Although best known for his 1848 novel Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray was not always a writer. After college and a brief stint studying law, he moved to Paris to try his hand as a painter. Gambling and unsuccessful business ventures decimated his inherited fortune, however, and Thackeray was forced to move to London, where he supported his new wife by becoming a journalist.
Despite a career change, Thackeray did not forget his artistic background. His collection at the Ransom Center contains a number of sketches, including proofs of illustrations for comic tales and quick drawings in the margins of his letters. The archive also houses a small journal from 1840 that Thackeray might have taken with him on his travels. Within its three-inch-tall covers are pencil sketches of sailors lounging on the deck of a boat, a woman bent over a writing desk, and a child’s cradle. Although some drawings are more finished than others, all display a steady hand and an eye for form.
Thackeray also illustrated several of his own novels. The spooky sketch pictured above is one such illustration, taken from his 1859 novel The Virginians: A Tale of the Last Century. As its name suggests, the book was set chiefly in colonial Virginia and follows the family of an English colonel, the title character from an earlier Thackeray novel The History of Henry Esmond. If these witches bear a resemblance to those from Macbeth, it might not be coincidence—in The Virginians, several characters attend a performance of the play.
For more sketches by Thackeray, as well as manuscripts of writings, drawings, and letters by and about this English author, explore his archive.
In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.
Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.
You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?
I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.
What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?
His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.
The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?
Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.
Photojournalist Susan Meiselas broke tradition when she photographed the “people’s revolt” in Nicaragua in color. In 1981, black and white was still the accepted medium in which to depict conflict. Yet, she described the choice as best capturing “the vibrancy and optimism of the resistance.”
Learn more about Meiselas’s photograph and how it influenced Donna DeCesare, award-winning documentary photographer and University of Texas at Austin Associate Professor of Journalism. DeCesare writes about this and other images from the current exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, noting their impact on her photography and teaching.
Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on display at the Ransom Center from September 10 through January 5, explores the evolution of Magnum Photos from print journalism to the digital age, revealing a global cooperative in continual flux, persistently exploring new relationships between photographers, their subjects, and their viewers.
On this Thursday, September 26 at 7 p.m., DeCesare speaks about her new book Unsettled/Desasosiego, which explores the effects of decades of war and gang violence on the lives of youths in Central America and the United States. A book signing follows.
DeCesare was recently honored with a Maria Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean.
When University of Texas at Austin Professor of Philosophy Daniel Bonevac and Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger taught the course “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” last fall, they had 100 students.
This fall, they will teach over 20,000.
“Ideas of the Twentieth Century” is one of the courses offered by The University of Texas at Austin as part of the UT System’s partnership with edX, a nonprofit online learning initiative. Launched by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, edX collaborates with universities across the country to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs boast unlimited enrollment and are free for all participants.
Of the classes submitted by The University of Texas at Austin for the upcoming school year, four are currently open for registration and will begin September 15. Besides “Ideas of the Twentieth Century,” those interested can also take “Energy 101,” “Age of Globalization,” and “Take Your Medicine: The Impact of Drug Development.”
Bonevac and Flukinger’s course explores the changing mindsets and morals of the past century through the lenses of philosophy, literature, art, and history. Although they have taught this course five times before as one of the University’s Signature Courses for incoming freshmen, the class had to be adapted for an online audience.
“Our time is much more limited in teaching the online course, so each session had to be reduced down to the more basic concepts, trends, and ideas,” Flukinger said. “And, obviously, the other fact that you miss immediately is the interchange of ideas and discussion with your students. The production studio tends to be a much more detached environment than the customary give-and-take of the classroom. But such are always the tradeoffs with any mass media. And, at the same time, I do find it very invigorating to attempt to expand our teaching to a much larger and more diverse global community.”
Peter A. Walker, a Harry Ransom Center fellow from Salem State University, discusses his research in the Henry James collection. As co-general editor of The Complete Letters of Henry James, Walker focused on the approximately 500 James letters that reside in the Ransom Center. Walker’s research allowed him to trace the author’s relationships through his correspondence.
Walker’s project was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.
Novelist Tim O’Brien has been awarded the 2013 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, marking the first time a fiction writer has won the $100,000 prize. O’Brien, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is the author of such works as The Things They Carried (1980) and In the Lake of The Woods (1994).
The Ransom Center acquired O’Brien’s archive in 2007. The more than 25 boxes of material document the author’s life and work, including a story about war he wrote as a boy, his military jacket and awards, weather-damaged letters received from his family while he was in Vietnam, a map of that country heavily annotated decades later, and his research notes for his novels. The bulk of the archive consists of materials related to O’Brien’s novels, including If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), The Nuclear Age (1985), and July, July (2002).
Read more about what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.
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.
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.
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 exhibitionLiterature 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.
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.