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

By Jean Cannon

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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Diane Johnson’s new memoir explores her life and work

By Jane Robbins Mize

Diane Johnson’s dynamic career has encompassed a wide variety of genres, settings, and subjects. As a biographer, she has explored the lives of Mary Ellen Peacock and Dashiell Hammett. As a novelist, she has been named a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. She also co-authored the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining. This year, Johnson has released her first memoir, Flyover Lives.

 

Johnson’s books are celebrated for their exploration of time and space and her characters for their curiosity and wit. Similarly, in Flyover Lives, Johnson discusses her roots in the American Midwest and her eventual escape to New York, California, and ultimately, Europe. The memoir provides her readers a deeper understanding of her own life and work through the exploration of her ancestry, her childhood, and herself as both mother and writer.

 

Johnson’s archive resides at the Ransom Center and contains drafts and production materials of her novels in addition to book reviews, essays, correspondence, and a variety of personal papers.

 

Related content:

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

 

Image: Cover of Diane Johnson’s memoir Flyover Lives.

Fellows Find: How Diane Johnson’s writing process evolved with her work in Victorian literature and screenwriting

By Carolyn Durham

 

Undated photos of Diane Johnson.
Undated photos of Diane Johnson.

Carolyn A. Durham, Inez K. Gaylord Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the College of Wooster, spent the month of June (2011) at the Harry Ransom Center on a fellowship.  Her research in the Diane Johnson collection informs her book, Understanding Diane Johnson, which will be published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2012 as part of a series on “Understanding Contemporary American Literature.”

During the summer of 2011, I had the good fortune to spend a productive and fascinating month in residence at the Harry Ransom Center thanks to a research fellowship funded by the Center’s Filmscript Acquisitions Endowment. The extensive holdings of the Diane Johnson collection, which reflect the remarkable diversity of the novelist’s work in biography, criticism, reviewing, screenwriting, and fiction, allowed me to complete Understanding Diane Johnson, a biographical and critical study that will be published in 2012 by the University of South Carolina Press.

Johnson is always significantly concerned with the shape and form of her fiction, and the Ransom Center holdings allowed me to compare different versions of her manuscripts so that I could better understand her strategies for composition and revision. I was able to see the effect that her work in screenwriting, beginning with the co-writing of The Shining with Stanley Kubrick, had on the drafting of her novels, whose outlines increasingly resemble cinematic storyboarding. I also discovered that she habitually outlined classical novels while she was working on her own. One folder, for example, juxtaposed preliminary plans for The Shadow Knows with several outlines of Jane Austen’s Emma, a fascinating pairing given Johnson’s training as a Victorian scholar. At the same time, the sequences and charts she designed while working on Lying Low confirmed in interesting ways the affinity that she has often expressed for the narrative innovation practiced by the French New Novelists.

Because Johnson writes novels of manners that focus on the concept of America, cultural context is extremely important in the interpretation of her writing, and the Ransom Center’s collection provided me with significant data about what she was thinking and experiencing throughout her life. Johnson’s papers range from elementary school coursework to childhood and adolescent diaries to college and graduate school papers and lecture notes from her 20-year career as a college professor to such unexpected treasures as a 1968 letter from Hubert Humphrey asking her to reconsider her decision not to vote for him, a letter from Johnson objecting to being overcharged for gas written in the same ironic voice evident in her fiction, and an account of the summer she spent as a Mademoiselle guest editor, made famous by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Even knowing that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique described a climate for women and a concept of marriage reflected in Johnson’s early novels, I had not expected to discover that her correspondence with Alison Lurie, beginning in the late 1950s, provided a remarkably detailed illustration of what Friedan called “the problem that has no name.”

The Ransom Center’s collection also gave me access to a good deal of information that is not available anywhere else, which includes Johnson’s first and only unpublished novel and her unpublished screenplays written for films that were to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wim Wenders. Her correspondence, often with other major writers, revealed the same humor, irony, and sense of satire that informs her novels and gave me important insight into what was on Johnson’s mind while she was drafting her own work.