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How the David Foster Wallace archive found a home at the Ransom Center

Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.

Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.

We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.

Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.

Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.

Magnum Archive Collection Comes to the Ransom Center

Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman unpacks materials from the Magnum archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman shares his thoughts on the Magnum Archive Collection coming to the Center. At that same link, view a video of Magnum Director Mark Lubell discussing the significance of the Magnum Archive Collection.

The roster includes more than 95 photographers who would, on their own, make up a definitive who’s who list of photography for the past six decades. More significantly, however, they compose what is perhaps the most recognizable single organization in 20th-century photography: Magnum. Magnum has never been the largest photo agency, but for more than 60 years the cooperative’s notoriously exclusive process of membership has forged an ever-changing band of photographers who are dedicated to communicating through images taken with a unique eye.

Magnum was established to afford some independence for its member photographers from the most controlling and limiting aspects of the media industry, and this freedom and flexibility has allowed the photographers to remain with a particular story, rather than having to fly from hot spot to hot spot like many magazine photographers. Indeed, Magnum’s hallmark has always been the depth with which its photographers have captured their subjects—operating as much or more in what might be termed a “documentary” sphere than one of pure photojournalism. In recent decades, that sphere has further broadened to include elements of art and a self-conscious personal expression. Yet Magnum’s overall purpose of revealing the complex world to itself has remained unchanged.

The nearly 200,000 images now housed at the Ransom Center include iconic as well as lesser-known images by these masters of photography, covering historic events and celebrations, political figures and movie stars, intense studies of urbanism and humanity, and documents of war, terror, murder, and atrocity. The depth of coverage by individual photographers is often multiplied by the number of photographers that cover a particular event or figure. For example, looking through the Martin Luther King, Jr. box, we find images taken by Bob Adelman, René Burri, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Burt Glinn, Erich Hartmann, Bob Henriques, Hiroji Kubota, Danny Lyon, and Costa Manos.

The Ransom Center is delighted to have been chosen by MSD Capital to safeguard a substantial and unique piece of history. We look forward to joining in partnership to further Magnum’s future by protecting and promoting the study of its history.

In talking with Mark Lubell, Director of Magnum Photos, about the many photographers who have been part of the cooperative, I was struck by his description of them as “visual authors.” Given the Ransom Center’s broad range of holdings of the greatest writers, poets, and playwrights, as well as photographers and other visual artists, we expect that our newest “authors” will find a nurturing home here. If we consider the humanities to be the serious contemplation of the human condition, we could certainly not find a more appropriate collection to welcome than the Magnum archive.

Author Andre Dubus's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center

Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999). Dubus was widely considered a master of the short story. His story collections include Separate Flights (1975), Adultry and Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), We Don’t Live Here Anymore (1984), and Dancing After Hours: Stories (1996), among others.

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read from "Lark and Termite"

The Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. Phillips has published six novels and story collections over the last three decades. Her most recent work is Lark and Termite (2009).

Phillips visited the Ransom Center recently and recorded a reading of Lark and Termite, which you can listen to here.

Known for her poetic prose and her in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

The acquisition contains manuscripts in multiple states for Black Tickets (1979), Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1995), Motherkind (2000), and Lark and Termite, as well as dozens of individual short stories and essays, some never published. Phillips’s school records, early writings, family photographs, notebooks, business documents, fan mail, and related ephemera provide insight into the writer’s life, writing process, family relationships, and publishing history.

Which biblical stories are illustrated in this fore-edge painting?

Click to view page with larger image
Click to view page with larger image

Last year the Ransom Center received as a gift a bible printed in 1481, in Basel by Johan de Amerbach, that was adorned with a 19th century fore-edge painting by bibliophile John T. Beer. The scene is described in a checklist of Beer’s fore-edge paintings simply as “A scene on the Nile,” and the image is sufficiently vague to merit such a title.

What biblical paintings might have inspired the painting? Some have suggested Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; Joseph and his brothers; and the Holy Family leaving Egypt. Can any of these suggestions be substantiated based on the details present in the painting? Take a close look and leave a comment with your thoughts.

Read this recent article for more information about this bible and its fore-edge painting.