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Mark Twain letter has close geographical tie to University of Texas

By Edgar Walters

When Samuel Clemens—better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain—penned a letter in London in 1900 to the widow of his childhood best friend in Austin, he had no idea that it would be preserved more than a century later in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives just four blocks south. Today the letter resides in a collection of Twain-related materials that features correspondence with longtime friends and others, including one from Clemens to P. T. Barnum.

This letter’s addressee, Mrs. Dora Goff Bowen, lived at 2506 Whitis Ave. in a neighborhood just north of the burgeoning University of Texas campus. The address, now home to The University of Texas at Austin’s hulking Jesse H. Jones Communications Center, has an interesting past. A few years after Clemens wrote the letter, 2506 Whitis became the site of one of the University’s first sorority houses, that of the newly organized Pi Beta Phi chapter. Two lots down the street lay George Littlefield’s still-new Victorian mansion, built in 1893, which maintains a grandiose presence on campus to this day.

Dora’s husband, Will Bowen, had grown up with Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri. Their friendship and escapades along the Missouri River became the basis of Twain’s books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bowen and Clemens engaged in countless hijinks, including, as another letter reveals, stealing dinner from the town drunkard to feed “the hogs in order to keep them still till we could mount them & have a ride.”

Clemens’s letter to Mrs. Bowen begins abruptly: “Yes, I really wanted to catch the measles. I succeeded.” The statement refers to another episode of Will Bowen and Clemens’s childhood mischief. When a young Bowen came down with the measles, Clemens decided to join his friend in bed to catch the virus and “settle this matter one way or the other and be done with it,” as he revealed in a posthumously published autobiography.

But fans will notice in the letter a conspicuous absence of Twain’s characteristic humor and lightheartedness. The turn of the twentieth century was a difficult time in Clemens’s life. Will Bowen, with whom Clemens had been in correspondence for more than 30 years, had recently passed away. Shortly thereafter, in 1896, Clemens’s daughter Suzy died of meningitis. Around the same time, Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy after investing $300,000—worth approximately $8,000,000 today—in the Paige typesetting machine, a dysfunctional technology that quickly became obsolete.

Those hardships are reflected in the melancholy tone of Clemens’s letter: “[T]he romance of life is the only part of it that is overwhelmingly valuable, & romance dies with youth. After that, life is a drudge, & indeed a sham. A sham, & likewise a failure.” He fantasizes an alternate timeline, in which he would rather “call back Will Bowen & John Garth & the others, & live the life, & be as we were, & make holiday until 15, then all drown together.”

Despite his apparently bleak outlook, Clemens insists in the letter that he does not “say this uncheerfully—for I have seldom been uncheerful.” Indeed, in a post-script, he indulges in some characteristic playfulness in his response to Mrs. Bowen’s previous letter: “P.S. What we did to Brown? Oh, no, I will never reveal that!”

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From the Outside In: Doodle from Notebook II of Samuel Beckett's "Watt," 1941

By Edgar Walters

Image courtesy of the Estate of Samuel Beckett.
Image courtesy of the Estate of Samuel Beckett.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This playful doodle depicting a man in a hat in the south atrium of the Harry Ransom Center is from the second of seven manuscript notebooks for Samuel Beckett’s Watt. The notebooks are remarkable artifacts reveal Beckett’s process of writing, amending, and editing, but they also contain doodles, drawings, mathematical proofs, and musical notation written in pen, crayon, and colored pencil.

Beckett wrote Watt in Vichy France during World War II from 1940 to 1945; it was the last novel he wrote in English. In the 1920s, Beckett had assisted James Joyce with research for Finnegans Wake, and Joyce’s style had a profound impact on his early work. After the war, Beckett had an epiphany while visiting his mother in Ireland, which precipitated his move to the sparser style of his later works. Beckett began work on the book in Paris, but he and his companion Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil had to flee the city when the location of their resistance cell was compromised. Beckett wrote the second half of the novel while living in Roussillon in southern France. The novel was not published until 1953, after the publication of his trilogy of novels (MolloyMalone Dies, and The Unnamable) and Waiting for Godot, all of which were written in French.

