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Fellows Find: “How to Revise a True War Story”

Snapshot of Tim O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.
Snapshot of Tim O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

John K. Young, a professor of English at Marshall University, reflects on the production history of Tim O’Brien’s novels and their implications for the kinds of narratives that are possible for soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Young received a fellowship from the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” As the O’Brien papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveal, perhaps the most prominent American novelist of the Vietnam War has kept on telling true war stories not only by mining his experience as a foot soldier across numerous works that often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also by continuing to revise those books, from the initial appearance of selected chapters in magazines, across typescripts and page proofs for first editions, and even to paperback reprints. While the Center’s collection does not include O’Brien’s earliest manuscripts (most of which he destroyed), it does enable scholars to trace O’Brien’s process of revision across multiple stages of a work’s production. In keeping with this refusal to let a text settle into a fixed, final form, O’Brien returned most recently to The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterwork, for a 2009 edition that contains substantial changes to the stories “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Ghost Soldiers,” although these revisions are too recent to have made their way to the Austin archive yet.

During a month-long fellowship in the summer of 2012, I made my way through five of O’Brien’s major works: If I Die in a Combat Zone, his Vietnam memoir; Northern Lights, his first novel; Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for 1979; The Things They Carried; and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien’s fictional response to the My Lai massacre. In each case I found fascinating instances of what the editorial theorist John Bryant calls “revisions sites,” moments in a text that offer divergent readings in response to author’s and publisher’s multiple versions. While many of these changes seem minor—adjusting punctuation or reworking the order of a sentence—even such small moments can take on striking interpretive implications. The closing lines in the opening chapter of Cacciato, for instance, describe the protagonist, PFC Paul Berlin, as he watches the title character on his AWOL escape from the war: “‘Go,’ whispered Paul Berlin. It did not seem enough. ‘Go,’ he said, and then he shouted, ‘Go!’” The exclamation mark did not appear in the book’s first edition or in the versions of the first chapter that had been previously published in Ploughshares and Gallery. For a 1986 paperback reprint, O’Brien changed the punctuation, subtly heightening Paul Berlin’s emotional connection to the runaway soldier and, by extension, to his own fantasies of flight, which make up much of the narrative. Similarly, one of Cacciato’s several “Observation Post” chapters—in which Paul Berlin reflects on his tour of duty so far and the comrades who have been killed—first included a paragraph in which he attempts to reconstruct the sequence of those deaths, ending with the line “Then Cacciato.” This suggests the possibility that Cacciato has himself been dead from the time the novel begins, a reading that would add another layer of imagination to the platoon’s journey from Vietnam to Paris. But O’Brien deleted this line for a later paperback edition, returning Cacciato’s fate to greater levels of ambiguity.

Some revisions are much larger in scope. To take one example, the typescript of The Things They Carried originally included a chapter entitled “The Real Mary Anne,” which followed “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a powerful narrative about a high school girl from Cleveland who visits the war and eventually so embraces its chaos and moral rupture that she leaves the Green Berets behind, disappearing into the jungle. Whereas Things often returns to an episode to announce that it was not “true,” at least not in the factual sense, “The Real Mary Anne” (in Box 15, Folder 7) insists on perhaps the book’s most improbable story as entirely accurate, declaring, “there is substantial evidence that the pivotal events in this story actually occurred.” At the suggestion of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, O’Brien cut this chapter altogether from the published book, an omission that locates “Sweetheart” along the same lines as the book’s other chapters, in which the truth of a reader’s experience of the war trumps fidelity to historical detail. Readers often take this story to be the most clearly “made up,” even as such reactions may say as much about ongoing social assumptions about gender and war. While the inclusion of “The Real Mary Anne” might have more overtly interrogated those cultural biases, without it Things still oscillates artfully between metafiction and real expressions of trauma.

