James Shapiro, Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, discusses Shakespeare in America at 7 p.m. this Thursday, May 1, at the Harry Ransom Center. A reception and book signing follow, and books will be available for sale.
Shapiro’s newest work, Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now, explores Shakespeare’s role in American culture. The anthology, published by the Library of America in celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday, comprises 71 pieces from American poets, politicians, essayists, novelists, and more. It includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Woody Allen, Cole Porter, Isaac Asimov, and James Agee.
The anthology aims to show that, although America declared its independence from Great Britain, Americans have adapted Shakespeare for use in cultural expression. In a recent interview, Shapiro said, “American history tends to be represented in a kind of clear-cut, steady march. What became clear to me through this book is the uses—disturbing and exhilarating in equal measure—to which Shakespeare has been put. People have used Shakespeare as a means to make arguments that are not easily made or expressed in this country about race, gender, war, social justice, identity.” The full interview may be viewed in the above video.
The Ransom Center holds three copies of the Shakespeare First Folio and several quarto editions of the plays, along with prompt books, costume designs, and many other materials relating to productions of the plays from the eighteenth century to the modern era.
The Welsh horror fiction author Arthur Machen turns 150 this week. Machen, an influential figure in the budding supernatural fiction scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is best known for his novella “The Great God Pan,” and for accidentally proliferating a legend about angels protecting the British army at the Battle of Mons in World War I.
The Ransom Center houses an extensive collection of items pertaining to the author, comprising 20 archival boxes of material. The Machen collection features handwritten drafts, page proofs with Machen’s notes, correspondence with family and friends including A. E. Waite and Oliver Stonor, and miscellaneous ephemera. Additionally, the Center’s Arthur Machen literary photography collection contains portraits of the author and his residences.
Machen’s accomplishments in fantasy and supernatural fiction inspired the admiration—and multiple pastiches—of a later generation of authors. “The Great God Pan” drew praise from such giants of the genre as H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. King credited it as the inspiration for his own novella N, proclaiming “Pan” to be “one of the best horror stories ever written, maybe the best in the English language.” Lovecraft, a contemporary of Machen’s, lauded “The Great God Pan” in his 1926 essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” saying: “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.”
The many who praised Machen often compared his writing to that of his American predecessor, Edgar Allan Poe. In a letter to a fan, which resides in the Ransom Center’s Poe collection, Machen addresses the sentiment with humility: “A good many people have compared my work with that of Poe… This was an immense compliment to me—but quite an undeserved one.” But Machen was also quick to differentiate his writing from Poe’s. He continues, “[Poe’s] terrors are as distinct as possible,” whereas Machen’s own are “vague, irrational, something like the broken recollections of a nightmare.”
Indeed, Machen’s style is of a uniquely Welsh variety. His works frequently cite those of his fellow countrymen, including George Herbert, who published a book of religious poems in 1633. The storied and ominously beautiful Welsh landscape is a frequent setting for Machen’s writing, particularly his childhood home in Monmouthshire, a county in southeastern Wales of significance to Celtic, Roman, and medieval history. In a letter housed at the Ransom Center, Machen describes his obsession with the eerie scenery behind the rectory where he lived: “From the windows one looked across a strangely beautiful country to the forest of Wentwood, above the valley of the Usk. Beneath this forest, on the slope of the hill there is a lonely house called Bertholly, and to my eyes and imagination this house was a symbol of awe and mystery and dread.”
Machen paints a similar picture—one “written to fit Bertholly”—in the opening scene of “The Great God Pan,” which describes the view from a rogue surgeon’s unsettling house-turned-laboratory: “A sweet breath came from the great wood on the hillside above, and with it, at intervals, the soft murmuring call of the wild doves. Below, in the long lovely valley, the river wound in and out between the lonely hills.”
150 years later, Machen’s influence lives on. Stephen King novels are widely read, having sold 350 million copies worldwide. Supernatural horror dramas permeate popular culture, with successful television series like American Horror Story capitalizing on themes prominent in Machen’s own works. Were he to witness many of horror fiction’s modern incarnations, Machen might detect a familiar scene, reminiscent of the lonely house called Bertholly situated in the misty hills of Monmouthshire.
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Jeweled bindings, which use metalwork, jewels, ivory, and rich fabrics to decorate a book, date back at least to the Middle Ages, but the form was revived around the turn of the twentieth century by the English binders Sangorski & Sutcliffe.
