Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.
Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.
The Tennessee Williams Film Series at the Ransom Center continues tonight with Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. The series runs on some Thursdays through July 21 and features films highlighted in the current exhibition,Becoming Tennessee Williams, which runs through July 31.
Despondent ex-athlete Brick Pollitt (Newman) resists the affections of his enticing wife, Maggie “the Cat” (Taylor). Tensions climax during cotton tycoon Big Daddy’s 65th birthday celebration on the Pollitt Plantation.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped propel Newman and Taylor to stardom. Although Taylor did not fit Williams’s own “idea of Maggie the Cat,” she was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal and was praised by Walter F. Kerr in the New York Herald Tribune for making herself “believable as a rejected wife, determined somehow to win back her cold and hostile husband.”
Williams offered his literary agent Audrey Wood a list of eight “acceptable” directors for the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. MGM, however, preferred to work with a director they already had under contract. MGM offered George Cukor the directorial job, but Cukor turned it down when he realized that the Hollywood version of the story cut out most of the play’s implications of Brick’s homosexuality. The changes also infuriated Williams, who is said to have cautioned audiences to stay away from the 1958 film, charging that “this movie will set the industry back 50 years!” Richard Brooks, whom Wood identifies as “maybe!” qualified for the job, was eventually chosen to direct the film.
Visit the galleries, open until 7 p.m. on Thursdays, before attending the screenings.
Please be aware that the Ransom Center’s Charles Nelson Prothro Theater has limited seating. Line forms upon arrival of the first person, and doors open 30 minutes in advance.
This post was written by Ransom Center volunteer Emily Butts.
In light of the Ransom Center’s current exhibitionBecoming Tennessee Williams, Cultural Compass spoke with Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright Tony Kushner about Tennessee Williams’s legacy. Read a transcript of the interview with Kushner, in which he discusses how Williams has influenced him, his first encounter with Williams’s works, Williams’s courageousness, and more.
How has Tennessee Williams influenced you?
Profoundly. Of the three major, post-war American playwrights—Williams, Miller, and O’Neill—I had the easiest time connecting to Tennessee when I was young and starting to think about being a playwright. When I read AStreetcar Named Desire for the first time, I fell in love with Tennessee because he was a southern writer and I grew up in Louisiana. The voice was very familiar and powerful to me because he was gay. Even though there were no overtly gay characters, you could feel issues of sexuality that seemed of great moment to me right under the surface of the plays.
Williams, much more than any other American playwright, succeeded in finding a poetic diction for the stage. I immediately identified with that ambition, with the desire to write language that simultaneously sounded like spontaneous utterance but also had the voluptuousness in daring, peculiarity, quirkiness, and unapologetic imagistic density of poetry. Also because it is a written language, the tension between artifice, naturalism, and spontaneity in art has always been exciting to me. I felt that I experienced it really viscerally in terms of American playwriting first in Tennessee’s writing.
I just spent several weeks very happily reading and thinking about The Glass Menagerie, the extraordinary things he accomplishes in it, and how rich, subtle, complicated, and beautiful it is. I spent a lot of time in his letters and journals, and I totally loved reading those. They’re amazing. I feel at the moment, very close to Tennessee. My admiration and love of him is strong right now, as strong as it’s ever been.
What can you tell us about your first encounter with Tennessee Williams and his works?
I suspect the first time was when I saw Katherine Hepburn and Sam Waterston do TheGlass Menagerie on television. My memory is that it was when I was in high school.
In my freshman or sophomore year of college, I took an American drama class. There were things that I liked, but everything fell away when I read Streetcar. I just did this evening at the 92nd Street Y for Tennessee’s birthday. At the end of the evening, Alec Baldwin and Angelica Torn did the Mitch/Blanche scene from Streetcar where she talks about Allan Gray’s suicide. There’s nothing better than that. It’s magnificent and jaw dropping. Streetcar has maybe the most beautiful passages of stage English written by an American. It’s just endlessly, endlessly glorious, heartbreaking, rich, and complex.
What do you remember about watching The Glass Menagerie on TV?
