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Video highlights fellow’s work in Transcription Centre archive

By Edgar Walters

Samantha Pinto came to the Ransom Center as a fellow from Georgetown University to work on her project “Africa, (Re)Circulated: Cosmopolitan Performances of Mid-Century Modernity.”

Pinto’s research, which focuses on the United States’s perception of Africa, involved documents and multimedia components from the Transcription Centre archive. The materials from the archive related to Africa are in their own finding aid, which Pinto says will make the Ransom Center a destination for students and scholars in the field of African and African Diaspora studies.

Pinto’s work was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

Related content:

Africa and the Archive:
Researching the Transcription Centre

Fellows Find: When Knopf Inc. published a master work by Fernando Ortiz: A strange hurricane

By Armando Chavez-Rivera

 

Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.
Cover of “Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar” by Fernando Ortiz.

Armando Chávez-Rivera, an assistant professor at the University of Houston-Victoria, has published four books, among them Cuba per se. Cartas de la diáspora (2009), which summarizes extensive information about Cuban writers located off the island. He worked as a journalist for more than a decade in Latin America, with long stays in various countries in the region, and has published in magazines and popular journals. Currently his academic research is concentrated on Spanish-American literature while he maintains his work as a columnist for the Latin American Data Base, a unit of the Latin American and Iberian Institute of the University of New Mexico. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for 2013–2014 fellowships.

In the spring of 1947, Alfred A. Knopf Inc. published the first English translation of Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar (Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar) by Fernando Ortiz. This inspired essay explores the island’s history, culture, and economy through references to its principle crops, and provides detailed information about the internal tensions within society and its relationship with the United States.

The Harry Ransom Center preserves the correspondence between Ortiz and the publishing house, as well as routine communications of the legendary team formed from Herbert Weinstock, editor, and Harriet de Onís, translator, who were responsible for the first English translations of other celebrated Latin-American writers like Alejo Carpentier.

Knopf Inc.’s growing interest in Latin America was rooted in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, and Blanche W. Knopf visited several countries in the region in 1942. Contrapunteo was the first important Cuban work published by Knopf Inc.

Ortiz’s book created a controversy among the editorial advisors; one of them undervalued it for being written in a supposedly “tropical” style, grandiloquent and almost impossible to translate. Nevertheless, Ortiz’s international prestige as an academic and his encyclopedic knowledge of culture, versed in ethnography, sociology, and anthropology, among other fields, tipped the scales in his favor.

The book received excellent reviews from the press, with praise for a translation that maintained the original language’s seductive blend of rigorous scientific knowledge, profusion of quotations, and sustained poetic prose. We now know the subsequent impact the volume had on terminology, coining terms like “transculturation,” to refer to the mutual exchange between cultures in contact.

Contrapunteo reviewed Cuba’s economic situation and its dependence on foreign markets and capital, primarily from the United States. The book found a way to state scientific knowledge without sacrificing literary elegance, while addressing political, cultural, and economic aspects of a region that the U.S. public knew little about or viewed stereotypically.

Ortiz’s works—as well as those by Knopf’s tireless collaborators in those years, Columbian Germán Arciniegas and Brazilian Gilberto Freyre—hinted at the brewing political upheavals that would yield uprisings, revolutions, and dictatorships, and focused on milestones such as the Cuban revolution and its radicalization to communism and confrontation with the United States.

In the course of my two-month stay at the Ransom Center, I followed this thread of analysis in the letters between Knopf Inc.’s editors, translators, and advisors from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the subsequent reaction of the press and the markets. Knopf’s publications promoted a better understanding of the rest of the hemisphere by the United States and laid the groundwork for a favorable reception of Spanish American Boom literature.

I read the Knopf Inc. archive as if it was an intellectual, cultural, and societal “counterpoint.” Several books from the New York publisher showed the cultural change, literary renovation, and the approaching political explosion in neighboring countries. Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar was one of those rare books that, through its information and biting political reflections, was a strange hurricane of premonitions, bitter and sweet, for the Knopf editors and United States’ readers.

