Jane Robbins Mize is a senior in English and Liberal Arts Honors and is a current intern in the Ransom Center’s public affairs department. She recently worked in the Anne Sexton papers for her English class “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.”
After several undergraduate poetry courses, I had heard Anne Sexton’s name countless times. I’d read samples of her work in course packets and anthologies, and I knew she was a “confessional” poet and a contemporary of Sylvia Plath. But, I had never read a complete collection of her poems (I could not even name the title of one), and I was even less familiar with her family and career.
So when given the opportunity, I signed up to give an oral presentation on Anne Sexton’s life and work in my English class, “Women’s Autobiographical Writings.” In a preliminary conference with Professor Carol MacKay, she described to me the Ransom Center’s collection of Sexton’s manuscripts and suggested that I explore the archive myself before presenting. I unhesitatingly agreed and soon found myself in the Reading Room holding the manuscript of Sexton’s best-known collection, Live or Die.
Sexton began writing poetry as therapy for her post-partum depression in 1956, the year following the birth of her second daughter. Soon after, she began working with poets such as W. D. Snodgrass and Robert Lowell and developed a close friendship with Maxine Kumin. She published her first collection, To Bedlam and Partway Back, in 1960. Just six years later, Sexton released her most celebrated work, Live or Die, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1967.
The manuscript of Live or Die is, in a word, raw. Through it, I was able to experience Sexton’s work in an unembellished state. That is to say, my reading of the poems was not influenced by the presentation of the collection. I encountered no introduction or blurbs, biography, or portrait. Instead, I found only the table of contents, dedication, and poems themselves—in addition to frequent penciled corrections. In this way, the manuscript introduced me to Sexton’s work through the content and nature of her poems rather than the reputation that precedes them.
My relationship with Sexton slipped quickly from vague acquaintance to deep familiarity as I scanned her correspondences and sifted through her notes, photographs, and even the digitized pages of the scrapbooks and journals of her youth. Through the archive, I was able to develop a more complete portrait of Sexton than that which could be presented in a written biography. I was collecting the details and, through them, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman’s life, character, and creative process.
It is exceedingly rare to meet a writer and explore her work through her private, personal, and unpublished papers. At the Ransom Center, however, hundreds of authors and artists are waiting to be introduced. I look forward to many more first encounters.
This week, The University of Texas at Austin prepares its podiums and fireworks for Saturday’s commencement ceremony, the 131st in the school’s history. Countless graduating seniors can be seen in front of Littlefield Fountain, posing for photographs beneath the Tower, wearing gowns and mortarboards and smiles. Some smiles are of elation, others, somewhat apprehensive: as anyone who has graduated from college will probably agree, the event creates conflicting emotions—happiness at having achieved a milestone and uncertainty about what the future may hold. Commencement is a bittersweet time for the staff at the Ransom Center, as we send former undergraduate interns Alyssa O’Connell, Alyse Camus, Alexandra Bass, Elizabeth Barnes, Patrick Naeve, Emily Neie, and Kelsey McKinney out into the world to seek their—no doubt impressive—fortunes. Our interns have been valued colleagues and friends, and we will miss their energy, intelligence, and good company.
The navigation of this crossroads of school’s ending and adulthood’s beginning has resulted in a genre of address practiced each spring in colleges across the country: the commencement speech. In honor of our graduating seniors, we’ve investigated the myriad drafts of commencement speeches held in the manuscript collections at the Ransom Center, searching for advice that might help as the new alumni move forward to jobs, graduate schools, new cities, and unknown adventures.
Throughout the past few decades, writers and thinkers as disparate as Norman Mailer, William Faulkner, Diane Johnson, Lillian Hellman, Nancy Wilson Ross, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Spalding Gray have advised graduates entering post-university life using a wide range of strategies, from the sprawling anecdote to the political call to action to the spiritual meditation. Some, like David Foster Wallace in his acclaimed 2005 speech at Kenyon College, have used humor (the diploma? “An eviction notice written in Latin”) to mesmerize the audience before presenting graduates with the difficult challenge of maintaining a heightened awareness of the choices they make each day, each hour.
Playwright Terrence McNally, speaking to a group of graduating artists at Julliard, encouraged a policy of absolute honesty with one’s self: to create beauty and meaning according to one’s own standards, not the standards of the outlying world.