Beckett is noted as having said that Watt was written in “drips and drabs,” as a way to “stay sane” during the war, and the manuscript reveals why the published text may seem uneven. The manuscript is “illuminated” with a range of doodles, sketches, and marginal notes, and has been likened to the illuminated Book of Kells, the Irish national treasure located at the Trinity College library in Dublin, where Beckett received his B.A. Like the Book of KellsWatt was created in isolation, is looked upon with reverence, and is abundantly illustrated (at least in the notebooks). Viewing the 945-page manuscript—with its layers of revision, doodles, and drawings marked with different pens and colored crayons—makes the complexity of its writing process apparent. The very structure of Watt is unusual: doors open after they have been discovered to be locked; the narration changes from omniscient to the point of view of an ordinary person, and then back again; a musical score and mathematical allusions are incorporated in the text; and an Addenda section contains items intended for—but not brought into—the main work. The original manuscript offers scholars the opportunity to decipher changes to the text, to interpret when they were made, and to try to see the original intent of the author.

The Ransom Center holds a broad range of Beckett’s manuscripts and correspondence. The Samuel Beckett collection includes manuscripts for more than 35 works, 400 letters, a collection of first editions, critical and biographical works, ephemera, and programs from performances. The library of collector T. E. Hanley comprises the majority of this collection, and the Carlton Lake collection provides a small but noteworthy sample of letters, manuscripts, and photographs. The holographs held by the Ransom Center—six of which were gifts from Beckett himself—include MurphyWattMolloyMalone DiesThe Unnameable,Waiting for GodotKrapp’s Last TapePlayMercier and Camier, and How It Is.

Ransom Center volunteer Sara Childress wrote this post.

“Femme de Lettres” of the French Enlightenment: Emilie du Châtelet’s Textbook of Leibnizian Physics

By Alicia Dietrich

Stacy Wykle is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is completing a certificate of advanced study in “Science, Information, and Cultural Heritage.” As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections” with instructor Michael Laird, Wykle studied the Ransom Center’s copy of Institutions de physique, by Émilie de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1740), an item from the Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire.

One item in the Ransom Center’s Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire is a work by the woman who is most often credited as having been Voltaire’s lover. It is far more fitting, however, that she be known for authoring the first French translation and commentary of Isaac Newton’s Principia, a work that is still considered to be the standard translation in France.

Over the last decade, interest in the life of Enlightenment intellectual Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706–1749) has flowered. In addition to two biographies that have been written over the last few years, Mme. du Châtelet has been the subject of two plays and an opera—Legacy of Light by Karen Zacarías, Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson, and Émilie by Kaija Saariaho. She is currently of great interest to public libraries and archives in France. Just last year the Archives de France and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France appealed to the French public for donations to assist in preempting the sale of the manuscripts of Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire that were sold at auction in Paris by Christie’s.

Rather than merely being Voltaire’s lover, du Châtelet exemplifies the style of argumentation that accelerated the separation of science and philosophy during the Enlightenment. Although her famed translation of Newton’s Principia was published after her death, du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique is a rich example of the philosophical hybrid of the eigtheenth century that produced modern science. Published in 1740, her Institutions shows the influence of Descartes and logical premises from Leibniz that continued to govern scientific inquiry into the twentieth century, and illustrates the ways in which French thinkers challenged and corrected some of Newton’s mechanical theories.

It can be argued that her contributions to the development of modern science far outshine those of her  more famous consort. This item is part of the Desmond Flower collection of Voltaire because of the author’s significant relationship with Voltaire. Yet the work could stand on its own as an important contribution to the history of science and to the spread of the commonplace understanding of Newtonian physics.