It is at this level that the array of revisions in the O’Brien archive is most telling: how they depict the ongoing effort in O’Brien’s texts to represent the trauma of war, and of Vietnam in particular. On the one hand, O’Brien’s work articulates the impossibility of not telling these stories; on the other hand, “How to Tell a True War Story” and other texts respond to the intractable problem of only a few readers—other Vietnam veterans—being able to truly understand the stories. Dr. Jonathan Shays, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains in his book Achilles in Vietnam that “Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs.” For Shays, one of the most important steps in addressing—which is not to say “curing”—the effects of post-traumatic stress comes from “rendering it communicable, however imperfectly.” Readers of Cacciato and Things, especially, have long known the ways in which these texts respond to the difficult necessity of rendering the war communicable at the level of fractured plots and thematic resistances to closure, but the materials in the Ransom Center allow them to discover as well the ways in which O’Brien’s processes of writing and revising themselves speak to the undying truths of war.

Conservation work completed on "Gone With The Wind" dresses

In 2010, the Ransom Center raised funds to conserve original costumes from Gone With The Wind, which are part of the Center’s David O. Selznick archive. Donors from around the world graciously contributed more than $30,000 to support the conservation work, which will enable the Ransom Center to display the costumes safely in a fall 2014 exhibition, loan the costumes to other institutions, and display the costumes properly on custom-fitted mannequins.

Prior to the collection’s arrival at the Ransom Center in the 1980s, the costumes had been exhibited extensively for promotional purposes in the years after the film’s production, and as a result were in fragile condition.

The Ransom Center’s detailed and careful conservation work took more than 180 hours and occurred between fall 2010 and spring 2012.

Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Label in the green curtain dress reading “Sprayed with Sudol.” Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Both the green curtain dress and the burgundy ball gown had vulnerable areas stabilized to prevent further damage. The conservation work allowed the Ransom Center to loan the green curtain dress and burgundy ball gown to the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London for the exhibition Hollywood Costume, which runs from October 20, 2012, through January 27, 2013.

The conservation work will also enable the Ransom Center to display the original burgundy ball gown, green curtain dress, and green velvet dressing gown as part of a 75th-anniversary Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014.

“The majority of the conservation work performed on these costumes would not be obvious or visible to one viewing the costumes on a mannequin,” said Jill Morena, assistant curator for costumes and personal effects. “It is the interior of the costumes where meticulous work occurred and vulnerable areas were reinforced with archival support material and extra stitching.”

A more detailed description of some of the conservation work conducted on these costumes is available, and the four videos here give a behind-the-scenes look at the work done on the green curtain dress, the burgundy ball gown, the wedding veil, and the green velvet dressing gown.

David Foster Wallace materials related to "The Pale King now open for research"

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Materials related to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (April 2011) are now open for research at the Ransom Center. The materials related to The Pale King were acquired as part of the Wallace (1962–2008) archive in 2010 but were retained by publisher Little, Brown and Co. until after the book’s publication and the subsequent publication of the paperback edition.

The Pale King materials fill six boxes and  include handwritten and typescript drafts, outlines, characters lists, research materials, and a set of notebooks containing reading notes, names, snippets of dialog, definitions, quotations, and clippings.

The materials have been organized according to a spreadsheet developed by Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch. Pietsch, then-executive vice president and publisher of Little, Brown and Co., spent months reading through and organizing the material and found what he called “an astonishingly full novel, created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David’s.”

In conjunction with the publication of The Pale King, the Ransom Center partnered with publisher Little, Brown and Co. to offer an online preview of materials from the archive in April 2011.

David Foster Wallace's notebook, which contains reading notes, clippings, and writings related to “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.
David Foster Wallace's notebook, which contains reading notes, clippings, and writings related to “The Pale King.” © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. Harry Ransom Center.

Daniel Stern archive opens for research

Alison Clemens is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. She processed the Daniel Stern papers as part of her capstone project for her program, and she shares her experiences working in the collection, which is now open for research.

