Novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez will receive a 2013 National Medal of the Arts today “for her extraordinary storytelling.” The award will be presented by President Obama. The White House notes in the citation, “In poetry and in prose, Ms. Alvarez explores themes of identity, family, and cultural divides. She illustrates the complexity of navigating two worlds and reveals the human capacity for strength in the face of oppression.”
Alvarez’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and is currently being processed. Alvarez was born in New York City but raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 10. In 1960 her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that her father was involved in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Much of Alvarez’s work is considered semi-autobiographical, drawing on her experiences as an immigrant and her bicultural identity. Alvarez’s unique experiences have shaped and infused her writing—from such award-winning novels as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies to her poetry.
Alvarez’s extensive archive consists of manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files. The manuscripts span her writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and unpublished works, often in multiple drafts.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Ransom Center. Elizabeth Garver has held several positions at the Ransom Center since 2000, including graduate student intern, manuscript archivist, and in 2005–2006, she co-curated the Technologies of Writing exhibition. Currently, she works with the Ransom Center’s extensive French and Italian collections, and she is a co-curator of the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. She speaks four languages—English, French, Italian, and Russian—and holds a variety of degrees, including a Master’s in Library and Information Science, a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the University of Paris, a Master of Arts in Nautical Archeology, and a Bachelor of Arts in Archeology. She is also a current Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at The University of Texas at Austin.
Why do you enjoy working at the Ransom Center?
Well, this is my 14th year here, and almost every day I see something new that I’ve never seen before. I also like being able to do research, which is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of jobs, and I like helping other people with their research and answering any questions they might have. The job is always changing and always interesting.
Can you tell me a little bit about curating the current World War I exhibition?
Jean Cannon and I were officially brought on board for the current exhibition about two years ago. She wrote her dissertation on the war poets, and I have an interest in the topic as a UT PhD student in Modern History, so we both had some expertise. There was a lot of reading on our own, but it was also looking into the collections in depth, and since there isn’t a single World War I collection to draw upon, it was basically like a treasure hunt. Then, when you find the treasures, there is a choice to make because the space is not infinite.
Is there a “one that got away” item that was cut from the current exhibition for space that you wish could have been included?
Yes, actually there are a couple, but there’s a really touching letter that holds an interest for me in the Édoard Dujardin collection. He was a French writer, and he had a mistress named Madeleine Boisguillaume who wrote him a letter toward the beginning of the war about the conditions in the West of France. All of the doctors were gone because they were at the front, and there was no one to help women to deliver babies and things like that. There were only old men left, old doctors who couldn’t travel, and no hospital in the town. Because of this, she said women and children were dying in childbirth. It’s really emotional and also gives an interesting perspective. People don’t usually think about the women’s experiences during the war.
What has visitor response been like for the exhibition?
I think visitor response has been very positive. It’s a response that I don’t think many exhibitions get, where people have their own stories to tell. Quite a few people have been sharing stories about their families and what their grandparents did in the war, and it’s just been wonderful.
I hear you speak French fluently. Do you have any chances to speak French around Austin?
Yes, we have a French lunch once a week where we speak only French, and there’s actually a large French community here at The University of Texas and around Austin. It’s pretty amazing how often I hear French, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak it. There are groups and of course the French department, and there are always French movies. Also, when I communicate with scholars, I’m able to use a lot of French. I think that’s why my Italian and Russian kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pretty devoted to this language.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I do a lot of gardening, and I love baseball. My family and I are pretty hardcore baseball fans—I grew up with it and I watched my brothers play. The season is over now, but I’ve had season tickets to the Longhorns for probably around 10 years. Otherwise, I do a lot of reading (although I feel like lately I’ve only been reading about the war for this exhibition), and I really enjoy cooking, especially French food.
Do you have a favorite piece or collection at the Ransom Center?
Obviously the French collections are amazing, but my favorite piece changes every once in awhile. Currently, I think my favorite item in the collections is the manuscript for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his annotations and drawings. We also have some of his artwork, which is all amazing.
Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Jean Cannon has been the literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center since March 2012. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a Master’s degree from Tulane University, and a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Cannon is responsible for helping patrons in the reading room, answering research queries, and curating exhibitions. She spent the last two years working with colleague Elizabeth Garver to co-curate the current exhibition, The World at War: 1914–1918.
What’s your favorite thing about working at the Ransom Center?
I love the moment when you see a student or researcher come across an artifact that really just makes their jaw drop, the “wow” moment.
