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Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Kelsey Handler unfolds a painting made by a Devil's  Island prisoner from the René Belbenoit Collection. Photo by Kelsey  McKinney.
Undergraduate intern Kelsey Handler unfolds a painting made by a Devil's Island prisoner from the René Belbenoit Collection. Photo by Kelsey McKinney.
Ransom Center members enjoy an exclusive tour of the current exhibition,
Ransom Center members enjoy an exclusive tour of the current exhibition,
Filmmaker and special effects pioneer Tom Smith discusses his work at the KLRU studios. Photo by Pete Smith.
Filmmaker and special effects pioneer Tom Smith discusses his work at the KLRU studios. Photo by Pete Smith.

Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.
Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.

Shane Graham, Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. His work at the Ransom Center was funded by an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship.

An Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship allowed me to spend a month at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the connections between African-American poet Langston Hughes and black writers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I began this research some time ago at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where the great majority of Langston Hughes’s papers are deposited. The Ransom Center holdings allowed me to expand and enrich my investigation into these transatlantic connections in innumerable ways.

For instance, the Knopf records and the Nancy Cunard papers contain correspondence with Hughes, typescripts of his poems, essays, and speeches, and media clippings about his books. Moreover, the Transcription Centre records include information about its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established important links between African and diasporic writers. The Transcription Centre papers also contain records and reports from the important “Conference for African Writers of English Expression” held at Makerere College in Uganda in 1962, which the CCF co-organized and which Hughes attended as a guest of honor. These holdings provide small but important pieces to the jigsaw puzzle I am trying to complete sketching the transnational connections between Hughes and his many friends and correspondents.

Among other unexpected treasures I discovered were dozens of letters that Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote to his agent and to Nancy Cunard in Paris, from a period when McKay himself was living in Marseille, Spain, and Morocco. While not proving an immediate link to Langston Hughes, these letters do establish McKay as an equally transnational figure and have prompted me to return to the Langston Hughes papers to investigate the two men’s relationship. I’m happy to report, then, that my time at the Ransom Center opened up an important new area to explore in my book-in-progress.

Scholar reads between the lines in new Lillian Hellman biography

Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."
Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.

Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.

As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?

My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.

The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.

Scholar explores the making of the King James Bible

Helen Moore, a fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about the history of the King James Bible translation.  The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Moore’s interdisciplinary research has been founded on bringing neglected texts back to academic attention. She was lead curator of Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, the exhibition held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 2011 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the translation of the King James Bible. Moore and Julian Reid co-edited Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, the book that accompanied its associated exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library and now at the Ransom Center.

In this video, Moore and other scholars discuss the challenging task that the translators of the King James Version faced.

This event is co-sponsored by Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford and The Wall Street Journal.

“Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible,” co-edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid.
“Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible,” co-edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Two new members enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse at collection items presented by Jackie Muñoz, including Salvador Dali’s "Don Quixote," pictured here. Photo by Pete Smith.
Two new members enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse at collection items presented by Jackie Muñoz, including Salvador Dali’s "Don Quixote," pictured here. Photo by Pete Smith.
Member Alice Maxie previews items from the fall exhibition "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" at the New Member Open House and Reception. Photo by Pete Smith.
Member Alice Maxie previews items from the fall exhibition "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" at the New Member Open House and Reception. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center fellow Russell Goulbourne discusses his research during the monthly Fellows Brown Bag Luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center fellow Russell Goulbourne discusses his research during the monthly Fellows Brown Bag Luncheon. Photo by Pete Smith.

"What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored"

Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957.  © Mike Wallace.
Mike Wallace interviewing Margaret Sanger on "The Mike Wallace Interview," September 23, 1957. © Mike Wallace.

“Whether you agree or disagree with what you will hear, we feel that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast.”
-Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace rose to prominence in 1956 with the New York City television interview program Night Beat, which soon developed into the nationally televised prime-time program The Mike Wallace Interview.

Well prepared with extensive research, Wallace asked probing questions of guests framed in tight close-ups. The result was a series of compelling and revealing interviews with some of the most interesting and important people of the day, including Justice William O. Douglas, Frank Lloyd Wright, Pearl Buck, Salvador Dali, Oscar Hammerstein and Henry Kissinger. The interviews dealt with the issues of the times, including civil rights and the Cold War.