The Harry Ransom Center acquired the papers of Daniel Stern (1928–2007), novelist and short story writer, in 2009. In doing so, the Center gained an illuminating piece of New York and American literary culture. The collection is filled with Stern’s numerous manuscripts, material related to his careers in writing, advertising, media, and academia, and correspondence with major literary figures, including Bernard Malamud and Anaïs Nin. The material provides a fascinating glimpse of how Stern produced stories as a working writer.

Born in New York City, Stern was raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the Bronx. He displayed considerable musical talent from an early age. He attended The High School of Art and Music and, upon graduation, played the cello with the Indianapolis Symphony and with Charlie Parker’s band. Stern disliked life in Indianapolis and returned to New York, where he took courses in creative writing and wrote jingles and copy for McCann Erickson advertising agency. Stern rose through the ranks and eventually began working in television at Warner Brothers, where he served on the board of directors in the 1970s.

Throughout Stern’s corporate employment in the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to work on his writing and published numerous novels. The Suicide Academy (1968), to which Anaïs Nin dedicated an essay in her collection In Favor of the Sensitive Man, was popularly successful. In the 1970s, however, Stern would experience two major shifts. First, he left Warner Brothers and moved to the promotions department of CBS in 1979. During this time, he also began writing short stories and sending them to literary reviews, including to Joyce Carol Oates at her magazine Ontario Review. After achieving success as a short story writer, Stern left CBS in 1986 and served as humanities director of the 92nd Street Y until 1988. He assumed teaching positions, including at Harvard and Wesleyan Universities, and joined the University of Houston as Cullen Distinguished Professor of English in 1992.

Stern’s short story collections—including Twice Told Tales and Twice Upon a Time—revisit, revise, and reinterpret literary classics by other authors. Malamud described Stern’s prose as filled with “poetry, inventiveness, verve of style, wisdom in paradox, the argument, [and] wit and comedy.” Stern’s creative process and output is well documented in the papers at the Ransom Center, as the collection contains drafts, correspondence pertaining to specific works, and even unpublished material.

 

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Enter to win a signed copy of a T. C. Boyle book

Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.
Cover of "San Miguel" by T. C. Boyle.

Novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, has a new novel out today.

San Miguel (Viking, 2012) is a historical novel about three women’s lives on a windswept island off the California coast. Boyle is the author of 23 books of fiction, and his short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, EsquireHarper’sMcSweeney’s, and The New Yorker.

The Ransom Center acquired Boyle’s papers in 2012, and Boyle wrote about packing up his archive for The New Yorker.

On the Ransom Center’s Facebook page, share which of these three T. C. Boyle books you like most: The Tortilla Curtain, World’s End, or Stories. By doing so, you will be entered into our drawing for a signed copy of your selection.

O. Henry turns 150 today

To celebrate the 150th birthday anniversary of American writer William Sidney Porter—better known by his pen name of O. Henry—Cultural Compass has compiled a gallery of images from the O. Henry manuscript collection. The Ransom Center holds two boxes of materials that include letters and manuscripts.

 

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Iain Sinclair’s "Ghost Milk" includes visit to Austin

Ghost Milk: Recent Adventures Among the Future Ruins of London on the Eve of the Olympics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), the latest work by British writer-filmmaker Iain Sinclair, explores the changes in East London as the city prepared for the 2012 Olympics and concludes with his visit to the United States, including his April 2010 trip to the Ransom Center.

Sinclair, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, delivered a public talk, met with students, and worked with archivists cataloging his papers. Long walks in urban areas are a frequent topic of Sinclair’s writing, and Sinclair agreed to tour the campus, including the 307-foot-tall Tower, and offer his insights.

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Kraus map collection now accessible

Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.
Joan Blaeu's world map "Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula," 1648. The Ransom Center's copy, one of only two known to exist and the only colored copy, survives complete with an accompanying text. Photo by Pete Smith.

The Ransom Center recently launched an online database for its Kraus map collection. The 36-map collection, acquired in 1969 by Harry Ransom from the New York antiquarian dealer Hans P. Kraus, features a wide range of individual maps of Europe and America, atlases, a rare set of large terrestrial and celestial globes (ca. 1688) produced by the Italian master Vincenzo Coronelli, and a group of manuscript letters by Abraham Ortelius.