Fellows Find: “How to Revise a True War Story”

By John Young

 

Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.
Snapshot of Tim O’Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

John K. Young, a professor of English at Marshall University, reflects on the production history of Tim O’Brien’s novels and their implications for the kinds of narratives that are possible for soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Young received a fellowship from the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” As the O’Brien papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveal, perhaps the most prominent American novelist of the Vietnam War has kept on telling true war stories not only by mining his experience as a foot soldier across numerous works that often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also by continuing to revise those books, from the initial appearance of selected chapters in magazines, across typescripts and page proofs for first editions, and even to paperback reprints. While the Center’s collection does not include O’Brien’s earliest manuscripts (most of which he destroyed), it does enable scholars to trace O’Brien’s process of revision across multiple stages of a work’s production. In keeping with this refusal to let a text settle into a fixed, final form, O’Brien returned most recently to The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterwork, for a 2009 edition that contains substantial changes to the stories “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Ghost Soldiers,” although these revisions are too recent to have made their way to the Austin archive yet.

During a month-long fellowship in the summer of 2012, I made my way through five of O’Brien’s major works: If I Die in a Combat Zone, his Vietnam memoir; Northern Lights, his first novel; Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for 1979; The Things They Carried; and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien’s fictional response to the My Lai massacre. In each case I found fascinating instances of what the editorial theorist John Bryant calls “revisions sites,” moments in a text that offer divergent readings in response to author’s and publisher’s multiple versions. While many of these changes seem minor—adjusting punctuation or reworking the order of a sentence—even such small moments can take on striking interpretive implications. The closing lines in the opening chapter of Cacciato, for instance, describe the protagonist, PFC Paul Berlin, as he watches the title character on his AWOL escape from the war: “‘Go,’ whispered Paul Berlin. It did not seem enough. ‘Go,’ he said, and then he shouted, ‘Go!’” The exclamation mark did not appear in the book’s first edition or in the versions of the first chapter that had been previously published in Ploughshares and Gallery. For a 1986 paperback reprint, O’Brien changed the punctuation, subtly heightening Paul Berlin’s emotional connection to the runaway soldier and, by extension, to his own fantasies of flight, which make up much of the narrative. Similarly, one of Cacciato’s several “Observation Post” chapters—in which Paul Berlin reflects on his tour of duty so far and the comrades who have been killed—first included a paragraph in which he attempts to reconstruct the sequence of those deaths, ending with the line “Then Cacciato.” This suggests the possibility that Cacciato has himself been dead from the time the novel begins, a reading that would add another layer of imagination to the platoon’s journey from Vietnam to Paris. But O’Brien deleted this line for a later paperback edition, returning Cacciato’s fate to greater levels of ambiguity.

Some revisions are much larger in scope. To take one example, the typescript of The Things They Carried originally included a chapter entitled “The Real Mary Anne,” which followed “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a powerful narrative about a high school girl from Cleveland who visits the war and eventually so embraces its chaos and moral rupture that she leaves the Green Berets behind, disappearing into the jungle. Whereas Things often returns to an episode to announce that it was not “true,” at least not in the factual sense, “The Real Mary Anne” (in Box 15, Folder 7) insists on perhaps the book’s most improbable story as entirely accurate, declaring, “there is substantial evidence that the pivotal events in this story actually occurred.” At the suggestion of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, O’Brien cut this chapter altogether from the published book, an omission that locates “Sweetheart” along the same lines as the book’s other chapters, in which the truth of a reader’s experience of the war trumps fidelity to historical detail. Readers often take this story to be the most clearly “made up,” even as such reactions may say as much about ongoing social assumptions about gender and war. While the inclusion of “The Real Mary Anne” might have more overtly interrogated those cultural biases, without it Things still oscillates artfully between metafiction and real expressions of trauma.

