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New biography sheds light on life and work of Dashiell Hammett

By Jane Robbins Mize

Sally Cline, a British award-winning biographer and short story writer, recently published the biography Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (Arcade). She received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies from the Harry Ransom Center in 2003-2004, which supported her work in the Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman collections. Below, Cline answers questions about her new Hammett biography.

 

You have previously conducted research on both Dashiell Hammett and his lifelong companion, Lillian Hellman. What led to you revisit the topic and ultimately to write a biography of Hammett?

Publishers were more interested in having separate smaller biographies about Hammett and Hellman than the big joint biography I had envisaged. The American publishing firm Arcade commissioned a compact biography of Hammett, and that is what I wrote. I have, of course, a great deal more research material left on Hellman as an individual and Hellman in relation to Hammett, so I plan to also write a short study of Hellman using the theme of memories and myths.

 

 

What aspects of Hammett’s character and work are of special interest?

His writing, of course, and in particular the way in which he transformed and subverted the detective novel. Through his moral vision expressed in every book he wrote, he effectively elevated the genre of mystery writing into the category of literature.

 

His near-nihilistic philosophy (especially his root idea that the world is ruled by meaningless blind chance), which becomes the thematic context to all his work and much of his behavior.

 

Relevant to this interest is my choice of the anecdote about Flitcraft (in The Maltese Falcon), which stands out as his most memorable piece of nonfiction prose. Ironically, despite the fact the anecdote was key to the novel’s theme, when John Huston made the most famous of the several films about the Falcon, he left it out. Hammett would have appreciated the irony.

 

I am interested in another irony whereby a writer whose creed is moral ambiguity and random results chooses to write crime novels that are generally predicated on linear clues and an orderly progression of facts.

 

I am interested in his relationship to other men and to women. He always preferred male company but was terrified of being thought homosexual. Yet, apart from his affectionate and initially sexually successful relationship with his wife Josie, he did not have a genuinely equal sexual, emotional, and interdependent relationship with any other woman, not even Lillian Hellman. He coped sexually by using prostitutes and was sometimes violent towards women, especially when drunk.

 

Two more things fascinate me. One is his series of debilitating illnesses that made him virtually an invalid in an era when masculine identity was predicated upon robust health. Real Men were not sick!

 

The other part that intrigues me, as it has intrigued his many other biographers, is his long literary silence.

 

What I felt was important was not the myth that he stopped writing—indeed as his daughter Jo testified, he never stopped writing; he merely stopped finishing. But the sad fact is that despite the constant agonized writing, he never again published a full novel after The Thin Man.

 

 

How did the Ransom Center’s archives serve you in your research process? Did they provide any new insights and/or understandings of Hammett?

The Center’s archives provided an enormous amount of information, which along with Hammett’s own family helped answer many of my most significant questions. Two people at the Ransom Center in particular must be singled out: Margi Tenney and Pat Fox. I have so far held four or five fellowships at the Ransom Center over a great many years, and in every case these two women have been unfailingly helpful, flexible, kind, efficient, and brilliant in making my work flow and focus.

 

Image: Cover of Sally Cline’s Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery.

Meet the Staff: French Collections Research Associate Elizabeth Garver

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of people at the Ransom Center. Elizabeth Garver has held several positions at the Ransom Center since 2000, including graduate student intern, manuscript archivist, and in 20052006, she co-curated the Technologies of Writing exhibition. Currently, she works with the Ransom Center’s extensive French and Italian collections, and she is a co-curator of the current exhibition The World at War, 1914–1918. She speaks four languages—English, French, Italian, and Russian—and holds a variety of degrees, including a Master’s in Library and Information Science, a Diploma of Advanced Studies from the University of Paris, a Master of Arts in Nautical Archeology, and a Bachelor of Arts in Archeology. She is also a current Ph.D. candidate in Modern European History at The University of Texas at Austin.

 

Why do you enjoy working at the Ransom Center?

