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Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

By Megan Barnard

The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.

The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.

The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

McSweeney’s archive acquired

By Jennifer Tisdale

Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.
Cover dummy of "McSweeney's Quarterly" Issue 38.

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of the McSweeney’s publishing company. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin.

The bulk of the archive is composed of manuscripts of books, essays, and short stories; correspondence drawn from the publishing house’s work with hundreds of writers; and award-winning design materials. A current digital copy of all files relating to McSweeney’s work will be included, as well as first editions of all its publications.

“We’re very happy to have the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center,” said Eggers. “The Ransom Center is a world-class institution, and we’re honored to be included among their holdings. McSweeney’s is celebrating our 15th anniversary this year, and we’ve had the honor and pleasure of publishing hundreds of authors, established and upcoming, while navigating the choppy seas of independent publishing. We thank the Ransom Center for taking on our archive and for cleaning out our basement.”

The Ransom Center holds several publishers’ archives, including the records of Alfred A. Knopf, P.E.N. International, Nancy Cunard’s Hours Press, Anvil Press Poetry, Commentary magazine, the London Review of Books, and Little Magazine.

The McSweeney’s archive will be accessible once processed and cataloged.

Read more about the arrival of the McSweeney’s archive at the Ransom Center.

Dramaturg uses archival materials to edit new version of Tennessee Williams play for production at The Old Vic

By Abigail Cain

Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."
Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich star in The Old Vic's production of "Sweet Bird of Youth."

Dramaturg James Graham admits he had barely heard of Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth before starting work on the play. Alongside Williams’s other works—including Pulitzer Prize winners A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof—the difficult script often fades into the background.

This summer The Old Vic in London is bringing Sweet Bird of Youth to center stage. The play, which follows professional gigolo Chance Wayne and aging Hollywood star Alexandra Del Lago, exists in countless forms. Williams spent over 15 years writing and rewriting the play; some versions conclude with the characters alive and well, others with them dead. Entire acts that were slashed from earlier versions are later revived as Williams struggled to get it right.

Dramaturging involves editing and analyzing an existing text, and in the case of Sweet Bird of Youth, this task was especially difficult. Although many theaters select a single version of the play to perform, Graham instead wove together the different versions to make a cohesive whole. As part of his research, he spent time with the Williams collection at the Ransom Center in early 2013 reading through drafts of the play.

“Following [Williams’s] brain was an adventure—insertions, appendices, and keys leave a trail,” Graham said. “Seeing the names of his characters evolve, as Delphine became Valerie became Heavenly, and Phil Beam elevated to the more heroic-sounding Chance Wayne. I noted his coffee stains and allowed myself to imagine the smell of cigarette smoke wafting from the page.”

The Ransom Center’s collection is one of the principal archives of Williams’s works. The Center acquired the author’s own papers between 1962 and 1969, which document his career through more than 1,000 separately titled plays, poems, and short stories, along with correspondence and newspaper clippings. In 1964, the Center purchased the correspondence between Williams and his literary agent Audrey Wood. Then, in 1965, the collection expanded with the acquisition of family papers from his mother.

Sweet Bird of Youth, starring Kim Cattrall and Seth Numrich and directed by Marianne Elliott, premiered on June 1 and will run through August 31 at The Old Vic in London.

Watch a scene from the production.

In the galleries: Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of “The Fight”

By Abigail Cain

The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."
The opening page of Norman Mailer's handwritten draft of "The Fight."

Norman Mailer once wrote, “[Boxing] arouses two of the deepest anxieties we contain. There is not only the fear of getting hurt, which is profound in more men than will admit to it, but there is the opposite panic, equally unadmitted, of hurting others.”

Mailer used boxing to explore many of the violent debates of modern American life, debates about sex, gender, race, and even literary style. The Fight, Mailer’s book-length account of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, touches on many of these subjects while capturing one of the most famous and memorable boxing matches in history. Mailer’s love of the sport shines through as he describes the precision, skill, and art of two of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Mailer’s unabashed egoism and racism are equally evident. Since its publication in 1975, the book has been both widely celebrated and deeply criticized, much like Mailer himself.

In this draft page of The Fight, Mailer offers a description of the charismatic and often outrageous boxer Muhammad Ali. Mailer writes, “Is it possible that Muhammad Ali is the only American in the 20th century one does not need to describe?… when he is looking his best (and Ali has his days) then not only is the greatest athlete who ever lived standing before you but a fellow who is in danger of being the most beautiful man.”  Though few could rival Mailer’s oversized ego, in Ali, Mailer may have met his match.

The opening page of Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of The Fight is on display through August 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Literature and Sport. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.

Mailer’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.

Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.
Norman Mailer's ticket to the George Foreman–Muhammad Ali championship fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, September 25, 1974.

