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Fellows Find: John Steinbeck’s “ideal woman”

Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.
Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.

Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.

One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair (the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:

“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”

For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.

I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing.  Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.

This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”

"Write for readers like yourself": James Salter's Novels

The inside cover and first page of the notebook containing the first draft of James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years."
The inside cover and first page of the notebook containing the first draft of James Salter's 1975 novel, "Light Years."

James Salter’s All That Is (Knopf), his first new novel since 1979, is a reflective work, a reconsideration of many of the themes he has explored in his earlier fiction. Looking back at Salter’s prior novels through his archive at the Harry Ransom Center, one can see the artist at work and better understand the sentiments that guide his craft.

Some notebooks from Salter’s archive can be seen on The Daily Beast.

Salter writes his novels by hand, covering notebook after notebook in a tidy, flowing script before typing—and retyping—his drafts. His archive is filled with these notebooks, which not only bear his earliest renderings of a story but also reveal the candid instructions and advice he pens for himself on their inside covers. For example, in the notebook of his 1979 novel Solo Faces, he writes to himself, “Don’t write something they will recognize & accept. Write something that will astonish, that is completely different from their ideas & world & will alter them.” Further down the page is his note, “Brief, lucid, mercilessly clear,” as accurate a description of Salter’s prose style as I have ever seen.

In his opening notebook for Light Years, published in 1975, Salter instructs himself, “Don’t be afraid of length… it creates intimacy, involvement.” The novel itself is an exploration of intimacy and involvement, of love and the slow unraveling of a marriage. Salter revisits many of these concepts in his newest novel. In fact, Light Years may have been a sort of precursor to All That Is. The book’s title is plucked out of the description Salter gave of Light Years in a 1993 interview for the Paris Review: “The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither.”

Prominently recorded on the inside cover of Salter’s first notebook for the 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime is an instructive quote by André Gide: “Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.” This advice must have been especially poignant for Salter. He succinctly and emphatically reinforces this sentiment within his notebook for Light Years: “SAVE NOTHING.”

Pasted inside Salter’s opening notebook for Cassada, the 2001 retelling of his 1961 novel The Arm of Flesh, is a photograph of military planes not unlike the ones flown by the book’s characters and by Salter during his 12-year career in the U. S. Air Force. In his notebook, Salter outlines a straightforward, three-part plan for writing the novel:
“SELECT
INVENT
EXPLAIN A BIT”

There are no notebooks in Salter’s archive for his first novel, The Hunters, which was published in 1957 when Salter left the military to become a professional writer. The only draft of the novel in Salter’s archive is typed and labeled, “First submitted draft, originally titled “A Patron of Tokoshi’s” by John Eden” (a pseudonym). Inserted into the draft is Salter’s typed outline of the novel, titled “Rough Re-Outline,” which is covered with the checkmarks of progress and Salter’s handwritten notes. A hallmark of Salter’s creative process, detailed outlines can be found throughout his archive for his subsequent novels.

Salter’s notebooks and outlines reveal a deliberate author at work, one who has a clear vision of both the novel he wants to create and the one he wants to avoid. One of his most illuminating instructions to himself, written and underlined on the inside cover of his notebook for Solo Faces, is the simple note: “Write for readers like yourself.”

From the Outside In: Typescript of "Death of a Salesman," Arthur Miller, ca. 1948

Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.
Typescript of "Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, ca. 1948.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

Etched into the windows of the Ransom Center is an image of one of Arthur Miller’s typescripts for the play Death of a Salesman. The excerpt depicted is between the title character, Willy Loman, and his wife, Linda, in the opening scene of the second act. Large scratch-outs zigzag through whole paragraphs, arrows rearrange the words, and new lines have been handwritten into place. The first lines discuss the couple’s dreamy expectations for a brighter future soon to come—a business loan his son might be given, a new house in the country, and an office job in the city so Willy can stop traveling. But Linda’s reminder “to ask [Willy's boss] for a little advance” in the last lines “because we’ve got the insurance premium” exposes the discrepancy between their dreams and a reality in which they are barely getting by. The passage encapsulates the play’s central theme that valuing oneself in terms of the American dream is a setup for failure.

Although Death of a Salesman was not Miller’s first successful play, it was the play that established him as a great American playwright. Miller wrote the play in the spring of 1947, within a small studio he built himself next to his Connecticut farmhouse. The writing flowed easily for Miller, who finished the first half of the play in one day and night, and the second half in the next six weeks. According to his biographer Christopher Bigsby, Miller wanted “to take the audience on an internal journey through the mind, memories, fears, anxieties of his central character.” Rather than adhering to earlier playwrights’ conventions, Miller gave the play a radical structure in which the past and the present coexist, and where walls can sometimes be stepped through. The play opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, and was met with critical acclaim, winning Miller numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize. The play has remained popular and has since been produced into films, translated, performed internationally, and revived on Broadway. Playwright Tony Kushner, while discussing the continuing importance of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, has stated, “Willy is part of our mythology now.”

