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Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

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According to popular mythology, the publisher Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, formulated his idea for a press dedicated exclusively to paperbacks while visiting a railway station. Having spent the weekend visiting his friend Agatha Christie, the famed author of Murder on the Orient Express, Lane arrived at the Exeter railway station and realized he had forgotten his book. Frustrated and facing the boredom of a long train trip, Lane tried to buy a novel at the station but found that there was nothing available that he felt worth reading. Bookless for the next few hours, he sat on the train and planned a new line of cheap, pocket-sized, and travel-worthy books, which could be sold at railway stations, grocers, and department stores. Penguin Books—and the paperback revolution—were born.

While this version of Allen Lane’s epiphany may be slightly romanticized, there is no doubt that Penguin Books, launched in 1935, sparked a new phase of publishing that would change the printing industry irrevocably. Mass marketing of paperbacks not only brought classics to a wider audience but also brought pulp fiction—previously published in magazines—to the forefront of the book trade.

The Ransom Center’s book collection is known for first editions, many of them lush volumes with elaborate bindings. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that the Ransom Center also houses multiple volumes that illuminate the development of the paperback book trade in both America and Britain. Alongside important editions of Lane’s Penguins, the Center also houses Tauchnitz editions of paperbacks that pre-date Penguin, as well as the “penny dreadfuls” and dime novels that slowly developed into modern pulp fiction. This slideshow exhibits numerous items from the library’s collections that represent landmarks in the history of the paperback book trade.

"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.
"What Maisie Knew" by Henry James. Book cover design by Edward Gorey. 1954.

In good company: Author busts keep watch over scholars in the Reading Room

Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.
Busts on the north end of the Ransom Center's lobby. Photo by Eric Beggs.

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.”

Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Busts sit atop shelves in the Ransom Center's Reading and Viewing Rooms. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Anthony Bertram Rota's legacy at the Ransom Center

Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
Anthony and Bertram Rota. Photo courtesy of Bertram Rota Booksellers.
The Ransom Center notes with great sorrow the death of Anthony Bertram Rota on December 13, 2009. As managing director and chairman of Bertram Rota Ltd, the London-based antiquarian bookseller was greatly influential in shaping the Center’s renowned holdings of the papers of numerous nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first–century British writers. Over a succession of five Ransom Center directors, the firm sold more than 500 collections to the Center, including the personal papers of several writing dynasties, notably those of Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and Theodore Francis, Llewellyn, and John Cowper Powys.

In his memoir, Books in the Blood (Oak Knoll Press, 2002), Anthony Rota recalled his annual travels to the United States: “In a two or three-week trip I would visit between seven and ten university libraries, sometimes speaking to gatherings of professional staff and sometimes talking to students who were English majors. . . I went to New York and to Austin each year. I always arranged for my time in Texas to fall so that it covered a weekend, for I soon had many friends in town and I liked the outdoor lifestyle that they followed.” His annual visits were as eagerly anticipated by Ransom Center staff; occasions for barbeque and margaritas as much as for books and manuscripts.

Generous with his time and expertise, Anthony Rota taught generations of rare book librarian professionals the craft of modern collecting through courses at the Rare Book School, presentations at professional conferences, and by example. The firm’s collection descriptions are models of clarity and precision; miniature literary histories tracking the creative process. His legacy of enriched research collections benefits scholarship and ensures a greater understanding of a shared culture.