In the early 1960s, Wallace donated to the Ransom Center the show’s interviews on 16mm kinescope. The 30-minute interviews can be viewed online. Most of the episodes have not been seen on television since they aired.

Starting many of the interviews with “What you are about to see is unrehearsed and uncensored,” Wallace quickly became recognized for his tough questions and the forceful style for which he is still known today. Through the online videos, one can watch Wallace aggressively question his subjects, including Margaret Sanger about her support for birth control.

Almost half a century since their original broadcast, these interviews not only remain compelling and serve as a time capsule from the mid-twentieth century, but they also continue to resonate with many of the issues still being addressed today.

Bugs, Mold, and Conservation

Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.
Mary Baughman uses tweezers to remove moth cocoons from a hat that is part of the Sir Donald Wolfit collection. The hat was used in productions of Shakespeare's plays in England, between 1937-1967. Photo by Pete Smith.

Mary Baughman, a Harry Ransom Center book conservator, hunts bugs. When she discovers them in materials at the Center, she destroys them, typically with a 72-hour stint in a freezer at 20 degrees centigrade or below. But don’t ask Baughman which of the cellulose-munching bugs she wishes didn’t exist at all. “That’s just silly,” she says. “There’s a place on this earth for all of them.” As long as that place isn’t the Ransom Center’s collection.

When boxes of materials first arrive at the Center, teams of conservators and archivists gather at tables in the quarantine room in the basement to inspect each folder, envelope, book, and slip of paper, looking for telltale signs of bugs—as well as for mold, another great enemy of archives. Finding and identifying the bugs in the works takes the thoroughness of a forensic pathologist and a familiarity with frass (insect excrement). Beetles leave behind a fine granular powder, while silverfish leave tiny black flecks. Big ragged bites from the paper, brown splatters of vomit, and shiny brown egg sacks are evidence of past or present roaches.

Despite possible encounters with wood-boring beetles and fungus and such, opening the boxes, even for longtime inspectors, is still as exciting as Christmas. Sure, considering the sheer volume of material inspected, some boxes yield the gift equivalent of socks or steak knives, but others bear unexpected treasures such as photographic negatives of Frida Kahlo or handwritten pages of notes by a little-known writer on her lengthy conversations with Diego Rivera.

Many materials arrive carefully packed and preserved, while others appear to have been swept pell-mell off a cluttered table directly into the box—chips of ceiling plaster, used tissues, and all.

Still, Baughman says very few materials arrive with full-blown infestations, recalling only two in the past ten years—a box from Puerto Rico that brought its entourage of termites with it and a collection of photographs from San Antonio that Baughman remembers as “pretty gnarly.”

The conservation department’s program to intercept insects before they enter the building has been around for more than 30 years, growing in part out of the discovery in the 1980s of drugstore beetles dining on several volumes of The Works of St. Augustine, printed in Venice in 1729. The initial treatment with moth balls—a standard of the times, but now obsolete—simply stunned the larvae, who recovered to eat again until finally meeting a chilly demise in a freezer.

The treatment of mold, a specialty of Olivia Primanis, the chief book conservator with the Center, has likewise changed tack over the years. “Previously, everyone tried to kill mold,” she says. But its ubiquity and tenacity proved that an impossible task. Now, mold is instead removed and contained—mainly by changing its environment by eliminating heat and, especially, humidity. But even when mold is removed—even if it could be killed—its properties, such as allergens and toxins, still remain. So moldy items are marked as such, to serve as a sort of disclaimer to patrons, who may then choose to wear a mask or even review moldy materials under a fume hood.

Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Olivia Primanis reduces mold contamination on a music score with a hepa filtered vacuum cleaner. Equipped with micro tools and adjustable suction, the cleaner is used in a fume hood to decrease exposure to the conservator and the Ransom Center's environment. Photo by Pete Smith.

“Mold is harder to get rid of, but bugs are sneakier,” Baughman says. Case in point of this sly cunning: A Japanese book of law dating from the late nineteenth century with a tiny hole no bigger than a freckle in the spine. Open the book and the handiwork of a beetle larva is revealed, an inch-long tunnel snaking through the pages. But there will be no light at the end of this tunnel; the bug was stopped in its tracks via deep freeze.