I remember finding it moving and thinking that Sam Waterston was really hot [laughs]. I remember being struck by how funny it was, which was a big lesson for me. I don’t actually think you can be a very good playwright unless you have a sense of humor because laughter in the theater is immensely important. The first laugh of the evening is the audience announcing to the actors that it’s sitting there. It’s also a way to communicate with itself. When it’s a big audience-wide laugh, the audience takes its own temperature and begins to assemble itself as a single thing. And a really big laugh is an aggressive thing. It says to the actors: “We’re here and we’re hungry. Keep feeding us. We like this food.” Tennessee was a very, very funny man. “I’ll rise but I won’t shine.” I thought, that’s really funny, that’s a great line. I find the play witty as well as profoundly moving.
How has Williams influenced your plays’ exploration of sexuality?
Any courageous writer inspires other people to be courageous. The courage with which Tennessee pursued a completely forbidden subject and made it have a place on stage moves me enormously.
I think it’s important to always lead with what scares you. You should always aim to go places where you don’t know the answers, you’re frightened about what the answers might be, and you have warning signs that something problematic or troubling might be in this arena you’re investigating. I think it’s impossible to be interesting if you’re being safe. You’ll bore everybody, including yourself. Williams absolutely emboldened me and most other American playwrights. Miller makes it very clear that there would be no Death of a Salesman had there been no Glass Menagerie and Streetcar.
As moved as I am by Tennessee’s clarity about sexuality and his refusal of the closet, I also think it’s very evident that he couldn’t write gay characters. As a result, we have Blanche DuBois, who’s a spectacular female character. But I’m sure it would’ve been salutary for him to write about gay men and gay women as well. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have been Tennessee Williams if he had had the freedom to do it. Trauma does produce extraordinary things.
I feel like I haven’t just taken from Tennessee. I’m also inspired by O’Neill’s experimental side and his unsparing investigations into his bone marrow. And I’m inspired by Arthur Miller’s incredible integrity, his unstinting attempts to put our political economy on stage in the form of stage naturalism, and his courage politically.
Tennessee Williams drew on his own experiences to create his work. What has he taught you about how playwrights might use their lives in their work?
I’ve always thought there was a danger in writing an autobiographical play. It’s interesting that O’Neill waited until practically the end of his life, after his brother and parents were dead, until he wrote Long Day’s Journey into Night. Tennessee wrote The Glass Menagerie when his father and mother and sister were very much alive. It’s a risky thing to do. I think there’s guilt involved in putting your family nakedly up on the stage.
Also, you’re beginning by going to the heart of things. You may be giving yourself a hard act to follow. What’s amazing is that he outdid himself. Menagerie was almost immediately recognized as a major event in American drama. Rather than being intimidated by that, he then produced an even better play. I decided to avoid undisguised autobiography as much as I possibly can because of a sense I had that this could be very sticky business. I think there are consequences to making art too directly out of your own life.
You’ve said in the past that Tennessee Williams is “all-in-all my favorite playwright and all-in-all our greatest playwright.” Can you elaborate on this?
I don’t know that that’s true anymore in terms of him being my favorite. I don’t have a favorite playwright. I wish I had never said the greatest this or greatest that.
One thing I’m interested in that I’ve been thinking about is the shape of a playwright’s body of work. O’Neill has a perfectly shaped body of work because the plays get better and better.
Williams’s career is another story. He wrote a string of masterpieces that changed American theater and shaped American consciousness. Then around the time of Night of the Iguana, it seems to me they sort of stopped working. His later plays feel frantic. They feel like there’s an attempt to dig into experimental traditions that are not comfortable. That’s a very harsh assessment. He was a great writer, and it’s possible that people will figure out ways to make those plays work. Recently there’s been a spate of revivals of those later plays. I’m thrilled people are trying to wrestle with them, but are they salvageable? I don’t really know. That will make a lot of people very angry with me. I’d love to be proven wrong.
John Lahr has said that you deal with fame in a way that Williams didn’t. Lahr said: “Williams just ran from it, whereas Tony really tries to sort of put his head down and crash through it to some other place.”
Tennessee wrote an essay called “On a Streetcar Named Success” about his life right after The Glass Menagerie became a huge hit. He describes this disintegration that he resolved by having an eye operation. I’m sure when people read it then, they worried what would happen to this guy.