Well, this is my 14th year here, and almost every day I see something new that I’ve never seen before. I also like being able to do research, which is an opportunity you don’t get at a lot of jobs, and I like helping other people with their research and answering any questions they might have. The job is always changing and always interesting.

 

Can you tell me a little bit about curating the current World War I exhibition?

Jean Cannon and I were officially brought on board for the current exhibition about two years ago. She wrote her dissertation on the war poets, and I have an interest in the topic as a UT PhD student in Modern History, so we both had some expertise. There was a lot of reading on our own, but it was also looking into the collections in depth, and since there isn’t a single World War I collection to draw upon, it was basically like a treasure hunt. Then, when you find the treasures, there is a choice to make because the space is not infinite.

 

Is there a “one that got away” item that was cut from the current exhibition for space that you wish could have been included?

Yes, actually there are a couple, but there’s a really touching letter that holds an interest for me in the Édoard Dujardin collection. He was a French writer, and he had a mistress named Madeleine Boisguillaume who wrote him a letter toward the beginning of the war about the conditions in the West of France. All of the doctors were gone because they were at the front, and there was no one to help women to deliver babies and things like that. There were only old men left, old doctors who couldn’t travel, and no hospital in the town. Because of this, she said women and children were dying in childbirth. It’s really emotional and also gives an interesting perspective. People don’t usually think about the women’s experiences during the war.

 

What has visitor response been like for the exhibition?

I think visitor response has been very positive. It’s a response that I don’t think many exhibitions get, where people have their own stories to tell. Quite a few people have been sharing stories about their families and what their grandparents did in the war, and it’s just been wonderful.

 

I hear you speak French fluently. Do you have any chances to speak French around Austin?

Yes, we have a French lunch once a week where we speak only French, and there’s actually a large French community here at The University of Texas and around Austin. It’s pretty amazing how often I hear French, and there are a lot of opportunities to speak it. There are groups and of course the French department, and there are always French movies. Also, when I communicate with scholars, I’m able to use a lot of French. I think that’s why my Italian and Russian kind of fell by the wayside. I’m pretty devoted to this language.

 

What do you like to do in your free time?

I do a lot of gardening, and I love baseball. My family and I are pretty hardcore baseball fans—I grew up with it and I watched my brothers play. The season is over now, but I’ve had season tickets to the Longhorns for probably around 10 years. Otherwise, I do a lot of reading (although I feel like lately I’ve only been reading about the war for this exhibition), and I really enjoy cooking, especially French food.

 

Do you have a favorite piece or collection at the Ransom Center?

Obviously the French collections are amazing, but my favorite piece changes every once in awhile. Currently, I think my favorite item in the collections is the manuscript for The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry with his annotations and drawings. We also have some of his artwork, which is all amazing.

Meet the Staff: Jean Cannon, Literary Collections Research Associate

By Sarah Strohl

Meet the Staff is a Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlights the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. Jean Cannon has been the literary collections research associate at the Ransom Center since March 2012. She holds a Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, a Master’s degree from Tulane University, and a PhD from The University of Texas at Austin. Cannon is responsible for helping patrons in the reading room, answering research queries, and curating exhibitions. She spent the last two years working with colleague Elizabeth Garver to co-curate the current exhibition, The World at War: 1914–1918.

 

What’s your favorite thing about working at the Ransom Center?

I love the moment when you see a student or researcher come across an artifact that really just makes their jaw drop, the “wow” moment.

 

Can you tell me more about curating the current World at War exhibition?

We started that process about two years ago. I did my dissertation research using several World War I collections at the Ransom Center, but even having done that, I had no idea just how much was here. I had worked in the literary collections, but we also have photographs and posters and all sorts of things that made it a very exciting treasure hunt throughout the building. It was a long process of researching and amassing material from the collections, and then the painful part was choosing the items and having to cut things out because you only have so much space in the gallery. We did a lot of what I like to call “dreaming and scheming.”

 

What is it like picking and choosing items for the exhibitions?