This typescript represents one of several papers within the Arthur Miller archive held at the Ransom Center, which includes the manuscripts of 34 different works, dated from 1935 to1953. Viewing Miller’s early notebooks and seeing how his works took shape gives one a more intimate understanding of the playwright who represented his generation so well by writing about the dreams and tragedies of his era. A leading scholar of Arthur Miller’s work and life—Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies and Director of the Arthur Miller Centre at the University of East Anglia—benefited from studying these papers. Regarding his 30 years of research in the archive, Bigsby has stated, “The Ransom Center is what the House of the Medicis once was to 14th century Florence… it has had a hand in a new Renaissance.”

Ransom Center volunteer Amy Kristofoletti wrote this post.

From the Outside In: Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding," Carson McCullers, ca. 1946

Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding."
Typescript of "The Member of the Wedding."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

Carson McCullers sets the scene for her stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding in this typescript page from her papers, held at the Harry Ransom Center. Here begins the story of Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old girl who wants to find a place to belong—her “we of me”—by joining with her older brother and his bride. As you stand looking at this window, a portrait of McCullers herself can be seen not far away in the glass surrounding the Ransom Center’s northwest atrium.

Carson McCullers (1917–1967) is considered one of the significant American writers of the twentieth century. She is often compared to her contemporaries, the Southern female authors Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Ann Porter. McCullers, however, transcends the “Southern gothic” genre in her novels, plays, and short stories with their universal themes of loneliness and isolation. Her work is notable for its keenly observed cast of misfit characters.

McCullers’s body of work consists of five novels, two plays, 20 short stories, more than two dozen nonfiction pieces, a book of children’s verse, a small number of poems, and an unfinished autobiography. She is best known for her novels The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, The Ballad of the Sad Café, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Member of the Wedding, all published between 1940 and 1946. At least four of her works have been made into films.

Soon after the 1946 publication of McCullers’s fourth novel, The Member of the Wedding, she began work on a dramatic adaptation. The project was interrupted by the first of a series of strokes that left the writer paralyzed on her left side, but in 1948 she completed the adaptation while staying with her friend Tennessee Williams in Nantucket. McCullers’s theatrical adaptation of the novel opened on Broadway in 1950 to near unanimous acclaim, and it enjoyed a run of 501 performances. The adaptation proved to be her most successful work, commercially and critically. It won the 1950 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play of the Season and the Donaldson Awards for Best Play and Best First Play by an Author.

During the final 15 years of her life, McCullers’s health and creative abilities declined. Her second play, The Square Root of Wonderful, closed after only 45 performances on Broadway in 1957, and her final novel, Clock Without Hands, drew mixed reviews. She died in 1967 after suffering a cerebral stroke.

In 1975 the Ransom Center acquired a comprehensive collection of McCullers’s materials, including drafts, revisions, translations, and adaptations of her works, as well as correspondence, photographs, and even personal objects such as her cigarette lighter.

Ransom Center volunteer Katherine McGhee wrote this post.

J. M. Coetzee’s association with The University of Texas at Austin

April 1, 1965, letter to J. M. Coetzee from C. L. Cline, Chairman of the Department of English at The University of Texas.
April 1, 1965, letter to J. M. Coetzee from C. L. Cline, Chairman of the Department of English at The University of Texas.

J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940 and graduated from the University of Cape Town. After working three years as a computer programmer in England, he enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics and Germanic languages, which he earned in 1969. While at the University, he conducted research in the Ransom Center’s collections for his dissertation on the early fiction of Samuel Beckett.

Coetzee’s archive now resides in the Ransom Center and is available for research.
Below, Coetzee writes of his association with The University of Texas at Austin.

Somewhere among the boxes of letters included in this collection is one from the Chair of the Department of English at the University of Texas to John M. Coetzee at an address in Surrey, England. It is dated April, 1965; it thanks young John for his application to come and study in Austin and is pleased to offer him a teaching assistantship at a salary of $2,000 per annum while he works toward a graduate degree.

Thus was initiated my association with The University of Texas, an association by now nearly half a century old. In the 1960s the Ransom Center already had a certain fame, worldwide, for having struck out into a new field for collectors, the field of living authors and their manuscripts. The word “brash” tended to find its way into comments on the Ransom Center and its activities, as did the phrase “oil money.”

I am not sure that such supercilious attitudes would find much traction nowadays. The present-day Ransom Center has custody of one of the world’s great collections of twentieth-century manuscripts, a collection that will bring scholars to Texas for many years to come.