 

 

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From the Outside In: "Horse in Motion," Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886

By Edgar Walters

Eadweard Muybridge. "Horse in Motion," Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Eadweard Muybridge. "Horse in Motion," Photography collection, Harry Ransom Center.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

It may come as a surprise in the twenty-first century to discover that in the 1880s, details of how objects move were unknown. The human eye, unaided, cannot resolve the details of fast motion. Eadweard Muybridge and his experiments with motion photography—such as this series of pictures of a horse’s gait—helped solve this mystery.

Born Edward Muggeridge in 1830 at Kingston upon Thames, upriver from London, he was unsatisfied with life in the small English town, and by 1850 he had left to make his fortune in the United States. Little is known about him until he arrived in San Francisco, California, five years later. In 1855, the city of San Francisco had been settled only six years prior, and it provided the wide-open possibilities for which the young man was looking. After a short time as a bookseller, and a change to the more striking name by which he is known today, he took up photography from a daguerreotypist and worked for the photographer Carleton Watkins. He made coastal surveys, and soon he had gained fame for his spectacular images of Yosemite and Alaska.

His most famous work began in 1872 when he was hired by Leland Stanford (later the founder of Stanford University) to photograph horses. Stanford reputedly had made a bet that for a moment, all four of a racehorse’s hooves are off the ground simultaneously, and he hired Muybridge to take the pictures to prove him right. This was difficult to do with the cameras of the time, and the initial experiments produced only indistinct images. The photographer then became distracted when he discovered that his young wife had taken a lover and may even have had their child by him. Muybridge tracked down the lover, shot, and killed him. When Muybridge stood trial, he did not deny the killing, but he was acquitted nonetheless. Muybridge left San Francisco and spent two years in Guatemala. On his return, Muybridge resumed his photography of horses in motion, this time far more successfully. He set up a row of cameras with tripwires, each of which would trigger a picture for a split second as the horse ran by. The results settled the debate once and for all: all four hooves do leave the ground at once, as the top middle image in this sequence demonstrates.

Muybridge spent the rest of his career improving his technique, making a huge variety of motion studies, lecturing, and publishing. As a result of his motion studies, he is regarded as one of the fathers of the motion picture. Just as Niépce’s First Photograph had, Muybridge’s motion studies showed the way to a new art form. At the end of his life, Muybridge returned to England, where he died in 1904.

The window images show a few of the plates from Muybridge’s collection Animal Locomotion, held by the Ransom Center. The Center also has a number of individual images by Muybridge in the forms of nitrate negatives, lantern slides, and stereoscopic prints.

Ransom Center volunteer Alan Herbert wrote this post.

More than 65 research fellowships awarded

By Jennifer Tisdale

James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.
James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.

The Harry Ransom Center has awarded more than 65 research fellowships for 2013-14.

The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.

The fellowship recipients, half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “Postirony: Countercultural Fictions from Hipster to Coolhunter,” “Elliott Erwitt: Early Work,” “Obsession: The Films of Brian De Palma,” “David Foster Wallace: The Form of His Fiction,” “Matisse’s Illustrations for Ulysses,” and “Doris Lessing’s Intuitive Style.”

“Support of scholarly research is one of the primary goals of the Ransom Center,” said Director Thomas F. Staley. “With what has become one of the largest fellowship programs of its kind, we encourage scholars from around the world to make new discoveries about the writers and artists who have shaped our culture.”

The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.

The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Hobby Family Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

The storied escapes of René Belbenoit

By Edgar Walters

If under some truly unfortunate circumstances you found yourself imprisoned on a penal colony thousands of miles from home and infamous worldwide for its unlivable conditions, a talent for writing might be your best bet for survival. A considerable amount of perseverance and good luck would also come in handy.

Such was the case of René Belbenoit, a native Parisian who, after returning from the front lines of World War I as a teenager, was sentenced in 1921 to eight years of hard labor in French Guiana for a series of thefts. He first arrived at the penal colony in Saint-Laurent du Maroni in 1923 at the age of 24, and after 14 years of misery, punctuated by several hapless escape attempts, an emaciated and toothless Belbenoit snuck his way into Los Angeles.