Eliminating bugs in paper products may be a snap—especially in the Center’s walk-in freezer—but some materials, such as leather, ivory, and painted canvas or wood, can be damaged by freezing. Spraying with pesticides is not an option, as this can harm both collection materials and the scholars who stick their noses in them. Besides, treating with pesticides is seldom effective because bugs usually live within the materials, not on the surfaces.

Instead, materials that show signs of previous insect encampments may be placed under observation, like the painting on a wooden panel that Baughman has sealed in a double-sided Plexiglas frame so she can spot the possible emergence of adult beetles. And if the beetles do surface? Then what? The object might earn a four-month stretch in an oxygen-free environment.
And afterwards, you can trust that Baughman and the other conservators will still be keeping an eye on it.

This article, written by Suzy Banks, originally appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Ransom Edition.

Early printed book contains rare evidence of medieval spectacles

 

Many scholars rank the invention of eyeglasses among the most important contributions to humankind in the last 2,000 years. Yet, the inventor of this now thoroughly quotidian piece of technology remains anonymous. Indeed the inventor (or inventors) will almost certainly never be known, given the numerous conflicting claims, lack of specificity, and scarcity of surviving documentation.

What scholars do know about the history of eyeglasses is that they were probably invented at the end of the thirteenth century by a craftsman living near Pisa. The evidence originates from a passage by Friar Giordano da Pisa who recounts having met the anonymous craftsman in 1286. A friend of Giordano named Friar Allesandro della Spina learned how to make them shortly thereafter and shared the secret with the public. A number of other possible inventors of eyeglasses have been posited over the centuries, all of which have finally been proven spurious in recent scholarship.1

 

During the early period of the production of eyeglasses, they were referred to as vitreos ab oculis ad legendum (eyeglasses for eyes for reading) and oglarios de vitro (spectacles with glass lenses). Eventually these rather clunky terms were shortened to occhiali and ocularia. Either way, the evidence indicates that spectacles were probably invented in Italy at the end of the thirteenth century, and by the early fourteenth century, they were being produced and sold in Venice.

Scholars believe that by the end of the fifteenth century, spectacles were probably being sold and produced throughout most of Europe, with countries like England importing them by the thousands. Florence led the way in manufacturing and apparently produced some of the highest quality spectacles. Despite this widespread production, there are relatively few surviving specimens. Indeed, although Florence was known to be a major producer, archeologists have found only one pair of rivet spectacles in that city.

It is with this in mind that it becomes all the more significant to find evidence of a pair of medieval spectacles anywhere at all. One can imagine why the recent discovery of what appears to be an impression of a pair of medieval rivet spectacles in one of the Ransom Center’s early printed books was cause for excitement. While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).

A discovery like this is fairly uncommon. Among the many thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in U.S. libraries, only a handful of similar discoveries have been made: a pair of spectacles found in the Folger copy 46 of the First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library; the outline of a pair spectacles carved into the wooden boards of a sixteenth-century volume in the rare books department at Catholic University of America and in a fifthteenth-century Breviary at the Fribourg, Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire (seen in Christopher De Hamel’s History of Illuminated Manuscripts, fig. 193); and an impression in a manuscript at the Walters Art Museum. One medieval scholar who has conducted a survey of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the United States informed me that he had encountered only one such example.

The earliest spectacles comprised two convex glass disks enclosed in metal or bone rims with handles centrally connected by a rivet and could either clamp onto the nostrils or be held before the eyes. Later specimens had wire and even leather rims. We know this not only from surviving examples but also from artistic depictions. A painter from northern Italy working in 1352 provides us with the first depiction of spectacles. It appears in a fresco that adorns the Chapter House of a Dominican monastery in Treviso, Italy. The Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher can be seen hard at work in his study with quill, parchment, and a pair of early spectacles on his nose. St. Jerome, the famous scholar-saint and translator of the Latin Bible, also was frequently depicted wearing spectacles in his study.

