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Unpacking the McSweeney’s archive

The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The McSweeney’s archive, like all collections, went through an inspection upon its arrival at the Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

When a new archive arrives at the Ransom Center, it is quickly whisked away to a designated quarantine area in our basement. The first order of business is for staff to inspect the collection carefully—under the diligent leadership of one of our conservators—for signs of bugs or mold, or any other damage that could jeopardize our collections. These inspections are serious affairs, for it’s critical that we not introduce pests or mold into our stacks. But they’re also exciting. They are our first opportunity to dig into a new collection, and they’re often filled with unexpected discoveries.

The McSweeney’s archive arrived at the Ransom Center in excellent condition, and sorting through the contents of nearly 60 bankers-sized boxes elicited curiosity and delight among our staff. I wasn’t entirely surprised by the rich material that filled the boxes. I had my first glimpse of the archive in September 2007 in the crowded basement of the publishing house’s headquarters in the Mission District of San Francisco. The Ransom Center had first inquired about the McSweeney’s archive in late 2006. Several conversations followed, but the publishing house wasn’t ready to part with its files at the time. I had been an enthusiastic fan of the publishing house for years. I believed then, and still do, that McSweeney’s—with its taste for experimental and new talents, its innovative approach to design, and its willingness to take risks with each volume—brought a new vision to publishing and introduced something different and significant to twenty-first-century literature. The publications coming out of McSweeney’s are unlike anything you’ll find elsewhere. We were thrilled to hear from the publishers at McSweeney’s years later, when their files had grown to overtake their basement, and they wanted to find their archive a home where it would be cataloged, preserved, and made available for study.

The archive is filled with manuscript submissions, letters from authors, illuminating editorial notes, and design renderings that trace the 15-year history of this publishing house. These materials will ignite the interest of students and scholars who will study this archive in the years to come. Equally fascinating are the published volumes themselves. Each book, each issue of the Quarterly and The Believer is utterly unique. Taking them out of boxes, one by one, and seeing them all together, one is immediately struck by the legacy McSweeney’s has already left on the world of publishing.

I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.
Ransom Center staff member unpack and inspect materials in the McSweeney’s archive. Photo by Pete Smith.

Driftwood in an archive

Writer Jim Crace, author of Continent (1986), Arcadia (1992), Quarantine (1997), Being Dead (1999), and The Pesthouse (2007), speaks about ephermera in archives and the narratives and stories they provide.

Crace elaborates about a piece of driftwood found in his archive that contains a note that was later incorporated into his novel Signals of Distress (1996).

Enter by July 13 for a chance to win a signed copy of Crace’s Continent by visiting the Ransom Center’s Facebook page.

Crace will be in residence this fall at the Michener Center for Writers at The University of Texas at Austin. He will give a public reading on December 6.

Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Piece of driftwood in Jim Crace’s archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Denis Johnson papers open for research

A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.
A selection of discs from Denis Johnson's collection. Johnson’s handwritten note states, 'these discs are the only copies of any drafts from before 1992.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni. Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center.

Since July 2011, Harry Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong has been processing and cataloging the Denis Johnson papers, which are now available for research. Armstrong shares her insight about processing the Johnson materials.

“Guess what collection I just started processing?” I asked my husband in a voice that implied he would be jealous. “Denis Johnson!” Johnson is the author of Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke. I have his books in my house and he is one of my husband’s favorite writers. So from the beginning, I felt lucky. But then again, I always do. As an archivist at the Harry Ransom Center, every day I have the honor and privilege of interacting with fascinating material.

Though primarily composed of writing notes and drafts, Johnson’s papers have a definite intimacy. He created extensive notes and drafts for most of his works, and, at times, he wrote on whatever was at hand, including the back of checks, envelopes, receipts, a set of paper coasters, a paper plate, and a paper towel. One can’t help but picture Johnson sitting at a table somewhere, moved by something he heard or saw, which sparked a thought he just had to get down immediately on whatever he could grab. This may not be what happened at all, but seeing this note written on a paper plate allowed me to connect with Johnson in his everyday life and envision how he lives and works.