It’s exciting and can also be kind of chaotic. I think research on that large of a scale is a process of ducking down lots of different rabbit holes every day.  Even if you try to be systematic about it, you will find yourself getting drawn to different items. For example, I went through about a month of being obsessed with carrier pigeons, and Elizabeth went through a month being obsessed with pilots.

 

Did carrier pigeons actually work?

Absolutely. On the western front, telephone lines would get blown up really easily with all the shelling on the western front, so carrier pigeons were actually more reliable. It was a strange meeting of the old world and the new, nineteenth-century and twentieth-century technologies co-existing on the battlefield.

 

If you could pick a favorite item in the Ransom Center’s collections, what would it be?

One item that really means a lot to me is Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother. That’s one of the most affecting of the letters that I’ve read here, and it’s in the gallery now, right in the middle of the show.

 

Can you tell me a little more about your educational background and how you ended up in your current job at the Ransom Center?

It’s a long, twisty tale. I started graduate school at Tulane in New Orleans, and the second year I was there, Hurricane Katrina hit. So I ended up evacuating and coming to UT because the university had a large enough program that they were able to absorb some of the Tulane students, for which I’m ever grateful. The wonderful thing about being here was being able to do the two-year graduate internship at the Ransom Center. I just fell in love with the place, and I continued volunteering and doing freelance research in the reading room. Then, as I was finishing my doctoral degree, the director at the time recruited me to come in and serve as literary collections research associate. So I defended my dissertation, took two weeks off to hike the Grand Canyon and then came back to start working here full time. It was a whirlwind!

 

I hear you are a talented hat maker. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Well, I’ve always loved hats and have always worn a lot of hats, even as a child. Then, when I was working in New York, I saw that there was a night class at Parson’ School of Design, so I just decided to take it! At that point I didn’t even know how to run a sewing machine, and I loved it even though I was really out of my depth. Since then, I’ve sought out classes here and there and found old millinery text books and manuals in the archives. My house is full of 50 or so hats.

 

What is a perfect Saturday for you?

I would probably go for a run on the Greenbelt, maybe go for a swim, read a good book on the porch (for which it has to be sunny, but not 100 degrees), work on a hat, and cook a nice dinner and have people over! Possibly a good film also, especially if it’s hot outside and I can go to the Paramount Summer Classics series.

 

What book would you consider a “must read” this summer?

I just finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. It will take you awhile, but it’s really worth it. She’s a big believer that a book can be escapist but also very smart, and I really love that combination.

 

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Fellows Find: Samuel Beckett’s radio plays

By Pim Verhulst

Pim Verhulst of the University of Antwerp visited the Ransom Center to work with the Samuel Beckett papers, in particular the radio plays and related correspondence. His research, funded by a dissertation fellowship, seeks to bring together all the existing draft versions in a digital space and study the writing process. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 20142015.

 

In 2013 the Harry Ransom Center awarded me a dissertation fellowship for a research project on the radio plays of the Irish-French author and Nobel Prize Winner (1969) Samuel Beckett. My dissertation is part of the recently launched Beckett Digital Manuscript Project. Its goal is to reunite all extant draft material of Beckett’s bilingual work, scattered over a dozen libraries all around the world, in an interactive digital environment. Each of its 27 online modules is supplemented with a book that reconstructs the writing process of the highlighted texts on the basis of their available writing traces, as well as letters and even Beckett’s personal library. My dissertation covers Beckett’s six radio plays: All That Fall, Embers, Pochade radiophonique, Words and Music, Esquisse radiophonique, and Cascando. They were written in English and French between 1956 and 1962 and translated by the author himself around the same time.

