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Anthology documents 22 plays performed at 2 London theaters

Title page of "Measure for Measure" from the anthology "Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden."
Title page of "Measure for Measure" from the anthology "Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden."

Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.

The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?

The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.

This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.

Title page of "The Beggar's Opera" from the anthology "Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden."
Title page of "The Beggar's Opera" from the anthology "Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden."

Now open: “Literature and Sport” and “Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive”

Two new exhibitions, Literature and Sport and Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive open today at the Ransom Center.

"Literature and Sport" opens today at the Ransom Center.
"Literature and Sport" opens today at the Ransom Center.

Sport holds a sacred place in Western culture and literature. Writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Norman Mailer, Marianne Moore, Don DeLillo, Joyce Carol Oates, and David Foster Wallace have written about sport.

Drawn exclusively from the Ransom Center’s collections, Literature and Sport showcases the literature of sport through fiction, essays, poetry, and plays. Organized by sport, the exhibition highlights some of the finest examples of literary writing about baseball, football, boxing, tennis, cricket, bullfighting, and other sports. From Bernard Malamud’s The Natural to Norman Mailer’s The Fight, great literary works capture the appeal of sport and its ability to transform both the individual and society, all the while demonstrating how writers elevate language to literature.

"Contemporary Photographic Practice in the Archive" runs through August 4 at the Ransom Center.
"Contemporary Photographic Practice in the Archive" runs through August 4 at the Ransom Center.

Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive was created in cooperation with the Lakes Were Rivers collective, an Austin-based group of artists working in photography and video. Members of the collective created a body of work influenced in some way by the Ransom Center—its space, its purpose, its collections. Approximately 50 new works are displayed alongside Ransom Center collection materials chosen by the artists, including photographs by Ansel Adams and Man Ray, manuscripts from the E. E. Cummings archive, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, an embellished Maurice Ravel score, and props from the Robert De Niro collection.

Both exhibitions are on display through August 4 and can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours to 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

Beginning June 18, free docent-led tours are offered on Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Join us for an “All-Star Evening,” the opening celebration for the summer exhibitions Literature and Sport and Contemporary Photographic Practice and the Archive, this Friday from 7 to 9 p.m.  Become a member now to receive complimentary admission and valet parking at this event. If you are not yet a member, tickets are available for $20 at the door (valet parking not included for non-members).

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

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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New websites for the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph

Page from new First Photograph web exhibition.
Page from new First Photograph web exhibition.

The Ransom Center launched updated websites for its two permanent exhibitions, the Gutenberg Bible and the First Photograph. The websites contain information, interactive components, and content geared toward children related to each exhibition.

The Gutenberg Bible is the first substantial book printed from movable type on a printing press. It was printed in Johann Gutenberg’s shop in Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1455. View a video demonstrating Gutenberg’s printing process.

Gutenberg’s invention revolutionized the distribution of knowledge by making it possible to produce many accurate copies of a single work in a relatively short amount of time. View a map that shows the spread of printing after Gutenberg.

Visitors can turn the pages of the Gutenberg Bible, view the pages in high-resolution, and browse by Books of the Bible or page characteristics, including famous passages, illuminations, and watermarks.

The Ransom Center holds one of five complete copies in the United States. View a map of where the other Gutenberg Bibles are housed.

The First Photograph, which Frenchman Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced in 1826, is the foundation of the Ransom Center’s photography collection. The 8 x 6.5-inch heliograph depicts a view just outside the workroom window of Niépce’s estate in Le Gras in east central France.

Website visitors can watch an animated video showing how the First Photograph was made as well as create a virtual heliograph of themselves using a webcam; the virtual heliograph image replicates the photographic technique used to create the First Photograph.

The website offers content geared for younger visitors, including digital coloring pages of the Gutenberg Bible and First Photograph and the opportunity to use Gutenberg’s process to print their own message.

The website was made possible through a generous gift by Margaret Hight.

Frida Kahlo's "Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird" back on display today

Photo by Pete Smith.
Photo by Pete Smith.

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940), one of the Ransom Center’s most famous and frequently borrowed works of art, is on display through July 28.

Since 1990 the painting has been on almost continuous loan, featured in exhibitions in more than 25 museums in the United States and around the world in countries such as Australia, Canada, France, and Spain. View a map of where the painting has traveled in recent years.