Though there is not a lot of professional correspondence in the papers, there are some early personal letters Johnson wrote as a teenager to his parents. These candid letters reveal a young man who already seems to possess the writer’s eye and a gift for observing, assessing, and describing the human condition. In a letter written when he was 17, Johnson, who is working away from home for his uncle in South Carolina, reports on members of his extended family:

Uncle C. S. told me tonight to take engineering in college, and he would give me a job…I told him I wanted to become a writer. He was shocked and completely unable to understand why anyone would want to devote himself to such a worthless occupation. I think if I were one of his own children, he would have beaten me.

Self-assured Johnson goes on to say, “It doesn’t really bother me what C. S. thinks, though, because our values are at such opposite extremes.” Later in the letter, he provides a snapshot of his aunt.

She is so wrapped up in taking care of her home and family that she has little time for anything else. Today in the news there was a story about a Buddhist monk burning himself. She commented that he was not very devout because it says in the Bible that suicide is wrong. I tried to explain to her that Buddhist monks aren’t interested in being good Christians. I don’t think she understood what I was trying to say.

Letters written from college about expected subjects (please send some money, my grades are improving) report Johnson’s struggles in his unmistakable voice and demonstrate his ability to turn a humorous light on some of life’s more trying moments. Johnson updates his parents about his writing in almost all the letters. Here’s an excerpt from one letter:

The stories are coming as fast and furiously as stories can come. Unfortunately my ability to criticize is fast outstripping my ability to write, and I am disappointed in everything. But a good writer is able to quickly fix the blame on a typewriter, the lighting, the weather, the president, and so on.

He also recounts stories of his daily life such as this excerpt about his infant son:

He still does his morning chores, which he picked out for himself and which consist of turning over the wastepaper baskets, emptying the ashtrays (onto the floor), and de-shelving all magazines. He seems to look upon himself as something of a hunter also. Only yesterday he captured my cigarette papers and drowned and mangled them, leaving me smokeless for today.

Though few in number, these early letters reveal a story about Johnson’s early writing and the talented author he was to become.

The Denis Johnson papers are now open for research and consist of professional and personal papers that document Johnson’s diverse writing career and showcase a broad range of creative output that includes poetry, short stories, novels, essays, journalism articles, screenplays, and scripts.

To celebrate the opening of the papers, the Ransom Center will be giving away ten signed copies of Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Visit the Ransom Center’s Facebook page to see some of the Johnson materials—from a paper plate to coasters—and select your favorite for the chance to win.

David Foster Wallace archive now open

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
The archive of David Foster Wallace (1962-2008), author of Infinite Jest (1996), The Broom of the System (1987), Girl with Curious Hair (1989) and numerous collections of stories and essays, is now open at the Harry Ransom Center. A finding aid for the collection and an inventory of Wallace’s library can be accessed online.

The Ransom Center acquired Wallace’s archive last year. The collection is made up of 42 boxes and is divided into three main sections: works, personal and career-related materials and copies of works by Don DeLillo. The works section covers the period between 1984 and 2006 and includes material related to Wallace’s novels, short stories, essays and magazine articles. The personal and career materials section covers 1971 through 2008 and includes juvenilia, teaching materials and business correspondence. Most of the correspondence in the collection is between Wallace and his editors and is related to his work. The third, and smallest, section includes photocopy typescripts of three works by Don DeLillo, one of which, Underworld, contains extensive handwritten annotations by Wallace.

View some teaching materials from the archive.

The Ransom Center commemorates the opening of the archive with public readings of Wallace’s work by writers and actors tonight at 7 p.m. (C.S.T.) in the university’s Jessen Auditorium in Homer Rainey Hall. The event, which is co-sponsored by “American Short Fiction” and Salvage Vanguard Theater, will be webcast live.