Francis Sangorski and George Sutcliffe met in evening bookbinding classes in 1896. After a few years teaching bookbinding at Camberwell College of Art, they opened their own shop in a rented attic in Bloomsbury despite the difficult economic climate. Then on October 1, 1901, they founded Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Quickly, they became known for their sumptuous multi-colored leather book bindings complete with gold inlay and precious jewels. Their designs were intricate, bold, and creative. These early years were the golden age of the company. During this time Sangorski & Sutcliffe created dozens of fine bindings and grew in both popularity and notoriety. More than 80 Sangorski & Sutcliffe originals are housed in the Ransom Center’s collections.
Many of the Sangorski & Sutcliffe books at the Ransom Center are high-quality bindings but rather plain in appearance, while a few of them are quite ornate. A Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, for example, has semiprecious stones inlaid inside the front and back covers. An edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark is bound in leather with stingray onlay, and semiprecious stones are inlaid inside the front and back covers. Two works, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Hermit and James Russell Lowell’s The Vision of Sir Launfal, are handwritten in calligraphy on parchment by Alberto Sangorski with decorative borders and illuminated miniatures.
One famous book that the Ransom Center doesn’t hold is a book known as the Great Omar, which was a magnificent Sangorski & Sutcliffe binding of Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, a narrative poem about the importance of living in the moment. Set in a Persian garden, the lyrical verses are filled with imagery of roses, celebrations of wine, and questions about mortality, fate, and doubt.
Sangorski & Sutcliffe was commissioned in 1909 to design the luxurious binding for the Rubáiyát. The front coverwas to be adorned with three golden peacocks with jeweled tails, surrounded by heavily tooled and gilded vines. The Great Omar was the pride of Sangorski & Sutcliffe. Sadly, it was fated for disaster. The book was sent on the Titanic in 1912. The Great Omar went down with the ship and was never recovered. A second copy of the Rubáiyát was bound on the eve of World War II. This copy was kept in a bank safe vault to protect it. However, enemy bombing during the war destroyed the bank, the safe vault, and the second version of the Great Omar. Stanley Bray, the nephew of George Sutcliffe, created a third version of the book after he retired. This third version follows the original design and is housed in the British Library.
Sangorski drowned in 1912, but Sutcliffe continued the firm until his death in 1936. The business changed hands and names in the postwar years as interest in fine bindings declined. The firm was bought by Shepard’s in 1998, and the name of Sangorski & Sutcliffe was restored.
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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.
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.
What’s the result of 565 minutes of interview recordings with 12 people, 480 minutes of b-roll footage, and nine separate music tracks? The answer is a ten-minute video that provides a broad overview of the Ransom Center’s collections, scholarship, conservation, exhibitions, and programs.
Watch the video to hear curators, students, members, and conservators discuss their work and learn how the Center shares and celebrates the creative process. From a Houdini movie poster to letters by Edgar Allan Poe, from Jack Kerouac’s notebook to Robert De Niro’s make-up stills, the video showcases the range of materials that are housed at the Center.
It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.
Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.
According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.
“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”
If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.
For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.
Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”
In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.
The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.
In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.
Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”
Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”
Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”
Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”
Student (angered): “I’m serious.”
Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”
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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The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.
The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.
Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”
The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.
Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.
You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.
You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.
You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.
While vacationing in Rome in 1907, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff received an anonymous letter from a cello student whom he had never met. An admirer of Rachmaninoff and of Edgar Allan Poe, the student urged Rachmaninoff to set Poe’s poem, “The Bells,” to music. Rachmaninoff read a Russian translation of “The Bells” and was won over. He completed his choral symphony (“The Bells”) in 1913 and later deemed it his personal favorite of all his compositions.
Rachmaninoff based his composition on a Russian translation of “The Bells” by Konstantin Balmont, which took several liberties with Poe’s poem. Most notable is Balmont’s additions to the “Silver Bells” stanza, in which he adds a meditation on death as a “universal slumber—deep and sweet beyond compare” (retranslation by Fanny S. Copeland). Basing his composition on Balmont’s translation, Rachmaninoff composed cheerful rather than solemn music for the “Silver Bells” stanza.
Rachmaninoff is not the only composer to find inspiration in Poe’s works. Claude Debussy began composing an opera, “La chute de la maison Usher,” based on Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A leaf from the libretto of this opera is on display in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. Debussy worked on the opera between 1908 and 1918 but never completed it. More recently, minimalist composer Philip Glass completed an opera based on “The Fall of the House of Usher” that premiered in 1989.
English composer Joseph Holbrooke also caught Poe fever. He set several of Poe’s poems to music, including “Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “The Bells,” and created a ballet based on “The Masque of the Red Death.”