every page. The corrections on Infinite Jest for the paperback edition even after a master copyediting job, David’s love of language in his dictionary and in his notebooks, and how he deconstructed other writer’s stories and sentences so he could teach his students how to write better and how to read better. The archives are a window into his mind, and I really think scholars and readers will appreciate seeing that for the first time.

Infinite Possibilities: A first glimpse into David Foster Wallace’s library

By Molly Schwartzburg

David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Approximately 200 books from David Foster Wallace’s library arrived at the Ransom Center with his papers. When the staff unpacked the collection to check its condition, we could see immediately that the library was not simply a supplement to the archive but an essential part of it. Wallace annotated many of the books heavily: he underlined passages, made extensive comments in the margins, and utilized the front and back inside covers for notes, vocabulary lists, brainstorms, and more. As a reader of Infinite Jest, one book in particular caught my eye: a battered paperback copy of Pam Cook’s edited volume The Cinema Book (New York: Pantheon, 1985). This reference work is heavily used: it lacks both its front and back cover, its spine is held on with two pieces of tape, and the exposed inside cover is inscribed “D. Wallace ’92,” four years before the publication of Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is a book about many things, and the mesmerizing power of movies is one of its most dominant themes. One of the book’s central figures is the late James O. Incandenza, an auteur whose filmography has left an indelible mark upon all of the novel’s characters in one way or another. Early in the novel, the reader learns of the extent of his importance in endnote 24. Endnote 24 comprises Incandenza’s entire filmography, which fills eight pages in tiny print. The reader discovers here that it is essential to actually read Wallace’s footnotes (spoiler alert), because only in this endnote do we learn that Infinite Jest is the title of an Incandenza film.

Traces of The Cinema Book may be found throughout Wallace’s novel, beginning with the basic format of the filmography itself: notably, Wallace penned a bracket around the “Special Note” at the front of The Cinema Book, in which Cook outlines the format her citations will take, and Wallace’s citations of Incandenza’s films resemble these closely. Wallace may also have gathered much film knowledge from this volume. The Incandenza filmography is a virtuosic pastiche of film history, technology, and vocabulary. We are told that Incandenza made every kind of film: “industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic noncommercial, nondramatic (‘anti-confluential’) noncommercial, nondramatic commercial, and dramatic commercial works” (985). Wallace annotated passages throughout The Cinema Book, with the exception of two theoretical chapters. He noted concrete information such as the names of actors, directors, production companies, film journals, and significant events in film history. His annotations show his interest in a wide range of terms and themes covered in the volume, with particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the “the gangster/crime film,” the only genre lacking any Wallace annotations).

At two points in the volume he explicitly mentions Infinite Jest. In the section on “National cinema and film movements,” he underlines much of the section on Roberto Rossellini’s place in the neo-realist Italian tradition, writing in the bottom margin “Rossellini + ‘ad-hoc’ structure—Infinite Jest” (39). More dramatically, he writes the letters “IJ” no less than four times in the three-page section on “The Hollywood Star Machine.” He underlines several passages with particular attention to the following, which will not come as a surprise to readers of Infinite Jest:

It has been argued that the erotic play of the “look” around the female star figure in classic Hollywood cinema is an integral part of the narrative drive towards closure and the reinstatement of equilibrium (Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” 1975). This argument uses psychoanalytical concepts to address the question of the fantasy relationship between spectators and film and the role of the star in that relationship (see also Cook, “Stars and politics,” 1982; Friedberg, “Identification and the star,” 1982). [51]

Finally, my favorite set of annotations surround the section on the genre of the musical, written by Andy Medhurst. Medhurst spends a considerable amount of time discussing this genre’s dominant theme: entertainment. Wallace has underlined passages discussing the ways in which this genre taps into viewers’ nostalgia and their desire to experience a “vision of human liberation” in a utopian entertainment experience. Wallace has penned “ENTERTAINMENT” at the top of the page and circled the page number (107). This word is central to the project of Infinite Jest, and it is enlightening to read one of the sources from which its meanings in the novel likely derive.

