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Happy Holidays

Cultural Compass will be on hiatus during the University’s winter break and will return with new content on Tuesday, January 5. Here are the holiday hours for the Ransom Center:

Ransom Center Galleries
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Thursday
10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday, December 31
Noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Library Reading/Viewing Rooms
Please note that the Library Reading/Viewing Rooms will be closed from Tuesday, December 22 through Sunday, January 3, 2010.
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday
9 a.m.-Noon Saturday

Closure Times
The Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and the following holidays:
Thanksgiving Day
Christmas Eve Day (Thursday, December 24)
Christmas Day (Friday, December 25)
New Year’s Day (Friday, January 1)

Jennifer Jones materials in collections

Actress Jennifer Jones, who died today at the age of 90, has connections to the Ransom Center’s film holdings, particularly the David O. Selznick collection.

The Selznick collection, the largest collection at the Ransom Center, occupies almost five thousand document cases, and spans the career of the famed Hollywood producer. Selznick cast Jones in several films, including Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948). The two married in 1949.

Cataloging the Morris L. Ernst papers

In the spring of 2009, the Harry Ransom Center received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to catalog the Morris L. Ernst papers. The collection will be closed to researchers until the project is completed in the fall of 2011. During that time, a team of one full-time project archivist and two part-time assistant archivists will arrange, describe, and preserve the Ernst papers. They will also produce a standard finding aid (or guide to the collection), which will be available online.

During the cataloging process, the archivists aim to achieve two goals: access and preservation. The Ernst papers, despite being uncataloged, have been used frequently since their acquisition. Several lists and indexes to the papers exist, but they are incomplete, unreliable, and difficult to navigate. This project will replace those various guides with a standardized, online finding aid, which will be searchable and generally much easier to access and use.

The other goal is to make the physical material last as long as possible, so that the information contained in the papers will remain a part of the cultural record. To this end, project staff will re-house the papers in acid-free boxes and folders. At-risk items—those that have been damaged by water, age, or other environmental factors—will be treated by the Center’s Conservation Department. The Ransom Center has a state-of-the-art lab where materials can be stabilized for long-term preservation.

When the cataloging project is complete, the Ernst papers will be housed with the Center’s other collections in secure temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks, ensuring the papers’ availability to researchers.

Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out

The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.

The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.

Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”

The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.

Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.

You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.

You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.

“Existentialism for Beginners”

Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”

Fellows Find: Fannie Hurst and Diets

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.

From the Galleries: Tycho Brahe's "Astronomiae instauratae mechanica"

Before the telescope was invented, 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe built his own instruments to measure star and planetary positions with accuracy up to one arcminute. Brahe described these home-made instruments in his 1602 book, Astronomiae instauratae mechanica, the first edition of which is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Other Worlds: Rare Astronomical Works. Mary Kay Hemenway, Research Associate and Senior Lecturer of the Astronomy Department at The University of Texas at Austin, explains why Brahe’s book is one of her favorite items in the exhibition.

The greatest observational astronomer before the use of the telescope is undoubtedly Tycho Brahe. Justly proud of his methods and the many instruments that he designed and had built, he wrote a book illustrating them in 1598—and printed less than 100 copies on his own printing press. The Other Worlds exhibition includes a copy of the first trade edition (1602) that was printed mostly from the woodblocks and plates of the private edition. The book describes his observatory, Uraniborg, on the island of Hven in Denmark and the instruments he used. These instruments measured the altitudes or angular separations between astronomical objects. This allowed him to record carefully the positions of stars, including all of those listed by Ptolemy, and make a large (six-foot) globe of the fixed stars. The most iconic illustration of the book is that of the mural quadrant that allowed the observer to measure the altitude at which celestial bodies crossed the meridian. Its great size is shown by including a life-sized portrait of Brahe himself.

Since Brahe was essentially running a research institute with the equivalent of modern-day students, post-docs, instrument makers, mathematicians who did calculations, technicians, and a library, some of these are shown in the woodcut. We see these assistants in the background—performing observations, working on the data, even doing chemical experiments. Also included are portraits of King Frederick II and Queen Sophia of Denmark—his original patrons—and his faithful dog laying at his feet. It forms a complete picture of the astronomer at work with the components necessary.

Brahe’s observations of comets were so good that they showed that comets moved throughout the solar system, dispelling Aristotle’s notion of “comets as swamp gas that exist in the space between the earth and moon.” Being able to break through the celestial spheres allowed Brahe to come up with an interesting scheme to show the structure of the universe. If we count time by years, he follows Copernicus; his plan allows the Earth to remain in the center of the universe—with the moon and sun revolving around Earth, but the other planets revolving around the sun. His data was essential for Kepler’s development of the laws of planetary motions, but he didn’t live to see the key theoretical idea of his life shot down by the very person he had hired to provide mathematical proof of his unique, Earth-centered theory.

How to have literature in a pandemic

Today is World AIDS Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness about HIV and AIDS, remembering the dead, and celebrating the living. The Ransom Center’s collection includes several people, both famous and ordinary, whose lives have been touched by AIDS. Among the most well known is Terrence McNally, whose plays Lisbon Traviata (1985, 1989), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), A Perfect Ganesh (1993), and Love! Valour!
Compassion!
(1994), as well as the Emmy-winning television movie Andre’s Mother (1988, 1990), incorporate AIDS as part of the social, emotional, and biological fabric of their characters’ lives.

All five of these works are represented in the McNally papers at the Ransom Center, in addition to manuscripts, correspondence, and production materials related to his other works, and other materials dating from his high school years through the present. His papers also include 174 computer disks with contents ranging from manuscripts to correspondence to photographs. Digital drafts exist for three of the plays mentioned above: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; and Love! Valour! Compassion!

Love! Valour! Compassion!, which won a Tony for best play in 1995, is the story of eight gay friends, one of whom owns a large house in the Hudson Valley where the group meets for holiday weekends during one summer. These gatherings become a celebration of friendship and an exploration of life and desire in a time of AIDS. Andre’s Mother first took shape as a short play written for Urban Blight, a musical revue performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1988. Both the original eight-minute play and the television movie version, which aired on PBS in 1990 as part of the American Playhouse series, explored the confrontation between Andre’s lover and his mother, and were set at Andre’s memorial service shortly after his death from AIDS.

In addition to drafts with McNally’s handwritten corrections, the boxes related to these two works contain a small amount of correspondence from ordinary people who wrote to share their personal experiences with McNally after seeing Andre’s Mother or Love! Valour! Compassion! One letter is from a mother who lost her own son to AIDS. Another is from an older gay man who cared for his long-time partner in his final years. In 1991, Frank Rich wrote in a New York Times review that Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, and Andre’s Mother “offer unsentimental hope about the possibilities for intimacy at a time when fear and death rule.” McNally’s larger collection and this small pocket of correspondence are a testament to the power of stories, both public and private, to connect people.