 

My week’s stay at the Ransom Center came at the end of a three-year research period, during which I visited all the major European research institutions and libraries preserving Beckett material. The Ransom Center was my last stop, and while most pieces of the puzzle were already in place, a few crucial gaps remained. The collection includes draft material for Beckett’s first two radio plays, All That Fall and Embers, as well as many important letter collections from close friends. My trip to the Ransom Center followed a short research stay at Florida State University in Tallahassee, where it was unusually hot and damp for my Northern European temperament. The cold front causing ice storms in Houston and Dallas had made the December weather in Austin resemble more closely what I was used to in Belgium, so I felt immediately at home when I arrived. To warm myself a little, I decided to turn to Embers first. The typescript of the French version (Cendres) is very interesting because it shows just how intensely Beckett reworked the translation made by his friend, the French writer Robert Pinget. In three kinds of writing material—grey pencil, blue ink, and red ballpoint—you can see him trying out five or six variants of a phrase, the differences being ever so slight. This great attention to detail was all the more impressive because the Center allowed me to consult the original documents, which even showed the traces of previous erased alternative, a rare luxury that only archives offer.

 

The English typescript of the radio play comes late in the writing process and does not show many alterations. One peculiar aspect of the typescript is its lack of a title. From my earlier research on the text, I knew that Beckett originally planned to call it “Ebb,” as it takes place by the seaside. Why it was changed to Embers is revealed by his letters to Ethna McCarthy, the wife of one of his best friends. The news of her terminal illness brought to Beckett’s mind an image of her “crouching all day over the fire in the front room” when he last saw Ethna in Dublin, a vivid depiction that recurs in some of his other letters to mutual friends. Beckett sent her his new radio script with the message: “there are bits that will murmur to you.” Embers must have been one of the last—if not the last—text that Ethna read during her life. Beckett’s change of title reflects these personal circumstances, as the cycle of ebb and flow makes way for the entropic decline of coals dying down. It is a beautiful though painful reminder of how art tries to staunch the wounds of life, even in the face of death.

 

The vaudevillian setup of All That Fall promised lighter entertainment, as fat Maddy Rooney painstakingly makes her way to the nearest train station. Fellow travelers offer a ride but they all break down, leading to ribald sitcom. She finally meets her blind husband on the platform and leads him home, but it soon becomes clear just how unfit a guide she is. The script’s closing pages become ever more grim, as tensions between Maddy and Dan rise and the weather takes a turn for the worse. The gorgeous manuscript notebook that holds the first version of the radio play shows how Beckett wrote the text in fits and starts, shuffling along the dreary road of composition much like his characters, switching between writing tools and colors as if to liven things up. When he got to the second, more gloomy part of the script—appropriately written in black ink—he returned to the first page of the notebook and changed the title from “Lovely Day for the Races” to All That Fall. The new title refers to Psalm 145.14: “The Lord upholdeth all that fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down.” In Beckett’s radio play, there is no sign of a merciful God. Ironically, as I approached the end of the manuscript, Ransom Center staff members were busy putting up Christmas decorations. As everyone was getting ready for the holiday season, it was time for me to go home. Still glowing with the kindness of Elizabeth Garver, Bridget Gayle-Ground, and their colleagues, and the excitement of a week’s archival exploration, I tried not to think of All That Fall as my flight sped across the Atlantic.

Image: Photograph of Samuel Beckett taken by a street photographer outside Burlington House in Piccadily, ca. 1954.

 

Related content:

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From the Outside In: Doodle from Notebook II of Samuel Beckett’s “Watt,” 1941

The Letters of Samuel Beckett

Video highlights scholar’s work in Beckett collection

Fellows Find: Determining audience taste in eighteenth-century English theater

By Diana Solomon

Diana Solomon, associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, worked with the Ransom Center’s collections of eighteenth-century English playbills and promptbooks. Jointly supported by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Studies Fellowship, her research will be utilized in her current book project on comedy and repetition in eighteenth-century English theater. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

In the winter of 2014 I had the good fortune of spending three months at the Harry Ransom Center. My current book project, Comedy and Repetition in Eighteenth-Century English Theatre, asks why eighteenth-century theater audiences wanted to see the same plays, characters, plots, and comic devices again and again. It is essential first to pin down what elements they did wish to revisit, which requires substantial archival research. Prior studies of comic taste in eighteenth-century England have tended to focus on canonical novels or on non-mainstream genres. But looking broadly at dramatic trends tells a different story, and that story can be traced through the Ransom Center’s rich holdings in eighteenth-century English theater.

