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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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Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

Among the papers in the recently acquired Billy Collins archive are materials related to his poem “The Names,” which was written to commemorate the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Interspersed throughout the poem are the names of 26 victims of the attacks, one name for each letter of the alphabet, from “Ackerman” through “Ziminsky.”

 

Collins, a native of New York City, was the U.S. Poet Laureate when the attacks occurred in 2001. He wrote the poem and read it at a special joint session of Congress on September 6, 2002.

 

One of the notebooks in Collins’s archive contains his notes and early drafts of the poem, along with lists of names for different letters of the alphabet. An annotated typescript shows a later draft of the poem with Collins’s handwritten notes and edits.

 

The archive will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room once it has been processed and cataloged.

 

Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre this Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.

 

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Ransom Center acquires archive of poet Billy Collins

 

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of American poet Billy Collins. The materials span Collins’ personal and professional life from the 1950s to the present and documents in detail his creative development.

 

Collins, born in 1941, is known as a poet for the people, with a witty, conversational style that welcomes readers and illuminates the profound details of everyday life. He has described the beginning of his poems as “a kind of welcome mat … inviting the reader inside.” This accessible style and public presence have garnered a wide following, and from 2001 to 2003 he served as Poet Laureate of the United States.

 

“Collins is one of a very few poets whose poems are widely read,” said Harry Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss, “and it is a great pleasure to extend the Center’s holdings in this way, with the archive of a poet beloved by readers everywhere.”

 

Within the archive are dozens of notebooks, which include Collins’ observations, notes, doodles, clippings, and extensive drafts of poems, both published and unpublished. It also includes desk diaries or datebooks that document his life as a teacher, poet and public figure. The earliest materials in the archive include childhood compositions and early family photographs. Also documented is Collins’ career as a teacher and his later emergence as a poet in the late 1970s.  Audio and video recordings and drafts of speeches and talks document a full public life as one of the country’s most popular poets. The archive includes extensive correspondence, both personal and professional.

 

“I am deeply honored and not a little intimidated to have my papers join the literary trails of so many illustrious writers housed at the Harry Ransom Center, several of whom I count among my literary heroes,” said Collins.

 

Collins will be speaking at Austin’s Paramount Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online or by phone at 512-474-1221.


Related content:

Notebooks illuminate creative process behind Billy Collins’s poem “The Names”

 

Image: Undated photo of Billy Collins. Unknown photographer.

Ransom Center acquires 21 J. D. Salinger letters

The Ransom Center has acquired 21 previously unrecorded and unpublished letters by author J. D. Salinger. The letters are accessible as part of the Ransom Center’s existing Salinger collection, which includes published and unpublished manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence.

 

Most of the newly acquired letters are written by Salinger to Ruth Smith Maier, a classmate and friend he met at Ursinus College. Salinger attended Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1938, but he quit midterm and returned to New York City. He and Maier maintained a 40-year correspondence in which Salinger commented on a wide range of topics including his literary ambitions, his writing, and his family life. A number of letters offer insight into his evolving attitude toward public exposure and cast light on his decision to withhold new work from public view.

 

In the earliest letter, the 22-year-old Salinger expresses confidence in his literary gifts: “Oh, but I’m good,” he writes Maier. “It will take time to convince the public, but [it] shall be done.” In later letters Salinger reminisces about his brief time at Ursinus College (“one of the last peaceful or simple or oddly comforting times of my life”) and comments on his second marriage and early fatherhood. Five letters from 1977 and 1978 are written to Ruth Maier’s son, Christopher. In one he offers an explanation for his decision to withhold his writing from the public, explaining “publication tends, for me, at least, to put all work still in progress in dire jeopardy . . . I distrust the finality of publication.”

 

The acquisition also includes copies of Ruth Smith Maier’s letters to Salinger and a draft of the first letter Christopher Maier sent the author.

 

Ransom Center Director Stephen Enniss notes the correspondence will be of particular interest to those who wish to understand Salinger’s withdrawal from public life. He adds, “It also humanizes the author, showing him confronting a range of life-changing events from marriage to fatherhood and his own aging.”

 

The Ransom Center’s Salinger collection was established in 1968 and has been augmented with subsequent additions over many years. The Ransom Center is one of a handful of institutions that hold original Salinger manuscripts, including Princeton University, Harvard University, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the Morgan Library.

Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

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Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”

Ed Rucha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a thin paperback that resembles an industrial manual of the 1960s, is often considered to be the first modern artist’s book. The book is exactly what the title describes: 26 images of gasoline stations along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma City.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, and raised in Oklahoma City, Ruscha was living and working in Los Angeles in the 1960s and frequently traveled the route between the two cities to visit his family.

 

“I just had a personal connection to that span of mileage between Oklahoma and California,” Ruscha told NPR earlier this year on the 50th anniversary of the book. “It just, it kind of spoke to me.”