It is at this level that the array of revisions in the O’Brien archive is most telling: how they depict the ongoing effort in O’Brien’s texts to represent the trauma of war, and of Vietnam in particular. On the one hand, O’Brien’s work articulates the impossibility of not telling these stories; on the other hand, “How to Tell a True War Story” and other texts respond to the intractable problem of only a few readers—other Vietnam veterans—being able to truly understand the stories. Dr. Jonathan Shays, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains in his book Achilles in Vietnam that “Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs.” For Shays, one of the most important steps in addressing—which is not to say “curing”—the effects of post-traumatic stress comes from “rendering it communicable, however imperfectly.” Readers of Cacciato and Things, especially, have long known the ways in which these texts respond to the difficult necessity of rendering the war communicable at the level of fractured plots and thematic resistances to closure, but the materials in the Ransom Center allow them to discover as well the ways in which O’Brien’s processes of writing and revising themselves speak to the undying truths of war.

Fellows Find: Scholar explores varied creative processes in David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives

By Mary Holland

 

Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Archival boxes in the Don DeLillo archive at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

Mary Holland  is an Assistant Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz. She recently spent time working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Ransom Center. Her work, which was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, will be used in her article “‘Your head gets in the way’: Distortion, Vision, and Influence in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse and Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.”

 

Last August, I spent six glorious days working in the David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo archives at the Harry Ransom Center, research made possible by a travel stipend generously awarded by the Center. A week is a strange amount of time to spend in a place filled to the gills with archival treasures beyond the imagination of an academic wearied by paper-grading and class prep. At first, encountering this abundance in the framework of a week’s stay threatens to trigger an unhelpful paralysis in reaction to intense frustration. I managed to combat such stultification by using every available moment to gather information that I could examine in stolen moments of leisure once I was home.  During my stay, I looked at most of the Wallace materials and a good portion of the DeLillo materials.

For a longtime lover of Wallace’s work, the archive of his drafts, letters, and annotated books is exhilarating and revelatory. I read with glee his comments, written with his trademark tiny handwriting, in the margins of books I’ve never seen him quote from but knew in my gut he had to have mindfully read; I found in drafts of his work scribblings about other pieces he’d written much earlier or later, establishing how fluid and overlapping his creative process was—that his process for creating fiction was as recursive as the fiction he created.

The DeLillo archive is far vaster than the Wallace one and requires more time for full exploration than I could wrench from my life last August. But I did examine research folders for several of DeLillo’s novels, as well as multiple drafts of a few novels: one could not paint a clearer picture of the enormous differences between Wallace’s and DeLillo’s writing processes than by putting the two authors’ drafts side by side. Whereas DeLillo builds a novel like a house, crafting it room by room, paragraph by paragraph, all aiming to fit a blueprint he’s mapped out well ahead, Wallace’s novels spilled out of him like water, going where they would, joining other unexpected streams, requiring repeated and concerted acts of containment, reshaping, and solidification before becoming the complex crystalline structures they are. I also found some startling connections between novels by DeLillo I had previously not read as connected, and these kinds of discoveries will certainly fuel my next critical work on DeLillo.

Landing at such a place as the Ransom Center with only a week to stay before shoving off again is certainly a real test of fortitude and focus. (Yet I gladly set both aside for lost hours when I became passionately absorbed in this or that planned or unplanned thing: I think I spent an hour just reading letters from Gordon Lish to DeLillo. Lish’s cocky, melodramatic persona is not to be missed.) But every time I jogged up the stairs to the reading room on an energized morning, or down again on a tired evening for that well-earned beer on Sixth Street, I did so with enormous gratitude that the Center exists, that its staff members are so helpful and kind, and that I was afforded my week of work there.

Research fellowships in the humanities

By Jennifer Tisdale

James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.
James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.

The Harry Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2013–2014 research fellowships in the humanities.

The application deadline is February 1, 2013. Information about the fellowships and the application process is available online.