Short in stature, slight of build, and cheerful by nature, Belbenoit felt isolated among his fellow inmates, many of whom had committed far more violent crimes than his own. But his classification by the administration as “incorrigible,” a distinction that landed him in solitary confinement on the particularly hostile Devil’s Island, was in one sense entirely fitting: no matter what punishment he faced, Belbenoit continued to make escape attempts until he’d secured his freedom. His final count totaled four prison breaks and two illegal escapes as a libéré, a “freed” ex-convict who, despite having finished his sentence, is forbidden to leave Guiana.

Belbenoit wrote about the experience in his memoir Dry Guillotine, which takes its title from the disdainful nickname the prisoners gave to their penal home. The Ransom Center’s René Belbenoit collection contains the book’s manuscript, a 900-page tome including illustrations, an official prisoner booklet, and several flattened cigarette packets with notes written on the back, presumably from the time Belbenoit spent in prison. He began keeping a written record of his time in Guiana in 1926, but many of his early notes were destroyed by prison guards. When possible, he solicited help from the mother superior of a local nunnery to safeguard his writings. He brought them along on every escape attempt, wrapping them in oilskins for protection from the elements, but many were ruined en route. When something was lost, he would simply rewrite it.

Detailed recollections of prison misery constitute much of the first half of the memoir. The backbreaking labor, often performed naked and shoeless, was a traumatic shock for Belbenoit, as were the swarming mosquitoes and sweltering heat of the tropics. The prison administration took no pains to preserve the inmates’ health, as ships full of replacements arrived regularly. According to Belbenoit, of the average 700 annual arrivals in Guiana, approximately 400 would die in their first year. He writes, “The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.”

In addition to his accounts of the prisoners’ suffering and the guards’ brutality, Belbenoit offers unique insight into the social structure of the all-male group of the condemned. Complex hierarchies emerged as the older, more aggressive inmates battled each other to win younger boys as their môme, or submissive sexual partners. Subterfuge became a requisite skill for survival in French Guiana. Bribery was ubiquitous but risky, as the possession of money was strictly forbidden. The most experienced prisoners were also adept malingerers, often smoking quinine to sham fever for a day of rest in the infirmary.

Belbenoit, a charming storyteller and known exaggerator, wields compelling narrative at the expense of incomplete veracity. But even his likely embellished accounts, the most dramatic of which would find a comfortable home in soap opera subplots, are revealing. Foremost among these are the tales of Belbenoit’s affair with a 16-year-old daughter of an administrator, and that of a complicated love triangle involving a prisoner, his môme, and a guard’s wife. Fourteen years of enduring both physical torture and torturous monotony honed Belbenoit’s ability to captivate an audience, winning him a network of friends that was essential to his survival.

 

So while the inmates’ complaints about their merciless treatment fell on deaf ears in Guiana, Belbenoit found an eager readership in the developed world, where headlines announced the departure of penal ships in heavy terms: “Broken Men Sail for Devil’s Island” and “Condemned to a Living Death.” Selling off his notes to visiting reporters turned out to be his most lucrative enterprise, which in turn afforded him a number of unlikely prospects for escape. Blair Niles, a travel writer and novelist, encountered Belbenoit in 1926. She visited with him for several days, buying the notes he had dutifully collected and preserved for 100 francs. Belbenoit used the money to stage an unsuccessful escape, which resulted in extreme, nearly fatal punishment. Niles returned to the United States, publishing her bestselling biography of Belbenoit in 1928, titled Condemned to Devil’s Island. The book, which was adapted into the 1929 film Condemned, was influential in international prison reform movements.

But Belbenoit never succumbed to the discouragement of his previous failures, and in 1935, a similar opportunity ultimately led to his freedom. An American filmmaker, whom Belbenoit leaves unnamed in his memoir, apparently offered 200 dollars in exchange for intimate knowledge of how one would conduct a dramatic escape in the tropics. Despite Belbenoit’s answer that the only feasible strategy would be to leave by the sea, the filmmaker retorted, “This must be an escape through the jungles… combat with fierce animals, snakes, swamps… It makes a better picture.” Perhaps it was from this man that Belbenoit learned the fungible value of an exciting story.

Using the cash to secure a 19-foot boat and some provisions, Belbenoit escaped by sea with five other convicts. They were well-received by the British authorities in Trinidad, “true sportsmen” who opted not to have them deported. Belbenoit separated from the group and made his way to Central America, where he spent seven months capturing butterflies to sell and living with native tribes on his journey northward.

Belbenoit finally reached El Salvador, stowed away on a ship, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. He made his way to New York, where he published Dry Guillotine in 1938, by which time France had stopped sending prisoners to the penal colony. The prison at Devil’s Island was officially closed eight years later.

Though now largely forgotten, Belbenoit’s extraordinary experience captured media attention for the remainder of his life. He appeared on the television series This Is Your Life and in several articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he worked briefly at Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the 1944 film Passage to Marseille. Belbenoit made the most of his compelling story, understanding just how much power it could wield. After all, it had saved his life.

Additional archival materials for Belbenoit are located in the E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records at Syracuse University, in the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California, and in the Ralph Edwards Productions Production Records at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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From the Outside In: Emanuel Romano, "Portrait of Carson McCullers," ca. 1949

By Edgar Walters

Emanuel Romano (Italian-American, 1897–1984). Portrait of Carson McCullers, ca. 1949. Oil on masonite. Art Collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Emanuel Romano (Italian-American, 1897–1984). Portrait of Carson McCullers, ca. 1949. Oil on masonite. Art Collection, Harry Ransom Center.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This portrait of the American writer Carson McCullers (1917–1967), painted by her friend Emanuel Romano (1897–1984), is one of a series of author portraits painted by Romano in the Harry Ransom Center collections, including pictures of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot, among many others.

Emanuel Glicenstein was born in Italy into a family of eminent sculptors and painters. He immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City, where he adopted the surname “Romano” to distinguish himself from his well-known artist father. Romano achieved prominence in New York as a painter, teacher, and lecturer. His portraits are rendered in an Expressionist style, employing strong colors and exaggerated lines to express emotions. Throughout his work, he was more interested in capturing emotive content than in creating solely realistic portrayals of his subjects.

When Romano was introduced to Carson McCullers in 1948 by mutual friend David McDowell, he must have sensed immediately an ideal subject for his Expressionist style. McCullers was a fragile, vulnerable woman with large, shining eyes. She had attempted suicide in March of that year, but over the summer she had rebounded to work on a theatrical adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding (a typescript of which can be seen in the north atrium window of the Ransom Center) and was now attending rehearsals. Romano discussed his first encounter with McCullers with her biographer Virginia Spencer Carr in The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers:

One morning McDowell came with a lady to my studio. She looked pale in her countenance; she had a body impairment and moved with great effort. She told me she had hemiplegia. Half of her body was paralyzed, but she tried courageously to hide her handicapped limbs. I was immediately attracted by the sensitivity of her personality and asked her to pose for a portrait, to which she immediately agreed. With pride she showed me the shirt she wore and the gray-green slacks—her man’s shirt, a dark blue plaid with emerald green stripes, had been a present from Tennessee Williams, from Milano. From time to time I would ask if she wanted to rest, but she would say, “No, I can sit some more.” But she wanted to have a cup of very hot coffee and a smoke. She smoked continuously… Usually she came in the morning and went to rehearsals of The Member of the Wedding in the afternoon.

After the opening of the play, which Romano attended, he created another oil painting as well as a series of drawings of McCullers.

This portrait is but one example of the Ransom Center’s collection of thousands of works of visual art, ranging from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries. These include not only portraits of writers by Romano and other artists but also paintings and drawings created by a number of writers themselves, including the poet E. E. Cummings, novelists D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, and playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.

Ransom Center volunteer Katherine McGhee wrote this post.