It is a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here.

I write these words from my home on the south coast of the Australian mainland, an area prone to destructive bushfires. It is a secondary source of satisfaction to me that, even if this house itself goes up in flames, the work of my hands will have been whisked away to a place of safety in the vaults of the Ransom Center.

Researching Austen in Austin: Archival research reveals connections between Jane Austen’s characters and real-life celebrities and politicians

Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.

Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!

True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”

Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.

I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen.  I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.

1) A BOOK

Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]

The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.

2) A MAP

“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.

Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.

3) A MANUSCRIPT

Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.

Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:

In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.

He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.

Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

“Monarchia Solipsorum:” Rare Italian manuscript connected to Galileo's trial of 1632

Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.
Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum: ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.

Shaun Stalzer is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin specializing in special collections librarianship. He earned his master’s degree in American history from Texas State University in San Marcos, and his research interests include the history of American theater. Here, he discusses a manuscript he studied as part of a rare books class in the School of Information.

The Harry Ransom Center holds an extensive collection of rare Italian manuscripts, printed materials, engravings, etchings, woodcuts, watercolors, and papal bulls from the Ranuzzi family of Bologna, Italy. The collection spans some 400 years and provides insight into the social, political, and cultural history of Europe.

The Ranuzzi manuscript Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium is a seventeenth-century manuscript written entirely in Latin under the pseudonym Luceus Cornelius Europeus. It details the adventures of a hero who becomes judge and advisor to the fictious monarch Vibosnatus, to satirize the Jesuit order. In the end, the hero becomes victim to a plot that costs him his position and forces him into exile.

The original manuscript was written in 1645 in Venice, Italy, and published in Latin in 1645 and 1648. The work was later translated into French and published in Amsterdam in 1722 and 1754 by Herman Uytwerf, and also published in Paris by the publishing house of Barrois and Delaunay in 1824.

Scholars debate whether the original manuscript was written by Giolio Clemente Scotti (1602–1669) or Melchior Inchofer (1585–1648). Little information exists on Giolio Clemente Scotti, but he is known for his later anti-Jesuit writings, including his 1646 work De Potestate Pontificia in Societatem.

Far more information is available on Melchior Inchofer, a Jesuit scholar who gained notoriety as one of three experts in the 1632 trial of Galileo and his controversial work “Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mundo” (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems), a defense of the heliocentric model of the universe. Inchofer reported on the Dialogo prior to the trial and in 1633 also authored Tractatus Syllapticus, a scriptural defense of geocentrism. This is interesting because, according to one scholar, Inchofer later became the author of Monarchia Solipsorum, which is highly critical of the Jesuit order (and therefore of traditional church doctrine). Inchofer also underwent his own trial and condemnation in 1648 for his alleged authorship of Monarchia Solipsorum. Under interrogation, Inchofer broke down and confessed to writing the manuscript. He was stripped of his position in the Jesuit order, sent to Milan, and later died on September 28, 1648. This controversy is one of the main reasons for the book’s tremendous success and repeated publication over the years.

Monarchia Solipsorum is an interesting work for anyone studying Italian history, literature, or culture. The manuscript is particularly relevant for those seeking information on Catholic Church history, critical reactions to Catholic doctrine, or those interested in the trial of Galileo in 1632. Such a work can also appeal to those fascinated by rare books and manuscripts and the art of bibliography.

Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum:  ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.
Page from "Monarchia Solipsorum: ad virum clarissimum Leonum Allatium" in the Ranuzzi manuscript collection.

Sara Coleridge’s Pretty Lessons in Verse: Nineteenth- Century Flash Cards

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“John Lockland. One thousand one hundred and ninety nine, John his brother to him succeeds: Magna Carta he’s forced to sign: that in truth was the best of his deeds.” This stylized anecdote is but one example of the 399 handwritten verse cards—penned by the English translator, editor, and writer Sara Coleridge—housed at the Harry Ransom Center. The undated cards, written on scrap paper, calling cards, playing cards, advertisements, and invitations, form the foundation of what became Coleridge’s Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children; with Some Lessons in Latin, in Easy Rhyme, which was published anonymously in 1834.

The daughter of British poet and author Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sara Coleridge spent most of her life separated from her father. Despite distance from her father during the poet’s life, Sara became an advocate of her father’s work after his death in 1834. Sara spent much of her adult life editing and protecting the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s work, thus, helping to secure his place as a central figure of romantic British poetry.

Yet the legacy Sara ensured for her father’s work often eclipses that of her own work. Indeed, at the crossroads of Victorian womanhood and nineteenth-century intellectualism, Sara Coleridge produced many works that remain largely unpublished.

