Matthew Sutton completed his Ph.D. in American Studies at the College of William and Mary in May 2011. This June, he came to the Ransom Center, supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship, to begin the process of revising his dissertation, Storyville: Discourses in Southern Musicians’ Autobiographies, into a book. A former archivist, Sutton worked extensively with the holdings of the performing arts collection, examining primary documents related to blackface minstrelsy in the United States. He shares some of his findings from the Center’s minstrel collection here.
Among the Ransom Center’s many treasures in its performing arts collections are the 4,000 items related to the minstrel show. Culled from private collections, these preserved photographs, programs, sheet-music arrangements, and first-person accounts reveal the world of the blackface minstrel from the Jacksonian age to the 1950s. These are not pleasant items to look at, but they represent an origin point for much of our present-day popular culture and our desire to imitate, borrow, or steal across class and racial lines in the name of entertainment.
One encapsulation of the hold the minstrel theater had on the antebellum working classes can be found in an anecdote from the unpublished memoir of impresario Samuel Sanford (1821–1905). To promote the opening of his Philadelphia minstrel theater in late 1855, Sanford announced plans to distribute toys to children (black and white) on Christmas Day and 5,000 loaves of bread to the city’s poor on New Year’s Day. For maximum impact, these “gifts” were thrown from the roof of the theater. After the Christmas spectacle, Philadelphia mayor Robert T. Conrad (a part-time playwright and defender of the “legitimate” theater) accused Sanford of inciting a riot. According to Sanford (a biased source, to be sure) and the newspaper clippings he saved and appended to his manuscript almost 40 years later, Philadelphians defied Conrad (one paper deriding the mayor as “His Majesty”), sided with the minstrel, and duly assembled for his New Year’s dispensation.
The indelible image of Sanford and his confederates heaving bread and toys off a theater roof to publicize their broad imitations of African Americans and ersatz “plantation melodies” connects on several levels. As a publicity stunt, it rivals the “ballyhoos” of Sanford’s contemporary P. T. Barnum, another showman who learned his tricks in the minstrel trade. As symbolism, it perfectly echoes Roman satirist Juvenal, who concluded that the masses could tolerate the injustices of their times so long as they had “bread and circuses,” that is to say, cheap and abundant food and entertainment. As history, it illustrates how blackface minstrelsy was sold to the white working class as a natural, even beneficial facet of urban life, when in fact its crude racial stereotyping was symptomatic of a nation struggling with its multiracial identity and nearing its end as a half-slave/half-free entity.
Archival holdings like the Sanford manuscript typically present scholars with more questions than answers. Yet they also open new avenues of inquiry, challenge past assumptions, and spur further research. Such is the value of primary sources from the “bit players” of history. Such is the value of the Ransom Center.
Independent scholar John Thornton came to the Ransom Center last year to research his upcoming biography of Alfred and Blanche Knopf and the House of Knopf. The Ransom Center’s Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. collection comprises 1,526 boxes. To navigate this extensive archive, Thornton says, he emulated biographer Lytton Strachey: “[Strachey] would look at the sources like someone rowing out over a great sea of information and lowering his bucket here and there and pulling up samples and examining them. So I think that’s the best I can do: row my boat through the Knopf collections and see what turns up.”
Mark Byron came to the Ransom Center last year as a fellow from the University of Sydney to work on his project, “The Holograph Manuscript of Samuel Beckett’s Novel Watt: A Digital Representation and Transcription.” Byron spent his time at the Ransom Center going through the seven notebooks of Beckett’s manuscript of Watt, which he calls “a visually arresting manuscript full of Beckett’s drawing and doodles.” Byron’s fellowship was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment. In this video, Byron discusses his experience transcribing Beckett’s manuscript.
Also, read an article by scholar Bill Prosser, who wrote about the many doodles that can be found in Beckett’s manuscripts.