From the Archivist: Creating access to the Magnum Photos collection

Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
Photographic Archivist Mary Alice Harper works with the Magnum Photos Collection. Photo by Linda Briscoe Myers.
As is the case with any incoming collection, the Magnum Photos collection came with its own unique set of challenges. Ransom Center Curator of Photography David Coleman and I have worked to develop and implement a strategy for making the collection accessible to researchers in a timely and organized manner.

Creating the preliminary inventory
The agreement between MSD Capital, the owner of the collection, and the Ransom Center places the Magnum collection at the Center for at least five years and stipulates the photographs be made available. Desiring to open the collection as quickly as possible, the curator and I devised a two-phase approach for cataloging it.

The first phase was to translate Magnum’s original, complexly coded spreadsheet into a standardized preliminary box-level inventory. Working with Magnum’s archivist, Matt Murphy, I organized the materials in such a way that the arrangement reflects Magnum’s various filing systems and simultaneously unites them. As a result, the materials are divided into the following five series: Photographers (photographs by Magnum photographers); Personalities (photographs of persons of note, from movie stars to world leaders); Subject (a broad selection of topics designated by Magnum); Geographic (photographs arranged by geographic location); and Magnum (photographs of Magnum photographers, agency staff, newspaper clippings, and non-Magnum photographs used for special projects).

The Personalities series of the original spreadsheet provided only name ranges for these boxes (e.g., Rodgers to Roosevelt). So throughout the spring, Jillian Patrick, an undergraduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, meticulously listed the personality’s name on each folder contained within the 200 boxes. Assistant Photographic Archivist Nicole Davis and I then spent more than one month editing that list and entering the Library of Congress’s authorized form of each personality’s name when available. When not available, we devised name forms according to the second revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules. This proved challenging, given the creative spelling and reverse order of various names found on Magnum’s folders. All original folder headings were maintained in the inventory, but references to the authority form of each name are also provided.

With the six-month anniversary of the collection’s arrival fast approaching, I converted the preliminary inventory into Encoded Archival Description, making it fully accessible and searchable online. The name authority work for all personalities is not complete, but 84 percent of the boxes are currently listed at the folder-level in the online version of the preliminary inventory. In the coming months, a revised version of the finding aid, with the Personalities series completed, will be posted online.

The future
In January, I hope to begin the second phase of cataloging the collection, which should take 12 months. The end result will be a detailed archival finding aid and a searchable database enabling researchers to locate all prints by any photographer in the collection.

Corporal Dashiell Hammett’s "The Battle of the Aleutians: A Graphic History, 1942–1943"

A few weeks ago, the Ransom Center received as a gift an unusual volume to add to our holdings of hard-boiled detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961). Kevin Berger, a journalist from New York, donated this booklet, which Hammett wrote for the U.S. military while he was stationed in the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska Peninsula during World War II. Berger’s father was a draftsman who also served in the Aleutians, and Berger had found the volume among his father’s drawings. We enthusiastically accepted the gift knowing that it would remedy what we call a “want”—a gap in our holdings. The Ransom Center is an important research site for scholars of Hammett in part because we have a small collection of Hammett’s papers and the massive archive of his longtime lover, the playwright Lillian Hellman. This gift is a boon to Hammett scholars not just because it fills a bibliographical gap, but because the Hammett papers, it turns out, contain a series of letters Hammett wrote to Hellman while stationed in the Aleutians.