In the galleries: David Foster Wallace’s copy of John McPhee’s “Levels of the Game”

By Abigail Cain

David Foster Wallace's copy of John McPhee's "Levels of the Game."
David Foster Wallace's copy of John McPhee's "Levels of the Game."

Considered one of the best books on tennis ever written, John McPhee’s 1969 publication Levels of the Game chronicles Arthur Ashe’s win over Clark Graebner in their 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match. The book offers a nearly stroke-by-stroke account of the match, opening with the first serve and concluding with the winning shot. McPhee interweaves his reporting with in-depth profiles of the two competitors, exploring their disparate upbringings and the racial and sociopolitical undercurrents surrounding their match. In McPhee’s book, Ashe and Graebner become archetypes: Graebner a privileged, white conservative and Ashe a liberal, against-all-odds African American who comes to dominate a traditionally white sport.

In the book, Graebner compares his style with Ashe’s in a description laced with the racial and political undercurrents of the time. He says:

“I’ve never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I’m a fundamentalist. Arthur is a bachelor. I am married and conservative. I’m interested in business, in the market, in children’s clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He’s not a steady player. He’s a wristy slapper. Sometimes he doesn’t even know where the ball is going. He’s carefree, lackadaisical, forgetful.… Negroes are getting more confidence. They are asking for more and more, and they are getting more and more. They are looser. They’re liberal. In a way, ‘liberal’ is a synonym for ‘loose.’ And that’s exactly the way Arthur plays.”

In contrast, Ashe describes his opponent:

“There is not much variety in Clark’s game. It is steady, accurate, and conservative. He makes few errors. He plays still, compact, Republican tennis. He’s a damned smart player, a good thinker, but not a limber and flexible thinker. His game is predictable, but he has a sounder volley than I have, and a better forehand—more touch, more power. His forehand is a hell of a weapon. His moves are mediocre. His backhand is underspin, which means he can’t hit it hard. He just can’t hit a heavily top-spun backhand. He hasn’t much flair or finesse, except in the lob. He has the best lob of any of the Americans. He’s solid and consistent. He tries to let you beat yourself.”

David Foster Wallace’s annotated copy of Levels of the Game can be seen in the current exhibition Literature and Sport, on display through August 4. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.

David Foster Wallace’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.

In the galleries: Anna Atkins’s “Peacock Feathers” and Anna Krachey’s “Filament”

By Abigail Cain

Anna Krachey, "Filament," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Anna Krachey, "Filament," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Anna Atkins, "Peacock Feathers."
Anna Atkins, "Peacock Feathers."

Although Anna Atkins and Anna Krachey share a first name, Krachey acknowledges a much deeper connection. A member of Austin-based artist collective Lakes Were Rivers, Krachey came across Atkins’s work in the Ransom Center’s collections. She noticed an exploration of light, layering, and space that was similar to her own photographic practice.

Such connections form the basis of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive. Created in collaboration with Lakes Were Rivers, the exhibition highlights members’ works that were influenced in some way by the Ransom Center. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists. The pairings illustrate how archives and cultural collections stimulate new ideas and creative acts.

Atkins, born in 1799 in England, was an amateur botanist. She is known primarily for her thousands of cyanotypes, which often featured marine botanicals and other plants and objects. Peacock Feathers offers an example of the camera-less photographic technique—one that provided a new way of recording scientific specimens, different from the traditional letterpress method.

Krachey recognizes a similarity between Atkins’s choice of subject and her own process of identifying and selecting objects for photographs. She aims to reveal the unfamiliar in everyday objects by creating tension between the natural and the artificial. In her work Filament (2012), she plays with tactility, translucency, and composition, using analog rather than digital photographic methods to manipulate objects and create illusionistic space.

Both Filament and Peacock Feathers are on display through August 4. On this Thursday, July 18, the artists of Lakes Were Rivers will discuss their work at 7 p.m. in the galleries.

In the galleries: A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld"

By Abigail Cain

A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld."
A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld."

Don DeLillo once noted in an interview, “The significance of baseball, more than other sports, lies in the very nature of the game—slow and spread out and rambling. It’s a game of history and memory, a kind of living archive.”

DeLillo explored those aspects of the sport in his 1997 novel Underworld. Pictured here is a page from the first draft of that work, drawn from DeLillo’s archive at the Ransom Center. In this passage, he captures the magic of baseball: its ability to unite disparate individuals. The concluding lines in this draft differ from the published version, which reads, “The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.”

Widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of baseball fiction ever written, the prologue of Underworld was originally published as the novella “Pafko at the Wall” in the October 1992 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The text centers on the October 3, 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers that ended with the “shot heard ’round the world,” Bobby Thomson’s homerun that clinched the National League pennant for the Giants. DeLillo pairs his telling of this historic baseball game with another major event of the day: the U.S. government’s announcement that the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. In an interview, DeLillo noted, “The two events seemed oddly matched, at least to me, two kinds of conflict, local and global rivalries.”

