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Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society

On a trip to Edinburgh in the summer of 1953, novelist Graham Greene and producer John Sutro met Margy Crosby Leifeste and Mary Alexander Sherwood, roommates and Pi Phi sorority sisters who had recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin. Charmed by the young women, Greene and Sutro jokingly established the Anglo-Texan Society. Here’s the story as Mary remembers it.

Mary and Margy were traveling Europe on a two-month group tour. One of their first activities was to see Graham Greene’s play The Living Room in London. Two months later, they arrived in cold, rainy, and misty Edinburgh. Several girls on the trip went shopping, but Mary and Margy decided to stay back at the hotel and drink some tea to “warm our bones,” Mary recalls.

While drinking their tea, a waiter handed them a note reading: “If by any chance you are free, would you come to see The Devil’s General tomorrow night or to have a drink with us to discuss the matter tonight? Signed, Graham Greene and John Sutro.” Mary and Margy figured their friends were pulling yet another practical joke, so they told the waiter he must be mistaken.

“We spent the next 15 minutes saying, what if it was? Oh! What stupid people we are not to have at least said, why sure, and gone to see,” Mary recalls.

As they got up to leave, two men emerged from behind a screen and said: “We didn’t mean to offend you, but my name is John Sutro, and this is Graham Greene, and we would like for you to have a drink with us.”

Mary and Margy accepted the invitation, and Greene fired question after question about their travels and reactions to Europe.

“They were hanging on our every word, asking questions. They really seemed to be interested in our answers, which was sort of a first,” Mary says.

As the evening wrapped up, Greene again invited Margy and Mary to see The Devil’s General. They both declined. Mary had to catch an overnight train to visit a friend in London, and Margy had to attend a farewell dinner.

“I know what we’ll do,” Greene said. “You, Ms. Alexander, pack your bags. You come to the first two acts of the play, we will put you in a taxi with your suitcase, and off to London you go. And you, Ms. Crosby, after your dinner, you come to the third act of the play, and then we’ll have dinner with Trevor Howard and the producer.”

Mary and Margy accepted. In their ship cabin on the return trip were a dozen yellow roses and a card reading, “Happy landfall. Come back soon. Graham.”

“I really think that there is a side to Graham Greene that you don’t know about, that may surprise you. And that is that he’s a gentleman and a very thoughtful, sensitive, compassionate person,” Mary said.

On the train back to London, Greene and Sutro jokingly decided to establish an Anglo-Texan Society, and they ran an announcement in The Times.

“Much to the astonishment of Graham Greene and John Sutro, some people took it very seriously. At one of the first big meetings in London, they sent three steers, Texas’s best beef, and all sorts of barbecue sauce. 1,500 people attended,” Mary said.

Years later, Mary says people often ask whether she and Margy were afraid when Greene and Sutro invited them to the play.

“Absolutely not. We had no fear of anything. I remember thinking to myself at that time, I could live anywhere in the world. I was just totally without fear of any kind,” Mary says. “Though all of this gave the tour leader a heart attack.”

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Fellows Find: Graham Greene papers lift curtain on author’s psyche

 

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Fellows Find: Graham Greene papers lift curtain on author's psyche

Photo of Christopher Hull by Pete Smith.
Photo of Christopher Hull by Pete Smith.

Dr. Christopher Hull from the University of Nottingham, UK, came to the Harry Ransom Center on a British Studies Fellowship to research the Graham Greene collection. His initial plan is to write and publish a book on Greene and Cuba, concentrating on the writer’s journeys to the island prior to writing Our Man in Havana (1958), his depiction of the island and the Cold War in this iconic novel, and his continuing relationship with the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro after 1959. His larger project is to write a book on Greene and Latin America. He shares some of his findings in the collection here.

Supported by a British Studies Fellowship, I spent five profitable weeks at the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 researching its Graham Greene collection. I was particularly interested to read material related to Greene’s contacts with Latin America, specifically three of his novels: Our Man in Havana (1958), The Comedians (1966), and The Honorary Consul (1973). The Center holds all the manuscript drafts for these works, as well as Greene’s screenplays for film versions of the first two novels. They offer a fascinating insight into the gestation of storyline and characters by one of Britain’s most renowned twentieth-century novelists.