Unpacking Wallace’s library was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this reader; once this and his other books have been cataloged, I look forward to seeing what insights scholars will derive from the hundreds of books and thousands of annotations beyond the few I have noted here.

David Mamet papers now open for research

By Alicia Dietrich

The papers of David Mamet, author of more than 50 plays and 25 screenplays that have earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Oscar nominations, and a Tony Award, are now open at the Harry Ransom Center.

A finding aid for the collection can be accessed here.

The Ransom Center acquired Mamet’s archive in 2007. The collection is made up of more than 300 boxes of material, covers his entire career through 2007, and contains manuscripts, journals, office and production files, correspondence, and multiple drafts of each of his works, including the acclaimed plays American Buffalo (1975) and Glengarry Glen Ross (1982) and screenplays The Untouchables (1987), The Spanish Prisoner (1997), and Wag the Dog (1997). These materials record the writing and revision of all of his published texts, as well as several that are unpublished or unfinished.

 

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Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center

By Patricia Bruckmann

Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’
Cover of ‘Dracula: The sets and costumes of the Broadway production of the play designed by Edward Gorey’

Patricia C. Brückmann, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Toronto, recently spent time working in the Edward Gorey collection at the Ransom Center for a book she is writing about his work. Gorey (1925–2000) was a writer, illustrator, and a designer of books, sets, and costumes. Born in Chicago, Gorey attended the Francis Parker School (which also claims Ransom Center playwright David Mamet as an alumnus). He spent a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later attended Harvard University, where he roomed with Frank O’Hara. He is well-known for animating the opening sequence of PBS’s Mystery! series, and he won a Tony award in 1978 for his costume design for the Broadway revival of the play Dracula.

The Ransom Center’s Gorey collection includes books, manuscripts, illustrations, correspondence, material related to Dracula

, and some material from Gorey’s college days.

Brückmann, whose research was funded with a fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, shares her ruminations on her work in the Gorey papers.

 

“So I cannot come to your musicale…..love, Mildred.” This cryptic note, from Edward Gorey to Frank O’Hara, typifies their exchanges in the late ’40s when they shared rooms at Harvard in Eliot House. Although O’Hara’s musical, artistic, and literary talents were already manifest, Gorey’s mother was suspicious about her gifted only child’s friend, writing “I know nothing about this boy except what you tell me.”

Mrs. Gorey also worried about his future. Rejected by The New Yorker (the drawings were strange, they wrote, and the ideas “not funny”), she proposed that he send earlier work, perhaps more to their taste. The editor did suggest that he drop in, but said that he need not rush. The collection contains only two letters from his father, scrawled on Chicago City Council paper, the salutation “dear Son,” the sign-off “Ed.”

I can’t imagine anyone addressing Gorey with “Hi, honey,” but the birthday card in the collection, from a Chicago neighbor, I think, is real.

These, with tests of scansion and rhyme, scribbled all over yellow sheets (and on bills from the Harvard Coop) are among the papers found in three manuscript boxes at the Center. They include Gorey’s undergraduate essays, from a particularly suggestive one on La Rochefoucauld to a dull study on ship-building in Bath, Maine, and reveal the C+ Gorey received on the essay. The lively voice of his mother’s sister, Isabel Garvey, who shared and may have inspired his interest in dance, theater, and old books, leaps out—most often on 3 x 5 cards.

There are also many limericks, some printed later, and a large box of photostats (similar to a photocopy) from drawings for Dracula, these from a later time, and another box of sketches. The clippings in the vertical file, sent from home, often relate the engagements and marriages of his classmates at the Francis Parker School. The art master there, a Chicago painter, gave him, his mother says, “practically a major in art.” So he did have training in addition to the semester at the Institute. The saddest query, in a letter about Harvard, reads “Who was that professor who jumped out of a window?” The professor was F. O. Matthiessen. Harvard was not just pastoral in the ’40s. It was also, as Lillian Hellman said, “Scoundrel time.”

J. D. Salinger at the Harry Ransom Center

By Molly Schwartzburg

Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.
Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.

