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Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

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“Great Gatsby” materials on display

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, now generally recognized as the closest approximation to “The Great American Novel” and a staple of the high school curriculum, is embarking on yet another new life. Today, a film adaptation opens starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it has already been described as one of the most stylish movies ever made.  Three previous movies and one television drama based on Gatsby reflect their time periods as much as they do the Twenties.

The film has sent the paperback edition soaring to the top of the Amazon best-seller list.  Yet the first edition (1925) was only a modest success, as Fitzgerald notes in a letter in the Ransom Center’s collection.  Although his literary reputation went into a swoon in the late 1930s and 40s, the novel was reprinted from time to time, though it was rarely regarded as an American classic.  More than a decade after the author’s early death in 1940, biographical and critical re-evaluations finally established The Great Gatsby’s permanent place in the canon of modern fiction. In the above slideshow, a group of editions from the Ransom Center’s collections shows its progress from first edition to the current movie mass-market tie-in.  Not for the first time in its history and probably not for the last, Gatsby has been born again.

A case of materials related to The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald are on display in the Ransom Center lobby through June 9.

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Image: The first edition of The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925). The dust jacket by Francis Cugat incorporates several themes of the novel, while maintaining a certain ambiguity. The eyes most likely belong to Daisy, “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of Jay Gatsby’s consciousness. The jacket was completed before the novel, and Fitzgerald was so fond of it that he claimed he wrote it into his book. Today, intact dust jackets are exceptionally valuable; both of our copies have been repaired.

Ur-Knopf: An early Knopf book is reunited with larger Knopf library

June 1915. Gene Stratton-Porter and Pollyanna held their dull sway over the American best-seller lists. A young publisher on the make, who had been fired by his house for planning to poach one of its authors, had just decided to go into business for himself. With seed money from his father, Alfred A. Knopf set up shop in one cramped room at 220 West 42nd Street in Manhattan. The other partner in the firm was Blanche Wolf, well-to-do, cultured, fluent in French, and already engaged to Alfred. The first book published by the firm that fall was the French dramatist Émile Augier’s Four Plays. The Ransom Center owns the entire limited edition (two copies, bound in different shades of morocco leather) bound for Alfred, which he gave to his father (“Pater”) and Blanche (“V.V.”) in September 1915 (the trade edition went on sale the next month). Other than that, the firm’s very earliest productions are not represented in the couple’s huge personal library, now at the Ransom Center. Apparently the Knopfs were not sentimental about their roots.

So it came as a surprise when the Ransom Center was recently offered a copy of one of the very earliest Knopf imprints, Nicolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba, with the bookplate of Blanche Wolf, soon to be Blanche Knopf, and bearing an early bookplate from the firm’s library. Taras Bulba headed the first Knopf advertisement in Publisher’s Weekly of September 25, 1915, along with other Russian books. At the outset, the Knopf list included a large proportion of foreign authors, especially French and Russian ones, mainly because it was relatively easy to obtain their American rights. Within a few years, Knopf, Inc.’s Borzoi Books, as they were named because of Blanche’s short-lived attachment to the famously stupid dog breed, would catch the attention of the publishing world because of its superb literary taste and striking book designs.

When the book arrived, I held in my hand a bit of the Ur-Knopf, from the days before Alfred and Blanche were married, before the hallowed Borzoi Books name was on a book (though the dog himself had already made his first appearance as a logo), and before Alfred implemented his notion that a trade book could be beautifully designed (Taras Bulba is in truth a rather plain book). How or why the volume was removed from the Knopfs’ library remains a mystery. The book economy works in strange and mysterious ways, and we can only marvel that Blanche’s book has now been reunited with the rest of the library.

 

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In Memoriam: William B. Todd (1919–2011)

William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.
William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.

Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.

Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).

Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.

The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.

Locks of Ages: The Leigh Hunt hair collection

Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is the collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.

Scattered about the collections are many other hair samples belonging to various celebrities. The most important were taken from Charlotte Brontë (brunette), Marie Antoinette (a blond lock), and Edgar Allan Poe (a black braid, kept in a locket he gave to his sometime girlfriend Elmira Shelton). When the latter’s hair was exhibited last year for his 200th birthday, it swiftly became one of the most popular items, with younger visitors calling it “creepy.”

There is just something about hair. Composed mostly of the tough protein keratin, it survives practically forever, along with bones (thus Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”). The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s Mariana) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles.

I had often wondered why Leigh Hunt formed the collection and how it came to us. After a bit of digging, I discovered that John L. Waltman had answered my questions about the hair collection in an obscure journal article back in 1980. Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.

Along with Milton’s hair, which may have been removed when he was disinterred in 1790, a single golden hair from Lucretia Borgia’s head was Hunt’s prize. He described it as “sparkl[ing] in the sun as if it had been cut yesterday.” Lord Byron stole a portion of a lock in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and presented it to Hunt with a quotation from Alexander Pope: “and beauty draws us with a single hair.”

The Hunt hair collection, minus Lucretia Borgia’s strand, stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.

While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.