Dr. Jana Funke, Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, U.K., visited the Ransom Center on a Hobby Family Foundation Fellowship in July and August 2010 to work on Radclyffe Hall’s short fiction. She is using the material she gathered for a monograph exploring the relationship between modernist sexualities and time. She is also preparing a critical edition of Hall’s unpublished works.
Radclyffe Hall is best known for her infamous novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), with its bleak depiction of female sexual inversion—a sexological term that combines traits we might nowadays classify as lesbian and transgender. It might therefore come as a surprise that spending several weeks in the archive working on Hall was tremendous fun! The Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge papers at the Ransom Center offer many delightful surprises, such as a box filled with kennel club information, show clippings, and photographs of Hall’s prize-winning dogs. While going through the drafts of The Well, I also came across a notebook in which she lists the “contents of an invert’s pocket.” Apparently, the female invert would not leave the house without a letter from her present love, three snapshots of her last love, a powder box, and lipstick.
While my visit gave me the opportunity to survey the archival material more generally, I spent most of my time working on Hall’s short fiction. Hall only published one collection of short stories, Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself (1934), but among her papers are more than 15 additional, mostly complete, unpublished stories, which were written in the 1910s and 1920s.
One group of unpublished works—including the unfinished novel The World—deal with the Great War. Whereas published texts like The Well or Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself focus on women’s experience of the war, the unpublished stories explore how men who were “unfit” to serve their country coped with the resulting sense of exclusion.
Other short stories deal with female experience; “The Modern Miss Thompson,” for instance, depicts the struggle for female autonomy and shows interesting parallels to Hall’s New Woman novel The Unlit Lamp (1924). Yet another set of stories provides insight into Hall’s engagement with religion, spirituality, and the supernatural. These texts deal with a range of subjects including the life of the medieval Saint Ethelflaeda, time travel, and mystic human-animal relationships.
The reasons why Hall did not publish more of these short stories are unclear. Hall’s notebooks reveal that she thought about publishing a larger number of short stories and sent a selection to her agent in 1924. We do not know why this publication did not materialize at the time. In her memoirs, Hall’s partner, Una Troubridge, suggests that by the time Hall was preparing the collection Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself in the early 1930s, she decided against including an earlier short story since it had “missed the boat.” It is possible that Hall felt her other short stories had also gone out of fashion by the time she was given the opportunity to publish them.
Returning to these texts almost a century after they were written, I found them anything but untimely. To be sure, the short stories confirm a certain image of Hall as an author with deeply conservative and often troubling national, racial, sexual, and class politics. However, my archival work also allowed me to develop a more nuanced understanding of Hall. Her unpublished work shows a writer keen to explore vastly different interests and stylistic approaches, and her investigation of questions of difference, outsiderism, and the struggle of belonging relates to scholarly concerns today. My time in the archive certainly did not present me with a radically new image of Hall, but it did allow me to explore a body of texts that is much more conflicted and less orthodox than I expected. I am very grateful to the Ransom Center, with its wonderful staff and sense of scholarly community, and the Hobby Family Foundation, for giving me this opportunity.
Lori Harrison-Kahan, Adjunct Assistant Professor of English at Boston College, spent a week at the Ransom Center in July 2009 to conduct research for her recently published book, The White Negress: Literature, Minstrelsy, and the Black-Jewish Imaginary. Her research was supported by a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies. Cultural Compass spoke with Harrison-Kahan about her new book and her experience researching at the Ransom Center.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
A: It was a reaction to what’s gone on in scholarship about how Jews appropriated black culture in order to become white and assimilate into mainstream white culture by taking on its racist views. When I looked at women, I realized that the story is much more complicated. There are connections among women drawn together because of the feminist sensibility they both had. They’re not just identifying with each other as fellow minorities but also as women trying to have a career as well.