I don’t criticize anybody for the way they handle success. Needing and wanting success is part of the deal of being a playwright, and also not losing your sense of what you’re writing for, what you hope your writing will accomplish, and what you hope you’ll discover through your writing. If what you’re hoping to discover is that you’re the best writer around, if your main ambition is to win 16 Pulitzers and an Oscar, then I think it’ll start to sound that way in your work and you’ll be worthless to everybody, including yourself.
What do you think is Williams’s legacy for today’s playwrights?
I think that the way you learn how to be a playwright is by studying plays. I think that’s more valuable ultimately than being in a graduate program and sitting around and having other playwrights tell you what you’re doing wrong. If anybody asks me what to do to become a playwright, I say read every play ever written, or as many of them as you can get through.
I think the lessons of those plays are very potent for writers. They’re social plays. They’re not plays that are completely interior. There are ways in which AStreetcarNamed Desire is timeless, and there are also ways in which it’s very much a play of the post-war era, about women’s economic insecurity. That sounds reductive and silly, but it’s not. Blanche’s desperation is the terror of somebody who has absolutely no possibility because of what she’s suffered and flaws in her character, if you can call them flaws. There are also beautiful things in her character: her emotional warmth, her carnality, her sensuality. These have all been turned into negatives by a society that’s this creepy mix of post-war boosterism and old-south aristocratic decrepitude and decline. She’s been ground to a pulp. Same with Amanda Wingfield or Laura or Alma Winemiller or Maggie the Cat. He’s especially brilliant at showing what women do when faced with intractably unfair, unjust, and unendurable circumstance. The plotting, contriving, scheming, fighting, and even the self-destruction. I think that they’re plays about oppression and the struggle against it. Even if he’s not an overtly political playwright, he’s profitable to look at in terms of how to handle questions we’d ordinarily call political questions within the tradition of stage realism.
After doing some detective work of his own, Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located a previously unpublished short story by Dashiell Hammett at the Ransom Center. Untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” the short story has been published for the first time in The Strand’s current issue, released today. (Learn more here about how unpublished manuscripts are unearthed at the Ransom Center.) Perhaps best known for his novel The Maltese Falcon, Hammett is considered the father of hardboiled detective fiction. Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center includes 14 other unpublished works, drafts, unfinished works, and personal correspondence. We talked to Gulli about his decision to publish “So I Shot Him.”
Out of the several unpublished Hammett manuscripts you read, how did you choose to publish “So I Shot Him” in The Strand?
All of the manuscripts I found were very, very, very strong works of fiction. “So I Shot Him” was my favorite one. It stood out because I thought it was something Hammett hadn’t tried to write before. It was sort of an experimental Hammett story.
How does “So I Shot Him” compare with Hammett’s other works?
It’s very different in some ways but at the same time has a lot of Hammett trademarks: tension, great characterization, and terse, realistic dialog. The trademark Hammett dialog is superb and seamless. You don’t feel like you’re reading something. It feels like you’re actually listening to what the characters are saying.
What I love about Hammett is the tension. This story has the feel that something sinister is about to happen. There’s such a build-up, and you keep turning page by page to see the conclusion.
This story stood apart because there was a psychological element to it. It’s not like a lot of his other stories that have a clear-cut plot and conclusion. With this story, the ending leaves you asking a lot of questions. I wanted to publish something that we’ll speak about for a long time. If you’re a suspicious person, you’ll think something sinister happens. If you’re not, you may not think so.
Why was it unpublished?
This is the $64,000 question. A lot of times, you’ll understand why writers decided not to publish something if the work was poor. But in this case, the story is very, very, very good. Hammett was a man of many contradictions, so it’s difficult to tell why he didn’t publish it. If I were to guess, I think he worked very hard on it but thought it wouldn’t work in the pulp fiction market. Sometimes writers don’t know what’s in their best interest. If he had published this story, I’m sure it would’ve been very successful. Looking at the story, you have to suspect that he held it dear to him. He was interested in keeping it to himself, especially since he didn’t destroy it. The Hammett estate told me they were aware that these materials have existed for a long time, so perhaps they’d have a better answer!
What do you think Hammett would say if he knew the manuscript were being published today?
