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Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is the collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.
Scattered about the collections are many other hair samples belonging to various celebrities. The most important were taken from Charlotte Brontë (brunette), Marie Antoinette (a blond lock), and Edgar Allan Poe (a black braid, kept in a locket he gave to his sometime girlfriend Elmira Shelton). When the latter’s hair was exhibited last year for his 200th birthday, it swiftly became one of the most popular items, with younger visitors calling it “creepy.”
There is just something about hair. Composed mostly of the tough protein keratin, it survives practically forever, along with bones (thus Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”). The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s Mariana) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles.
I had often wondered why Leigh Hunt formed the collection and how it came to us. After a bit of digging, I discovered that John L. Waltman had answered my questions about the hair collection in an obscure journal article back in 1980. Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.
Along with Milton’s hair, which may have been removed when he was disinterred in 1790, a single golden hair from Lucretia Borgia’s head was Hunt’s prize. He described it as “sparkl[ing] in the sun as if it had been cut yesterday.” Lord Byron stole a portion of a lock in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and presented it to Hunt with a quotation from Alexander Pope: “and beauty draws us with a single hair.”
The Hunt hair collection, minus Lucretia Borgia’s strand, stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.
While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.
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Long before viewers watched Pimp My Ride or American Chopper—in fact, long before the combustion engine—readers personalized, customized, glamorized, and just plain peacocked their books. Whether encrusted with jewels, adorned by portraits of queens, or scribbled upon with ballpoint pens, the books pictured here demonstrate post-market enhancements, or primping, as a recurring phenomenon in book culture across centuries. These volumes embody fantasies of transformation through the act of dressing up. The story of the custom book starts with medieval illumination, a process that primped a book on the inside. The remaining books mediate the relationship with the text through their covers.
The warmth of red velvet, the chill of a silver hinge, the sparkle of precious jewel, or the smell of fine leather can create a sensory experience that complements, critiques, or even contradicts the words within the covers. Using these diverse materials, as well as techniques from inlay to Cosway, these covers make statements, sometimes even jokes, about their books’ contents.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishápúr (Needham, MA: Rosemary Press, 1916)
Miniature Book Collection
This tiny Rubáiyát, like others in its series, is bound in Russian leather and hand-tooled in gold. It was one of only 60 published by Rosemary Press, founded by Charles Dana Burrage (1857–1926), a Boston lawyer, naturalist, Orientalist, and the first president of the University of California Club of New England. His wee books were given as party favors at club events.
Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance (London and New York: Routledge, Warne, & Routledge, 1860)
This copy of Moore’s Lalla Rookh was primped in the early twentieth century. Sangorski and Sutcliffe of London bound this weighty three-pound copy in a colored leather binding inlaid with gold to form an intricate floral pattern studded with a central diamond and several rubies, pearls, and turquoises. Hidden inside the front cover is a stunning Cosway-style portrait of Moore, similar to Marie Antoinette’s portrait on another book in this display. A floral pattern was chipped into the book’s gilded edges creating a bas-relief effect, not unlike the gauffered edges on the embroidered prayer book mentioned below.
Book of Hours (France, 15th-19th Century)
Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Collection
Illuminated Books of Hours, or private devotional manuals, emerged as a distinct genre in the late thirteenth century. By the fourteenth, these status symbols had become items of conspicuous consumption for the nobility. The quantity and quality of their illustrations, called miniatures, is often an indication of their value, but this particular example has a twist—these illuminations are nineteenth-century fakes. While the manuscript dates to the fifteenth century, the miniatures were either over-painted or entirely fabricated approximately 500 years later into blanks left by the medieval scribe (for just such enhancement). The work is probably that of a nineteenth-century artist attempting to increase the value of a medieval manuscript.
Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis (Venice: Paulus Balleonius, 1709)
Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this devotional is bound in thin wooden boards held together by metal hinges. The delicate fronds and flourishes on the upper and lower covers were created by inlaying various colored woods into a black veneer. Some of these woods are stained blue and green, while others retain their natural colors. The mother-of-pearl dog-roses that adorn the covers and spine are a symbol of Mary, and thus function as both ornament and clue to the book’s content.
La Mode Féminine de 1490 à 1920, Volume 2 of 3 (Paris: Nilsson, ca. 1926)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons
This collection of hand-colored French fashion plates features a portrait of the Queen of Fashion herself, Marie Antoinette. This portrait is an example of Cosway bindings, miniature paintings on ivory inset into gold-tooled leather covers. While these bindings get their name from the English miniaturist Richard Cosway (c. 1742–1821), the London bookselling firm Southeran’s is credited with their invention. Cosway bindings became popular as post-market modifications in the early twentieth century. This fashionable cover is tailor-made for its subject.
Bernard Kops’s The World is a Wedding (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1966)
Not all post-market portraiture is elegant. Kops modified this presentation copy of his autobiography for his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Kops removed the original cover and replaced it with the inverted cover torn from a paperback copy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which he then decorated with pen and a family photo. In his inscription on the title page, Kops explains, “I hated the… cover so much I made my own. Yours Bernard Kops December 65.”
The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ (London: Christopher Barker, 1598)
The Stark Library
Early pocket-sized Bibles often benefitted from the protection of clasps and cornerpieces, which protected a volume’s edges from wear, enhancing longevity and portability. This small New Testament volume, printed by the same printer as the Book of Common Prayer, belonged to a wealthy individual: the edges of the pages show the remains of gilding, while the clasps and cornerpieces appear to be genuine silver. The Tudor roses visible on the cornerpieces and an inscription by a previous owner on the inside cover may link the book to Queen Elizabeth I.
Washington Irving’s A History of New York, Volume 1 of 2 (New York: Inskeep & Bradford, 1809)
Written under the pseudonym Dietrich Knickerbocker, this playful account of New York parodies earlier histories. Owned by the New York cotton magnate M. C. D. Borden and bearing the seal of New York City on its cover, this first-edition copy was re-bound by prominent Parisian bookbinder Georges Canapé (1864–1940) close to 100 years after its printing. The bright orange color may hint at New York’s Dutch history, while the goatskin leather, commonly used by Canapé, fits the nickname that Irving gave to New York City: Gotham, or “goat town.”
C. H. A. Bjerregaard’s Sufi Interpretations of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam and Fitzgerald (New York: J. F. Taylor, 1902)
Numbered edition, no. 1 of 5
The Stark Library
Bound in brown pigskin, this painted cover lavishly depicts Omar’s vines of wisdom, each line of the drawing seared into place by a heated tool or flame. True to Bjerregaard’s vow to explore the “mines under the vineyard,” the pages between the decorated covers—rich with watercolor paintings, additional pyrographic illustrations, and brocade backed endpapers—reveal further artistic enhancements. One of only five printed, this opulent “Jamshyd” copy presents Bjerregaard’s anti-sensualist pairing of the famous quatrains with Sufi wisdom.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (London: Collins, ca. 1910s)
The Library of Edward Alexander Parsons
Polished wooden inlaid boards cover this otherwise unassuming edition of Lytton’s popular novel, leaving the original spine visible. The inlaid upper cover is composed of at least eight separate pieces of wood, cut and fitted together so precisely that the surface feels completely smooth to the touch. Inlaid bindings peaked in popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so this early twentieth-century repackaging was likely a deliberately anachronistic choice—perhaps a playful reference to the famous mosaics of Pompeii.
Book of Common Prayer (London: Christopher Barker, 1586)
Embroidered with silver cord and thread, this rare surviving example of textile binding features red velvet covers decorated with spangles. Although the exact date of this binding is unknown, it closely resembles the embroidered velvet Bible presented by the same printer, Christopher Barker, to Queen Elizabeth I as a New Year’s gift in 1584. The identity of ‘F. S.’ remains a mystery, but the gauffered edges—gilded, and then impressed with patterns by a heated tool—indicate that this book was owned by a member of the upper class. A final clue to the mysterious owner’s status lies in a 1638 statement by a guild of English embroiderers, who claimed that their book covers were fit for the “Nobility and Gentry of this kingdome… and not for common persons.”