When Jerome David Salinger died in January, he had been dodging fans and journalists for more than 40 years. Salinger rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, an era of media expansion in which writers became celebrities, and in which celebrity itself could shape an entire literary career. Like many young writers, Salinger first embraced fame. But he soon came to despise it, famously retreating to small-town New Hampshire and refusing to publish after 1965, though he is rumored to have continued writing. One way he protected himself was by holding tightly to his copyright, refusing permission to publish the personal papers and manuscripts that surfaced over the decades.

The Harry Ransom Center is one of a handful of repositories that house small collections of J. D. Salinger manuscripts. Such collections have generally been sold or donated by the writer’s friends or colleagues, or have arrived at as part of the working files of a magazine that has published Salinger’s work. The Ransom Center’s collection contains letters and manuscripts sent by Salinger to his long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, who sold them to the Center through a dealer in 1968.

Salinger met Murray in the late 1930s, and over the course of more than two decades (1940–1963) wrote her a series of newsy, often funny letters that provide substantial information about his efforts to publish his stories in various magazines. Most of the letters were written early in his career and show Salinger maturing into a serious writer. They also reveal much of his witty, wry personality; Salinger inhabits various personae in his letters, composing with off-the-wall humor (including an in-joke about Salinger’s taste for Ovaltine) and sometimes signing the name of one of his own characters. He shares his thoughts about other writers—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway (whom he met in Paris during the war)—and exposes details about his relationships with three women: Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin), his first wife Sylvia, and his second wife Claire. Salinger enclosed stories with some letters, notably including draft fragments of the first published Holden Caulfield story, “I’m Crazy” (1945), and drafts and fragments of two unpublished works.

Though these materials have long been available to researchers, they remain unpublished and cannot be quoted in scholarly publications. There is little doubt that J. D. Salinger’s death will prompt renewed interest in his life and work among scholars and general readers alike, and we must wait to see how the literary estate will choose to proceed with permissions. In the last few weeks, many of Salinger’s friends and neighbors have spoken openly for the first time about their relationships with the writer, and their openness seems promising: New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross published snapshots and reminiscences of her long friendship with the writer in the magazine, while inhabitants of Cornish, New Hampshire, have eagerly described to journalists the (often marvelously creative) methods they devised to protect their neighbor from curious and unscrupulous visitors alike.

Librarians and archivists have a practical interest in gaining more information about Salinger; the current lack of information about much of his life and work limits our ability to describe the artifacts in our possession, such as books inscribed from Salinger to unidentified recipients and manuscript drafts whose place in the chain of composition cannot be identified without access to earlier and later versions. In the meantime, we continue to encourage those interested in searching the collection to visit the Ransom Center. Visitors to the Ransom Center can view a display of some of the items discussed above in our main lobby from February 26 to March 12. The opening of the display corresponds with “A Tribute to J. D. Salinger,” an event with readings of Salinger materials by Elizabeth Crane, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, and John Pipkin. This event is co-sponsored by American Short Fiction.

Claude McKay and the "Making of Home to Harlem"

By Danielle Sigler

Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay (1889–1948) is probably best-known for his poem “If We Must Die.” McKay, however, also published three novels and a collection of short stories. His most popular novel, Home to Harlem (1928), grew out of a short story of the same name. He was encouraged in his work by his literary agent William Bradley, an American whose agency operated out of Paris. Claude McKay’s correspondence can be found in the Center’s William A. Bradley Literary Agency collection.

An optimistic McKay wrote to Bradley from Antibes, France in February 1927, “Everything is clear and I can see through the whole story to the end. I ought to have the thing done by the end of March.” However, a series of difficulties beset McKay and slowed his writing process. In mid-March, McKay’s friend Max Eastman was planning to return to the United States and to take his typewriter with him. McKay thought he might have to write long-hand, but on March 26 happily reported “The typewriter problem is almost solved” after he purchased a used typewriter for 550 francs. He noted, however, it “doesn’t work so well. I have already had to take it back to Nice twice…and now it is on the blink again.” In early April, McKay was still working on the manuscript and struggling through financial and creative challenges, writing to Bradley, “I am without any money and should be very obliged to you for sending me two hundred francs….. I got into an impasse for a week nearly and had to destroy everything I wrote. But I got out and am going along smoothly again.”