 

In an interview with Avalanche magazine in 1973 he said, “I’d always wanted to make a book of some kind. When I was in Oklahoma I got a brainstorm in the middle of the night to do this little book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. I knew the title. I knew it would be photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations.”

 

So, Ruscha documented gas stations along that route in black-and-white photographs and labeled them with their locations, from “Texaco, Sunset Strip, Los Angeles” to “‘Flying A, Kingman, Arizona” to the final image “Fina, Groom, Texas.”

 

Ruscha published the book at age 26 in a run of 400 numbered copies in April 1963. Though it was the same year as Ruscha’s first solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, the book didn’t initially receive a warm reception. In a 1963 letter, the Library of Congress declined to add a copy to their collection, noting the book’s “unorthodox form and supposed lack of information.”

 

The book gradually acquired cult status in the 1960s, and a second edition was published in 1967 and a third in 1969. Surviving first editions of the book are rare.

 

Ruscha’s archive, which was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, includes snapshots of the gas stations, Ruscha’s notes about the project, the Library of Congress letter, and an advertisement with the headline “REJECTED Oct. 2, 1963 by the Library of Congress.”

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside the Ed Ruscha archive

 

Oof. Peek inside the Ed Ruscha archive

Four large bins containing the archival material of artist Ed Ruscha arrived at the Ransom Center recently. Packed and carefully layered within were boxes, tubes, and portfolios containing Ruscha’s notable creations on paper. The collection includes his limited edition artist’s books and deluxe suites of prints, photographic publications, colorful exhibition posters, prints of his 16 mm movies, and a rich assortment of papers and journals documenting the creation of his publications and art commissions and referencing his various literary influences. Together, this material represents the achievements of a remarkable artistic career that spans more than half a century.

 

Born in 1937, Ed Ruscha is considered today to be one of the most important artists of his generation. Words and wry phrases have always played a central role in his artwork, beginning with the West Coast Pop Art phenomena of the 1960s where his roots run deep. For Ruscha, whose background includes commercial art and typesetting, words are visually malleable and can carry multiple meanings. “I like the idea of a word becoming a picture, almost leaving its body, then coming back and becoming a word again,” Ruscha once said.

 

Arts writer, Calvin Tomkins, summed it up best: “His (Ruscha’s) early paintings are not pictures of words but words treated as visual constructs.”

 

Single word paintings with odd titles such as Oof (1963) and Boss (1964) were early precursors to more complex works such as the series of rhyming prints titled News, Mews, Pews, Brews, Stews & Dues (1970), which are included in the archive.

 

Ruscha’s art would evolve and expand intellectually—Marcel Duchamp and Jasper Johns were early influences—to become beautifully crafted and complex conceptual works of art, which have been described over the years as being comedic, deadpan, and elegantly laconic.

 

West Coast car culture and commutes on Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma where Ruscha grew up all helped inspire many of his photography-based artist’s books such as Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Royal Road Test (1980), and Parking Lots (1999). All are represented in the archive.

 

Most recently published is On the Road (2010), Ruscha’s limited edition artist book of the classic novel by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). The archive includes full-size mockups of the book, annotated copies of the novel, sketches, photographs, correspondence, and business papers. These materials resonate perfectly with the Ransom Center’s own collection of materials related to Beat Generation authors, which includes the journal that Kerouac kept while preparing to write On the Road.

 

Also included in the archive is Sayings (1995), a folio of ten color lithographs bound in linen that are based on Mark Twain’s novel Pudd’nhead Wilson: A Tale (1894). Ruscha selected phrases written by Twain in a black dialect spoken during the era of slavery. He superimposed the phrases (hand-written in what Ruscha calls his “Boy Scout Utility san serif”) over colorful wood grain patterns, creating a tension that resonates with larger social and racial issues in America today.

 

Ruscha’s creative distillation of popular American culture over the last half century with its layers of typographical code makes him an exciting artist to explore, and, for the Ransom Center, one of the more compelling if not quintessential to acquire.

 

Related content:

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s “Twentysix Gasoline Stations”

 

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Artist Ed Ruscha’s archive acquired by Ransom Center

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of artist Edward Ruscha (b. 1937). The materials reveal Ruscha’s creative process and offer a unique perspective of one of the most influential artists working today.

 

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Ruscha moved to Oklahoma City in 1941 and to Los Angeles in 1956 to attend the Chouinard Art Institute. He had his first solo exhibition in 1963 at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. In the years since, he has been widely recognized for his paintings, drawings, photographs, and artist’s books.

 

Ruscha is known for art that often manipulates words and phrases in unconventional ways. Ruscha’s art is deeply influenced by his love of books and language, as reflected by his frequent use of palindromes, unusual word pairings and rhyme. He has often combined the cityscape of Los Angeles with vernacular language, and his early work as a graphic artist continues to strongly influence his aesthetic and thematic approach.