Can you tell me more about curating the current World at War exhibition?
We started that process about two years ago. I did my dissertation research using several World War I collections at the Ransom Center, but even having done that, I had no idea just how much was here. I had worked in the literary collections, but we also have photographs and posters and all sorts of things that made it a very exciting treasure hunt throughout the building. It was a long process of researching and amassing material from the collections, and then the painful part was choosing the items and having to cut things out because you only have so much space in the gallery. We did a lot of what I like to call “dreaming and scheming.”
What is it like picking and choosing items for the exhibitions?
It’s exciting and can also be kind of chaotic. I think research on that large of a scale is a process of ducking down lots of different rabbit holes every day. Even if you try to be systematic about it, you will find yourself getting drawn to different items. For example, I went through about a month of being obsessed with carrier pigeons, and Elizabeth went through a month being obsessed with pilots.
Did carrier pigeons actually work?
Absolutely. On the western front, telephone lines would get blown up really easily with all the shelling on the western front, so carrier pigeons were actually more reliable. It was a strange meeting of the old world and the new, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century technologies co-existing on the battlefield.
If you could pick a favorite item in the Ransom Center’s collections, what would it be?
One item that really means a lot to me is Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother. That’s one of the most affecting of the letters that I’ve read here, and it’s in the gallery now, right in the middle of the show.
Can you tell me a little more about your educational background and how you ended up in your current job at the Ransom Center?
It’s a long, twisty tale. I started graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans, and the second year I was there, Hurricane Katrina hit. So I ended up evacuating and coming to UT because the university had a large enough program that they were able to absorb some of the Tulane students, for which I’m ever grateful. The wonderful thing about being here was being able to do the two-year graduate internship at the Ransom Center. I just fell in love with the place, and I continued volunteering and doing freelance research in the reading room. Then, as I was finishing my doctoral degree, the director at the time recruited me to come in and serve as literary collections research associate. So I defended my dissertation, took two weeks off to hike the Grand Canyon and then came back to start working here full time. It was a whirlwind!
I hear you are a talented hat maker. Can you tell me a little more about that?
Well, I’ve always loved hats and have always worn a lot of hats, even as a child. Then, when I was working in New York, I saw that there was a night class at Parson’ School of Design, so I just decided to take it! At that point I didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine, and I loved it even though I was really out of my depth. Since then, I’ve sought out classes here and there and found old millinery text books and manuals in the archives. My house is full of 50 or so hats.
What is a perfect Saturday for you?
I would probably go for a run on the Greenbelt, maybe go for a swim, read a good book on the porch (for which it has to be sunny, but not 100 degrees), work on a hat, and cook a nice dinner and have people over! Possibly a good film also, especially if it’s hot outside and I can go to the Paramount Summer Classics series.
What book would you consider a “must read” this summer?
I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It will take you awhile, but it’s really worth it. She’s a big believer that a book can be escapist but also very smart, and I really love that combination.
The Ransom Center recently acquired a collection of letters and photographs relating to novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick (1916–2007), co-founder of TheNew York Review of Books and one of the most brilliant literary critics of the late-twentieth century. The newly acquired material complements Elizabeth Hardwick’s archive, which she donated to the Ransom Center in 1991.
This new material was acquired from Jon R. Jewett, a personal friend of Hardwick—or “Lizzie,” as her closest friends called her. They met in Castine, Maine, in the early 1980s, where Hardwick had a summer residence that she once shared with her former husband, the poet Robert Lowell.
The collection includes more than 20 handwritten letters from Hardwick to Jewett spanning their three decades of friendship. The letters showcase Hardwick’s sharp wit and are filled with details of her daily activities, reflections on current events, and kind words of advice for her friend. In a letter dated January 21, 1991, she writes of the Gulf War, “The situation is really bizarre indeed, no jobs and a war that is not over in a week, as expected. I can’t tear myself away from the TV, but I suppose the worst thing will be that it is all to become repetition, nothing new happening and so the great happening, the war itself, just becomes another little repetitive show.”
On April 10, 1994, in a letter peppered with typos, she offers valuable advice about editing and proofreading but self-reflexively notes, “I can’t proofread my own work. It’s embarrassing how many mistakes there are in something I have read more than a dozen times.” She concludes, “I am aware of all the mistakes in this letter, but it is a rush and even the typing room is such a mess I can hardly see the page.”