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Your field guide to the Ransom Center

Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
Plantin Polyglot Bible, 1569-1573.
A completely revised Guide to the Collections has appeared on the Center’s website, superseding one based largely on the published edition of 2003 (now out of print). The Guide does not replace standard cataloging but supplements it, emphasizing topical access across the collections.

Changes in scholarship since the first edition of the Guide was published in 1990 are reflected in the new version. For example, there wasn’t a Gay and Lesbian chapter in the 1990 guide; one was added in 2003, and in 2010 it has expanded into a long section on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Queer (LGBTQ) studies. The history of the book was just finding its way as a discipline back in 1990 (when it was “Book Arts”). The current version includes a much wider variety of resources. A full-blown chapter on African Studies has now grown out of a small section on African literature.

The Guide also spotlights some so-called “hidden collections” that are so much a part of the charm of special collections. Every large library has them. These are collections that are uncataloged or for various reasons hide in the recesses of the stacks, biding their time. To take one example: the elegant set of uniformly bound European letter-writing manuals (seventeenth to nineteenth centuries) assembled by a collector named H. M. Beaufroy. These are easily overlooked in the online book catalog (and difficult to find, even for me!) but now have a niche in the Guide.

Few people will understandably have much interest in browsing the full text of the Guide, but for those who do, surprises await. Who would have thought that we have a large collection of “squeezes” (papier-mâché pressed into classical inscriptions in stone) of interest to scholars (epigraphers) who study such things? Or that we own the correspondence of the Duke of Wellington with a young religious zealot that “portrays the aging general’s generosity and patience.” Or a group of Franz Liszt’s letters to his daughters, Blandine and Cosima (later Richard Wagner’s wife), “expressing his concern over their education and their intellectual and artistic development.” Not to mention the tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music used by the piano players of the Interstate Theater chain to accompany silent films.

The entire Guide text is searchable using the website’s search feature. Another notable improvement to the website is a new “portal” to the finding aids for archival and visual collections, which allows easy browsing by collection name and type of material as well as keyword searching.

New book sheds some light on "The House of Knopf"

We have read thousands of letters to and from Knopf authors, editorial reports, publicity materials, and sales accounts. Despite having lived in their “house,” read their personal letters, and viewed Alfred’s photographs, I don’t feel that I understand either of the Knopfs particularly well. Both were temperamental and rife with contradictions. This may explain why despite their importance in the history of publishing, the Knopfs have yet to be the subjects of a book-length biography, although there have been attempts, and several projects are currently underway.

Alfred and Blanche Knopf were both notoriously demanding of themselves, their editorial staff, and their authors. When Knopf, Inc. burst onto the American publishing scene in 1915, the couple were among the few Jewish publishers. Alfred was famously denied admittance to a lunchtime circle of publishers, whereupon he formed his own. Their status as outsiders may have something to do with their aggressive, take-no-prisoners business style. Or to put it another way, the Knopfs had ‘tude. And they had style. In a button-down world of publishing, Alfred stood out with his lavender shirts and strident ties; a London tailor once refused to make a shirt out of some brightly hued cloth the publisher had chosen. Blanche, attired in Parisian haute couture, lived near the edge, subsisting largely on salads and martinis. As a female publishing executive, she too was a pioneer with something to prove.

Yet the Knopfs had a softer, gentler side. By the 1920s, they had decided to live independent lives in separate apartments, but on weekends they generally retired to “The Hovel” up the Hudson, in Purchase, New York, to live an apparently tranquil country life. There they frequently entertained their friends and authors, who were often the same people. The Knopfs had a knack for engaging their best authors on a personal level, wining and dining them (Alfred was a noted gourmet and oenophile) and exuding charm. Blanche bought a trenchcoat for Albert Camus and gloves for Elizabeth Bowen. Alfred took snapshots and made home movies of the guests. The devotion of these authors and others, such as Carl Van Vechten and H. L. Mencken, radiates from their letters. As Alfred Knopf maintained, “a publishing house is known by the company it keeps,” and by that measure both the Knopfs were the greatest publishers of their day.

[Also, see earlier blog post about the friendship between Blanche Knopf and Albert Camus.]

 

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A Small Gem of Negativity: The Decline Postcard

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection. Click image to see larger version.
Timothy Ferris has recently blogged about Edmund Wilson’s “decline letter,” a form postcard listing all of the things the crotchety literary critic refused to do: read manuscripts, advise authors, address meetings, donate and inscribe books—the list goes on and on. The same postcard may be found in the Ransom Center’s collections, and on our copy Wilson has checked “WRITE ARTICLES OR BOOKS TO ORDER” and added “I have nothing interesting to say about Pound and haven’t been influenced by him.”

I have “collected” such items in the Center’s collections for several years without a pigeonhole (the catalogers like to call them “genre headings”) to throw them into, but now I do. The term “decline letter” has a certain rightness and precision about it. In my view, a decline letter shouldn’t be confused with a rejection letter (Ferris himself goes on to make this error in his blog). The purpose of a rejection letter is to turn down book manuscripts or deflate one’s aspirations of attending an Ivy League university. A decline letter, on the other hand, is a form letter used to decline all the various impositions on an author’s (or celebrity’s) time.