Outside of this scholarship, I was intrigued by the fact that the writers I talk about—Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber—were from Jewish backgrounds, but their best-known works drew from African-American culture. I think a lot of it has to do with their Jewish backgrounds. There was a sense of connection between African Americans and Jews in terms of minority identity. This was also occurring during the Harlem Renaissance and whites’ fascination with African-American life. They were part of this artistic community that was interested in what was going on with African-American culture. You can see this in Hurst’s novel Imitation of Life and Ferber’s novel Show Boat.
Q: Which archives did you consult at the Ransom Center?
A: I mainly worked with the Fannie Hurst papers. I was interested in Hurst’s Jewish identity and how she was involved in civil rights and the flourishing of black culture in the 1920s in particular. Hurst’s best-known novel, Imitation of Life, features prominent African-American characters. I looked at a lot of the materials around that novel, including drafts. I was also interested more broadly in her friendships with African-American women, particularly Zora Neale Hurston. I also looked at correspondence, not only with well-known figures, but also with African-American figures who weren’t as well known who had seen the film version of Imitation of Life and had dialogues with Hurst about race that were really fascinating.
Q: What materials in Hurst’s collection did you find most useful or interesting?
A: Hurst actually kept two interesting files in her office. One was called “Negro matters” and another called “Jewish matters.” These were materials she saved not only as a writer, but also as an activist. There were lots of documents about her speaking engagements for different organizations and her attempts to do fundraising for these organizations. A lot of the correspondence about fundraising seemed to be mundane but was really useful as far as seeing the extent of her involvement in African-American causes and also Jewish issues. She hasn’t been fully embraced or recognized as a Jewish writer because much of her work didn’t deal with Jewish issues. But her Jewish identity did play an important role in her life, though not so much religiously.
Q: What surprised you?
A: I was surprised by the extent of Hurst’s involvement in Jewish causes. Some scholars have called her a self-hating Jew and others have said that she passed for gentile. That’s not true. She was very public in her identity as a Jew.
Hurst kept scrapbooks, and they’re all there at the Ransom Center. The scrapbooks mostly had press clippings, including reviews of her novels and articles about her. She was well known also as a public commentator largely on women’s issues. She was interviewed about everything from politics to fashion. It was fascinating to see book reviews of her novels, what she chose to put in her scrapbooks, and what she underlined.
What’s very well known about Hurst is her relationship with Zora Neale Hurston because she’s such a well-known writer. What I also discovered is that Hurst was involved with other African-American writers. For example, Hurst had served as a judge for a literary contest in which a lesser-known writer named Marita Bonner had submitted a story. It had three interrelated sketches under a single title: “A Possible Triad on Black Notes.” Two of the sketches were about black families, and one was about a Jewish family, which included Yiddish. So Bonner herself wasn’t just writing about black identity, but she was interested in different ethnic communities as well. Bonner didn’t win the contest, but in Hurst’s correspondence I saw that she nominated Bonner for a prize. One thing my book argues is that African-American writers were interested in Jewish culture and history. Hurst acknowledges that as well. She even said that she wanted to be at the awards event to meet Bonner, but she couldn’t attend. I’m fascinated by the question of what would’ve happened if these two women had met.
Q: How did you choose the title of your book?
A: The title of my book comes from an essay by Norman Mailer called “The White Negro.” Mailer’s papers are at the Ransom Center, and I did look a little bit at his collection. I was so lucky because there was a Mailer scholar doing research at the Ransom Center at the same time I was there, and he directed me to specific correspondence related to that essay and other materials related to Mailer’s writings about African Americans. That was really helpful to have a community of scholars there.
In many ways, Mailer reinforces stereotypes of African-American identity. He basically paints a portrait of the post-World War II hipster and says that one way for the hipster to rebel was to appropriate black culture. This got a lot of criticism, notably from James Baldwin who said that Mailer has reduced the black man to a walking phallic symbol. I was interested in what it means for Mailer as a Jewish writer to appropriate African-American identity in this way. As many scholars have observed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish writers and cultural producers pulling on black culture from black face to jazz to African-American literature. A lot of this discussion was based on male figures like Mailer and didn’t take gender into account. My title indicates that we have to look at the role women play in this discussion as well.
