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Recent biography sheds light on world-traveler and writer Stephen Graham

By Jane Robbins Mize

Stephen Graham was a British traveler and writer largely responsible for shaping British and American perceptions of Russia in the early twentieth century. He later traveled throughout Europe and North America, writing many novels and biographies that established him as an important author during his lifetime. Graham’s work, however, is little known among readers today.

 

In his recent biography, Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham, Michael Hughes re-establishes Graham as a significant literary and cultural figure.

 

While researching, Hughes drew from the Ransom Center’s collection of Graham’s archival materials, which includes manuscripts and letters from writers such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Zona Gale, and Ernest Hemingway. Below, Hughes discusses Graham’s personal life and public contributions.

 

Beyond Holy Russia: The Life and Times of Stephen Graham is now available to be ordered or read for free through Open Book Publishers.

 

In your introduction, you write, “The writing of a ‘Life’ is, it goes without saying, an intensely personal process.” What does your biography reveal about Graham beyond the persona presented through his texts?

 

When you read Graham’s books today—particularly his early travel books about Russia—they often seem intensely personal. Graham’s autobiography, which he published when he was 80, also seems to be very candid and open in tone. In reality, though, Graham was careful to manage the way he presented himself to his readers. When writing about Russia he described at length his love of the Russian Orthodox Church—its liturgies and its architecture—but he said little about his interest in Theosophy (which greatly influenced his views when he was a young man). He said nothing about his unusual family background—his father was a well-known journalist who abandoned his wife and children to establish a second family but without ever divorcing his first wife. Nor did Graham acknowledge that for the last 25 years of his first marriage he was living with another woman. In a sense, these are private matters, but they did greatly influence his own view of the world. Graham suffered a kind of emotional crisis in the 1920s when his parents died and his marriage collapsed, which led him to reassess many of his earlier ideas. He increasingly abandoned his belief that the world was a ‘miraculous place’—his phrase—and spent more time writing biographies and novels. It was only towards the end of his life that he once again began to return to the ideas of his youth.

 

Your biography largely draws from Graham’s personal papers and archive, including materials at the Harry Ransom Center. Which materials at the Ransom Center did you find most interesting? What insight did they offer?

 

The biggest “find” I had at the Ransom Center was an unpublished book written by Graham when he was a young man. He called it Ygdrasil—the name of the great ash tree that in Norse mythology connects the different worlds—and it served as a metaphor for Graham’s conviction that the material world was only a kind of emanation of something more profound. When he went to Russia, he convinced himself that the country was a kind of liminal zone, that is a place where the sacred ran through the mundane. Finding Ygdrasil showed me how greatly Graham was influenced by the ideas of nineteenth-century German Romanticism—admittedly filtered through the pen of Thomas Carlyle. The Center’s collection also contains many letters to and from Graham that helped me to piece together the chronology of his life and the various influences on him. The collections at the Ransom Center allowed me to understand better what Graham was actually trying to do in his books.

 

Graham extensively documented and reflected on his travels through Russia, and his written works ultimately influenced the United States’ and Great Britain’s opinions on the country. How did Graham portray Russia through his books and articles? What unique perspective did he offer?

 

Graham’s Russia was a fantasy world. Although he was skilled at writing sketches of everyday scenes, the Russia he saw (or thought he saw) was a place spared the ravages of industrialization and urbanization. Graham was realistic enough to know that the country was changing, but he still believed that Russia offered a kind of “seed of hope,” a place where everyday life was free from the banalities of western civilization. He was not alone. In the years before 1914, both in the USA and Britain, there was a huge growth of interest in Russian culture. Translations of the great nineteenth-century novelists were popular, whilst the Ballets Russes attracted large audiences when it toured the capitals of Western Europe. Many people in the West appeared to see in Russia a place of beguiling difference, an exotic country with a culture richer and more vibrant than anything that existed elsewhere. This was something of a fantasy of course—but a fantasy that was widespread. Graham’s books played an important role on both sides of the Atlantic in shaping the image of Russia as a place with a unique “soul.”

 

In your book, you aim to reintroduce Graham as a significant literary figure of the twentieth century. What were the writer’s greatest contributions to British and American culture?

 

Graham originally intended his 1964 autobiography to be less an account of his life and more a memoir of the numerous people he had known from the literary and political worlds. One of the ironies of Graham’s life is that he was often closest to writers who have since rather fallen into obscurity (in many cases rather unjustly). He was a good friend of the poet Vachel Lindsay and knew a number of other people involved in the Chicago literary renaissance of the inter-war period. He served as a kind of mentor to the author Wilfrid Ewart, author of The Way of Revelation, which is in my view of the best novels to come out of the First World War. He also helped the young poet and writer John Gawsworth launch his literary career. (Gawsworth himself became an important figure in British literary life and was a friend of numerous writers, ranging from Lawrence Durrell to M. P. Shiel.) I should say, though, that some people despised Graham’s brand of what Rebecca West called his “mechanical” mysticism. I think Graham’s career reminds us that literary life in both Britain and America was, in the twentieth century, not only about the peaks—the “great writers” whose memory survives today—but instead consisted of a far more complex milieu of writers, critics, and journalists. It’s probably worth adding that, in more recent times, Graham is often best-remembered by environmentalists and scholars interested in landscape. Annie Dillard mentions him in Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek. The British writer Robert Macfarlane, whose books about walking and mountaineering have been very popular, also writes warmly of Graham. In fact—and despite the fact that I am a Russian specialist by profession—I first came to know Graham through his books about walking. His 1926 book The Gentle Art of Tramping is still popular with many walkers today.