McKay continued to work, and by June the manuscript was complete. In February 1928, McKay finally received the publisher’s “dummy” of the book and had concerns about the dust jacket featuring an illustration by Aaron Douglas:

“I like the cover of the book & the color of the jacket but I don’t like the drawing. It looks so much like the stiff skeleton of a black ape. Has no life and one looking at it will naturally link it with Jake [the novel’s protagonist]. Covarrubias could have done something striking & sympathetic, but I suppose I should not grumble & criticize but be loyal and patriotic as the artist is a colored man.”

A week later he followed-up with Bradley:

“Yes, I think my first opinion about the cover was wrong. It is effective and grows on me. The Senegalese fellows at the café were enchanted with it at first sight. Maybe my plastic sense is a little corrupt and sentimental.”

Harper and Brothers released the book with the Aaron Douglas illustration and Home to Harlem went on to become a success, surprising even McKay who was tickled with its popularity “I see Home to Harlem like an impudent dog has nosed right in among the best sellers in New York!” The New York Times declared of McKay’s talent, “it is not a strained, a half-hearted or skimpy talent, but one that is eminently worth more play than one novel.” While McKay went on to write Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933), these novels failed to live up to the success of Home to Harlem.

 

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The "curiously" illustrated Moll Pitcher

By Alicia Dietrich

The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.

As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.

Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.

 

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The Curious Colophon: Some Observations of HRC 44 in the Ransom Center

By Micah Erwin

Micah Erwin is a student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin specializing in rare books and special collections librarianship. He earned a masters degree in medieval studies, and his research interests include the preservation and cataloging of medieval manuscripts and early printed books. He shares some discoveries he made about a medieval manuscript in the Ransom Center’s collections. HRC 44 is the unique number assigned to this particular manuscript in the Center’s Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection. Early manuscripts in the Ransom Center’s collections are often identified by a unique number called a shelfmark that is assigned during the cataloging process.

There were many manuscripts produced in the Middle Ages whose scribes remained anonymous. For this reason, it is interesting when one stumbles upon a manuscript text that can be attributed to a particular scribe. The best form of evidence for the origin of a manuscript and its creator is a scribal colophon—that is, an inscription that a scribe writes at the completion of a manuscript in which he or she provides information about when, where, and by whom it was created. An early sixteenth-century northern European manuscript in the Harry Ransom Center presents just such a case. Although in this case, the identification of the scribe based upon the colophon happens to be a particularly tricky task.

HRC 44 contains a single, complete text in Latin: Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam Johannis Bonaventure. The well-known author of the original work of this text is St. Bonaventure, a doctor of the Catholic Church (1221-1274). St. Bonaventure is known for his great philosophical and mystical writings. Tractatus de Preparatione ad missam is a short treatise on how properly to prepare oneself for the reception of the Eucharist at Mass—a relevant topic at the time that HRC 44 was produced, as the Reformation was just beginning to take hold in Europe.

A number of factors allow us to conclude that this manuscript was produced no later than the year 1520: a watermark is located in the center of the gutter of every other leaf that can be identified with paper produced in Paris between 1468 and 1515; the text is written in a hybrida or semihybrida script, which was developed and popularized in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and the scribal colophon itself contains a date. The unusual part about the manuscript is that it contains not one, but two colophons.

The first colophon is written in a Late German cursiva hand, and there is a strange zoomorphic doodle around it . Curiously the text has been literally scribbled over. No date is legible:

Folio 11v of HRC 44
Folio 11v of HRC 44

Here is a translation of the first colophon:

“Here ends the tract on the preparation for the mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure[…………..]”