The correspondence in the collection is supplemented with a number of photographs and candid snapshots—including one of a frail but smiling Lizzie taken just days before her death in 2007.
Pim Verhulst of the University of Antwerp visited the Ransom Center to work with the Samuel Beckett papers, in particular the radio plays and related correspondence. His research, funded by a dissertation fellowship, seeks to bring together all the existing draft versions in a digital space and study the writing process. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In 2013 the Harry Ransom Center awarded me a dissertation fellowship for a research project on the radio plays of the Irish-French author and Nobel Prize Winner (1969) Samuel Beckett. My dissertation is part of the recently launched Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Its goal is to reunite all extant draft material of Beckett’s bilingual work, scattered over a dozen libraries all around the world, in an interactive digital environment. Each of its 27 online modules is supplemented with a book that reconstructs the writing process of the highlighted texts on the basis of their available writing traces, as well as letters and even Beckett’s personal library. My dissertation covers Beckett’s six radio plays: All That Fall, Embers, Pochade radiophonique, Words and Music, Esquisse radiophonique, and Cascando. They were written in English and French between 1956 and 1962 and translated by the author himself around the same time.
My week’s stay at the Ransom Center came at the end of a three-year research period, during which I visited all the major European research institutions and libraries preserving Beckett material. The Ransom Center was my last stop, and while most pieces of the puzzle were already in place, a few crucial gaps remained. The collection includes draft material for Beckett’s first two radio plays, All That Fall and Embers, as well as many important letter collections from close friends. My trip to the Ransom Center followed a short research stay at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where it was unusually hot and damp for my Northern European temperament. The cold front causing ice storms in Houston and Dallas had made the December weather in Austin resemble more closely what I was used to in Belgium, so I felt immediately at home when I arrived. To warm myself a little, I decided to turn to Embers first. The typescript of the French version (Cendres) is very interesting because it shows just how intensely Beckett reworked the translation made by his friend, the French writer Robert Pinget. In three kinds of writing material—grey pencil, blue ink, and red ballpoint—you can see him trying out five or six variants of a phrase, the differences being ever so slight. This great attention to detail was all the more impressive because the Center allowed me to consult the original documents, which even showed the traces of previous erased alternative, a rare luxury that only archives offer.
The English typescript of the radio play comes late in the writing process and does not show many alterations. One peculiar aspect of the typescript is its lack of a title. From my earlier research on the text, I knew that Beckett originally planned to call it “Ebb,” as it takes place by the seaside. Why it was changed to Embers is revealed by his letters to Ethna McCarthy, the wife of one of his best friends. The news of her terminal illness brought to Beckett’s mind an image of her “crouching all day over the fire in the front room” when he last saw Ethna in Dublin, a vivid depiction that recurs in some of his other letters to mutual friends. Beckett sent her his new radio script with the message: “there are bits that will murmur to you.” Embers must have been one of the last—if not the last—text that Ethna read during her life. Beckett’s change of title reflects these personal circumstances, as the cycle of ebb and flow makes way for the entropic decline of coals dying down. It is a beautiful though painful reminder of how art tries to staunch the wounds of life, even in the face of death.
The vaudevillian setup of All That Fall promised lighter entertainment, as fat Maddy Rooney painstakingly makes her way to the nearest train station. Fellow travelers offer a ride but they all break down, leading to ribald sitcom. She finally meets her blind husband on the platform and leads him home, but it soon becomes clear just how unfit a guide she is. The script’s closing pages become ever more grim, as tensions between Maddy and Dan rise and the weather takes a turn for the worse. The gorgeous manuscript notebook that holds the first version of the radio play shows how Beckett wrote the text in fits and starts, shuffling along the dreary road of composition much like his characters, switching between writing tools and colors as if to liven things up. When he got to the second, more gloomy part of the script—appropriately written in black ink—he returned to the first page of the notebook and changed the title from “Lovely Day for the Races” to All That Fall. The new title refers to Psalm 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In Beckett’s radio play, there is no sign of a merciful God. Ironically, as I approached the end of the manuscript, Ransom Center staff members were busy putting up Christmas decorations. As everyone was getting ready for the holiday season, it was time for me to go home. Still glowing with the kindness of Elizabeth Garver, Bridget Gayle-Ground, and their colleagues, and the excitement of a week’s archival exploration, I tried not to think of All That Fall as my flight sped across the Atlantic.
Image: Photograph of Samuel Beckett taken by a street photographer outside Burlington House in Piccadily, ca. 1954.
Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.
Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.
One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established. While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.
It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.
Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s playOroonoko.
“We dream of cars that will float or fly, or run on energy from a laser beam, or travel close to the ground without wheels. Such research may border on the fantastic, but so did the idea of a carriage going about the country without a horse.” –The Ford Book of Styling, 1963
The High Museum of Art in Atlanta is currently hosting the exhibition Dream Cars through September 7, which includes items from the Ransom Center’s Norman Bel Geddes collection. The exhibition showcases the innovative and artistic design of rare vehicles from the early 1930s to 2010 and encompasses the evolution of the automobile from a horseless carriage to a sleek, highly functional speed machine. Dream Cars highlights designs and models from across Europe and the United States, including a blueprint, a photograph, and three drawings of Bel Geddes’s 1932 design, Motorcar No. 9.
The exhibition brings together 17 concept cars, including designs from Ferrari, Bugatti, General Motors, and Porsche. These vehicles are paired with conceptual drawings, patents, and scale models to demonstrate how imaginative designs and innovation changed the automobile from a basic, functional object to a symbol of limitless possibilities.
None of the vehicles and designs on display in this exhibition were ever intended for production. Rather, they represent the “dream” of future possibilities and highlight the talent and imagination of industrial designers.
Bel Geddes was an American theatrical and industrial designer who gained fame in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Motorcar No. 9 model demonstrates his expertise in aerodynamics and streamlining as a means to modernism. The Ransom Center’s extensive Norman Bel Geddes archive includes a model of Motorcar No. 9 among other papers, designs, and artifacts that span 50 years.
The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is now open at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach, Florida. Pulled mostly from the Ransom Center’s Bel Geddes archive, the exhibition originated in fall 2012 at the Ransom Center and was on view earlier this year at the Museum of the City of New York. Bringing together some 200 unique drawings, models, photographs, and films, this exhibition highlights Bel Geddes’s creativity and desire to transform American society through design.
Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was an industrial and theatrical designer who gained fame in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for his streamlined and futuristic innovations. His designs played a significant role in shaping America’s image as an innovative powerhouse and global leader into the future. One of his most famous undertakings was the unforgettable Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.
I Have Seen the Future is on view at the Wolfsonian until September 28.
Image: Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933.
The Harry Ransom Center’s current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918marks the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I. “The war to end all wars,” as it was optimistically dubbed, was one of the deadliest conflicts in history and paved the way for cultural and political change worldwide. This war, entrenched with heartbreak, heroes, villains, and camaraderie, inspired many stories both historical and fictional—some of which were captured for the silver screen.
Some of these films, including Wings (1927), The Big Parade (1925), and Sergeant York (1941), are highlighted in the current exhibition and the ongoing World War I Film Series, co-sponsored by the Austin Film Society and the Paramount Theatre.
Wings, released by Paramount Pictures in 1927, was filmed on location in San Antonio and was an homage to pilots of the First World War. The film tells the tale of two young fighter pilots who fall in love with the same woman. Hundreds of extras and some 300 pilots were involved in the filming, including pilots and planes of the United States Air Corps. It was directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman, who had been both an ambulance driver and pilot during the war.
Starlet Clara Bow played Mary Preston, an irresistible Red Cross ambulance driver. Though Bow, known largely for her flapper dresses and pearls, despised the army uniforms required for her role, the film was one of her most successful. Wings costume designer Edith Head commented: “It’s pretty hard to look sexy in a U.S. Army uniform, but Clara managed.”
Wings went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. A film still from Wings is on view in the galleries.
King Vidor’s poignant and humanizing silent film The Big Parade follows the spoiled, lazy son of a wealthy family as he joins the army and proceeds to make a few friends and fall in love amid the hardships of war.
The Big Parade portrayed the human costs of war and was influential in the creation of later war movies. Widely popular, the film earned MGM studios an almost instant profit of $3.4 million upon reception. Watch a screening of The Big Parade at the Paramount Theatre tomorrow at 7 p.m. as part of the World War I Film Series.
Directed by Howard Hawks and starring Gary Cooper, Sergeant York is the true story of one of World War I’s most decorated soldiers, Alvin York. York was a hillbilly sharpshooter who, despite his misgivings and claims of being a pacifist, was drafted into the war and became a hero. Sergeant York was the top grossing film in 1941, and Cooper won the Academy Award for best actor.
Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.
Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.
The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.
Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.
Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.