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Fellows Find: “How to Revise a True War Story”

By John Young

 

Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.
Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

John K. Young, a professor of English at Marshall University, reflects on the production history of Tim O’Brien’s novels and their implications for the kinds of narratives that are possible for soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Young received a fellowship from the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” As the O’Brien papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveal, perhaps the most prominent American novelist of the Vietnam War has kept on telling true war stories not only by mining his experience as a foot soldier across numerous works that often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also by continuing to revise those books, from the initial appearance of selected chapters in magazines, across typescripts and page proofs for first editions, and even to paperback reprints. While the Center’s collection does not include O’Brien’s earliest manuscripts (most of which he destroyed), it does enable scholars to trace O’Brien’s process of revision across multiple stages of a work’s production. In keeping with this refusal to let a text settle into a fixed, final form, O’Brien returned most recently to The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterwork, for a 2009 edition that contains substantial changes to the stories “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Ghost Soldiers,” although these revisions are too recent to have made their way to the Austin archive yet.

During a month-long fellowship in the summer of 2012, I made my way through five of O’Brien’s major works: If I Die in a Combat Zone, his Vietnam memoir; Northern Lights, his first novel; Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for 1979; The Things They Carried; and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien’s fictional response to the My Lai massacre. In each case I found fascinating instances of what the editorial theorist John Bryant calls “revisions sites,” moments in a text that offer divergent readings in response to author’s and publisher’s multiple versions. While many of these changes seem minor—adjusting punctuation or reworking the order of a sentence—even such small moments can take on striking interpretive implications. The closing lines in the opening chapter of Cacciato, for instance, describe the protagonist, PFC Paul Berlin, as he watches the title character on his AWOL escape from the war: “‘Go,’ whispered Paul Berlin. It did not seem enough. ‘Go,’ he said, and then he shouted, ‘Go!’” The exclamation mark did not appear in the book’s first edition or in the versions of the first chapter that had been previously published in Ploughshares and Gallery. For a 1986 paperback reprint, O’Brien changed the punctuation, subtly heightening Paul Berlin’s emotional connection to the runaway soldier and, by extension, to his own fantasies of flight, which make up much of the narrative. Similarly, one of Cacciato’s several “Observation Post” chapters—in which Paul Berlin reflects on his tour of duty so far and the comrades who have been killed—first included a paragraph in which he attempts to reconstruct the sequence of those deaths, ending with the line “Then Cacciato.” This suggests the possibility that Cacciato has himself been dead from the time the novel begins, a reading that would add another layer of imagination to the platoon’s journey from Vietnam to Paris. But O’Brien deleted this line for a later paperback edition, returning Cacciato’s fate to greater levels of ambiguity.

Some revisions are much larger in scope. To take one example, the typescript of The Things They Carried originally included a chapter entitled “The Real Mary Anne,” which followed “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a powerful narrative about a high school girl from Cleveland who visits the war and eventually so embraces its chaos and moral rupture that she leaves the Green Berets behind, disappearing into the jungle. Whereas Things often returns to an episode to announce that it was not “true,” at least not in the factual sense, “The Real Mary Anne” (in Box 15, Folder 7) insists on perhaps the book’s most improbable story as entirely accurate, declaring, “there is substantial evidence that the pivotal events in this story actually occurred.” At the suggestion of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, O’Brien cut this chapter altogether from the published book, an omission that locates “Sweetheart” along the same lines as the book’s other chapters, in which the truth of a reader’s experience of the war trumps fidelity to historical detail. Readers often take this story to be the most clearly “made up,” even as such reactions may say as much about ongoing social assumptions about gender and war. While the inclusion of “The Real Mary Anne” might have more overtly interrogated those cultural biases, without it Things still oscillates artfully between metafiction and real expressions of trauma.

It is at this level that the array of revisions in the O’Brien archive is most telling: how they depict the ongoing effort in O’Brien’s texts to represent the trauma of war, and of Vietnam in particular. On the one hand, O’Brien’s work articulates the impossibility of not telling these stories; on the other hand, “How to Tell a True War Story” and other texts respond to the intractable problem of only a few readers—other Vietnam veterans—being able to truly understand the stories. Dr. Jonathan Shays, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains in his book Achilles in Vietnam that “Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs.” For Shays, one of the most important steps in addressing—which is not to say “curing”—the effects of post-traumatic stress comes from “rendering it communicable, however imperfectly.” Readers of Cacciato and Things, especially, have long known the ways in which these texts respond to the difficult necessity of rendering the war communicable at the level of fractured plots and thematic resistances to closure, but the materials in the Ransom Center allow them to discover as well the ways in which O’Brien’s processes of writing and revising themselves speak to the undying truths of war.