The second colophon appears to be much like the first, except for one very important difference: the addition of a name and a date. It is written in a secretary hand—an even later script than the first colophon. The translation is as follows:

“Here ends the Tract on the Preparation for Mass by the seraphic master Johann Bonaventure written by me, brother Johann Laenstein a Carmelite of Boppard, [in the] year 1520.”

The work of Franze-Bernand Lickteig, an extensive study of German Carmelites in medieval universities, records a certain “Joannes Laynstein de Boppardia” as a monk who studied at Cologne between 1520 and 1522. It is possible that he copied the colophon from the exemplar manuscript, realized his error, and perhaps later wrote a new colophon with his name and the date of its completion.

Based on the above evidence, HRC 44 was therefore produced by a Carmelite monk named Johannes Laenstein from Boppard, Germany, in 1520. It was either copied in Paris (where the paper was made), Cologne (where Laenstein studied), or at the priory of Boppard itself. If we are not convinced of the date 1520, then we can use the watermark evidence to suggest that it was produced no earlier than 1468.

I believe that HRC 44 represents a fascinating example of manuscript book production post-1450. Scholars interested in the production of manuscript books after the invention of the printing press will likely benefit from an examination of HRC 44 and should conduct further research to identify other works produced by its scribe. Additionally, the presence of three different types of script (the text and two colophons on folio 11v) on the same page make this an excellent manuscript for students of paleography.

Fellows Find: Fannie Hurst and Diets

By Harry Ransom Center

Before the Atkins, South Beach, and Cabbage Soup diets was the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet from the 1920s, which demanded fewer than 600 calories per day. One of its earliest practitioners was American novelist Fannie Hurst, who wrote extensively about her weight loss struggles in the early 20th century, when obesity began turning into a cultural stigma. As a Fellow at the Ransom Center last year, Dr. Julia Ehrhardt, Associate Professor of Honors and Women’s Studies at the University of Oklahoma, studied Hurst’s papers for her upcoming book about the literary history of dieting in the United States. Ehrhardt’s fellowship was funded by the Henriette F. and Clarence L. Cline Memorial Endowment Fund.

In 2007, I spent a fabulous two months in residence at the Ransom Center, thanks to the generous research fellowship program, which allowed me to travel and live in Austin in close proximity to the Center. My research project concerns the relationships among body weight, dieting, and American literature from the turn of the last century until 1939. The book that I hope will result from my research will discuss the emergence of dieting as a widespread cultural practice in the United States and the ways in which authorial concerns about excess weight manifested themselves in American drama, short stories, novels, and memoirs. I am also particularly interested in how the rise of mass-market fiction—a genre that many renowned American authors and critics believed was wreaking havoc on literary taste—Influenced cultural ideas about weight and writing.

I first became interested in these issues when I read Fannie Hurst’s dieting memoir, No Food With My Meals, published in 1935. Although Hurst is best known today as the author of the bestsellers Imitation of Life, Back Street, and Lummox, she was equally known in literary circles as an avid dieter. I applied for a Ransom Center fellowship knowing that the majority of Hurst’s personal papers and memoirs were housed there, and hoping that I might find materials relevant to my project in the archive.

Click image to see larger version of this document
Click image to see larger version of this document

On the very first day of my fellowship, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of weight-loss pamphlets, printed diets, and calorie charts that filled an entire box in the Hurst collection. As I continued my research in the vast collection, I found letters Hurst composed to friends, relatives, and editors about her struggles to lose weight and to maintain her svelte figure. I also learned from Hurst’s correspondence that several prominent members of the writer’s social circle—including Irvin Cobb, Blanche Knopf, and Helena Rubenstein—regularly commiserated with her about dieting and gave her their sympathy as well as their own weight-loss hints. My research in Hurst’s date books and diaries indicated that she was a diehard devotee of a popular 1920s fad diet known as the Hollywood Eighteen Day Diet, and I also found a fascinating folder of letters about Hurst’s concern about the cover image her publisher had selected for the hardcover version of No Food With My Meals.