 

Many printed playtexts survive, but since their eighteenth-century readers may or may not have seen them in performance, it can be tricky to determine what material from plays was actually performed onstage. One approach to answering this question is to examine surviving promptbooks—unique print copies of the play used by the theater prompter to delineate textual omissions and stage directions. The Ransom Center possesses 11 such promptbooks, and these indicate not only what sections of the texts were staged, but also how performances of plays changed over time.

 

One example concerns the promptbook to Thomas Southerne’s 1696 play, Oroonoko. The play is based on Aphra Behn’s 1688 novel about an African king, Oroonoko, who was tricked into slavery by British slave-traders; the novel ends tragically with his murder by dismemberment. When adapting it for the stage, Southerne changed details of the tragedy (for example, Oroonoko’s death becomes a suicide) and added a comic plot featuring two sisters husband-hunting in the New World. His play begins with the two sisters discussing why they abandoned their lives in England for America. That these are the first two characters who appear onstage makes them sympathetic to the audience. Charlotte and Lucy discuss the double standard of aging, male repulsion to female familiarity, and the name-calling and mimicry that led them ultimately to leave England. But in the promptbook, which was first used during a 1730s play revival and then further annotated for planned revivals in 1747 and 1759, the first scene is gutted. The remaining lines indicate the sisters’ lost hope of marrying Londoners but eliminate the protofeminist discussion of how this state of affairs came to be. There are also excisions from Oroonoko’s scenes, but the major ones (consisting of 15 or more lines) don’t appear until Act 3, by which time his character and mistreatment by the British have been well established.  While subsequent editions retain the excised passages, those who solely attended performances never saw this comic scene. The prompter’s copy of Oroonoko suggests that the prompter cut these scenes from his sense of audience taste in comedy. Parts of the original play may have seemed too challenging for later audiences, suggesting that they may have been less receptive to protofeminism.

 

It is possible, from the 11 prompter’s copies, to deduce that earlier, more radical comedy remained in play publications but was considered too radical or challenging for mid-eighteenth-century theater audiences. These Ransom Center’s holdings are invaluable for their help in tracing audience taste throughout the century.

 

Image: Pages 2 and 3 in the promptbook of Thomas Southerne’s play Oroonoko.

 

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Fellow discusses work in wartime theater collection

Fellows Find: Early recordings show how performance artist Spalding Gray developed his signature style

By Ira Murfin

Ira S. Murfin is a doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary PhD program in Theatre & Drama at Northwestern University. He received a dissertation research fellowship from the Ransom Center to work in the Spalding Gray collection, investigating the early development of Gray’s influential autobiographical monologues for his dissertation on the use of talk as a performance strategy in the American avant-garde. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

Spalding Gray sits in his loft in Lower Manhattan. It is 1979, and he has had a difficult few years after suffering an emotional breakdown while touring with The Performance Group’s production of Mother Courage and Her Children to India in 1976. He turns on his tape recorder and relates everything he can remember about what happened then and what has happened since. That summer he is a visiting artist at Connecticut College, and he tells these memories to an audience for the first time, interspersing excerpts of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which he had been reading when things started to go bad for him in Kashmir. By that fall, back at The Performing Garage, his home theater in New York, the piece has acquired the name India and After (America) and a second performer who reads definitions from a dictionary at random, which Gray associates on the spot with anecdotes that he tries to tell within a given time limit. The Woolf excerpts have been cut, and the seemingly random associations of memory have been approximated by chance procedure. This structure keeps the piece in the present, even as it recounts the past.

 

The audio and video documentation in the Spalding Gray collection at the Harry Ransom Center, where I was able to spend a month earlier this year thanks to a Ransom Center dissertation research fellowship, enabled me to track early Gray performances like this one in their developmental process. Most people who know Gray from the successful 1987 film adaptation of his monologue Swimming to Cambodia have probably never heard of India and After (America), but this early example documents Gray establishing the practices he would continue to use and adapt for the rest of his career. This approach has come to define the elements of the autobiographical monologue and the first-person account as dramatic and literary genres.