Conversation and book signing with photographer Nathan Lyons

By Jessica McDonald

Cover of "Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews" (UT Press, 2012), edited by Jessica McDonald.
Cover of "Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews" (UT Press, 2012), edited by Jessica McDonald.

Jessica S. McDonald, the Ransom Center’s Nancy Inman and Marlene Nathan Meyerson Curator of Photography, speaks with photographer, curator, and educator Nathan Lyons about his career and role in the expansion of American photography on this Thursday, November 8, at 7 p.m.

McDonald edited the anthology Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews (UT Press, 2012), which provides the first comprehensive overview of Lyons’s career as one of the most important voices in American photography. Below, McDonald shares insight about Lyons.

A relative newcomer to the arts and humanities, photography’s history is still largely uncharted, contested, and complex. The full impact of major figures on the development of this young field, especially during the American “photo boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, has not yet been accounted for. The historical complexity of this era became especially fascinating to me during my tenure in the Department of Photographs at George Eastman House, the museum of photography and film in Rochester, New York, that was a key center of creative and intellectual activity when few other museums collected photographs.

In Rochester I met Nathan Lyons, a figure who has had an inestimable impact on the history of photography in the United States and its expansion over the last five decades. As a curator at Eastman House in the 1960s, Lyons organized some of the most groundbreaking and ambitious exhibitions of the time, and he later founded the Visual Studies Workshop, an independent arts organization and graduate program that trained the next generation of photographers, critics, curators, and historians. Lyons played a role in founding many of photography’s important organizations, including the Society for Photographic Education, and consistently advocated for photographers to funding agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts. All the while he was an active photographer, exhibiting his work at nearly every major U. S. museum and publishing several volumes of his own photographs, including Notations in Passing (1974) and Riding 1st Class on the Titanic! (1999).

In 2008 I began formally researching his role in American photography, and with his cooperation—including generous access to his files and countless interviews—I put together a volume of his photographs and writings. Lyons will join me in conversation at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday to celebrate the publication of Nathan Lyons: Selected Essays, Lectures, and Interviews, published this year by UT Press. The presentation will combine photographs representing Lyons’s artistic development with a discussion of his pivotal essays and lectures. We will also consider contributions from important scholars in the field who have written on Lyons’s work as an artist, his influence as a curator, and his widespread impact as an educator. A book signing follows.

The program will be webcast live Thursday starting at 7 p.m. CST.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Chris Plonsky, Women's Athletics Director at The University of Texas at  Austin, interviews David Booth about the James Naismith’s “Original  Rules of Basket Ball.” In 2010 Suzanne Deal Booth and David  Booth purchased the document, which is currently on display at the  Blanton Museum of Art. Photo by Pete Smith.
Chris Plonsky, Women's Athletics Director at The University of Texas at Austin, interviews David Booth about the James Naismith’s “Original Rules of Basket Ball.” In 2010 Suzanne Deal Booth and David Booth purchased the document, which is currently on display at the Blanton Museum of Art. Photo by Pete Smith.

Janine Barchas, Associate Professor of English at The University of   Texas at Austin, brought students from her class "The Paperback" to   visit the Ransom Center for a Halloween show-and-tell. Students in the   class dressed in costumes inspired by various paperback imprints. Photo   by Pete Smith.
Janine Barchas, Associate Professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, brought students from her class "The Paperback" to visit the Ransom Center for a Halloween show-and-tell. Students in the class dressed in costumes inspired by various paperback imprints. Photo by Pete Smith.
Members of the Ransom Center's staff dressed up in costume for Halloween. Photo by Richard Workman.
Members of the Ransom Center's staff dressed up in costume for Halloween. Photo by Richard Workman.
Author and futurist Bruce Sterling tours the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Design America” before his keynote talk at the 2012 Flair Symposium “Visions of the Future.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Author and futurist Bruce Sterling tours the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Design America” before his keynote talk at the 2012 Flair Symposium “Visions of the Future.” Photo by Pete Smith.