 

Ruscha’s archive comprises five personal journals filled with preliminary sketches and notes; materials related to the making of his artist’s book of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (2010); notes, photographs, correspondence and contact sheets relating to the creation and publication of his many other artist’s books, including Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962), Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966), and Some Los Angeles Apartments (1965); and materials relating to his short films Miracle (1975) and Premium (1971); his portfolios; and several art commissions.

 

Once processed and cataloged, the materials will be accessible in the Ransom Center’s reading room to students, researchers and the public.

 

The purchase of the archive was primarily supported by generous donors, including Michael and Jeanne Klein, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Foundation, Mark Wawro, and Melanie Gray. The University provided additional support for the acquisition.

 

Ruscha, who continues to live and work in Los Angeles, donated a substantial portion of the archive to the Ransom Center, including a complete set of his artist’s books, print portfolios, 16 mm reels of his films, and a complete set of exhibition posters.

 

A small selection of materials from the archive will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through December 1.

 

Related content:

Oof. Peek inside Ed Ruscha’s archive

In the archive: Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations

 

Please click on thumbnails to view larger images.

 

Magnum Photos collection donated to the Ransom Center

George Rodger, Sahara Desert, 1957, verso. With permission of Magnum Photos.
George Rodger, Sahara Desert, 1957, verso. With permission of Magnum Photos.

The Magnum Photos collection, which contains nearly 200,000 press prints of images taken by world-renowned Magnum photographers, has been donated to the Ransom Center. The gift was made by Michael and Susan Dell, Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman, and John and Amy Phelan.

Mr. Dell is Founder, Chairman and CEO of Dell Inc. Messrs. Fuhrman and Phelan are Co-Managing Partners and Co-Founders of MSD Capital, L.P., the private investment firm for Mr. Dell and his family.

In 2009, the Dells, Fuhrmans and Phelans purchased the collection from Magnum Photos. Since late 2009, the collection has resided at the Ransom Center, where it is being preserved and made accessible for research.

The collection, more than 1,300 boxes of photographic materials, has been integrated into the university’s curriculum, accessed by students and scholars, and promoted through a variety of lectures, seminars, and fellowships.

“The establishment of the Magnum Photos collection at the Ransom Center gives the work of these photographers new life,” said Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center. “This photographic collection will be an invaluable resource, for decades to come, for students and scholars and all who wish to understand the cultural and historical moment through which we have recently come.”

The Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, draws from the vast collection of prints, exploring the evolution of the photo agency from the post-war golden era of the picture magazine to the digital age. Organized by Ransom Center photography curators Jessica S. McDonald and Roy Flukinger, the exhibition includes more than 300 photographs, plus a selection of contact sheets, documents, tear sheets, magazines, books, films, videos, and other multimedia. It is on view through January 5.

Complementing the exhibition is the Ransom Center’s symposium “Magnum Photos into the Digital Age.” The October 25–27 symposium brings together photographers, curators, and historians to discuss the ways in which Magnum Photos has continually reinvented itself from the moment of its founding. Symposium participants include Magnum photographers Christopher Anderson, Bruno Barbey, Michael Christopher Brown, Eli Reed, Jim Goldberg, Josef Koudelka, Susan Meiselas, Mark Power, Moises Saman, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Alec Soth, and Chris Steele-Perkins.

Reading Magnum: A Visual Archive of the Modern World is the first publication to examine the Magnum Photos collection itself. Published by University of Texas Press in September and edited by Steven Hoelscher, academic curator of photography at the Ransom Center, the book explores prominent themes in the collection—war and conflict, portraiture, geography, cultural life, social relations, and globalization—and includes evocative portfolios of images.

Novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez’s archive acquired

Sketch of "The Tavárez-Mirabal 'Residence'" from Julia Alvarez's novel "In the Time of the Butterflies."
Sketch of "The Tavárez-Mirabal 'Residence'" from Julia Alvarez's novel "In the Time of the Butterflies."

The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the archive of acclaimed novelist, poet, and essayist Julia Alvarez (b. 1950).

Alvarez’s extensive archive consists of manuscripts, correspondence, journals, and professional files. The manuscripts span her writing career and include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and unpublished works, often in multiple drafts. Alvarez regularly sent drafts of her work to friends and colleagues, and these copies usually bear handwritten comments from the reader alongside Alvarez’s revisions.

Alvarez’s correspondence includes poems and letters from fellow writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Edwidge Danticat, Dana Gioia, and Marilyn Hacker.

Alvarez was born in New York City but raised in the Dominican Republic until she was 10. In 1960 her family was forced to flee the Dominican Republic when it was discovered that her father was involved in a plot to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Much of Alvarez’s work is considered semi-autobiographical, drawing on her experiences as an immigrant and her bicultural identity. Alvarez’s unique experiences have shaped and infused her writing—from such award-winning novels as How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies to her poetry.

Alvarez’s archive will complement the university’s internationally respected resources in Latin American studies, providing a unique and enriching resource not only for literary study, but also for the study of Latin American history and government and other prominent social and cultural issues of our time.

The Alvarez materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged.