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Decades later, current headlines echo controversies addressed in Morris Ernst collection

By Nicole Davis

Through a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a team of archivists and student interns has been working to organize and catalog the papers of attorney Morris Leopold Ernst since September 2009. The collection is now open for research, and a finding aid is available online.

Morris Leopold Ernst (1888–1976), who earned his law degree 100 years ago, may not yet be a household name, but his legal career has had a lasting impact on American society. Ernst dealt primarily with civil liberties cases in a variety of areas, including censorship, obscenity, and first amendment rights. In addition to his busy legal career, he was a prolific writer, authoring more than 30 books and hundreds of articles, essays, and short works on legal topics and other social issues like big business and divorce.

Ernst is probably best known for his work in literary censorship cases. His influential fights include the defense of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Arthur Schnitzler’s Casanova’s Homecoming, and most famously, James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Though the majority of Ernst’s work took place in the early and mid-twentieth century, as our team of archivists sifted through his papers and processed the collection, we couldn’t help noticing how timely the collection seemed. Over and over again the subjects we read about in Ernst’s archive were echoed by stories in the recent news.

The case United States v. One Book Entitled Ulysses by James Joyce, which Ernst and his colleagues carefully orchestrated, won Ernst much fame and set a precedent for arguing and trying “objectionable” literature. Banned in the United States for more than a decade before Ernst won the case in 1933, Joyce’s masterpiece has had to overcome other more recent hurdles. In 2010 the work was in the news when Apple tried to censor a graphic novel version by Rob Berry and Josh Levitas. Before allowing the Ulysses comic to appear as an electronic book for the iPad, Apple requested that the illustrators remove all nudity from their images. Apple eventually rescinded its demand and allowed the original illustrations to appear.

In the 1930s, Ernst was also a prominent figure in the early birth control movement defending the Birth Control Federation of America and the Clinical Research Bureau, predecessors of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. As these organizations printed and distributed educational materials on reproduction and contraception, they were charged with obscenity. In cases such as United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, Ernst exonerated the movement’s leaders from indecency and in so doing, helped promote women’s rights and the freedom of choice. Contraception and women’s rights have continued to be newsworthy topics.

Ernst was also well known for his work with labor unions, famously defending first amendment rights in Hague, Mayor, et al. v. Committee for Industrial Organization et al. This conflict arose in the 1930s when Jersey City, N.J. mayor Frank Hague tried to suppress many of the Committee for Industrial Organization’s (CIO) activities and decreed by city ordinance that laborers could not assemble in public. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court where the workers’ rights were upheld. Though Ernst won that case in 1939, politicians and labor unions have often been at odds with each other. For example, beginning in February 2011 headlines were populated with reports about Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s attempts to curtail union bargaining rights. The AFL-CIO represented workers in these disagreements as well.

Ernst published his book Too Big in 1940, one of the many books he wrote. The title is echoed by the phrase “too big to fail,” with which we all are familiar, as it has been frequently used in the media since the market crash in 2008. Monopolies and the danger of big business were of real concern to Ernst, and he wrote about it not only in that volume, but in numerous magazine articles.

Censorship, birth control, labor unions, and monopolies were only a few of Ernst’s many interests. As a tireless worker he involved himself in many other issues, such as reducing postage rates for books and promoting literacy around the world. His papers provide insight into his legal practice and writing career and could also provide a new perspective on issues in contemporary society.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Recommended Reading: The King James Bible: Its History and Influence

By Io Montecillo

Cover of Joseph Heller's "God Knows," a recommended reading pick by exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler.
Cover of Joseph Heller's "God Knows," a recommended reading pick by exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler.

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The King James Bible: It’s History and Influence tells the little-known story of one of the most widely read and printed books in the history of the English language. Exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler offers a list of recommended reading that traces the history of the influence of this translation.

Ransom Center members receive discounted membership for Austin Film Society

By Christine Lee

Austin Film Society Discount

Membership to the Ransom Center just became more valuable! We are pleased to announce that Ransom Center members can now receive a $10 discount on a membership to the Austin Film Society (AFS). AFS promotes the appreciation of film and supports creative media production.  Combine a Ransom Center membership with a membership to AFS, and you’ll enjoy year-round access to film-related activities and events.