In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

By Ady Wetegrove

"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

By the end of the 1930s, Depression-weary Americans were confronted with a housing shortage and skyrocketing prices. Norman Bel Geddes, perpetually optimistic, viewed the precarious geopolitical climate as a ripe opportunity to reshape domestic architecture. With a housing crisis, economic depression, and looming entrance into a world war, Bel Geddes believed Americans faced a defining moment in which they could forge “new beginnings.”

In 1939, Bel Geddes was commissioned by the Housing Corporation of America (HCA) to design and develop an affordable, prefabricated single–family dwelling. By the time of completion in 1941, Bel Geddes’s mass–produced house model included 27 separate building modules complete with doors, windows, utility units, and the kitchen and bathroom, “ready for connection to service lines.” The low–cost prefabricated panel system provided an economic alternative to traditional domestic building techniques.

To meet the needs of low–income families, each four–room home was to be erected for a cost of $2,500 under a “controlled co-operative” system. Licensed by the HCA, the co-operative system would provide former Works Progress Administration laborers with salaries and shares, thus keeping thousands of Americans off of government assistance. Bel Geddes sought to modernize the assembly and marketing of houses in anticipation of a postwar housing crisis.

Although the modular home project was never realized, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated dwelling system displays his ingenuity not only in building techniques but also in his promotional strategies. As a part of Revere Copper and Brass’s “Better Living Campaign” of 1941, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated home occupied full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1945 the Revere Copper and Brass Company had distributed more than 800,000 copies of a 12-page booklet describing Bel Geddes’s plan for “tomorrow’s homes for the many.”

Bel Geddes had explored ways to effectively configure space into cost-effective designs since the late 1930s. Ultimately, his interest in prefabrication waned after a proposed prefabricated “Expand-a-House” franchise in the mid-1950s failed to launch.

“Unassembled Model of Bel Geddes’s Prefabricated House” is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6.

Victoria and Albert Museum’s "Hollywood Costume" exhibition features costumes from the Ransom Center

By Edgar Walters

Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.
Costumes from the Robert De Niro collection are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. ©V&A images.

The rich history of costume design and its most visionary personalities takes center stage in Hollywood Costume, the latest exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, which opened October 20. Some of Hollywood’s most iconic characters are the focus of the exhibition, which spans a century of film history. Seven costumes featured in the exhibition are on loan from the Harry Ransom Center.

Costumes are significant to a film production because they allow an actor to inhabit the character. In the words of Martin Scorsese, “The costume of the character is the character—the tie a man wears can tell you more about him than his dialogue.” Four of the Center’s costumes on loan to the V&A are from Scorsese films, specifically Raging Bull (1980), Casino (1995), The King of Comedy (1983), and Taxi Driver (1976).

For Robert De Niro, donning the costume was part of the transformation process necessary to fulfilling his role in Taxi Driver. Ruth Morley, costume designer for  the film, said, “When I finally found the plaid shirt Bobby wanted to wear, when I found the army jacket, the pants, well he wanted to wear them.” That army jacket and plaid shirt, part of the Ransom Center’s Paul Schrader collection, is on display at the exhibition. A fifth costume worn by De Niro, from Frankenstein (1995), is also featured.

Hollywood Costume is made up entirely of loaned objects, which made the curators’ job of featuring the “most enduring cinema costumes from 1912 to the present day” especially challenging. Historically, there has been a significant lack of documentation regarding Hollywood costumes, which compounds the difficulty of research in the field of costume design. Following the decline of the Hollywood studio system after its peak in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, many props, costumes, and related ephemera were sold off in public auctions. Not surprisingly, many of the more than 100 costumes displayed are on loan from passionate private collectors.

Two costumes from Gone With The Wind, part of the Ransom Center’s David O. Selznick collection, also feature prominently in the V&A exhibition. The green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown, both worn by Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), are particularly fragile and required special care, including customized textile boxes that would mitigate any movement or abrasion that might be caused by motion in transit. Jill Morena, the Center’s Assistant Curator for Costumes and Personal Effects, couriered the costumes and oversaw their installation at the V&A. Cara Varnell, an independent costume conservator who performed conservation work on the dresses, also assisted with the installation.