Q: Did writing this book change your thoughts about what scholars have said about Jewish men’s relationship to African-American culture?
A: What my book offers are ways to rethink gender in terms of masculinity too. I don’t buy the story that appropriating blackness enabled Jews to assimilate. Yes, that happened. But at the same time, there are ways in which their engagement with African-American culture thwarted social mobility as well. The example I use in my introduction comes from a short story by Hurst. There’s wonderful material surrounding this story at the Ransom Center. The story is called “The Smudge,” and it’s about a female blackface performer who has a daughter out of wedlock. She’s able to support her daughter because of her blackface career and also because she makes the blackface makeup herself and sells it. While she’s relegated to only playing the role of the maid and never Juliet since she’s been labeled as a blackface performer, by profiting off of blackface, she can enable her daughter to move upward socially. One day, she comes home with her blackface makeup still on, kisses her daughter’s cheek, and smudges it, which is where the story’s title comes from. The image suggests that there are financial rewards, but there are also ways that that ascent is complicated. This story is a perfect model for what I’m doing in my book.
Q: Do you identify with the subjects of your book?
A: I certainly do in many ways. As a working mother myself, one of the things that fascinates me about the women I’m studying is that the gender issues they talk about are incredibly relevant today. One of their concerns is the struggle for women to have careers and families. This is around the time that the figure of the new woman is emerging. The relevance of these novels is quite amazing. But most of these books are largely out of print, and there’s a sense that these are texts that aren’t being read today.
Q: What advice do you have for researchers coming to the Ransom Center?
A: My advice would be to take advantage of the community of researchers at the Ransom Center. For example, the events for fellows are an opportunity to talk about what you’re doing.
On a personal note, I have young children at home, and I could only be at the Ransom Center for a week, though I had about a month’s worth of research to do. The staff were amazing, and everything was run so efficiently. They helped me so that I could get the most out of my limited time there.
Stefania Porcelli of Libera Università- San Pio V in Rome, Italy, recently visited the Ransom Center on an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship to research the Elizabeth Bowen collection. She shares some of her findings.
With the support of an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf fellowship, I spent six weeks at the Harry Ransom Center this autumn, carrying out my project on Elizabeth Bowen’s attitude toward World War II and the language of propaganda, which also investigates her involvement in the “media ecology” of the time.
I worked mostly with unpublished material. Encouraged by Ransom Center Director Thomas Staley, and thanks to archivist Gabby Redwine’s help, I was able to access Bowen’s uncatalogued letters to Charles Ritchie. Although intensely focused on their love affair, these letters nonetheless provide ultimate evidence that Bowen constantly reflects upon ongoing political events, and on the language used by media to represent or censor them. This idea finds its perfect literary counterpart in the image of history sitting at the same table with the main characters in Bowen’s wartime novel The Heat of the Day (1949).
Bowen’s papers show that her attitude toward the war is at least ambiguous: while supporting Britain’s engagement in the conflict, she deconstructs the language of British propaganda. While appreciating Irish neutrality as an act of independence, she volunteers to spy on Ireland for the British Ministry of Information. Since my broader research also involves Dylan Thomas’s documentaries written for Strand Film, I was excited to find a contract for a propaganda script Bowen was supposed to write for the same company. I was also surprised to find some correspondence about the Italian translation of three of her novels. Apparently, neither Bowen nor her literary agents were satisfied with these translations. I look forward now to reading them and seeing how these early Italian versions metamorphosed Bowen’s peculiar, challenging style.
Andrew Scahill, of George Mason University, discusses his research on still photographer Jack Harris and the role of “still men” in Hollywood. Scahill’s research, “Cogs in the Dream Machine: Jack Harris and the Role of the ‘Still Man,’” was funded by the Robert De Niro Endowed Fund.
The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.