“Great Gatsby” materials on display

By Richard Oram

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, now generally recognized as the closest approximation to “The Great American Novel” and a staple of the high school curriculum, is embarking on yet another new life. Today, a film adaptation opens starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it has already been described as one of the most stylish movies ever made.  Three previous movies and one television drama based on Gatsby reflect their time periods as much as they do the Twenties.

The film has sent the paperback edition soaring to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.  Yet the first edition (1925) was only a modest success, as Fitzgerald notes in a letter in the Ransom Center’s collection.  Although his literary reputation went into a swoon in the late 1930s and 40s, the novel was reprinted from time to time, though it was rarely regarded as an American classic.  More than a decade after the author’s early death in 1940, biographical and critical re-evaluations finally established The Great Gatsby’s permanent place in the canon of modern fiction. In the above slideshow, a group of editions from the Ransom Center’s collections shows its progress from first edition to the current movie mass-market tie-in.  Not for the first time in its history and probably not for the last, Gatsby has been born again.

A case of materials related to The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald are on display in the Ransom Center lobby through June 9.

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Image: The first edition of The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925). The dust jacket by Francis Cugat incorporates several themes of the novel, while maintaining a certain ambiguity. The eyes most likely belong to Daisy, “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of Jay Gatsby’s consciousness. The jacket was completed before the novel, and Fitzgerald was so fond of it that he claimed he wrote it into his book. Today, intact dust jackets are exceptionally valuable; both of our copies have been repaired.

From the Outside In: Illustration from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," John Tenniel, 1865

By Edgar Walters

Illustration by John Tenniel from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."
Illustration by John Tenniel from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

“Curiouser and curiouser!” is what Alice cries when she suddenly stretches to more than nine feet tall, “like the largest telescope that ever was,” in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. An illustration by John Tenniel depicts this moment from the opening of Chapter II, which can be seen in one of the images etched into the windows of the Harry Ransom Center. In the drawing, we see Alice’s large, startled eyes and open mouth expressing her surprise at her predicament. Most suggestive of her increasing height is the greatly disproportionate length of her neck, whose Victorian collar, though stretched upward, remains properly buttoned. Tenniel succeeds in manifesting Carroll’s playful imagination within this bizarre image, yet he retains a delicate beauty in the artful rendering of her hands and the folds of her apron and puffed sleeves. Tenniel was as appreciative as Carroll himself of the aesthetic beauty of childhood, and his pairing of humor with grace matches the author’s own intent for his title character. A mixture of playfulness with sincere, human perplexities is central to Carroll’s Alice books, which—like telescopic Alice—have grown so popular that they remain not just favorites in literature but are ingrained into much of our culture.

The man behind the pseudonym Lewis Carroll is the Oxford mathematics lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. On July 4, 1852, Carroll and his friend Robinson Duckworth took the three daughters of his dean—Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell—for a boat ride on the river. For their entertainment, he invented stories as they rowed, including characters based on each of the boat’s passengers. Carroll folded the girls’ excited suggestions into the plotline and improvised the rest. Once the excursion was over, ten-year-old Alice requested that Carroll write down the story for her, so she might always be able to read it. After her insistent pestering, he did write it down, and two-and-a-half years later he presented Alice with a leather-bound manuscript, including his own illustrations, as a Christmas gift. The Liddell girls loved the manuscript, and as more children read the story, Carroll discovered its wide appeal. Literary friends, having delighted in reading the author’s drafts of the tale, urged him to publish. In October of 1863, Carroll secured the commitment of London publisher Alexander Macmillan to have his book printed.