In June 1942, the Japanese attacked a United States military base in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island and went on to occupy two far western islands in the Aleutian chain. After more than a year of air, sea, and land battles fought in brutal conditions, the United States defeated the Japanese in July 1943. Hammett was posted to the island of Adak almost immediately after the crisis ended. From that time on, the island was under little threat of invasion, and Hammett was assigned to keep the 50,000 troops stationed in the islands informed of current affairs through an official newspaper, The Adakian—a sleepy journalistic assignment, since news arrived in this remote outpost well out of date. As part of his work, Hammett composed the history The Battle of the Aleutians in September 1943, a project for which he and his collaborators received a commendation. Its narrative has the feel of hard-boiled suspense writing, as in this passage describing the U.S. preparing for a counter-attack:

And then trouble came, a williwaw, the sudden wild wind of the Aleutians. Nobody knows how hard the wind can blow along these islands where the Bering meets the Pacific….The first morning the wind stopped landing operations with only a portion of our force ashore and, by noon, had piled many of the landing boats on the beach. The men ashore had no tents, no shelters of any kind. They dug holes in the ground and crawled into them for protection against wind and rain and cold. When the wind had quieted enough to let the others come ashore, they too dug holes and lived like that while the cold, wet and backbreaking work of unloading ships by means of small boats went on. And they did what they had to do. They built an airfield. They built an airfield in twelve days.

Hammett undertook related projects such as working at the radio station, offering film screenings, and delivering evening lectures on current events.

The famous writer was admired by his young staff at the newspaper and was himself an appealing curiosity for an isolated community often suffering from low morale. In letters to Lillian Hellman, he wrote detailed descriptions of life in the Aleutians; in the example shown here, he covers subjects such as his living conditions, his Texan bunkmate, Fred Astaire, and his thoughts on another work of war writing by Ralph Ingersoll. Biographer Diane Johnson (whose research materials on Hammett are part of her archive at the Ransom Center) writes that “if there were a happiest year for Hammett, it might have been this one, 1944.” Despite the austere landscape and the lack of news—not to mention fresh food—he stopped drinking and found himself to be unusually content. Hammett remained stationed in Adak—interrupted by a brief, unhappy period at Fort Richardson on the mainland—until the summer of 1945.

Hammett’s decision to enlist had seemed strange to those close to him—he was almost 50, he had long suffered from tuberculosis, and he had a well-known distaste for mainstream American politics. But his hatred of fascism was stronger, and he performed the service he was assigned with vigor, as this little booklet shows. As Diane Johnson tells it, a confusion over Hammett’s given name may be the only reason he made it to the Aleutians in the first place: over the course of several months in 1943, the office of J. Edgar Hoover issued memos to the General Staff office seeking validation of a rumor that Hammett—a known Communist Party sympathizer—had somehow made his way into the U. S. Military, but they assured him there was no such serviceman. The fact was only confirmed in 1945. By that time, Hammett had been reassigned, and the magic of Adak was over. He returned to drinking and after a short time requested a discharge; he officially left the military in August 1945.

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

 

 

Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader donates collection to Harry Ransom Center

Undated photo of Paul Schrader. Unknown photographer.
Undated photo of Paul Schrader. Unknown photographer.
Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has donated his collection to the Harry Ransom Center. Schrader wrote screenplays for such iconic films as Taxi Driver (1976), Blue Collar (1978), Raging Bull (1980), American Gigolo (1980), The Mosquito Coast (1986), and Affliction (1997).

Schrader had previously donated Robert De Niro’s costume from Taxi Driver after De Niro donated his archive to the Ransom Center in 2006. The costume is now on display in the Ransom Center’s exhibition Making Movies, which runs through Aug. 1.

The Schrader collection consists of more than 300 boxes and includes outlines and drafts of scripts and screenplays, correspondence, production materials, videos, audio tapes, press clippings, photographs, and juvenilia.

The collection will be made accessible once it is processed and cataloged. A small case of materials from the collection will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby through March 21.

"The archives are a window into his mind"

First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
First pages of a handwritten draft of 'Infinite Jest' by David Foster Wallace.
Bonnie Nadell, longtime literary agent of David Foster Wallace, shares her thoughts on what scholars can learn from Wallace’s archive about his creative process:

Organizing David Wallace’s papers for an archive was not a task I would wish on many people. Some writers leave their papers organized, boxed, and with careful markers, David left his work in a dark, cold garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever. His wife and I took plastic bins and cardboard boxes and desk drawers and created an order out of chaos, putting manuscripts for each book together and writing labels in magic markers.