More than 50 fellowships in the humanities are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support research projects in all areas of the humanities, including literature, photography, film, art, the performing arts, music, and cultural history. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

All applicants, with the exception of those applying for dissertation fellowships, must hold a Ph.D. or be independent scholars with a substantial record of publication.

The fellowships range from one to three months, with stipends of $3,000 per month. Also available are $1,200 to $1,700 travel stipends and dissertation fellowships with a $1,500 stipend.

Information about the Ransom Center collections can be found online and in the Guide to the Collections.

The stipends are funded by Ransom Center endowments and annual sponsors, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment, the Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Jewish Studies, the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund, the Carl H. Pforzheimer Endowment, the Woodward and Bernstein Endowment, the Frederic D. Weinstein Memorial Fellowship in Twentieth-Century American Literature, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the South Central Modern Language Association, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

Applicants will be notified of decisions on April 1, 2013. Fellowship recipients and their research projects will be announced on the Center’s website.

More than 50 fellowships provide opportunity to research at Ransom Center

By Jennifer Tisdale

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.
Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Moon on a Hazy Night, ca. 1887, color woodcut, Thomas Cranfill collection; Claude Bragdon, plate 30 from A Primer of Higher Space, 1939; Sir Edward Charles Blount and Gertrude Frances Jerningham Blount, Children motif, ca. 1870, collage of albumen prints, watercolor, pen & pencil in unpublished album, Gernsheim collection; Charlotte Brontë, manuscript of 'The Green Dwarf,' 1833, Brontë Family collection; Southeast Asian white parabaik (accordion book), Eastern Manuscripts collection.

The Ransom Center has awarded more than 50 research fellowships for 2012–2013. The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, photographs, art, film and performing arts materials.

Christopher Grobe, an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Amherst College, is one of the recently named 2012-2013 fellowship recipients that will conduct research at the Ransom Center. Grobe intends to work with the collections of Anne Sexton and Spalding Gray for his project “Performing Confession: Poetry, Performance, and New Media since 1959.”

Below Grobe shares information about his proposed research and working with collection materials.

When you want to experience a work of literature from decades or centuries past, you can always start by picking up a copy of the text. Performances, though, are seldom so easy to access. At best you can hope to triangulate them, and for that you need the documents left behind by those who planned and memorialized them. Archival research, then, is particularly vital to work in performance history. Thanks to this fellowship, I will be able to do such research in the Harry Ransom Center archives.

My current project offers a history and theory of “confessional performance.” This is my term for all the ways in which American autobiography has, over the last 60 years, become something not only to write but also to perform. I think of this project not only as a work of performance and cultural history but also as a provocation to studies of print autobiography. What does book-bound autobiography become when we see it not just as the product of writing but also as the product of (and prompt to) performance? What does the written life become in a culture of performed self-creation?

The Ransom Center holds the papers of two artists obsessed with precisely these questions, though from different sides of the print-performance divide: poet Anne Sexton and performer Spalding Gray.

Sexton began writing confessional verse amidst a craze for poetry readings and recordings, thus ensuring that she would constantly perform these poems in public. I’ll be looking not only at notes and correspondence related to her public readings but also at working drafts of her most frequently performed poems. After all, private “pre-performances” formed a crucial part of her writing and revision process—so even these drafts may constitute evidence of performance.

Gray, whose papers the Center acquired late in 2010, pioneered a mode of first-person monologue that he occasionally referred to as the “talking novel.” His performance practice has confounded anyone accustomed to drawing sharp lines between writing and talking, print and performance. I’ll be looking among his papers for signs of these entangled literary and theatrical aspirations. Of particular interest are the notes or outlines from which he developed his earliest monologues and the unpublished short stories he produced during those same years.

Of course, as with any such venture into the archive, I hope and expect to discover much more than I set out to find.

Related content:
Information about fellowships.

Fellows Find: Scholar studies the Sandinista revolution and the Contra War through the lenses of photojournalists

By Ileana Selejan

Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.
Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Front and back of press print “Nicaragua: 1978” from Magnum Photos collection.