 

Arguably the most well-known autobiographical performer of recent decades, Gray is one of the central subjects of my dissertation project, Talk Performance: Re-Negotiating Genre, Embodied Language, and the Performative Turn in the American Avant-Garde, along with the poet David Antin and the dance artist Yvonne Rainer. In this project, I examine talk performance—direct address, non-fictional, apparently extemporaneous speech in art-specific contexts—as a strategy used by these key figures in the post-1960s American avant-garde to address shifting disciplinary expectations and the implications of recorded media for composition and circulation.

 

Alongside the recordings of Gray’s earliest monologues available at the Ransom Center, I was able to track many of the events he discussed in his performances through the personal journals he was keeping at the time. Also, I was able to survey a number of efforts to turn material from his talk performances into publishable texts, variously cast as fiction, as personal essay, and finally as dramatic literature. I used this research to understand how Gray coordinated writing, live performance, and audio recording to develop and eventually set his monologues. Ultimately, this will help me to articulate the ways that Gray’s idiosyncratic experiment in public self-examination became a familiar and widely reproducible dramatic form in theater contexts, personal storytelling and creative non-fiction, and hybrid approaches to reporting in popular media.

 

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“The Journals of Spalding Gray”: An interview with editor Nell Casey

A Graduation Diploma: “The Eviction Notice Written in Latin”

 

Image: Audio cassette and video cassette tapes from the Spalding Gray archive. The archive contains more than 150 audio tapes and more than 120 VHS tapes. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Fellows Find: The ‘most wonderful’ images in an album of 19th-century photos of a fishing village in Glasgow

By Sara Stevenson

Sara Stevenson, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow, worked with the photographs of David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson at the Ransom Center last fall. Her research, supported by the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism, will be used in a book she is writing for the J. Paul Getty Museum. Below, she shares some of her findings. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

In October 2013, I visited the Harry Ransom Center’s magnificent library, which holds impressive historic photographs and contains one treasure of particular Scottish importance: the album of photographs by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson taken between 1843 and 1846. Hill gave this set of photographs to marine painter Clarkson Stanfield, and Stanfield responded: “I sat up till nearly three o’clock looking over them. They are indeed most wonderful, and I would rather have a set of them than the finest Rembrandts I ever saw”—a remarkable, heartfelt statement.

 

The photographs were taken mostly in the fishing village of Newhaven, just to the north of Edinburgh on the river Forth.  They are the origin of social documentary photography. This, I am happy to say, ought to have been impossible, because the process they used, the calotype, was far too slow; exposure times might well be measured in minutes rather than fractions of a second. The series—more than 100 photographs involving several hundred figures—is a highly pleasing example of human intelligence and skill, both using and overcoming the incompetence of technology.  Social documentary photography is, to my mind, a high art form, demanding a sophisticated understanding of people—how to work with other people to make them appear to be themselves, in an active or powerful sense that speaks to strangers and, in this case, does so after more than 150 years.  This is in no way easy— “most wonderful” indeed.

 

The new research I am unearthing on this subject is due to be published by the J. Paul Getty Museum publications department in a year or two. The book will be a celebration, engaging both collections. I am more than grateful to have the endorsement of two such splendid American photographic departments of a great Scottish achievement in the art of photography.

 

By happy coincidence, the fellowship was founded in honor of the excellent photojournalist, David Douglas Duncan, whose splendid archive resides at the Center. It was enjoyable to work in the library with fine examples of his work on the wall, which connected me to the present. It was equally astonishing to find that the Center was staging a conference to celebrate the acquisition of the New York Magnum Photos archive and that they had persuaded such an impressive group of photographers to come, show photographs, and talk. I am still haunted by some of the pictures and was immensely cheered to listen to people talking with passion of their work and aims.