The painting was most recently on view in the three-venue exhibition In Wonderland: The Surrealist Activities of Women Artists in Mexico and the United States, organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and exhibited subsequently at the Musée National des beaux-arts du Quebec in Quebec City and at the Museo de Arte Moderno in Mexico City. The painting travels next to The ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Ishøj, Denmark, for the exhibition Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera, running from September 7, 2013 to January 5, 2014.

Kahlo (1907–1954) taught herself to paint after she was severely injured in a bus accident at the age of 18. For Kahlo, painting became an act of cathartic ritual, and her symbolic images portray a cycle of pain, death, and rebirth.

Kahlo’s affair in New York City with Hungarian-born photographer Nickolas Muray (1892–1965), which ended in 1939, and her divorce from artist Diego Rivera at the end of that same year left her heartbroken and lonely. But she produced some of her most powerful and compelling paintings and self-portraits during this time.

Muray purchased the self-portrait from Kahlo to help her during a difficult financial period. It is part of the Ransom Center’s Nickolas Muray collection of more than 100 works of modern Mexican art, which was acquired by the Center in 1966. The collection also includes Kahlo’s Still Life with Parrot and Fruit (1951) and the drawing Diego y Yo (1930).

View the video documentary “A World of Interest: Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird,” which highlights the painting’s return to the Ransom Center.

Now open: “Arnold Newman: Masterclass”

Graphic identity for the exhibition "Arnold Newman: Masterclass."
Graphic identity for the exhibition "Arnold Newman: Masterclass."

The exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass opens today at the Harry Ransom Center and runs through May 12.

This exhibition explores the career of photographer Arnold Newman (1918–2006), who created iconic portraits of some of the most influential innovators, celebrities, and cultural figures of the twentieth century. Newman’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

A bold modernist with a superb sense of compositional geometry, Newman is known for a crisp, spare style that situates his subjects in their personal surroundings rather than in a photographer’s studio. Marlene Dietrich, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Arthur Miller, Salvador Dalí, and Pablo Picasso are only a few of his celebrated sitters. Featuring more than 200 of these well-known masterworks, Arnold Newman: Masterclass also includes rarely seen work prints and contact sheets.

The first major exhibition of the photographer’s work since his death, Arnold Newman: Masterclass showcases the entire range of Newman’s photography, featuring many prints for the first time.

Admission to the exhibition is free, but donations are welcome. Free docent-led tours of the exhibition are offered Tuesdays at noon, Thursdays at 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.

The exhibition can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m. The galleries are closed on Mondays.

Become a member now to receive complimentary admission and valet parking at “Face to Face,” the opening celebration for the photography exhibition Arnold Newman: Masterclass. If you are not yet a member, you may purchase individual tickets for $20 (valet parking not included) at the door.

Researching Austen in Austin: Archival research reveals connections between Jane Austen’s characters and real-life celebrities and politicians

Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.

Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!

True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”

Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.

I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen.  I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.

1) A BOOK

Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]

The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.

2) A MAP

“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.

Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.

3) A MANUSCRIPT

Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.

Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:

In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.

He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.

Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.

 

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“Monarchia Solipsorum:” Rare Italian manuscript connected to Galileo's trial of 1632

Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.
Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum: ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.

Shaun Stalzer is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin specializing in special collections librarianship. He earned his master’s degree in American history from Texas State University in San Marcos, and his research interests include the history of American theater. Here, he discusses a manuscript he studied as part of a rare books class in the School of Information.

The Harry Ransom Center holds an extensive collection of rare Italian manuscripts, printed materials, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, watercolors, and papal bulls from the Ranuzzi family of Bologna, Italy. The collection spans some 400 years and provides insight into the social, political, and cultural history of Europe.

The Ranuzzi manuscript Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium is a seventeenth-century manuscript written entirely in Latin under the pseudonym Luceus Cornelius Europeus. It details the adventures of a hero who becomes judge and advisor to the fictious monarch Vibosnatus, to satirize the Jesuit order. In the end, the hero becomes victim to a plot that costs him his position and forces him into exile.

The original manuscript was written in 1645 in Venice, Italy, and published in Latin in 1645 and 1648. The work was later translated into French and published in Amsterdam in 1722 and 1754 by Herman Uytwerf, and also published in Paris by the publishing house of Barrois and Delaunay in 1824.