“Visitors can see the remarkable foundations of modern cartography in this digital collection,” said Richard Oram, the Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian. “From a medieval map that shows the world divided into three parts split by the Mediterranean Sea to an early portolan chart of the coast of Africa and a rare 1541 Mercator globe, it’s all accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.”

Because of size and conservation considerations—some maps are as large as six by nine feet—some of these maps have been seen by only a handful of visitors. This digital collection makes it possible for a broader public to examine the collection via the Ransom Center’s website. The maps are all zoom-able, and users can view detailed close-ups of images.

Save 50 percent on Individual and Dual memberships today through Groupon

Film Curator Steve Wilson gives a tour to Ransom Center members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Film Curator Steve Wilson gives a tour to Ransom Center members. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Join today for 50% off a new membership to the Harry Ransom Center!

Through Groupon, purchase a one-year Individual membership for $25 (regularly $50) or a one-year Dual membership for $45 (regularly $90).

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Membership benefits include personalized membership cards, insider access to the Ransom Center and its collections, events with the Director, complimentary parking and priority access at select events, private exhibition and collection tours, and the latest news of acquisitions, programs, and more.

Additionally, as a member, you will receive complimentary admission and valet parking at “FutureLand,” the opening celebration on September 14, 2012 for the fall exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.

Join today to experience all that the Ransom Center has to offer.

Restrictions: Offer valid through www.groupon.com/austin on Thursday, October 7. Only valid for individual and dual level memberships. Once purchased, you must redeem the Groupon online by October 16, 2012. Members will receive benefits for one year, starting from the date of activation. Current or lapsed members may not use to renew. For new memberships only.

First Photograph to travel to Europe for first time in 50 years

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's 'View from the Window at Le Gras' c. 1826. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's 'View from the Window at Le Gras' c. 1826. Photo by J. Paul Getty Museum.

The First Photograph will be loaned, along with 119 other images and photography-related items from the Harry Ransom Center’s Gernsheim collection, to the Reiss Englehorn Museum in Mannheim, Germany, for the exhibition “The Birth of Photography-Highlights of the Helmut Gernsheim Collection.” The exhibition runs from September 9 through January 6, 2013.

The First Photograph has been removed from display at the Ransom Center to be prepared for its departure in July. The First Photograph will be back on display at the Ransom Center in February 2013.

The First Photograph was acquired by the Ransom Center as part of the Gernsheim collection from Helmut and Alison Gernsheim in 1963. Taken in 1826 or 1827, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras depicts the view from an upstairs window at Niépce’s estate, Le Gras, which is in the Burgundy region of France. Niépce’s photograph represents the foundation of today’s photography, film, and other media arts.

The First Photograph forms the cornerstone of Helmut Gernsheim’s photographic collection, which was the largest in the world when the Ransom Center acquired it in 1963. The Gernsheim collection is one of the seminal collections in the United States of the history of photography and contains an unparalleled range of more than 35,000 images. Its encyclopedic scope—as well as the expertise with which the Gernsheims assembled the collection — makes the Gernsheim collection one of the world’s premier sources for the study and appreciation of photography

In 2002, the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum acquired Gernsheim’s later collection of contemporary photography, along with his own photographs and archive. For the first time in half a century, major portions of both Gernsheim collections are being reunited: the historical material housed in the Ransom Center and the contemporary collection in the Forum International Photographie at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum.

While the First Photograph is on loan, the photographic print View from the Window at Le Gras, 1826, 2009 by Adam Schreiber will occupy the display in the Ransom Center’s lobby. The photograph depicts the Niepce plate in situ in the museum display, as photographed by Schreiber in 2009. Schreiber is a member of the Lakes Were Rivers artist collective, a group of artists who work primarily in photography and video. In summer 2013, the Ransom Center will host an exhibition in which members of the collective will display their original works paired with Ransom Center collection material that inspired them.