The exhibition offers a chance to explore what V&A Assistant Curator Keith Lodwick calls the “often misunderstood role of the costume designer.” That role, ever adapting to changes in the industry, is powerful enough to influence culture and memory far beyond the scope of a 90-minute film. Ultimately, the costume designer can develop a character into a cinematic icon.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Alicia Santana, a Latin American studies major, houses photographs from the Abraham Aronow collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
A special effects miniature train from "Duel in the Sun" (1946), part of the David O. Selznick collection, waiting to be photographed. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study junior Stephanie Vidal, an interior design major, houses photographs from the Jesse Herrera collection. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Conservation work completed on "Gone With The Wind" dresses

By Alicia Dietrich

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”

A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.

A Life Beyond Crime: The Papers of Nicolas Freeling

By Emily Neie

The papers of British author Nicolas Freeling (1927–2003), best known for his internationally acclaimed crime novels, have opened for research at the Ransom Center.  The collection consists of Freeling’s manuscript drafts, correspondence, journals, clippings, and other documents. Freeling is the author of more than 40 novels and has won several prestigious awards for crime fiction, including the British Crime Writers’ Association Golden Dagger award (1964), the Grand Prix de Roman Policier (1964), and the Edgar Allan Poe Award (1966).

Freeling began his writing career in 1959 while serving a three-week jail sentence in Amsterdam after being accused of stealing food. Although he was deported to England shortly after being released, his experience with an Amsterdam detective inspired him to write the first of his famous Piet Van der Valk detective novels, Love in Amsterdam. Freeling continued the series for ten years, and, to the dismay of readers and publishers alike, killed off the beloved detective in the final book.

Two years after writing the tenth and last van der Valk novel, Freeling introduced readers to French police detective Henri Castang, who appeared in 16 novels. He also penned four non-fiction titles, including two books inspired by 12 years of experience working as a restaurant chef, a book of essays about literature’s best crime writers, and his memoir, The Village Book.

Freeling resisted his classification as a crime writer, preferring to focus instead on human psychology and social institutions. The images featured in the slideshow largely represent Freeling’s novel Gadget and excerpts from his journals. His attention to detail in the research process and commitment to realism reveal talents that extend beyond writing excellent crime fiction.

Gadget paints an alarmingly factual account of the implications of the nuclear age and its effects on human behavior and motivation. Freeling worked closely with American physicist Peter Zimmerman to achieve accurate renderings of nuclear instruments, and the two men exchanged notes, research, and drawings throughout the novel’s development, all of which can be found in the archive.

The Freeling papers are a rich and varied resource, with documents ranging from recipes that reveal Freeling’s affinity for cooking, detailed drawings of a nuclear bomb referenced in Gadget, journal excerpts about the effects of drinking wine while writing, and more. While Freeling may be known primarily for his detective dramas, his dedication to the analysis of the human mind is preserved in his papers.

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: A drawing by physicist Peter Zimmerman with his and Nicolas Freeling’s notes as part of research for “Gadget,” 1971–1975.

Photo Friday

By Edgar Walters

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.

Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.

An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves  glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into  acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.

Preview "Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" book

By Jennifer Tisdale

Scheduled for release on November 1, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams) is the first book to explore the entire scope of American stage and industrial designer, urban planner, and futurist Norman Bel Geddes’s life, career, and projects. Edited by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America reveals the astonishing breadth of Bel Geddes’s work.

Enjoy a preview of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America through Albrecht’s introduction to the volume, which includes images of Bel Geddes’s varied work, from construction of the stage set for The Eternal Road to his design for an all-weather, all-purpose never-built stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Essays by more than 15 leading scholars explore Bel Geddes’s work in theater, housing, graphic design, and workplaces, as well as his famous Futurama installation and his working process. More than 400 illustrations from the Bel Geddes archive at the Harry Ransom Center reveal and showcase Bel Geddes’s extensive interests and talents. Essay contributors include Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Christina Cogdell, Christin Essin, Christopher Innes, Sandy Isenstadt, Christopher Long, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Lawrence Speck, and others.

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is available for purchase at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk during gallery hours, with members receiving a discount.

Complementing the book is the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.