Scholars debate whether the original manuscript was written by Giolio Clemente Scotti (1602–1669) or Melchior Inchofer (1585–1648). Little information exists on Giolio Clemente Scotti, but he is known for his later anti-Jesuit writings, including his 1646 work De Potestate Pontificia in Societatem.

Far more information is available on Melchior Inchofer, a Jesuit scholar who gained notoriety as one of three experts in the 1632 trial of Galileo and his controversial work “Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mundo” (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), a defense of the heliocentric model of the universe. Inchofer reported on the Dialogo prior to the trial and in 1633 also authored Tractatus Syllapticus, a scriptural defense of geocentrism. This is interesting because, according to one scholar, Inchofer later became the author of Monarchia Solipsorum, which is highly critical of the Jesuit order (and therefore of traditional church doctrine). Inchofer also underwent his own trial and condemnation in 1648 for his alleged authorship of Monarchia Solipsorum. Under interrogation, Inchofer broke down and confessed to writing the manuscript. He was stripped of his position in the Jesuit order, sent to Milan, and later died on September 28, 1648. This controversy is one of the main reasons for the book’s tremendous success and repeated publication over the years.

Monarchia Solipsorum is an interesting work for anyone studying Italian history, literature, or culture. The manuscript is particularly relevant for those seeking information on Catholic Church history, critical reactions to Catholic doctrine, or those interested in the trial of Galileo in 1632. Such a work can also appeal to those fascinated by rare books and manuscripts and the art of bibliography.

Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.
Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum: ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.

First edition of “The Vampyre” reveals clues about history of book and its popularity

Page from first edition of "The Vampyre" by John William Polidori.
Page from first edition of "The Vampyre" by John William Polidori.

Molly Miller is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. She is studying to become a teen services librarian, but has many other interests, including nineteenth-century British literature, vampires, rare books, and anything to do with the Victorian Era.  As part of a research project in Michael Laird’s class “Studies in the Book Arts,” Miller studied a first edition of John William Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Vampires have inspired human imagination for centuries. They even play a huge role in popular culture today, and vampire mythology has been explored in literature, movies, and many other forms of media. While big names such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula come to mind when thinking about the vampire legend, it is easy to overlook the tale that solidified these legends and presented to the world of literature the dark, brooding, mysterious, and somewhat Romantic figure that we recognize as the vampire today. This tale is John William Polidori’s The Vampyre.

Though Polidori’s Lord Ruthven rose to fame and became one of the most important figures for studying the roots of our contemporary idea of the vampire, Polidori himself remained in obscurity for several reasons. Perhaps the most prevalent one is that Polidori did not at first set out to be a writer. He was originally Lord Byron’s personal physician, who traveled with him in Switzerland. On one very cold summer’s night in 1816 (“The Year Without a Summer”), Polidori participated in a challenge to write the scariest ghost story among Byron and his group of friends. This same challenge produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Three years later, Henry Colburn, publisher and editor of New Monthly Magazine, came across Polidori’s manuscript of The Vampyre and published it serially in his literary magazine under Lord Byron’s name to promote the magazine using Byron’s established celebrity. Although Byron vehemently denied authorship of The Vampyre, it was not enough to disassociate his name from the work, and it became a sensation. When Polidori tried to assert his authorship, Colburn had the tagline “a tale by Lord Byron” removed from the book versions of the story he ordered from London printers Sherwood, Neely, and Jones. Polidori’s name, however, was not added, and the supplementary material printed before and after The Vampyre both relate to Byron in some manner. Therefore, Byron’s name continued to be attached to the work that Polidori had written, and Polidori remained in obscurity.

The Ransom Center holds one of these important London first editions of The Vampyre in the Robert Lee Wolff collection. It is essential to see and read the physical copy of this first edition to get the sense of why Byron’s name continued to be tied to the text even after he publicly denied writing it. It is similarly important to study this original first edition hastily printed for Colburn because of high demand by readers, to understand how the alluring Lord Ruthven would foster our enduring image of the vampire not only as a mythical monster but also as the glamorous seducer in society.

For Further Reading:

“The London Editions of Polidori’s The Vampyre.” by Henry R. Viets, M.D.

Poor Polidori: A Critical Biography of the Author of The Vampyre by D.L. Macdonald

Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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