As well as full-length manuscripts, the Ransom Center holds many of Greene’s shorter works, including unfinished and unpublished scripts, journalistic articles and opinion pieces, and an assortment of personal letters. Among these, we can see that the writer’s reputation for practical jokes and a mischievous sense of humor sometimes got him into trouble. In 1953, Greene was returning from a visit to Edinburgh with a friend after meeting “two delightful Texan girls” in a hotel. After imbibing a few pints of Black Velvet on their southbound train to London, the author and his friend decided as a joke to set up a new society. They published an announcement in The Times: “May we beg the courtesy of your columns to announce the formation of the Anglo-Texan Society?” It had the avowed objective of “establishing cultural and social links” between Britain and the Lone Star state.1

Abroad on a journalistic assignment in Kenya to cover the Mau-Mau rebellion, Greene soon received the perturbing news that the Society had received 60 membership applications on its first day. By the time Greene had returned to Britain, the Anglo-Texan Society had already held an inaugural cocktail party. His friend was now the Society’s Chairman and Greene its President. There was, however, some cynical reaction from the United States. The New York Times wondered if Greene, known as a creator of “diabolisms and plenty of hells” and no great supporter of U.S. foreign policy, might have a dastardly plan underfoot to make Texas cede from the Union.  But the Society went from strength to strength, and during another of Greene’s absences in Vietnam, prior to the publication of The Quiet American (1955), his friend presided over a jamboree at a film studio outside London. The Houston Fat Stock Show lent four prime steers and three Hillbilly bands to delight 1,500 Texans and Society members. Double-decker “Texas to Piccadilly Circus” buses carried 300 of the overseas visitors from London to the event. 2

Greene diplomatically resigned his presidency of the Society, using his frequent absences abroad as a credible excuse. The sobering Anglo-Texan Society experience dampened his enthusiasm for large-scale practical jokes, but the Society was still holding events 25 years after its formation.

Perhaps the biggest source of riches in the Harry Ransom Center’s Graham Greene collection is its series of “Dream Diaries.” As a troubled teenager, his headmaster father had sent Greene to London for six months of psychoanalysis alongside his pretty first cousin. Forty years later, when suffering from recurrent depression in the 1960s, a psychoanalyst recommended the peripatetic British author to write down the content of his dreams. The advice produced remarkable results, and gives an invaluable insight into the mind of the prolific author. Several volumes contain the writer’s memories of his dreams, intermittently, for the years 1964–66, 1972–75, 1979–81, 1983–86, and 1988. Greene’s “Dream Diaries” detail the writer’s nightly obsessions, fantasies, and episodes of repeated paranoia, as well as memories of past events. Among many fantastical accounts, the diaries recount his experiences from childhood and adulthood, his many travels to dangerous spots around the world, famous personalities (both living and dead), and time spent with several female partners in addition to his long-estranged wife. Four decades after his teenage experience of psychoanalysis, Greene was still fantasizing about an affair and possible marriage to his pretty cousin.

The recounting of most people’s dreams does not make for stimulating entertainment, but in Greene’s case they are riveting. Greene had served as an air-raid warden in Central London during the blitz. And his house in Clapham (South London) was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War II. One of his recurrent fears was evidently a German invasion of Britain and further bombing raids. He also feared persecution by Haiti’s voodoo-worshiping President-for-Life “Papa Doc” Duvalier, years after his novel The Comedians had painted a dark picture of the dictator’s rule.

From a writer described by Lord of the Flies author William Golding as the “the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness,” even less dramatic nocturnal thoughts come alive. In his miniscule handwriting, for example, is the following dream from 1981:

Having dinner at Bentley’s I felt rather strange as I was wearing my dressing gown & had bare feet. I was relieved that no waiter objected. Evelyn Waugh was at the next table with three men—one of whom had an exceedingly ugly voice. I was glad when he separated from Evelyn & went to the other end of the table with a companion where his voice was more subdued. Later I had a better opinion of him when he was reproached by a woman at another table for having left his wife. She urged him to return, but he said it was out of the question – he could not live with her. I became impatient at the bad service & called out to a wine waiter – “I ordered a glass of port half an hour ago & a Welsh rarebit three quarters of an hour ago.” I wondered whether the bad service was due to the way I was dressed.3

Currently, only a brief and sanitized collection of these dreams exists in published form.4 Greene fans must relish the day when his recorded dreams can be transcribed and published in their entirety.