 

The Center offers a generous and helpful environment for intelligent work.

 

And I enjoyed Austin (not least because the sun shines, with only an occasional dramatic thunderstorm—and coming from Scotland at the dull, wet time of the year, this is a serious consideration!)

 

Image: David Octavius Hill & Robert Adamson. A Newhaven Pilot. 1845.

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. This is the final installment in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s 2011. Venturing into children’s literature seems like a natural evolution for McSweeney’s. The line between McSweeney’s adult and children’s books may seem blurry to some readers. You know what I mean if you’ve ever given your child one of the “board books” in Lisa Brown’s “Baby Be Of Use” series and received a blank stare and little-to-no good response. A parent might be confused by the brightly illustrated, pictorial stories that instruct your wee little one on the method for making mommy and daddy a martini or changing the oil in the car.

 

Or you might relate if you’ve ever delighted in handing your fifth-grader one of the encyclopedias in the Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey series. My favorite is Your Disgusting Head. Or the fuzzy (I don’t mean warm; I mean literally fuzzy) novelization of Dave Eggers’s and Spike Jonze’s screenplay, The Wild Things, based on Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. These aren’t really for kids, but they’re a lot of fun no matter how young at heart you may be!

 

McSweeney’s marketed its children and young adult book imprint with the tagline “For Kids Who Love Weird Books.” The books definitely have the McSweeney’s design aesthetic. Many feature dust jackets that unfold into posters, and one even features heat-sensitive ink. Frequent McSweeney’s collaborator Jordon Crane’s board book Keep Our Secrets includes this tip: “For best results read this book with a hairdryer.” The McSweeney’s collection came complete with a hairdryer and is certainly the only collection at the Ransom Center with such a tool. The series features not only amazing illustrations but amazing stories. S. S. Taylor’s The Expeditioners and the Treasure of the Drowned Man’s Canyon is the first in a series and was a Nominee for the 2014–2015 Texas Bluebonnet Award.

 

Since being weird is no longer a stigma, I’m anxious for my own 1-year old, Simon, to be a weird kid. You see, being different is not only OK, it’s celebrated. Everything about McSweeney’s celebrates difference. From the namesake of the company, Mr. Timothy McSweeney himself, to the experimental design of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, to publishing books like Lemon (Lawrence Krauser), Real Man Adventures (T. Cooper), It Chooses You (Miranda July), and others that bring to print stories that comfort those who’ve always felt like they’ve never “fit in.” The publishing house also shines a light on the often ignored voices captured in the Voice of Witness oral history series that highlights human rights abuses in this country and around the world.

 

In fact, McSweeney’s wants to help inspire the upcoming generations’ crop of McSweeney’s writers.  Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s helped establish a non-profit tutoring and writing center, 826 Valencia in San Francisco. Under the umbrella organization 826 National, seven more centers have opened in Brooklyn, Chicago, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Boston. Many writers and artists donate their work in support of 826 National with the proceeds of many McSweeney’s books going directly to further the work of the tutoring centers.

 

So, read, write, and be weird!

 

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When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with McSweeney’s archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the third in a four-part series highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

In 2002, Heidi Julavits, Vendela Vida, and Ed Park began planning a long-format magazine featuring essays, interviews, and reviews. With the assistance of Dave Eggers and the McSweeney’s staff, The Believer was launched in 2003. The same year, Andrew Leland, former intern at McSweeney’s, was offered the job of managing editor to create the second issue of The Believer magazine. Leland dropped out of Oberlin College to take the job, and he continued in the post for eight years and 75 issues. The Believer, easily identified by its iconic cover template designed by Eggers and illustrated with drawings by Charles Burns, has become a monthly art and culture magazine featuring content unimpeded by arbitrary word limits and highlighting schematic drawings, illustrations by Tony Millionaire, and regular columns by Nick Hornby, Greil Marcus, and Jack Pendarvis. The Believer is also home to the “Sedaratives” advice column founded by Amy Sedaris and featuring guest contributors from Janeane Garafolo to Weird Al Yankovich. The magazine also puts out three special issues a year dedicated to art, film, and music.