This draft page can be seen in the current exhibition Literature and Sport, on display through August 4. Visitors can also view the notebook containing DeLillo’s notes for the novel and the author’s handwritten transcript of Russ Hodges’s broadcast of the conclusion of the playoff game between the Giants and the Dodgers.

In conjunction with the exhibition, DeLillo will read from his work at a Harry Ransom Lecture on Thursday, July 25, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Before the DeLillo event, stop by the Ransom Center’s visitor desk and sign up for eNews between 5 and 6:30 p.m.*  to receive a free copy of Underworld.

Materials from the novel are highlighted in the exhibition Literature and Sport, on view through August 4.

*While supplies last, one book per person.

In the galleries: Jason Reed’s "Motel, Terlingua" and W. D. Smithers’s "View of Study Butte, Texas"

By Abigail Cain

Jason Reed, "Motel, Terlingua," 2011. Courtesy of artist.
Jason Reed, "Motel, Terlingua," 2011. Courtesy of artist.
W.D. Smithers, "View of Study Butte, Texas," 1932.
W.D. Smithers, "View of Study Butte, Texas," 1932.

As photographer Jason Reed sat in the reading room of the Ransom Center, awaiting a box of Walker Evans photographs, he noticed a binder on the reference shelf nearby. In what he calls a “moment of coincidence,” he picked it up and discovered notes and captions describing photographs of West Texas—both the place he grew up and the area he has spent his life exploring through video and photography.

The binder contained a finding aid to the work of early-twentieth-century photographer W. D. Smithers, whose archive is held by the Ransom Center. Although 80 years separate the two artists, their work shares an uncanny similarity—take Reed’s Motel, Terlingua (2011) and Smithers’s View of Study Butte, Texas (1932) as an example.

The relationship between archives and the work of modern-day artists is the subject of the Ransom Center’s current exhibition Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive. Created in conjunction with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video, the exhibition highlights members’ works that were influenced in some way by the Ransom Center. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists.

Smithers began his career in commercial photography when he was 15 years old, eventually working as an aerial photographer for the U.S. Army Aviation Service during World War I. Between 1935 and 1939, under a contract with the International Boundary and Water Commission, Smithers photographed the entire U.S.-Mexican Border from Brownsville to San Diego.

Reed, too, focuses on the interplay between culture and land in the Texas-Mexico borderland. By pairing his and Smithers’s works, he said, “I work to elicit historical comparison and dialogue with the past while also creating space to reflect on photography’s role as an index of place and time, its inherent limitations in telling histories, and the archive as a catalyst in forming new ways of seeing.”

Motel, Terlingua and View of Study Butte, Texas are on display in the Ransom Center until August 4. On July 18, the artists of Lakes Were Rivers will discuss their work at 7 p.m. in the galleries.

Ransom Center acquires papers of writer Barbara Probst Solomon

By Alicia Dietrich

Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."
Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.

Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.

Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.

Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.

Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.

In the galleries: Alvin Langdon Coburn’s "Vortograph" and Barry Stone’s "Sky 3099"

By Abigail Cain

Barry Stone, "Sky 3099," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Barry Stone, "Sky 3099," 2012. Courtesy of artist.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Vortograph," 1917.
Alvin Langdon Coburn, "Vortograph," 1917.

Although almost a century separates Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortograph (1917) and Barry Stone’s Sky 3099 (2012), Stone still finds parallels between the works. It is this connection between old and new that informs the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive.

Created in conjunction with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video, the exhibition highlights members’ works that were influenced in some way by the Ransom Center. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists. The pairings illustrate how archives and cultural collections stimulate new ideas and creative acts.

Widely acknowledged as the first consciously created abstract photographs, Coburn’s vortographs were taken using a kaleidoscope-like instrument that fit over the lens of a camera to reflect and fracture the image. Their name comes from the term “Vorticist,” which describes an avant-garde British artistic and literary movement spearheaded by Wyndham Lewis and influenced by Cubism.

In many ways, Coburn’s earlier technical photographic experiments mirror Stone’s current work—black-and-white digital captures of landscapes in which Stone has altered the image file’s code or machine language in a text-editing program. This process, called databending, creates visual hiccups within the otherwise unaltered image. Stone’s Sky 3099 provides an example of the technique, billowing clouds interrupted by swaths of visual static. As the artist notes, “The noise, therefore, becomes more like the signal. The anomaly or glitch is assimilated into the image and reveals not only the methods of its assembly but also a glimpse of new perceptual possibilities.”

Both Sky 3099 and Vortograph are on display through August 4. On July 18, the artists of Lakes Were Rivers will discuss their work at 7 p.m. in the galleries.