Become a member of the Ransom Center.

If you are already a member and want to receive a discounted membership to AFS, download and mail a membership form along with your payment or credit card information to AFS, 1901 E 51st, Austin, TX, 78723. Please write “Harry Ransom Center Member” at the top of the form and enclose a photocopy of your Ransom Center membership card. Alternatively, you can email a scanned copy or image of your Ransom Center membership card to membership@austinfilm.org. If you prefer to speak with someone about becoming a member of the Austin Film Society, please call 512-322-0145.

Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.
Cover of "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects" by Tom Smith.

Upcoming Ransom Center Film Lecture

Join us on Thursday, April 19 at 7 p.m. for a lecture with special effects pioneer Tom Smith, who recently donated his archive to the Ransom Center. Smith discusses his work on films including Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and Return of the Jedi (1983).

Members of the Ransom Center receive complimentary parking and priority entry at this Harry Ransom Lecture. Doors open at 6:20 p.m. for members and at 6:30 p.m. for the general public. Members must present their membership cards for priority entrance; one seat per membership card. Members arriving after 6:30 p.m. will join the general queue. Complimentary parking for members is available at the University Co-op garage at 23rd and San Antonio streets.

The event takes place in KLRU’s Studio 6A in Communication Center B.

Photo Friday

By Alicia Dietrich

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.

Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Mary Alice Harper, head of photography and art cataloging, shares new David Douglas Duncan materials with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Undergraduate intern Rachel Platis selects photographs for a forthcoming exhibition. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Visiting educators learn about the history of the King James Bible during Saturday's teacher workshop. Photo by Lisa Pulsifer.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.
Multimedia Coordinator Lee Tran videotapes the First Photograph for an ongoing kiosk project. Photo by Daniel Zmud.

In the Galleries: The Origins of WWJD

By Io Montecillo

In the 1890s, Kansas minister Charles M. Sheldon (1857–1946) turned to “sermon stories” to engage his congregation. In 1896, Sheldon began reading to the Central Church of Topeka a new series of stories called In His Steps. Like other Sheldon sermon stories, In His Steps ran as a serial in The Advance (Chicago) before being published as a book.

Sheldon and his publishers, who had failed to properly secure a copyright for In His Steps, were stunned at the novel’s success—and all of the pirated editions that emerged. In His Steps became a runaway bestseller in the United States and England.

Sheldon took his inspiration and title from I Peter 2:21 and used the newly revised King James Bible (1881/1885) as his source text: “For here unto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that ye should follow his steps.”

The 12 central characters in the novel take a pledge to live their lives guided by the question, “What would Jesus do?” As Sheldon was part of the larger Social Gospel movement that sought to improve social problems throughout the world, much of the novel centers on how characters used the pledge to minister to the needs of the urban poor and to fight the destructive effects of alcohol. The popularity of the novel waned, but it was “rediscovered” in the 1990s, and the question “What would Jesus do?” again swept the country, with the four letters “WWJD” appearing on bracelets, bumper stickers, and t-shirts.

Sheldon’s manuscript and pen holder, along with the works of other authors inspired by the King James Bible, are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

In the Galleries: John Bunyan’s "The Pilgrim's Progress"

By Io Montecillo

"Plan of the Road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City" from the 1833 edition of "The Pilgrim's Progress." Click on image to view enlarged version.
"Plan of the Road from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City" from the 1833 edition of "The Pilgrim's Progress." Click on image to view enlarged version.

Few writers have been as biblically obsessed as John Bunyan (1628–1688). In his spiritual autobiography, he writes of being literally accosted, struck, and pursued by Bible verses wherever he went. His life, like his writings, was a biblical allegory. One of his most famous works, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was the most popular book in English, apart from the Bible itself. Bunyan wrote the allegory during his imprisonment for preaching without the sanction of the Church of England. The novel follows the central character Christian on his journey “from this world to that which is to come,” and is evocative of such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The plan or map helps readers follow the protagonist’s journey and provides an effective plot summary as well, as it depicts major events of Christian’s voyage to the Celestial City. Both the style and language of The Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrate the profound influence the King James translation had on Bunyan.

Bunyan’s work and those of other authors inspired by the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.