 

Two notebooks filed in box 98, folders 3 and 4 were kept by Believer editor Andrew Leland and are among the most revealing items in the archive. One has a clean, earnest design, with a simple soft-yellow cover. The other is a NASCAR spiral with the image of Tony Stewart emblazed on the front. The notebooks begin in the summer of 2003 and contain daily “to-do” lists, editorial checklists, and other jottings. On one particular day, the numbered list reads:

1) Phillips images

2) Format letters

3) Rest of articles à Tony

4) Call Boy George

 

Numbers one through four are all crossed out, giving a brief glimpse into the creative, interesting, and mundane aspects of being a Believer editor.

 

The Believer attracts remarkable writers and remarkable readers. David Foster Wallace’s subscription postcard for The Believer is evidence that they’re sometimes both. It’s humorous and prized—the tape still adhered to the card with flecks of wall paint suggests it was hanging on Leland’s wall.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Oodles of Doodles: McSweeney’s first novel

By Amy Armstrong

The McSweeney’s archive, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2013, is now open for research. Founded in 1998 by Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern is considered one of the most influential literary journals and publishing houses of its time. McSweeney’s publishes books, Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Believer magazine, the food journal Lucky Peach, and the DVD-journal Wholphin. This is the second in a four-part series of blog posts highlighting items from this dynamic and diverse collection.

 

It’s the year 2000. McSweeney’s and the rest of the world came through the threat of Y2K unscathed. It’s a new millennium, and new millennium readers want to experiment, take chances, and conquer new frontiers in reading. In 2000, McSweeney’s published its first novel: Lawrence Krauser’s Lemon, which tells the story of a corporate memo writer who begins an intimate friendship with a lemon after his girlfriend breaks up with him. Lemon perhaps set the tone for McSweeney’s books, as one reviewer called it “handsome, smartly written and deeply eccentric.”

 

A unique love story deserves a unique cover, but one unique cover would simply not do. How about 10,000 unique covers? This line of thinking inspired Dave Eggers’s and Lawrence Krauser’s “Oodles of Doodles” cover idea. The first 10,000 books were wrapped in a blank dust jacket containing only the title and author rubberstamped in various places on each cover—Krauser’s blank canvas. Over a period of about three months, for about three hours a day, Krauser drew unique doodles on 9,812 Lemon dust jackets, making each copy a unique, one-of-a-kind original. Krauser didn’t quite make it through the 10,000 print run, but illustrated an additional 1,000 covers for the Dutch translation, for a grand total of 10,812 unique books.

 

The Ransom Center currently holds three copies of Lemon: one blank copy and two with unique doodle covers.

 

Since publishing Lemon, McSweeney’s book publishing division has grown into McSweeney’s Books, which publishes nonfiction biographies, memoirs, and criticism; a long list of humor books including the “Baby, Be of Use” series by Lisa Brown and the popular Haggis-on-Whey encyclopedias; art books with portfolios by Marcel Dzama, Dave Eggers, and Art Spiegelman; and Beck’s Song Reader, a music album that exists only as richly illustrated individual pieces of sheet music.

 

McSweeney’s other book imprints include McSweeney’s Rectangulars; Believer Books, collecting writing from the magazine’s contributors; McSweeney’s McMullens, which publishes books for young children and young adults; Voice of Witness, a nonprofit series of oral histories documenting contemporary social injustices around the world; Collins Library, reprints of forgotten classics edited by Paul Collins; McSweeney’s Poetry Series; and McSweeney’s Insatiables, a food and cooking imprint.

 

Related content:

Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

When is a Comb not a Comb? McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Issue 16 (May 2005)

Materials in McSweeney’s archive offer behind-the-scenes glimpse at “The Believer” magazine

Keep Austin Weird: McSweeney’s McMullens and everything else

Meet the Staff: Q&A with archivist Amy Armstrong

 

Please click on the thumbnails below to view larger images.