While scribbled notes reveal the difficulties writers faced in settling on the right topic for a graduation speech (“The one thing you do not do at a graduation is talk about depressing matters,” wrote Norman Mailer), many of the manuscript collections reveal writers’ deep misgivings about being qualified with enough wisdom to address a graduating audience at all, or feeling overwhelmed by the importance of the task. Spalding Gray, for example, known for the self-effacing humor that made his autobiographical performances and writings so popular, assured graduating seniors in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, that, “My heroes are still the ones that do their best in the face of not knowing.” His speech emphasizes modesty and reverence for a large, mysterious world. Alongside this speech is a one-page document titled “The Graduation Speech I Never Made,” in which Gray questions his ability to recognize the importance of his diploma (he couldn’t remember where it was) or of a commencement ceremony (admitting he skipped his own). Accepting his spurious relationship to official commencement traditions, he encourages students thusly: “Feel free to make up a life. If you don’t like the one you have, make up another. This could be a very creative outlet.”
In a 1976 address to Mount Holyoke graduates, dramatist Lillian Hellman encouraged students to advocate free speech, individual liberties, and public service: “The highest compliment I can pay you, or any group that calls itself educated, is that you believe it is your duty to make reforms in this great country.” Hellman had famously been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities in the early 1950s.
Speaking to the all-female class at Bennett Women’s College in 1957, novelist Nancy Wilson Ross discussed the freedoms already achieved by women—the freedoms to vote, to receive higher education, to pursue careers, and to divorce—and encouraged the graduates to think deeply about the spiritual satisfaction that these freedoms bring. “Serenity comes from inside; it is not something you can lay on from the outside or acquire with objects and possessions and in a world like the present we are going to have to get it, if we get it at all, by interior disciplines.”
We wish to assure graduates that the Ransom Center archives bear witness to the fact that the individual road to “the eviction notice written in Latin” is not always easy. Often alongside drafts of commencement speeches, usually delivered late in a writer’s career, are papers that document a writer’s own struggles in college: citations for drinking, notices of academic probation, and letters home threatening to drop out of school. In the interest of discretion, we will restrain from naming names, but rest assured that even literary luminaries had their share of troubling transcripts, embarrassing yearbook photos, and take-home essays abysmally flunked. And the failures and successes that followed the diplomas? Too numerous too count. The individual roads to the podiums were certainly paved with highs and lows—and, perhaps most importantly, perseverance. We send the class of 2014 best wishes for the education that begins once commencement ends.
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When University of Texas at Austin Professor of Philosophy Daniel Bonevac and Ransom Center Senior Research Curator of Photography Roy Flukinger taught the course “Ideas of the Twentieth Century” last fall, they had 100 students.
This fall, they will teach over 20,000.
“Ideas of the Twentieth Century” is one of the courses offered by The University of Texas at Austin as part of the UT System’s partnership with edX, a nonprofit online learning initiative. Launched by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2012, edX collaborates with universities across the country to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs boast unlimited enrollment and are free for all participants.
Of the classes submitted by The University of Texas at Austin for the upcoming school year, four are currently open for registration and will begin September 15. Besides “Ideas of the Twentieth Century,” those interested can also take “Energy 101,” “Age of Globalization,” and “Take Your Medicine: The Impact of Drug Development.”
Bonevac and Flukinger’s course explores the changing mindsets and morals of the past century through the lenses of philosophy, literature, art, and history. Although they have taught this course five times before as one of the University’s Signature Courses for incoming freshmen, the class had to be adapted for an online audience.
“Our time is much more limited in teaching the online course, so each session had to be reduced down to the more basic concepts, trends, and ideas,” Flukinger said. “And, obviously, the other fact that you miss immediately is the interchange of ideas and discussion with your students. The production studio tends to be a much more detached environment than the customary give-and-take of the classroom. But such are always the tradeoffs with any mass media. And, at the same time, I do find it very invigorating to attempt to expand our teaching to a much larger and more diverse global community.”
Dr. Sherre L. Paris—lecturer at The University of Texas School of Journalism—teaches her undergraduate class “A Cultural History of Photography” at the Ransom Center. During the three-hour-long-seminar, which meets every Tuesday in a classroom adjacent to the Ransom Center’s Reading Room, undergraduates work with primary source materials from the Center’s photography collections. “Cultural Compass” spoke with Dr. Paris about her experience teaching at the Ransom Center.
The Harry Ransom Center will support six undergraduate internships during the summer of 2013, four from The University of Texas at Austin and two from another accredited college or university.
The 14-hour-per-week positions will provide undergraduates with a hands-on and behind-the-scenes look at the operation of a humanities research center. Selected interns will choose from a variety of opportunities within the Center, including working with archives, exhibitions, marketing, public affairs, and curatorial departments of art, film, manuscripts, performing arts, photography, and rare books.
Learn more about the internships and application process. March 15 is the deadline to apply.
The internships will begin on June 10 and end August 16, 2013.
The Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation has provided generous funding for these internships.
Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.
Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.
On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.
Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.
Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.
Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.
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.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
Each year, thousands of undergraduates come to the Harry Ransom Center to visit with a class, attend one the Center’s programs, or view an exhibition.
Since its founding, the Ransom Center has been an important resource for undergraduates at The University of Texas at Austin. Harry Ransom believed that meaningful undergraduate education was not complete without exposure to rare books and manuscripts.
The Ransom Center continues to maintain this vision to encourage undergraduate interaction with its collections and is launching a new resource that provides information about the many opportunities available to undergraduates.
Whether an entering freshman or a graduating senior, students can explore and be inspired by the offerings of the Ransom Center. Through exposure to and interaction with collection materials—whether it be a manuscript, photograph, artwork, or rare book—students can open the door to the creative process.
Each academic year, the Ransom Center hosts undergraduate interns sponsored by various programs and departments at The University of Texas at Austin. For the 2012–2013 academic year, the Center is pleased to announce the addition of four Ransom Center–sponsored undergraduate intern positions. Students do not need to be affiliated with any particular program or department but must be full-time undergraduate students at The University of Texas at Austin. Application materials should be delivered to the Administrative Suite on the third floor of the Ransom Center by April 9, 2012. Below, current undergraduate intern Kelsey McKinney discusses her internship experience at the Ransom Center.
I fell in love with the Ransom Center at first sight. It was my freshman fall semester at The University of Texas at Austin, and my English class visited the Ransom Center to view Anne Sexton manuscripts in the reading room. In addition to the manuscripts, we saw Anne Sexton’s Royal Quiet De Luxe typewriter. That typewriter showed me that the Ransom Center is a diverse place with hidden gems to discover. As an undergraduate intern, that belief has only been confirmed.
I began working at the Ransom Center in August 2011. At the time, The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920–1925 exhibition had recently opened, and I was offered the opportunity to work on a related project with the Ransom Center’s own authors’ door. The door, located deep within the fifth-floor stacks, began as a tribute to the Greenwich Village bookshop door. Since the 1970s, visiting artists and writers have been invited to sign the door. As of today, the door has 212 signatures. I began a project to document all of the signatures, many of which verged on being illegible. Having horrible handwriting myself, the match was ideal. I spent hours with the door, and it allowed me to interact with author archives and Ransom Center staff. The work was exciting and fulfilling. Each time I deciphered another signature was just as exciting as the first. Today, 206 of the 212 signatures are identified.
There are so many collections and so many incredible projects to take on that there is something for everyone here. More than any specific project I have worked on during my time as an intern, I value most the knowledge I have gained through interaction with Ransom Center staff and scholars. Each day here, I learn more. As an intern in the public affairs department, I have researched and written blog posts. For these, I have learned from the Ransom Center collections and holdings. That knowledge, though, is only the beginning. Ultimately, the benefit of working with intelligent, interesting, and passionate people is that they share those passions willingly. I have learned about the evolution to digital photography, how to conserve a decaying book, how exhibitions are formed, and how collections are organized. Every person at the Ransom Center is a person to learn from. The greatest testament to this, I believe, is how unmanageably tall my book stack has grown during my time here. The tasks and projects I have completed have improved my writing and research skills, but it is the level of intelligent, jovial, and interesting conversation that has taught me the most.
The University of Texas at Austin not only provides an excellent education for its undergraduate students, but also works to couple that education with compelling undergraduate experiences. Ideally, these experiences encompass the core values of the University: learning, freedom, discovery, leadership, individual opportunity, and responsibility. My time at the Ransom Center has developed within me every one of those values. I have learned more than I could ever describe, discovered dozens of new authors, encountered new ideas, and was granted the freedom to enjoy every step of the process. This undergraduate experience is one I would never trade.