Students in The University of Texas at Austin Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2010 graduate seminar, English 384k: Graphic Design & Literary Text put together a display case at the Ransom Center with these examples of various bindings. This display can be seen during Reading Room hours through the end of January. Students who worked on this project include Lynn Cowles, Colleen Eils, Jennifer Harger, Brianna Hyslop, Aaron Mercier, Michael Quatro, Robin Riehl, Jessica Shafer, Connie Steel, Laura Thain, Joanna Thaler, and Jay Voss.
Bill Powers, President of The University of Texas at Austin, shared the below communication with faculty and staff today:
I am pleased to announce that Tom Staley has agreed to stay on as director of the Harry Ransom Center. Tom was previously scheduled to retire on August 31 of this year.
Tom is one of the world’s most highly respected library directors, and under his leadership the Ransom Center has celebrated the humanities, advanced scholarship, expanded our collections, and brought great distinction to the University.
I know that many people on our campus will join me in welcoming this news.
The Ransom Center holds the Knopf Inc. archive, which includes material related to the publication of the groundbreaking cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle. View photos and read some of the letters that document the book’s progress and publication over several years.
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.
Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.
The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.
The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.
The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.
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.
Cultural Compass will be on hiatus during the University’s winter break and will return with new content the week of January 3. Holiday hours for the Ransom Center are as follows:
Ransom Center Galleries
10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
10 a.m.–7 p.m. Thursday
Noon–5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Please note that the Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and the following holidays:
Christmas Eve Day (Friday, December 24)
Christmas Day (Saturday, December 25)
New Year’s Day (Saturday, January 1)
Even though HIV/AIDS has been influencing American cultural production since the 1980s, only in the last ten years or so has the Ransom Center begun to acquire collections with materials documenting the effects of the pandemic.
One recent acquisition that highlights the consequences of the disease on African literature is the Charles R. Larson collection of African and African-American literature. Larson is a professor of literature at American University, as well as a writer and editor. His papers include correspondence and manuscripts by Yvonne Vera (1964–2005), the prolific Zimbabwean novelist and short story writer who died of AIDS in 2005.
In 1987, Vera moved to Toronto, where she lived with her husband and earned her undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees at York University. She tested positive for HIV in 1989, and wrote her first short story, “Independence Day,” in 1991. “I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts,” Vera said in a 2002 interview with Grace Mutandwa. “My tales are tragic, rather than sad, meaning they have a catastrophic force. Some writers can give you two heartbeats—one for the beauty of the words, another for the event. I want to be a writer who can give you the illusion that you have two hearts.”
During her lifetime, she published five novels, a short story collection, and an edited anthology of African women’s writing. Vera’s novel Under the Tongue (1996) won the 1997 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) for best novel, and her last published novel, The Stone Virgins (2002), won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa for best unpublished manuscript. She moved back to Zimbabwe in 1995 and served as Director of the National Gallery in Bulawayo from 1997 until 2003.
The Larson collection contains important correspondence between Charles Larson and John Jose, Vera’s husband, regarding her life and work. At the time of her death, Vera was working on a novel called Obedience, which remains unpublished. The novel was written before she returned to Canada in 2004, and the fragmented manuscript and deteriorating quality of her writing reflect the AIDS-related cognitive difficulties she was experiencing at the time. The Larson papers contain drafts of the manuscript, as well as notes by Jose about Vera’s planned revisions.
Vera’s death and the work she left behind are reminders of the literary cost of the AIDS pandemic in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, in particular, as well as worldwide.
John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.
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.
During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.
Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.
I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:
As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.
Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.
The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.
Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.
There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.
The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.