Authors are subjected to many annoying demands from various quarters, but the autograph collector is probably the most feared. In P. G. Wodehouse’s story “The Autograph Hunters,” the esteemed novelist Mr. Montagu Wilson “was notoriously a foe to the autograph-hunter. His curt, type-written replies (signed by a secretary) had damped the ardour of scores of brave men and—more or less—fair women.” Mr. Wilson could have employed a decline letter or postcard, sparing his secretary many hours of work.

Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Postcard from George Bernard Shaw collection with Shaw's annotations. Click on image to see enlarged version.
Most of the examples of the genre I have seen in the Center’s manuscript collections are actually postcards. A printed postcard answer to an appeal is, by its very nature, a putdown even more offhanded than a form letter. The George Bernard Shaw collection contains a whole folder of these postcards, many of them with autograph revisions. Because of his fame and strong views on all topics, the playwright was constantly solicited by journalists and fans and had an entire repertoire of brightly-colored decline postcards. A form postcard on vegetarianism, though not a decline card, carries a handwritten addition to the printer: “Any color except pink!”

Evelyn Waugh spent most of the later part of his career escaping from London literary life and importunate autograph seekers, aspiring authors, and Americans of all descriptions. Yet the mail still had to be dealt with, and Waugh eventually developed a card carrying this notice: “Mr Evelyn Waugh deeply regrets that he is unable to do what is so kindly proposed.”

Even more mild-mannered authors, such as Marianne Moore, could be driven to the use of decline postcards. Moore’s list* includes “recommend editors favorable to verse by children or work bequeathed for publication,” suggesting that she had received more than a few requests along this line.

I expect that few contemporary writers use decline postcards; they simply ignore annoying requests or have a form email on file for the same purpose. Too bad—at its best the decline postcard is a small gem of negativity.

*This example is from an entry in a dealer catalog.

"Publishing isn't just about contacts; it's equally a matter of human relationships"

Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.
Albert Camus, taken by Alfred Knopf in Stockholm during the week in which Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize, December 1957.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus in a tragic car accident. Yet, as the online review The Daily Beast observes, he remains “the most widely read of all the postwar French writers and [is] hip enough to inspire a comic-book series.”

In addition to the manuscript of his novel The Misunderstanding and other items in the Carlton Lake Collection of French Literature, the Ransom Center holds several fascinating few folders of correspondence between Camus and the publisher Blanche Knopf, to which a couple of additional letters have recently been added.

Few of the firm’s authors were closer to Blanche Knopf than Albert Camus. After Blanche’s death, her husband Alfred recalled that “she became very, very friendly with Camus…They were frequently closeted in our room discussing and working over his book-in-progress. I think she had the right to feel that she was part of his work, and I don’t think she ever got over his death.”

The special nature of this publishing relationship is also apparent in Blanche’s 1960 memoir “Albert Camus in the Sun,” in which she writes, “That he was a writer, I knew. In short, I believed in him from the very beginning.” Blanche Knopf even gave him the trademark tan trench coat that the author wore in his most famous dustjacket photograph by Cartier-Bresson.

Blanche Knopf played a significantly larger role in shaping Camus’s career and promoting his reputation—and not merely in the English-speaking world—than has been recognized. Three weeks after V-E Day, Blanche swept into France (one journalist commented, “I knew the war was over when [she] turned up in Paris”) and almost immediately signed Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Camus. During her first meeting at the Ritz Hotel, she and Camus “talked about his writing, his future, his past, his plans, young writers in France, Pasternak, English writers, American writers, ourselves, everything, in these curious sessions we had together.”

The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert, was published by Knopf on April 11, 1946. Camus was in New York at that time for his first and only trip to the United States, and the Knopfs threw a large party in his honor. The novel initially sold fewer than 10,000 copies and was in the short term only a modest success, although it’s now regarded as a classic of modern literature. He and his publishers had agreed that his second novel, The Plague, would be published in the United States before any of his earlier dramatic or philosophical works were translated. Later, Blanche put in a plea for intensive marketing of the novel, and her faith in The Plague was borne out: the hardback went on to sell 50,000 copies up to 1960. Camus was now able to go out and purchase a motorcycle.

In the middle years of their relationship, Blanche Knopf insisted on publishing translations of his more philosophical works, such as The Rebel, although they generally did not sell well in the United States. She desperately tried to steer the author, who was distracted by his theatrical pursuits, back to novel-writing—in particular The First Man, which was not published until forty years after his death. Near the end of his life, the firm published his short novel The Fall. It was in part due to active promotion by Blanche Knopf that Camus received his Nobel Prize in 1957. Alfred and Blanche Knopf accompanied him on a snowy train ride to see him accept the award and deliver a memorable speech.

As Alfred Knopf said, Blanche could be a “bulldog” when it came to advancing the case of authors she particularly admired. This was certainly the case with Camus, who may have owed much of his international success to her. Research in the Knopf archive shows that publishing isn’t just about contracts and balance sheets; it’s equally a matter of human relationships.