1 The Times, Aug. 22 1953, p. 7.

2 ‘The Joke That Went Wrong’, Jan. 29 1974, Box 19.1, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

3 ‘Dream Diaries’ (1979–81), Jan. 17–18 1981 (p. 15), Box 38.3, Graham Greene Collection, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

4A World of My Own: A Dream Diary (London: Viking, 1992).

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Two Texas sorority sisters inspire Graham Greene and John Sutro to establish Anglo-Texan Society

Notes from the Undergrad: Signature Course delves into works, life of Russell Banks

'The Sweet Hereafter' by Russell Banks.
'The Sweet Hereafter' by Russell Banks.

Dillon Welch is an undergraduate student studying violin performance at the Butler School of Music. He researched the Ransom Center’s Russell Banks archive for a class devoted to the author’s works. During the course, Banks was on campus for an event at the Ransom Center, and Welch was given the opportunity to meet Banks in person.

For the spring 2011 semester, as part of the new Signature Course program at The University of Texas at Austin, I took a class on the works of Russell Banks. I’d never heard of him before. But I soon got to know him through both his characters and themes. After we had thoroughly delved into the depths of Banks’s mind on the page, we got to do the same with the man. To me, this was the highlight of the course: a small group of people sitting around a table having an intimate conversation with the author that ranged from deep political questions on his frequent use of racial themes in his novels, to why his characters like to drink Canadian Club. It was an enlightening 90 minutes, for which I could scarcely stop asking questions. To know that we were learning things about Banks that few people actually knew was fascinating. We spent a semester reading close to half of his novels and several short stories. In addition, we spent time studying his archive at the Ransom Center, setting our eyes on rarely seen items. At the beginning of the semester, our professor, Evan Carton, said, “When you leave this course, you will be some of the foremost scholars on Russell Banks.” He was so right.

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Russell Banks signs the authors’ door at the Ransom Center.
In the Galleries: Russell Banks adapts to a word processor

Commentary Magazine Archive Donated to Ransom Center

Commentary magazine has donated its archive to the Ransom Center. Founded in November 1945, just months after World War II, Commentary magazine was established to reconnect assimilated American Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and to bring the ideas of young Jewish intellectuals to a wider audience.

According to historian Richard Pells, Professor Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, “no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States.”

Throughout its history, Commentary has published significant articles on historical, political, cultural and theological issues in addition to fiction and memoirs. The magazine has a reputation for featuring many of the leading intellectual and cultural figures of the time.

Spanning from 1945 to 1995, the archive consists mainly of editorial correspondence, galleys and other records. The collection contains correspondence with a number of writers whose archives reside at the Ransom Center, including Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer, in addition to correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George W. Bush, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Amos Oz, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Tom Wolfe, and A. B. Yehoshua.

 

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Q&A: Author Nicole Krauss

While studying art history in graduate school, novelist Nicole Krauss spent hours in the library researching Rembrandt, only to find that she preferred imagining the details of his life instead.

“Beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might,” Krauss said.

Krauss’s vivid imagination has resulted in three critically acclaimed novels: Great House, The History of Love, and Man Walks Into a Room. Krauss was named a National Book Award Finalist for Great House, her most recent novel. In 2010, The New Yorker named her one of the 20 best writers under 40.

On Tuesday, September 20 at 7 p.m. CST, the Harry Ransom Center presents Krauss at Jessen Auditorium where she will read from Great House and speak with James Magnuson, Director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Michener Center for Writers. A book signing follows. A live webcast of the event airs at approximately 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST.

Cultural Compass spoke with Krauss about her thoughts on art, what she’s currently reading, a Rembrandt self-portrait that reappears in her novels, the burden of inheritance, her advice for writers, transplanted rooms, and more.

Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.
Nicole Krauss. Photo by Joyce Ravid.

Alma Singer from The History of Love shares the same name as the wife of Isaac Bashevis Singer (whose archive resides at the Ransom Center). Your works have been compared to those of Singer. Did you deliberately name Alma after I. B. Singer’s wife?

No, that was a happy accident. I wondered later whether it was an unconscious decision, but I don’t remember ever learning that her name was Alma until after I finished the book. I cast around a lot for names in the beginning; it’s difficult to name a character because almost every name feels artificial. I had chosen Singer because it was the name of someone I knew when I was the character’s age, 14, so it seemed natural to me. Alma just rolled off the tongue in the right ways. And of course it has all these wonderful meanings. It was a beautiful name, and it sat well with me. So I put the two of them together, and that was that.

Strangely, Isaac Bashevis Singer was never a big writer in my life. I still haven’t read many of his works, though I mean to. It surprised me that that book was compared to him so frequently. When David Grossman wrote his first novel, everyone told him that he had been influenced by Bruno Schulz. But he’d never heard of Schulz. He sat down and read him and had to agree.

You mention the same Rembrandt self-portrait in both The History of Love and Great House. In The History of Love, Uncle Julian says “there’s a serenity in his face, a sense of something that’s survived its own ruin.” In Great House, Arthur says he associated the portrait with the phrase “a ruined man.”

That’s interesting. You’re the first person who’s noticed that. I didn’t even notice that, though I knew that I had mentioned it in the other book. Obviously, it’s an important painting to me. It will probably end up in other novels as well.

Rembrandt is an artist whose work I’ve thought a lot about. I did a Master’s in Dutch seventeenth-century art at the Courtauld Institute in London, and I wrote my thesis on Rembrandt. I’ve always been moved, especially, by the late self-portraits as they get more and more honest. In the early self-portraits, you have this painter who’s putting on airs and costumes, modeling himself as a wealthy burgher or a famous artist, but he’s really just a young, scrappy, ambitious guy. And then late in his life, once he’s bankrupt and alone, there come these amazing self-portraits that are quite brutal, frank, and unadorned. You feel a hurriedness in the brushstrokes. He’s scratching into them with the back of the brush. You feel the sense of someone facing his death. Obviously, that’s a position that I am drawn to in my work. A number of my characters have been older people who are confronting the end of their lives, the final calculation of who they were, how they lived, their mistakes and regrets. I lived near that particular painting I mention, which hangs in Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. I used to walk on the Heath daily, and you can visit Kenwood House without paying. You could go in everyday if you felt like it, which I often did just to see that painting. I guess you could say that I have a long history with it.

In your essay on writing Great House, you say that Weisz came out of your interest in transplanted rooms, specifically those of Freud and the painter Francis Bacon. This strikes a chord here at the Ransom Center, where there are two transplanted rooms: the study of Fleur Cowles and John Foster Dulles’s study and living room in D.C.

I realized at a certain point that there were some preserved rooms that I had always been drawn to in my life. I became fascinated with Bacon’s studio partly because it’s such an extreme example, such a complex room. He was infamously messy. He left everything wherever it dropped, so the studio was full of thirty years of stale sandwich crusts, half-drunk bottles of alcohol, old clothes, garbage. He kept this huge archive of photographs, but they were all crumpled up on the floor. There was a kind of violence to the mess, sometimes literally; he would slash a lot of his canvases. Over time, he wore paths through all of this material. For whatever reason, after he died his studio was moved from London to Dublin. You can imagine the archeological work involved with breaking it down into tens of thousands of pieces and then reconstructing it. I was drawn to the question of whether such a transplanted room retains its original power. Is it even the original, or is it a kind of simulacrum? It’s exactly the same, only it’s been taken apart and put back together, and now it’s in a new place: an uncanniness has been introduced.

That made me think about Freud’s room in London, which I lived near and also spent a lot of time in. It was a comforting place to me, as you can imagine Freud’s study might be for anyone [laughs]. I was thinking about how his wife and daughter tried to make upheaval easier for him by creating a replica of the study he had left behind in Vienna. When he died the following year, everything was left exactly where he last put it down, frozen in time, the glasses on the desk and all that, obsessively preserved until now.

I wanted a room of my own like that to experiment with. I was curious about the urge to preserve or reconstruct such a talismanic room. Weisz’s room—his father’s study in Budapest which is dismantled by the Nazis and which the son spends fifty years reconstructing in Jerusalem—became a way of experimenting with that. I once listened to a graphic artist give a presentation about a book he was working on, all of which takes place in the living room of his childhood house, and the book stretches from prehistoric time into the future. He built a little model of it so he could figure out how the sun would move through it. I remember thinking that that was similar to what I did with Weisz’s room. Only I wasn’t interested in how the light moved through it. I was interested in something else: what does it mean to try to recreate what has been lost, and can one ever recreate it? There remains the question of what’s missing, the imperfection that can’t be gotten around or erased. And what about those who instead reinvent themselves in the face of loss? And is recreation always a form of reinvention? I wanted to experiment with that idea, and I wanted to see what was at the bottom of my fascination with it.

Did you find what was on the bottom?

I found lots of things. One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all. It’s really about posing questions. Great House is a novel about uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt almost more than anything else, what it means to commit to a life regardless of those conditions.

The desk in Great House also strikes a chord at the Ransom Center because we have the desks of Edgar Allan Poe, Evelyn Waugh, John Fowles, and others. You’ve said that your desk is similar to the desk in Great House, but you didn’t realize it until later.

Yeah, you want it? I’m trying get rid of it [laughs]. It’s pretty big. It was a desk that was in the house I moved into. It was built by the house’s former owner to his esoteric specifications. It’s a bulky desk, overbearing in every way. It extends all the way up the wall. It has all of these shelves and drawers. But at least for a while I was completely unaware of its echo in the book I was writing it on.

At some point I realized, of course. Not only the physical resemblance, but that I was writing about inheritance. I didn’t realize until much later than I should have because the mind has a way of guarding itself from the origins of what it’s fictionalizing; otherwise it would be hard to have the balls to write about much of anything at all. The mind obscures, especially, the psychological origins of the work, I find. Later one discovers them.

My desk has always been almost comically burdensome to me because in order to get rid of it, which I always toy with the idea of doing, I’d have to have it destroyed (it’s on the top floor of the house and there’s no way to get the monster down the stairs). That always felt too wasteful to me. So there’s the absurd tension of not wanting it but feeling somehow bound to it. On top of all that, the former owner built it around this painted panel which he wrenched out when he moved out, so there’s this large, gaping hole in the desk right above my head, which has taken on obvious symbolic meaning to me [laughs] and which I still, daily, write under. All the same, it did me the good turn of giving me a means to approach a graver concern lurking below, having to do with the burden of the emotional furniture we inherit and pass on to our children. In other words, it gave me a novel, and so now I’m stuck with the thing, unless you want to come and relieve me of it.

In your essay, you described this phenomenon of not realizing until later the origins of what you’re writing about as a “blind spot.” Have you found examples of other blind spots?

I’m not drawn to writing autobiographically because it cramps me and comes at the cost of the freedom that writing otherwise allows–to go places that I haven’t gone, to invent, to experiment, to imagine, to push boundaries. But if I stray too far in that direction, then the work loses the urgency and necessity of the personal, and in the end it doesn’t work or come fully alive for me. So it’s a delicate balance, and there is very often that moment of revelation when I become aware of the ways in which my fiction reflects my own experience, or how it evolved from certain interior conditions or needs. It isn’t always a direct reflection, it’s rarely one-to-one, but there is always a moment where I become aware of the correspondence.

We’ve talked about your interest in transplanted rooms and writers’ desks. What’s your experience with archives?

I’m not a big researcher. When I was in graduate school in England, I found myself always bumping up against the same wall. I’d spend a lot of time in libraries, reading and aimlessly semi-researching, but then my mind would start to improvise. When I wrote about Rembrandt, for example, I found myself wanting to makes claims about interior life, or at least trying to imagine it. But beyond looking at his paintings, no amount of research would ever take me there. But a novel might.

I’m often asked about the research I’ve done for my novels, but the truth is that I did very little. Most of the places I’ve written about I know intimately; in the case of Chile, which I don’t, I went through an intense period of reading about the nightmare of the Pinochet regime long before I ever thought about writing about it. You might say that in the end, writing about it was the only solution for me. A novel grows to fit the author’s concerns.

“The Birth of Feeling” section of The History of Love reads: “Having begun to feel, people’s desire to feel grew. They wanted to feel more, feel deeper, despite how much it sometimes hurt. People became addicted to feeling. They struggled to uncover new emotions. It’s possible that this is how art was born.” How does this reflect your views of art?

There are moments in one’s reading when one encounters a passage that so precisely captures some aspect of existence, great or small, never previously articulated to you, but which you instantly understand and recognize nonetheless. It’s a little shocking, and it’s joyful, and one feels, suddenly, access to the underpinnings of everything. I think art is that–an enhancement, often a spiritual one.

Tell me about your visit to Israel in 2010 for the Jerusalem Cultural Fellowship. I understand you met with Yoram Kaniuk.

This was a pilot program, an academy at a wonderful place, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where a small part of Great House takes place. It was the first settlement outside the walls of Jerusalem; nobody wanted to live outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time, in 1860, because it was so dangerous, gangs of marauding bandits and so on. In 1973 it became a place where artists were invited to stay and work, and now it’s one of the most beautiful places in the city. All kinds of writers, artists, and musicians have stayed there. [Saul] Bellow had a residency there. It’s likely that Singer stayed there at one point or another. Basically the director had the idea of reviving those residencies. It was a wonderful place to be, especially since I spent so much time in Jerusalem growing up.

Unlike Israeli writers like [David] Grossman, Amos Oz, Yoel Hoffmann, or others I’ve been reading for a long time, I hadn’t been familiar with Kaniuk. I stumbled onto one of his books in a bookstore, as one used to do [laughs]. It was called The Last Jew, and I couldn’t resist the title. I picked it up, and there was this incredible endorsement on it from Susan Sontag who said of all the books in translation she’d read, Gabriel García Márquez, Peter Handke, and Kaniuk were the greatest, or something along those lines. So then I had to read it. It’s an incredibly complex book, demanding in all kinds of ways, but absolutely remarkable; it’s like nothing else I’ve read. After I read everything of his that I could find, I got to know him in Israel. He’s a warm, old, cantankerous, stubborn, complicated soul and an incomparably great writer.

What advice do you have for writers?

It depends on who the writer is. Writing is incredibly hard work. Thinking itself is hard, and growing harder and harder under the tyranny of technologies of distraction. Writing, which is an elevated form of thinking, is even harder, and doing it in a sustained way over the course of a few years isn’t exactly a walk in the park. People often ask about the physical details of how a writer works–where, when, with what mechanism–as if it will reveal some hidden mystery as to how it’s done. But all of that is, of course, largely irrelevant. So, to begin with, writing requires time and tremendous will. Just to do it regularly, to persevere and not give up. The other necessary element, for me, is freedom, a spirited conviction that you are going to allow yourself to do whatever you want to do in the work, however unpromising or ill-advised it may seem.

I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere in which so many young writers start off, in writing and MFA classes, isn’t problematic for that reason. Before their work is even finished it’s put before a jury of their peers. If I had to submit my work to such a jury once a week, to any jury, I’d have to spend the rest of the week resuscitating the stubbornness that keeps me writing. It takes a certain courage, or perhaps just obliviousness, to pursue things that feel risky or poised to fail. But in my experience, it’s those efforts that lead to the most interesting things, the things that I end up sticking with and which take me places that feel most worth going to.

What are you reading now?

The Sermon and Other Stories by Haim Hazaz, who was the first writer to win the Israel Prize. This summer, I read a lot of Tove Jansson, a Finnish writer most famous for her books for children, the Moomintroll series. But later in her life she started writing books for adults, and The New York Review of Books has recently been publishing them in English. The Summer Book is wonderful. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter on a remote Finnish island. This girl’s mother has died, but that’s never spoken of. It’s only reflected through the very unique relationship between this stubborn, unconventional older woman and the young girl, equally stubborn, and the unusual things that absorb their attention. Jansson is also one of the best nature writers I’ve ever encountered.