I think that writers become less inhibited over time. Writers look at what they wrote when they were younger and can have one of two reactions: either shock that I can’t believe I was this bad. Or, my god, I was writing something very fresh, very new, very uninhibited. A lot of writers look back on old manuscripts and try to drink from that fountain of work that was uninhibited.
The manuscript is undated. When do you think Hammett wrote this story?
I would say the 1920s or 1930s. There’s a bit of a slinging, 1920s feel to it. I could be wrong. But I’m certain it wasn’t his first attempt at fiction.
What can you tell us about some of the other unpublished manuscripts in the Hammett collection at the Ransom Center?
I found 14 other unpublished manuscripts. The Ransom Center was very helpful. I did all of my research remotely with the help of an intern who was just incredible, Nick Homenda. If it weren’t for Nick, I don’t know where I would be.
It was all very time consuming because I would look up a manuscript, then I’d have to cross-reference at other libraries, and write to Hammett experts to check that the manuscripts I found weren’t published before. It took over 100 hours of work, but I managed to determine that these 14 other manuscripts weren’t published either.
In these stories, we see a lot of elements Hammett used later on in his career. We see colorful portraits of criminals in these stories. One story is about a regular, everyday private detective who’s a lot like Continental Op [a recurring character who appears in 36 of Hammett’s short stories]. The story ends like an Anton Chekhov story. There’s an ending, but not a resolution. You want a little more.
What made you decide to look through Hammett’s archive at the Ransom Center?
I decided to look at the Ransom Center because someone had found an unpublished Graham Greene novel at the Ransom Center, which we published in The Strand. I did some more research and found that there were a lot of other interesting manuscripts at the Ransom Center.
Did anything surprise you in the Hammett archive?
The fact that I found 14 unpublished Hammett manuscripts was a huge surprise that will last a lifetime. I thought I’d be lucky if I found one. I’m now seeking permission to publish the rest in book form. Now I’m just waiting for the Hammett estate. I’m pretty certain it will be published. Several editors are interested.
It’s incredible what the Ransom Center has done preserving all these great writers’ works. It keeps a lot of these people alive for future generations. At the Ransom Center, you’re custodians of literary treasures.
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.
The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28 issue of The Strand.
This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?
Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.
“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.
When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.
“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”
It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.
Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.
When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.
“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.
Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.
Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.
“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”
On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”
Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.
Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.
Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?
A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.
Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?
A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.
Q: What surprised you?
A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.
Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.
What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.
Q: How did you choose the title of your book?
A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.
In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.
Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?
A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.
Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?
A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.
Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?
A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.
On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.
Volumes of The Library Chronicle from 1970 to 1997 are now digitized and available online in a full-text, keyword-searchable digital library. TheLibrary Chronicle was an award-winning journal that included scholarly articles on collection materials, complete exhibition catalogs, and descriptions of important rare book and manuscript holdings at the Ransom Center and other libraries at The University of Texas at Austin. Published from 1943 to 1998, TheLibrary Chronicle is an important resource for information about the Ransom Center’s collections.
This project was funded by Google Books and the Hathi Trust.
“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”
Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.
Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.
“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”
Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.
“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”
All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.
“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”
On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.
“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.
In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.
“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”
In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.
“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”
Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.
As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.
“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”
Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.
“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”
Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.
“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”
Click on the four-way arrow in the bottom right-hand corner of the slideshow to convert into full-screen mode.
Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”
That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.
“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”
The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.
For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.
“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”
One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.
“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”
Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.
“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.
Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.
“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.
While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.
“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”
The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.
“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.
In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce captured the world’s first photograph in 1826 or 1827, but it took more than 125 years for it to be recognized as such. The photograph was rediscovered by photo historian Helmut Gernsheim, who found it lying forgotten in a trunk. “I held the foundation stone of photography in my hand,” Gernhseim recalled. “I felt myself in communication with Niépce. Your nightmare existence in a trunk is over,’ I thought. ‘At long last you will be recognized as the inventor of photography.’”
Freed from its “nightmare existence,” the first photograph is on permanent view in the Ransom Center’s lobby. This web exhibition about the first photograph includes information about Niépce, Gernsheim’s discovery, conservation and preservation of the photograph, and more.