Advanced scientific methods for dating aside, we can get a good estimate of the age of the eyeglasses that left the impression on the parchment by first examining the script on the parchment (to establish the earliest possible date) and then by looking at the shape of the impression itself. The text is what is known as Southern Textualis or Rotunda. Southern Textualis was popular in Italy and Southern Europe between the late 1200s and the late 1400s. Alternately, the 1568 publication of the printed text provides us with a possible later date. Regardless, the spectacles conform to the physical features and rough time period for early medieval leather-framed spectacles.* But dare we hope for more? Because the book was printed in Venice, Italy, the tantalizing possibility exists that the wearer who deposited his spectacles in between the parchment leaves may have been using a pair of the earliest eyeglasses ever made, because Florence, where eyeglasses were invented, is less than 165 miles from Venice. Although we may never know exactly how (or when) these spectacles left their mark on the parchment, their faint impressions nevertheless offer an intriguing glimpse into the early history this important invention.

1This topic, and the history of spectacles in general, is thoroughly summarized in Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 2007).

*The author now concludes that the shape of the spectacles is closer to that of leather-framed spectacles, not rivet spectacles, as this post originally stated. Consequently, a better date range would be late 1400s and circa 1500s. Thanks to David Fleishman for his assistance with identification. For an example of leather-framed spectacles, see those of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530).

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Rear flyleaf: It’s difficult to tell exactly how the spectacles left their impression, but they must have been sandwiched between the two parchment endleaves for an extended period of time. Photo by Pete Smith.

Christine Brooke-Rose, experimental fiction writer

Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.
Manuscript for Christine Brooke-Rose’s 'Xorandor.' ©Carcanet Press.

“With news of the death of Christine Brooke-Rose, the world of letters has lost a significant and courageous writer,” said Karen Lawrence, President of Sarah Lawrence College and author of Techniques for Living: Fiction and Theory in the Work of Christine Brooke-Rose.

A writer known for her unorthodox and experimental style, Christine Brooke-Rose died on March 21. Her archive is housed at the Ransom Center.

Christine Frances Evelyn Brooke-Rose was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 16, 1923. She was the youngest of two daughters of Alfred Northbrook Rose and Evelyn Brooke Rose. After the dissolution of their marriage while Brooke-Rose was quite young, both became Anglican Benedictine monastics.

During World War II, Brooke-Rose served as an intelligence officer in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, where she met her first husband, Rodney Ian Shirley Bax. They married in May 1944 and divorced four years later. In February 1948, she married Polish poet and novelist Jerzy Pietrkiewicz. When Pietrkiewicz became ill in 1956, Brooke-Rose began to write novels after publishing Gold (1955), a metaphysical religious poem based on the anonymous fourteenth-century English poem Pearl.

After her own illness in 1962, Brooke-Rose’s fiction changed dramatically. Her next novel, Out (1964), discarded the traditional ideals of character and plot and began the play with language and form that has marked her work ever since. Some of her more famous works include Between (1968), which centers around the experiences of a professional translator and is written without the use of the verb “to be” in all its forms. Another, Xorandor (1986), is a science-fiction story about the discovery by two children of a silicon-based civilization that feeds on nuclear radiation. The story is written in the form of dialog and computer printouts by the children, who use an invented technological slang.

“As she herself pointed out, Christine Brooke-Rose escaped most would-be canonic labels,” said Lawrence. “She was a narrative theorist, literary critic, and novelist for whom new fictional techniques were necessary to represent the increased ‘unreality’ of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her fictions are rehearsals for living under the constraints of a new world, yet with comedy, nuance, and toughness, they draw creative vitality and moral inspiration out of the very limitations they evoke.

“In different modes, Brooke-Rose’s overtly valedictory last books (Invisible Author: Last Essays and Life, End of), as well as her brilliant novel Textermination, dramatize the ‘death of the author’ and the fragility and tenacity of the connection between language and being. In doing so, they offer what she has called ‘techniques for living,’ new forms for telling the human story within the unreality of contemporary life.”

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Bethany Johnson reads, reviews, and summarizes correspondence for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition about the centennial of World War I. Photo by Pete Smith.

Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Registrants of The David Foster Wallace Symposium view a case of materials related to Wallace in the Ransom Center’s lobby. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin, literary agent Bonnie Nadell, and Little, Brown editor Michael Pietsch gather before their public program, “"Everything and More: A Conversation About David Foster Wallace." Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Pete Smith photographs a costume that Robert De Niro wore in “Raging Bull.” Photo by Alicia Dietrich.