The most important discovery I made at the Ransom Center were several draft versions of an autobiography Hurst composed in the early 1940s and intended to title Self-Portrait. In the approximately 350 pages of this manuscript, Hurst tells the painful story of growing up fat in the era when thinness emerged as an essential component of normative American identity, and describes the lack of self-confidence she felt as an overweight child and young woman. This manuscript and others attest that even when celebrating her many literary accomplishments, unless a coincident weight loss accompanied them, Hurst would berate herself for not achieving the artistic and personal goals she had set out to realize. Her personal papers thus demonstrate the immense power weight wielded over her self-perception and her identity as an author—a story that is sadly not a unique one during the era I am researching.

Thanks to the Ransom Center fellowship, as well as the staff members, archivists, librarians, and other fellows I met who shared my enthusiasm for the materials I found, my book manuscript now includes extensive discussions of materials I never imagined existed. I hope that my research will help scholars in a variety of disciplines re-think their ideas about weight, authorship, and citizenship during the Modernist period, and to appreciate the fascinating life and work of Fannie Hurst as well. I also look forward to making future visits to the Ransom Center, one of the best literary archives in the world.

Fellow’s Find: Screenwriter Warren Skaaren

By Alison Macor

What do Batman, Top Gun, and Beverly Hills Cop II have in common? All were rewritten by versatile screenwriter and “script doctor” Warren Skaaren. As a fellow at the Ransom Center last summer, Alison Macor, independent scholar and former film critic for The Austin Chronicle and the Austin American-Statesman, immersed herself in the Ransom Center’s Warren Skaaren collection. Macor shares her experiences working in the collection in preparation for her upcoming biography of Skaaren:

This summer I spent five weeks at the Ransom Center with the support of a Mayer Filmscript fellowship. I worked in the Warren Skaaren collection in preparation for my new book, In Batman’s Shadow: The Life and Career of Screenwriter Warren Skaaren.

In addition to writing original screenplays, the Austin-based Skaaren worked as a script doctor—rewriting screenplays by other writers—on many 1980s blockbusters, including Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), and Batman (1989). By the time of his death in December 1990, he was one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood.

I approached the collection chronologically because I thought it was important to trace Skaaren’s development as a writer. In some cases he spent years nurturing projects like The Freddie Steinmark Story, a biopic about The University of Texas safety who lost a leg to cancer, only to see them never get made. But with each new project Skaaren perfected his writing process and style. He drafted finely detailed character sketches and elaborate “intensity” charts that measured a story’s dramatic highs and lows. Ultimately it was his ability to create multifaceted characters that caught Hollywood’s attention.

I spent most of my time reading multiple drafts of each screenplay. This can be an exciting but also painfully slow process, and the beauty of the Ransom Center fellowship is that it gave me the luxury of time in an environment conducive to such work. Because Skaaren was often hired as a script doctor and reworked screenplays initially created by others, the assignment of writing credit became a particularly delicate issue and influenced his future assignments, pay rate, and reputation. Every studio project that Skaaren worked on went to arbitration, and he kept voluminous notes and copies of all correspondence pertaining to each case. The arbitration of Beverly Hills Cop II, for instance, was especially heated because, as a sequel with a built-in audience, the film was expected to do very well, and literally millions of dollars were at stake for the writers. Indeed, the writer who worked on the screenplay prior to Skaaren (and who received a shared credit with Skaaren) sued the Writers Guild over its decision to split the writing credit. The case was still being appealed at the time of Skaaren’s death—three and a half years after the film’s initial release.

Thanks to the Ransom Center’s Steve Wilson and Katie Risseeuw, who oversaw the digitization of some of the collection’s sound recordings, I was able to hear Skaaren on tape interviewing retired British and Nepalese soldiers and even a witch doctor in preparation for his original screenplay Of East and West, a sweeping coming-of-age story set in England and Nepal. Not only did this provide the opportunity to “hear” Skaaren for the first time, but it also gave me a sense of the intense preparation that he cultivated throughout his writing career. These recordings offered a glimpse of the charm and confidence that so many of his friends and colleagues have mentioned when describing his personality and, ultimately, his success.

Watch this video as Macor further discusses her work in the Skaaren collection: