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Darwin and Herschel: The Fossil Record of a Relationship

2009 marks the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Ransom Center owns several copies of the first edition, the most interesting being the one sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, a famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.”

Darwin identified Herschel in the second sentence of the Origin as “one of our greatest philosophers.” Early in his career, Darwin knew that the elder scientist had defined “the species question”—or in Herschel’s words, “that mystery of mysteries” —as being the central one for the new science of biology (the term wasn’t widely used until mid-century). In 1836, the young scientist, then only 25, was returning from his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands on board the Beagle.

From June 8 to 15, 1836, the Beagle was in port at Cape Town, and during this time Darwin visited Herschel, who had established an observatory in South Africa in order to expand the star catalogs made by his father, William Herschel.

We don’t know what was said, but very likely geology and volcanology were involved. Herschel inspired Darwin to apply the critical analysis of data associated with the physical sciences to the emerging life sciences. As University of Texas at Austin Professor Steven Weinberg recently noted in a talk at the Ransom Center, astronomy has historically led the way in the development of scientific methodology, later applied to other disciplines.

The Darwin-Herschel copy of the Origin, along with the letter of transmittal, stands behind as the “fossil record” of this remarkable meeting. The text of Darwin’s letter follows:

Down Bromley Kent
Nov. 11th. [1859]

My dear Sir John Herschel

I have taken the liberty of directing Murray [John Murray, his publisher] to send you a copy of my book on the Origin of species, with the hope that you may still retain some interest on this question.— I know that I ought to apologise for troubling you with the volume & with this note (which requires no acknowledgment) but I cannot resist the temptation of showing in this feeble manner my respect, & the deep obligation, which I owe to your Introduction to Natural Philosophy. Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me: it made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge

With much respect | I beg leave to remain | Yours sincerely | Charles Darwin

The copy of the Origin volume mentioned in this blog is on display in the Ransom Center Reading Room lobby from November 19 through January 15, 2010, during Reading Room hours.

Music inspired by Poe's works

While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.

Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.

Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.

English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”

Holbrooke’s works and Poe-inspired works of several other composers can be viewed in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

These works are part of the William H. Koester collection, acquired by the Ransom Center in 1966 and the source of most of the items featured in the Ransom Center’s current Poe exhibition.

Ransom Center Celebrates Tennessee Williams's Induction into Poets' Corner

Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams visiting the Ransom Center reading room, November 2, 1973. Photograph by Frank Armstrong.
Tennessee Williams will be inducted into the Poets’ Corner in The Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with celebrations beginning today. Previous inductees include Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Herman Melville, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams.

The Ransom Center holds materials that document the family, life, and work of the American playwright Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Lanier Williams. The collection contains numerous manuscript drafts, including those for the plays The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). Also included are large amounts of newspaper clippings, correspondence, and photographs.

The Tennessee Williams collection was built from four major acquisitions in the 1960s with smaller amounts of material added over the years. The nucleus of the collection began with Williams’s own papers, acquired by the Ransom Center from 1962 to 1969. These materials included over 1,000 separately titled works, numerous clippings, and several boxes of correspondence. In 1964, the Center expanded the collection with the purchase of the correspondence between Williams and his agent, Audrey Wood. In 1965, the Center acquired a large number of manuscripts, including Williams’s first full-length play, Candles to the Sun, from Williams’s official bibliographer, Andreas Brown. Brown’s materials also included a complete run of Williams’s publications, and Brown’s own correspondence, notes, and drafts from his work on Williams’s bibliography.

The Williams family papers were also acquired in 1965 from Williams’s mother, Edwina Dakin Williams. These materials included original manuscripts and works of art by Williams, over 700 letters, scrapbooks, personal memorabilia, and 650 photographs.

Update on the "Victorian Blood Book"

This large, oblong decoupage book contains more than 40 collages consisting of carefully assembled engravings from books. The decoupage has been embellished with hand-colored drops of “blood” and handwritten religious commentaries. The emphasis throughout is on images of the Crucifixion, birds, and snakes, all dripping with blood.

The album, familiarly known to us as the “Victorian Blood Book,” has been an object of fascination, horror, and mystery since it arrived with the rest of the Evelyn Waugh library in 1967.

Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram wrote an article about the book for a prior issue of eNews. Since then, he has unearthed some new information about the book’s origins, which he discusses in a new audio slideshow, where you can see slides of each page of the book.

Scholar explores Hemingway family papers

As a fellow at the Ransom Center last year, independent scholar Mary V. Dearborn uncovered new information about the Hemingway family while studying the Ernest Hemingway collection and Leicester Hemingway’s New Atlantis collection. She’s currently working on a book based on her findings: The Hemingway Family: The Human Cost, which is scheduled for publication in 2011. Her research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dearborn says her book will “tell for the first time the hundred-year story of a tragic American family,” and shares some highlights from her research at the Ransom Center:

I was working in the Hemingway family papers, and I was astounded by what I found there. The papers were mostly Ernest’s mother’s, containing all her correspondence, records, and photographs. None of Hemingway’s previous biographers seem to have really looked at this material, perhaps dismissing it as “domestic” and thus trivial.

Grace Hemingway is usually written off as a cold, castrating shrew—the picture of her that her son wholesaled, blaming her for his father’s suicide. She was definitely difficult, but she was a fascinating woman, and her marriage was a complicated and nuanced relationship of power that Ernest learned a great deal from, for good and ill.

The added bonus is that in these papers there are numerous anecdotes and descriptions of Ernest’s upbringing, contributing to a far more well-rounded picture of the boy and young man than we have previously been given. Ernest once confided to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner, that he couldn’t write freely while his mother was still alive—not at all the impression he commonly gave out! Their relationship was, until her death in 1951, fraught and intense—and heretofore unexplored.

Discovering "The Sheltering Sky"

Matt Morton, a senior in the English Honors Program, Humanities Honors Program, and Government, is working as an undergraduate intern with Ransom Center Curator of British and American Literature Molly Schwartzburg. Undergraduate interns at the Harry Ransom Center have the opportunity to gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience at a major research library and museum. Interns work in a variety of capacities, including developing exhibitions, assisting with collections cataloging, and creating unique multimedia.

Morton has been assembling materials from the Paul Bowles and other collections for an exhibition case that is now on display on the Ransom Center’s second floor through November 13. He shares his experience working on this project:

On my first day as an intern at the Ransom Center, I walked into the building feeling guilty. A lover of all things literary, I was entering my fourth year as an English and Humanities major. Nevertheless, I had ventured inside the Center only twice, both times during organized class visits.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had heard horror stories from fellow classmates about internships consisting of making copies and gazing out the window. I knew, of course, that an internship at the Ransom Center would provide the opportunity to do more than grunt work. Still, I was unsure of how I could make a substantial contribution.

I soon found out. I was met by my supervisor, Molly Schwartzburg, who immediately began outlining the projects we would be working on. The first of these was the creation of a single-case exhibition centered on a New York Times article commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky.

Written by Dwight Garner, the article was notable for its references to Tennessee Williams’s review of The Sheltering Sky, and Norman Mailer’s discussion of Bowles in Advertisements for Myself, two works of which the Ransom Center holds original manuscripts. Garner also referred to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life. Carr did extensive research at the Center while working on the biography and even inscribed a copy of the biography to the Center’s staff.

Garner’s article was the initiation of my relationship with The Sheltering Sky, which would progress over a few short weeks. While I was thrilled to be given responsibility for an exhibition, however small, I was simultaneously apprehensive. During my three years at UT, I somehow had never heard of Bowles. How could I create an exhibition focusing on one of his novels?

I soon found that the task was not as daunting as I imagined. Molly and I began by repeatedly touring the mazes of the Center’s collections. Soon I found myself sorting through the Bowles and Williams collections and Mailer’s papers, eventually having to decide which of the enticing collection materials should be included in the exhibition’s limited space. Finally, all that remained was creating the layout, an act that allowed me even more creative freedom.

After only four weeks of work, the exhibition is finished. I hope that it will introduce viewers unfamiliar with Bowles to The Sheltering Sky, as the process of its creation similarly educated me.

From the Author: Alan Furst

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with historical spy novelist Alan Furst, who is reading tonight at the Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live. Here is how Furst has been occupying his time lately:

“I’m hard at work in two ways: maybe the more interesting has to do with promotion. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, 15 books, and now I’ve been led to discover, by Random House marketing people, the literary chat room. On reflection, since printing was invented, no other system of communication like this has ever existed. Short paragraphs, query and response, a kind of intellectual tennis, in minutes not days, achieved by the internet. And the protocols of e-communication seem to enhance, not limit, the discourse. In other words, you point to trails, you don’t go down them, but the person you address may, and the witnesses—audience?—because it’s an open forum—may do so as well.

“Also, not an anti-climax to me, I’m writing the hell out of a new book, about southern Europe in 1940/41, excited to confront new politics, new history, new ethnographies—the anthropological espionage novel!! You heard it first here.”

Learn more about Furst by viewing his reading recommendations, the inventory of his archive, and a profile that explores his writing process using Furst’s archival materials at the Ransom Center.

From the Galleries: Poe's "The Bells"

The poems published just after Edgar Allan Poe’s death are among his most popular: “Annabelle Lee” and “The Bells.”

“The Bells” was written with the assistance of Poe’s good friend Loui Shew, whom he visited one evening in 1848, complaining that he lacked inspiration to write a poem. According to one version of the story, she offered the opening line and he completed the first stanza, she offered an opening line for the second stanza, and so on. “The Bells” is a masterpiece of onomatopoeia: the sounds of the words directly reflect the mood evoked by each bell described. This manuscript, which is featured in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition on Poe, shows the poem’s earliest form, which Poe eventually expanded to four stanzas.

You can listen to Charles Keating doing a reading here from The Big Read audio guide CD:

The Bells

Isaiah Sheffer: Poe is "one of America's greatest writers"

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with Isaiah Sheffer, creator of NPR’s Selected Shorts, who hosts tonight’s program “Edgar Allan Poe: Poet and Storyteller,” which will be webcast live. He shares his thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe:

“If Edgar Allan Poe had never written a poem, he would still have been one of America’s greatest writers, thanks to his wonderful short stories, and the invention of the murder mystery genre in particular. If he had never written any of his colorful and often scary short stories, he would still have been one of America’s very greatest poets. In our program at the Harry Ransom Center we’re going to try to demonstrate both sides of this unique literary artist.”

Tonight’s program also features actors René Auberjonois and Fionnula Flanagan. They will read works by Poe, including “The Raven,” “Annabel Lee,” “The Black Cat,” “Alone,” “To Helen,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” “The Sphinx,” and “The Bells.”