But what scholars and readers will find fascinating I think is that as messy as David was with how he kept his work, the actual writing is painstakingly careful. For each draft of a story or essay there are levels of edits marked in different colored ink, repeated word changes until he found the perfect word for each sentence, and notes to himself about how to sharpen a phrase until it met his exacting eye. Having represented David from the beginning of his writing career, I know there were people who felt David was too much of a “look ma no hands” kind of writer, fast and clever and undisciplined. Yet anyone reading through his notes to himself will see how scrupulous they are. How a character’s name was gone over and over until it became the right one. How David looked through his dictionaries making notes, writing phrases of dialogue in his notebooks, and his excitement in discovering a wild new word to use.

We want readers to see how he thought because how he thought was unique and beautiful and precise. So anyone looking through his drafts and even his books will see the levels of thinking that went into every sentence and every page. The corrections on Infinite Jest for the paperback edition even after a master copyediting job, David’s love of language in his dictionary and in his notebooks, and how he deconstructed other writer’s stories and sentences so he could teach his students how to write better and how to read better. The archives are a window into his mind, and I really think scholars and readers will appreciate seeing that for the first time.

Infinite Possibilities: A first glimpse into David Foster Wallace’s library

David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
David Foster Wallace's copy of 'The Cinema Book.' Photo by Pete Smith.
Approximately 200 books from David Foster Wallace’s library arrived at the Ransom Center with his papers. When the staff unpacked the collection to check its condition, we could see immediately that the library was not simply a supplement to the archive but an essential part of it. Wallace annotated many of the books heavily: he underlined passages, made extensive comments in the margins, and utilized the front and back inside covers for notes, vocabulary lists, brainstorms, and more. As a reader of Infinite Jest, one book in particular caught my eye: a battered paperback copy of Pam Cook’s edited volume The Cinema Book (New York: Pantheon, 1985). This reference work is heavily used: it lacks both its front and back cover, its spine is held on with two pieces of tape, and the exposed inside cover is inscribed “D. Wallace ’92,” four years before the publication of Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest is a book about many things, and the mesmerizing power of movies is one of its most dominant themes. One of the book’s central figures is the late James O. Incandenza, an auteur whose filmography has left an indelible mark upon all of the novel’s characters in one way or another. Early in the novel, the reader learns of the extent of his importance in endnote 24. Endnote 24 comprises Incandenza’s entire filmography, which fills eight pages in tiny print. The reader discovers here that it is essential to actually read Wallace’s footnotes (spoiler alert), because only in this endnote do we learn that Infinite Jest is the title of an Incandenza film.

Traces of The Cinema Book may be found throughout Wallace’s novel, beginning with the basic format of the filmography itself: notably, Wallace penned a bracket around the “Special Note” at the front of The Cinema Book, in which Cook outlines the format her citations will take, and Wallace’s citations of Incandenza’s films resemble these closely. Wallace may also have gathered much film knowledge from this volume. The Incandenza filmography is a virtuosic pastiche of film history, technology, and vocabulary. We are told that Incandenza made every kind of film: “industrial, documentary, conceptual, advertorial, technical, parodic, dramatic noncommercial, nondramatic (‘anti-confluential’) noncommercial, nondramatic commercial, and dramatic commercial works” (985). Wallace annotated passages throughout The Cinema Book, with the exception of two theoretical chapters. He noted concrete information such as the names of actors, directors, production companies, film journals, and significant events in film history. His annotations show his interest in a wide range of terms and themes covered in the volume, with particular interest in sections on the idea of the auteur, the technology of deep focus cinematography, new wave cinema, the Hollywood star system, and most film genres (with the notable exception of the “the gangster/crime film,” the only genre lacking any Wallace annotations).

At two points in the volume he explicitly mentions Infinite Jest. In the section on “National cinema and film movements,” he underlines much of the section on Roberto Rossellini’s place in the neo-realist Italian tradition, writing in the bottom margin “Rossellini + ‘ad-hoc’ structure—Infinite Jest” (39). More dramatically, he writes the letters “IJ” no less than four times in the three-page section on “The Hollywood Star Machine.” He underlines several passages with particular attention to the following, which will not come as a surprise to readers of Infinite Jest:

It has been argued that the erotic play of the “look” around the female star figure in classic Hollywood cinema is an integral part of the narrative drive towards closure and the reinstatement of equilibrium (Mulvey, “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema,” 1975). This argument uses psychoanalytical concepts to address the question of the fantasy relationship between spectators and film and the role of the star in that relationship (see also Cook, “Stars and politics,” 1982; Friedberg, “Identification and the star,” 1982). [51]

Finally, my favorite set of annotations surround the section on the genre of the musical, written by Andy Medhurst. Medhurst spends a considerable amount of time discussing this genre’s dominant theme: entertainment. Wallace has underlined passages discussing the ways in which this genre taps into viewers’ nostalgia and their desire to experience a “vision of human liberation” in a utopian entertainment experience. Wallace has penned “ENTERTAINMENT” at the top of the page and circled the page number (107). This word is central to the project of Infinite Jest, and it is enlightening to read one of the sources from which its meanings in the novel likely derive.

Unpacking Wallace’s library was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for this reader; once this and his other books have been cataloged, I look forward to seeing what insights scholars will derive from the hundreds of books and thousands of annotations beyond the few I have noted here.

How the David Foster Wallace archive found a home at the Ransom Center

Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Materials and books from David Foster Wallace archive. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The journey an archive takes from an author’s desk to the Ransom Center is often long and circuitous. The archive of David Foster Wallace arrived at the Ransom Center in the last days of 2009, but the earliest seeds of the acquisition were sown years before.

Because of the Ransom Center’s strong collections in contemporary literature, our curators and staff keep careful watch on promising, young writers. Over the past 20 years, we have built a list of hundreds of contemporary writers we follow, and we collect first editions of all their books. David Foster Wallace was added to this list early in his career. As we watched his career progress, it became apparent that he was one of the great talents of his generation.

We had our first glimpse into Wallace’s creative process in 2005 with our acquisition of the papers of Don DeLillo. Unexpectedly, the archive included a small cache of letters between Wallace and DeLillo, a correspondence initiated by Wallace when he was struggling through his colossal novel, Infinite Jest. Wallace’s letters show a writer who was deliberate, funny, and often uncertain, but most clearly, they show a writer who took painstaking care with his art.

In 2006, after reading Wallace’s essay on tennis player Roger Federer in The New York Times, Thomas F. Staley, the Director of the Ransom Center and an avid tennis player, wrote to Wallace to inquire about his archive, invite him to visit the Center, and challenge him to a friendly match of tennis. For years Wallace had been among the top names on our wish list of potential speakers—a long-shot, of course, for a writer who made few public appearances. The letter went unanswered.

Several weeks after the shocking news of Wallace’s death, we wrote to his literary agent, Bonnie Nadell, to express how saddened we were at the Ransom Center by this tragic loss. We also expressed our hope that Wallace’s papers would be preserved somewhere—anywhere—so that his remarkable contributions to our culture could be studied for generations to come.

Several months later, we were contacted by a bookseller representing Wallace’s literary estate, and we began the negotiations that led to the eventual arrival of Wallace’s archive at the Ransom Center. This long journey, however, has not quite come to an end. Wallace’s papers related to his final book, The Pale King, though part of the archive acquired by the Ransom Center, will remain with publisher Little, Brown until the book’s release, which is scheduled for April 2011. After the book’s release, the papers, notes, and computer disks related to this novel Wallace never fully completed will be reunited with his archive at the Ransom Center. If these materials are anything like the papers already here, they will be a fascinating and rich resource for students and scholars.