Who are some of the writers you admire?

Bruno Schulz, [Franz] Kafka, [Samuel] Beckett, [Saul] Bellow, [Georges] Perec. In the last few years, I read all of Thomas Bernhard and became consumed by him for awhile, fascinated, in particular, by his penchant for upsetting or offending people; it runs so contrary to the contemporary American climate of appealingness, charm, lightness, of all that goes down easily.

There are also poets who matter very much to me. Yehuda Amichai and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert both impacted me deeply when I was younger and taught me something about the kind of writer I wanted to be. To remind myself, I still return to them.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Signature Courses offer freshmen opportunity to experience primary materials and archival research

Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.
Fifteenth-century Dominican Processional featuring square musical notation on 4-line red staves.

Bibiana Gattozzi recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a Masters in Musicology. Last year, she was a Teaching Assistant for a Signature Course entitled “Music, Art, and Ritual in Mexican Catholicism.” Designed for first-year undergraduates, Signature Courses are interdisciplinary seminars taught by professors from across the university. Gattozzi took her students to the Ransom Center to view medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts.

After the first few class periods of my semester as a teaching assistant (TA) for a first-year Signature Course at The University of Texas at Austin, I realized that the Harry Ransom Center would provide the ideal opportunity for meeting three of the major goals of the Signature Courses: sparking the academic interest of first-year students toward a particular subject and toward the academic goals of a major research institution; fostering interdisciplinary intellectual curiosity; and introducing students to the resources of the University to encourage the effective and frequent use of these resources.

For this particular course, the students were required to read a scholarly monograph on a Renaissance chant manuscript from Toledo, Spain. Remembering from previous visits to the Center that it contained a collection of liturgical chant manuscripts from the same time period, the other TAs and I proceeded to arrange for our classes to meet at the Ransom Center. This was accomplished swiftly and effectively thanks to the kindness and efficiency of the staff members of the Center who explained the policies for classroom use of archival materials. The Ransom Center’s website and research account system was also very helpful. I was soon delighted to learn the following:

1. The Ransom Center indeed contains an extensive collection of medieval and Renaissance liturgical/musical manuscripts of many different sizes, shapes, and kinds, originating from many different countries (i.e., Italy, Germany, France, Spain) and representing many different states of conservation. It is easy to find and request these items through the online catalog and research account system.

2. Researchers are allowed to request up to 15 items at a time for instructional use in a classroom adjoining the reading room.

3. It is relatively easy to schedule a time with the Center’s staff for using the classroom, and the staff sets up all the items on display beforehand.

4. Explaining course content and sparking the interest of students who have no background in archival research is a simple task through the guided exploration of the Ransom Center’s treasures.

A visit to the Harry Ransom Center allowed students to see the Renaissance liturgical manuscripts in person—including one from Toledo that closely matched the manuscript about which they were reading. University of Texas students and instructors will find the Ransom Center a most precious resource for stimulating intellectual curiosity beyond the content of a course.

Guidance for faculty planning signature course visits to the Ransom Center is available.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.

Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.

According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.

“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”

If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.

For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.

Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”

In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.

The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.

In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.

Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”

Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”

Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”

Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”

Student (angered): “I’m serious.”

Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies playwright Tom Stoppard's wit

Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London's Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard's "The Real Thing."
Bill Demastes with Tom Stoppard outside London's Old Vic Theatre in 2010 at the opening night of the revival of Stoppard's "The Real Thing."

Bill Demastes of Louisiana State University spent  June 2011 at the Ransom Center on a fellowship reviewing material from various collections, including the Tom Stoppard papers, for his forthcoming book, The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard. Demastes’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Endowment.

When playwright Tom Stoppard’s name comes up in conversation, most people will recognize him (with a little help) as the author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and the (co)author of the award-winning movie Shakespeare in Love. People who follow live theater will recognize him as perhaps the most important (certainly the most successful) playwright alive today, a man who over the past five decades has dazzled the stage with such hits as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (his 1960s breakthrough play), Travesties, Jumpers, The Real Thing, Hapgood, Arcadia, and The Coast of Utopia. He is a word master, wit, comic genius, a man who juggles thought with feeling and provides rich entertainments that generate intellectual resonances for his audiences well after the theater goes dark.

I have been working on The Cambridge Introduction to Tom Stoppard (Cambridge University Press) for the past few years, increasingly realizing that no one short of Stoppard himself could capture the heart of Stoppard’s theater. When that point finally crystallized in my mind, I determined to come to the Ransom Center, home of the Tom Stoppard papers, looking for Stoppard’s own words to incorporate into my book. Over the month that I spent combing through letters, interviews, essays, and speeches, I found gem after gem. Throughout his writings, Stoppard uses peacocks crossing highways, fairies flitting over ponds, men listening to jazz on a radio, a bookstore, landscape gardening, a coin toss, tales from Wittgenstein and Feynman, a love of slapstick, rock-n-roll, and so much more unlikely material to illuminate such complexities as postmodernism, cognitive psychology, determinism, existentialism, nonlinear dynamics, particle physics, and love. Having so much of Stoppard’s writings in a center dedicated to preserving the written word in all its manifestations has made my job infinitely easier. It is for that that I thank the Ransom Center.

Notes from the Undergrad: Student finds passage to past through diary is a journey full of surprises

Joe Marshall recently graduated from The University of Texas at Austin, where he majored in Plan II Honors. He spent time in the Ransom Center’s reading room as he prepared to choose his senior thesis topic, and he shares that experience here.

Arriving at the Ransom Center, I didn’t have anything particular in mind. I wanted to explore primary materials as one of any number of possible venues for thesis work; my keenest interest was in journals, diaries, and the like. I’d been encouraged by a friend’s experience reading the journal of T. H. White—best known for his book The Once and Future King—during the early years of the London Blitz, when the damage inflicted by Adolf Hitler’s bombs was reaching its terrifying crescendo. My friend told how White thought he was witnessing the birth of Hitler’s “Thousand-year Reich” and the end of England and Western civilization as he knew it. I was fascinated. This was experiencing reality directly through the eyes of another: feeling their feelings, suffering their travails, witnessing their very thoughts as much as one could—or one ever can. So I came in, watched the instructional video, completed the requisite training, and asked to see manuscripts from Journal of My Life in India, 1825–1857 by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Cumming Dewar (1803–1880).

And they gave it to me. I could see and touch, smell and hear (but not taste, crucially) the tiny leather-bound book—the creak of its worn pages—without any of the SWAT gear or hazmat suit I naturally assumed would be necessary. And as I leafed through the surprisingly pristine pages and the tiny script (script!) this meticulous British person had lain down a truly incomprehensible age ago, I came to a stark and sudden realization: this person was not me. They weren’t even a nineteenth-century facsimile of me—a more educated, more analog, but still recognizable permutation of myself.

“Four died a-midships last night” the tiny hand would read. “Spoke with the captain this morning about disembarking for a time in Bengal” the next line would continue, coolly accustomed to the habit people had in that age of, well, dying aboard a tiny wooden ship as it sailed half a world away without GPS or 4G or—perish the thought—even TiVo. I had come to the Ransom Center expecting to inhabit another person, to play around in the thoughts they chose to pen, and to assume their consciousness as one would put on a pair of especially difficult pants. But what I realized was that the gulf of time separating us was so vast and filled with wonder, that I could never truly know them. They (he) was as alien to me as the great gas giants or the terrain of the abysmal deep, except perhaps more so. You can study Jupiter or map the ocean depths, but you can never recreate a person with all the historical context, life experience, and accumulated wisdom of their time. You can only glimpse and hope that glimpse enlightens.

I ended up doing something else entirely for my thesis (something about music and authenticity or some such). But, while it would be clichéd and untrue to say I never forgot, I believe I will always feel the impact of that day’s search. It was too exciting and too unexpected to not worm its way into me—as deep (have I said it?) as the ocean depths.

 

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The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.