Although at first he intended to refine and use his own drawings for the book, Carroll finally acknowledged his sketches’ limitations and set out to commission the work of a talented illustrator. The head caricaturist of Punch magazine, John Tenniel, was an obvious choice because of his renowned reputation and aesthetic sensibilities that matched Carroll’s own. Introduced by a mutual friend—the eminent dramatist Tom Taylor—Carroll met with Tenniel in January 1864 and petitioned him to create the artwork for his book. In the subsequent months, Carroll eagerly worked to expand and polish his texts, readying them for printing. Tenniel’s progress, however, was slow, and several planned deadlines passed before his blocks were completed. A first run of 2,000 copies was printed in June 1865, and a sample was delivered to Macmillan. Carroll was pleased with the finished product, and according to his diary (July 15, 1865), he inscribed “20 or more copies of Alice to go as presents to various friends.” Yet Tenniel was not satisfied with the print quality of his images and requested that the books be run again. Although the printing costs were at Carroll’s own expense, he agreed to scrap the first run and hire a new printer. Carroll had already distributed almost 50 copies, though, so he begged for their return. Ultimately, he received back all but 15. He tore out the inscription pages and then donated the books to a children’s hospital. Only 23 copies of this abandoned first edition exist today, one of which resides at the Ransom Center. The second batch of printed books pleased both author and illustrator, so Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now dated 1866, was at last released. Children and adults alike were drawn to the delightful fantasy of Carroll’s words and Tenniel’s imagery, and the novel became an instant success. By 1872, Carroll published a sequel—Through the Looking-Glass—again with illustrations by Tenniel. The Alice books grew to immense popularity, helping to solidify the careers of both Carroll and Tenniel. Carroll continued to publish new stories, verse, and scholarly treatises, and he remained at Oxford until his death in 1898. Tenniel went on to have a prolific career as a cartoonist at Punch and was knighted in 1893 for his contributions as a cartoonist, the first one in his profession to be so recognized.

As for the Alice books, they continue to thrive long after the passing of their creators. Now translated into over 70 languages and adapted across many forms of media, from theater to coloring books, Carroll’s fairy tale enjoys a lasting influence. As biographer Morton N. Cohen has stated, “Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, they are the books most widely and most frequently translated and quoted.” Whereas most children’s literature before it had primarily been written as moral instruction, Carroll’s stories of Wonderland broke tradition by “champion[ing] the child in the child’s confrontation with the adult world,” Cohen claims. As new generations emerge, Carroll’s story remains relevant and comforting in its message of overcoming the obstacles inherent in childhood and beyond.

The Ransom Center holds several collections related to Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. The Warren Weaver collection contains first editions of Carroll’s poetry, fiction, and scholarly writings on mathematics and logic, as well as translations of the books into several languages and some of Carroll’s personal correspondence. One of the rare books in this collection is a copy of the original 1865 edition called the “India Alice,” which made its way from a Victorian hospital in England to a used bookshop in Bangalore, India, before resurfacing in 1961. The Byron and Susan Sewell collection comprises twentieth-century editions of the Alice books, as well as secondary adaptations, parodies, and nonfiction that the original publications inspired. Such a rich assortment of materials provides an unparalleled opportunity to understand the genesis of this cherished tale and the man who imagined it.

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.

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.

Please be aware that Photo Friday will be on hiatus during the summer, but will return in September.

Author Kevin Powers speaks with Ransom Center members prior to his talk. Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Kevin Powers speaks with Ransom Center members prior to his talk. Photo by Pete Smith.
Musician Michael Hall performs at Poetry on the Plaza: Singers and Songwriters. Photo by Pete Smith.
Musician Michael Hall performs at Poetry on the Plaza: Singers and Songwriters. Photo by Pete Smith.
At a volunteer appreciation party this week, Ransom Center volunteers Carol Headrick, Doris Mohler, and Elizabeth Jones were honored for dedicating the most time to docent tours, visitors desk, and special events, respectively. Photo by Margaret Burke.
At a volunteer appreciation party this week, Ransom Center volunteers Carol Headrick, Doris Mohler, and Elizabeth Jones were honored for dedicating the most time to docent tours, visitors desk, and special events, respectively. Photo by Margaret Burke.
University of Tulsa Associate Professor of Film Jeff Van Hanken and Associate Professor of English Grant Jenkins interview Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about poet Ron Padgett. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.
University of Tulsa Associate Professor of Film Jeff Van Hanken and Associate Professor of English Grant Jenkins interview Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about poet Ron Padgett. Photo by Jennifer Tisdale.