Ileana Selejan, Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, recently spent time in the Magnum Photos collection with a dissertation fellowship from the Ransom Center. Selejan’s work focuses on aesthetics in war photography and protest art at the turn of the 1980s, specifically on the Sandinista revolution, the counter revolutionary war in Nicaragua.

 

The primary resource I consulted while in residency at the Harry Ransom Center between October and November 2011 was the Magnum Photos collection. I was interested in photographs taken in Nicaragua during the 1978–1979 Sandinista revolution and the subsequent Contra War until circa 1989, and I mainly looked at work by Susan Meiselas, Larry Towell, Abbas, and Chris Steele-Perkins. Some key questions guided my research: What constituted the “subject” for each of these photographers? How are the Sandinistas portrayed? How well documented was the counter-revolutionary side? Is there documentation of combat? How comprehensive is it? What are the main differences between work done before, during, and after the revolution? How are the victims of the war portrayed? Broader questions having to do with authorship, subjectivity, and the role of the photographer, as both outside observer and “concerned” witness, were at the core of heated debates that divided the photographic community in the 1980s. Politics and ethics, as the long war in Nicaragua proved, were hard to separate from the photographic records. The complexity of the images produced in this period is furthered with the introduction of a discussion of aesthetics.

For instance, the use of color in Susan Meiselas’s photographs from the revolution (published first in the press and later in 1981 as a group of 72 images in her seminal book Nicaragua, June 1978–July 1979) was one of the most innovative aspects of the period. Yet throughout the eighties, other Magnum photographers working in Nicaragua—Abbas, Larry Towell, and Chris Steele-Perkins—chose to stay with the rather traditional war photography aesthetic, established by earlier generations of war photographers, from Robert Capa to Henri Cartier Bresson. This style was certainly not exclusively a Magnum feature, since the majority of the photographers working in Nicaragua, local and international correspondents alike, chose black and white over color.

For at least a few years, Nicaragua became a powerful, highly controversial subject in U.S. politics and media. It cast a looming shadow over the Reagan administration throughout most of its years in power. Especially as the war in El Salvador escalated in parallel to the war in Nicaragua, many human rights workers, volunteers, journalists, and writers became involved in one way or another with the repercussions of the wars in the whole region. The violence was documented in detail, both in images and in writing. Even so, a large part of these conflicts remained unseen, forgotten, or remembered by only few of the survivors. At the same time, the contributions of numerous photographers expanded beyond the mere photographic documentation of the war. For instance, in 1990, Larry Towell published Somozas’ Last Stand, Testimonies from Nicaragua—an undersized book that consists primarily of testimonies of the victims of the war, placed along a minimal selection of his own photographs.

In 1983 Susan Meiselas co-curated the exhibition Inside El Salvador: Work of Thirty Photographers, which consisted of work by the majority of the photographers active during the war in El Salvador, including her own. It was intended as a protest show, and as it traveled in the U.S. and abroad, it attempted to raise awareness yet again to the brutal consequences of the involvement of the American government in the war. The original exhibition records, prints, and text panels are stored in the archives of the Ransom Center.

The wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador remain two of the most documented conflicts of the 1980s. Both were brutal in the extreme, and the abuses of both sides, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, remain largely perplexing. Perhaps the hardest challenge has been to look at images of atrocities in such great numbers. Even as a twice-removed witness, it has been a difficult task to create distance and assume the position of the historian.

Related content:

Learn more about the Ransom Center’s 2008 exhibition Inside El Slavador.

Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

By Shane Graham

Cover of Langston Hughes’s “Not Without Laughter,” published by Knopf.
Cover of Langston Hughes’s “Not Without Laughter,” published by Knopf.

Shane Graham, Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. His work at the Ransom Center was funded by an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship.

An Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship allowed me to spend a month at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the connections between African-American poet Langston Hughes and black writers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I began this research some time ago at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where the great majority of Langston Hughes’s papers are deposited. The Ransom Center holdings allowed me to expand and enrich my investigation into these transatlantic connections in innumerable ways.

For instance, the Knopf records and the Nancy Cunard papers contain correspondence with Hughes, typescripts of his poems, essays, and speeches, and media clippings about his books. Moreover, the Transcription Centre records include information about its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established important links between African and diasporic writers. The Transcription Centre papers also contain records and reports from the important “Conference for African Writers of English Expression” held at Makerere College in Uganda in 1962, which the CCF co-organized and which Hughes attended as a guest of honor. These holdings provide small but important pieces to the jigsaw puzzle I am trying to complete sketching the transnational connections between Hughes and his many friends and correspondents.

Among other unexpected treasures I discovered were dozens of letters that Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote to his agent and to Nancy Cunard in Paris, from a period when McKay himself was living in Marseille, Spain, and Morocco. While not proving an immediate link to Langston Hughes, these letters do establish McKay as an equally transnational figure and have prompted me to return to the Langston Hughes papers to investigate the two men’s relationship. I’m happy to report, then, that my time at the Ransom Center opened up an important new area to explore in my book-in-progress.

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

By Carolyn Durham

 

Undated photos of Diane Johnson.
Undated photos of Diane Johnson.

Carolyn A. Durham, Inez K. Gaylord Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the College of Wooster, spent the month of June (2011) at the Harry Ransom Center on a fellowship.  Her research in the Diane Johnson collection informs her book, Understanding Diane Johnson, which will be published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2012 as part of a series on “Understanding Contemporary American Literature.”

During the summer of 2011, I had the good fortune to spend a productive and fascinating month in residence at the Harry Ransom Center thanks to a research fellowship funded by the Center’s Filmscript Acquisitions Endowment. The extensive holdings of the Diane Johnson collection, which reflect the remarkable diversity of the novelist’s work in biography, criticism, reviewing, screenwriting, and fiction, allowed me to complete Understanding Diane Johnson, a biographical and critical study that will be published in 2012 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Johnson is always significantly concerned with the shape and form of her fiction, and the Ransom Center holdings allowed me to compare different versions of her manuscripts so that I could better understand her strategies for composition and revision. I was able to see the effect that her work in screenwriting, beginning with the co-writing of The Shining with Stanley Kubrick, had on the drafting of her novels, whose outlines increasingly resemble cinematic storyboarding. I also discovered that she habitually outlined classical novels while she was working on her own. One folder, for example, juxtaposed preliminary plans for The Shadow Knows with several outlines of Jane Austen’s Emma, a fascinating pairing given Johnson’s training as a Victorian scholar. At the same time, the sequences and charts she designed while working on Lying Low confirmed in interesting ways the affinity that she has often expressed for the narrative innovation practiced by the French New Novelists.

Because Johnson writes novels of manners that focus on the concept of America, cultural context is extremely important in the interpretation of her writing, and the Ransom Center’s collection provided me with significant data about what she was thinking and experiencing throughout her life. Johnson’s papers range from elementary school coursework to childhood and adolescent diaries to college and graduate school papers and lecture notes from her 20-year career as a college professor to such unexpected treasures as a 1968 letter from Hubert Humphrey asking her to reconsider her decision not to vote for him, a letter from Johnson objecting to being overcharged for gas written in the same ironic voice evident in her fiction, and an account of the summer she spent as a Mademoiselle guest editor, made famous by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Even knowing that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique described a climate for women and a concept of marriage reflected in Johnson’s early novels, I had not expected to discover that her correspondence with Alison Lurie, beginning in the late 1950s, provided a remarkably detailed illustration of what Friedan called “the problem that has no name.”

The Ransom Center’s collection also gave me access to a good deal of information that is not available anywhere else, which includes Johnson’s first and only unpublished novel and her unpublished screenplays written for films that were to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wim Wenders. Her correspondence, often with other major writers, revealed the same humor, irony, and sense of satire that informs her novels and gave me important insight into what was on Johnson’s mind while she was drafting her own work.