A child of a prominent English family, Sara Coleridge studied informally alongside her brothers but was excluded from formal schooling. From an early age, she displayed broad intellectual capacity and was a talented linguist. Her education, however, was hindered by the expectations that Victorian women should remain in the domestic domain. Even with her proficiency in several languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin, Sara Coleridge struggled to overcome nineteenth-century societal constrains.

Despite failing health, by July 1826 Sara Coleridge had published two translations of French and Spanish texts. Acutely aware of the Victorian social pressures imposed on women, Coleridge wrote about the conflated meaning of beauty and the limited role of women in British society. Because of her opium abuse and her extended and clandestine engagement to her first cousin Henry Nelson, anxiety plagued Sara in the late 1820s, and she published little writing.

The verse cards provided an avenue for Sara Coleridge to exercise her intellect. Because the public intellectual character of nineteenth-century Britain was inhospitable to women, Coleridge’s audience was limited to the private sphere. Coleridge delineates her son, Herbert, as the exclusive audience for her verse cards, and she frequently writes his name affectionately in the beginning lines.

The cards reveal not only the breadth and scope of Sara Coleridge’s knowledge but also her style as a writer.  Coleridge does not simply list facts to be memorized but presents material about British history, animals, Latin, and geography in stylized verse.

Facing societal obstacles and bouts with poor health and addiction, Sara Coleridge published over ten works, including poems and translations. The verse cards shown here, along with unpublished letters, poems, and manuscripts are available for research at the Ransom Center.

Undated children's verse cards from Sara Coleridge collection. These verses—on such topics as English history, Latin vocabulary, and animals—formed the foundation for Coleridge's “Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children and Lessons in Latin, in Easy Rhyme,” published in 1834.
Undated children's verse cards from Sara Coleridge collection. These verses—on such topics as English history, Latin vocabulary, and animals—formed the foundation for Coleridge's “Pretty Lessons in Verse for Good Children and Lessons in Latin, in Easy Rhyme,” published in 1834.

English Honors seminar course on David Foster Wallace gives undergraduates a look into Wallace’s archive

Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Graduate intern Jenn Shapland, center, shares annotated books from Wallace’s library and research materials he used while writing “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Before spring of last year, I had only heard David Foster Wallace referenced by acquaintances and a TV show character with an affinity for oversized novels. When I was applying for my undergraduate internship at the Ransom Center, I noticed that the Center had acquired Wallace’s archive and opened it for research. I knew that a course on Wallace was being offered by the University as an English Honors seminar during the fall semester, and the opportunity to combine my academic studies with my new internship seemed like a perfect way to enhance my first experience with Wallace’s work. What I believed to be a simple coincidence turned out to be an unforgettable journey down the rabbit hole that is the mind of David Foster Wallace.

My first experience with Wallace was his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I immediately fell in love with his wit and intimate voice. I would need aforementioned love to lay the foundation for my relationship with Infinite Jest, which has been admittedly rocky, yet rewarding. My professor, Heather Houser, has done an excellent job planning our exposure to Wallace, introducing us to his style in shorter, more light-hearted bursts before throwing us headfirst into the waters of Infinite Jest. She also planned two class trips to the Ransom Center to view items pulled from Wallace’s archive so that we could read marginalia written in miniscule handwriting, correspondence with editors and fans, and annotations in books that he used for research. When I asked her why she thought it was so important to bring our class to see Wallace’s archive firsthand, she replied, “Wallace’s letters, manuscripts, and notes show him to be a painstaking writer and reader. Writing was a laborious, often distressing process for Wallace. Students see this in the sheaves of drafts and series of letters between Wallace and his editors and friends.”

There is something about looking at an author’s handwriting, and leafing through his personal library that grounds you. This was a person, with a life and loved ones: an actual person wrote these books I’m reading, you think, and that realization can be sudden and startling. I am not quite sure why it is easy to forget about the human element of literature, but my time with the Wallace archive helped me remember that I am studying a brilliant person’s imagination incarnate.

I agree with this statement from my classmate Aaron Levine: “We as a class are privileged… most people who read Infinite Jest do not get to read it in segments and then have hour-and-a-half conversations with a room full of inquisitive minds.” It has been an even greater privilege to be taught by a professor who understands the value of pushing the limits of undergraduate study, and to have access to the unique resources that the Ransom Center has to offer. The experiences I have had as an undergraduate scholar at the Ransom Center have enriched my adventures as an intern, as well as my future academic endeavors. In fact, I am planning to research the Ransom Center’s collections for my upcoming undergraduate English Honors thesis.

Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.
Students in the David Foster Wallace course view a cinema book that Wallace read while working on “Infinite Jest.” Photo by Pete Smith.

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

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.