 

Related Links:

Explore Michael Hughes’s blog about Stephen Graham

Listen to Michael Hughes’s lecture on Stephen Graham through the Anglo-Russian Research Network blog

See Stephen Graham’s signature on the Ransom Center’s Greenwich Village Bookshop door.

Book annotations document scuffle between Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman

By Michael Gilmore

Annotated inside cover of Max Eastman's "Art and the Life of Action, with other Essays."
Annotated inside cover of Max Eastman's "Art and the Life of Action, with other Essays."

Ernest Hemingway, on his way to cover the civil war in Spain, stops in New York for a couple of days and drops in at Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house. He wants to touch base with editor Max Perkins. Hemingway’s arrival is unannounced, and another writer, Max Eastman, is in Perkins’s office at the time. Hemingway nods at Eastman and proceeds to ignore him until he remembers a comment of Eastman’s. In a review titled “Bull in the Afternoon,” Eastman had described Hemingway as a member of the “False Hair on the Chest School of Writing.” Hemingway exposes his chest and asks, “Look false to you, Max?” Hemingway unbuttons Eastman’s shirt, and Eastman’s chest proves to be, in Perkins’s words, “as smooth as a bald man’s head.” Perkins tries to demonstrate that it’s not such a bad review by reaching for Eastman’s essay collection and reading a passage. This proves to be a tactical error. Hemingway snatches the book from Perkins’s hand, reads a passage that inflames his temper, and snaps the book shut on Eastman’s nose, and the two began grappling on top of Perkins’s desk and then the floor—until Hemingway, whom Perkins thinks is going to tear Eastman apart, begins to laugh.

If you think this a never-filmed Woody Allen parody, you’d be wrong. The Hemingway/Eastman dust-up is documented in various forms in newspaper columns of the time and in several biographies of Hemingway, Eastman, and Perkins. Depending on the teller, punches, slaps, shoves, and wrestling figure into the narrative.

***

This narrative featured into my work at the Ransom Center decades later in relation to Lee Samuels, a tobacco importer who travelled back and forth between New York and Havana. He collected Hemingway first editions and ephemera and not infrequently lent Hemingway money. He hung out with Hemingway, and the poolside author photo on the original dust jacket of The Old Man and the Sea was taken by Samuels. Samuels donated a box of manuscripts and books to the Ransom Center in June 1963, but the materials were restricted from access for 25 years.

When I learned the Hemingway/Samuels box was to be opened in 1988, I “volunteered” to catalog the Hemingway monographs. Most of the contents were manuscripts and went to that department, but about 15 books made their way to my desk. I was excited to examine the titles. I picked one up, and it opened flat between pages 100 and 101 because the spine was cracked. I was surprised because I thought Hemingway took better care of his books. I could see threads in the broken binding. Then I noticed the header “Bull in the Afternoon” above the text block.

No, it couldn’t be.

I turned a few pages and at the bottom of page 95, at a slant in the corner, “Witness: Max Perkins” and underneath, in a different hand, “Aug 12 1937 / for archive / Papa.” I then turned to the front free endpaper and halfway down the page was a crude drawing of a hand, beneath which was written, “This is the book I ruined on Max (the Prick) Eastman’s nose, I sincerely hope he burns forever in some hell of his own digging. — Ernest Hemingway.”

Annotated page from Max Eastman's "Art and the Life of Action, with other Essays." The book was part of a skirmish between Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman.
Annotated page from Max Eastman's "Art and the Life of Action, with other Essays." The book was part of a skirmish between Ernest Hemingway and Max Eastman.

Penguin and the Paperback Revolution

By Jean Cannon

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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.

The Letters of Hemingway: a scholar’s work in the Ransom Center archives

By Kelsey McKinney

Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.
Ernest Hemingway as a baby. Unidentified photographer.

The recent publication of The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume I, 1907-1922 has re-ignited public interest in Hemingway’s personal life and documents. In the introduction to the book, editor Sandra Spanier writes: “Hemingway’s letters constitute this autobiography in the continuous present tense. They enrich our understanding of his creative processes, offer insider insights into the twentieth-century literary scene, and document the making and marketing of an American icon.” Four of the letters from the Ransom Center’s  Hemingway collection can be found in the book.

Liesl Olson, a 2011-12 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, visited the Ransom Center in October 2011 to study the letters of Hemingway. In January she will become Director of the Scholl Center for American History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. She shares some of her findings from the Hemingway collection here:

“In October I spent a few days working in the Hemingway collection at the Harry Ransom Center. I was looking to learn more about the relationship between Hemingway and his Oak Park roots—especially his fraught relationship with his artistic mother, Grace Hall Hemingway. I also mined the collection for materials relevant to Hemingway’s time in Chicago, particularly during 1920-21 when he lived with friends on the north side and wrote for a fraudulent periodical called the Cooperative Commonwealth. What I found at the Ransom Center will help to complete a story that I tell about Hemingway in my book-in-progress, which is about the literary and artistic centrality of Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century.

Perhaps the most fantastic letter that Grace Hall Hemingway sent to her son is dated July 24, 1920, and it is contained in the Hemingway collection at the Ransom Center. The letter is an elaborate reprimand for Hemingway’s late-night lake escapade with friends up in Michigan. In Grace Hall Hemingway’s ten-page letter—for which she composed many drafts (also in the collection)—she conceives of the metaphor of a bank to describe their relationship, and she is quick to point out that he is “overdrawn.” Most Hemingway scholars know about this letter. But in looking at the letter in context of so many others at the Ransom Center, it is striking to learn that Hemingway’s father (who received a copy) called it a “masterpiece” and that the letter itself entered into family lore. Grace Hall Hemingway’s construction of motherhood—in a letter written in flourishing cursive script—is a striking analogue to Hemingway’s own construction of himself, much later in life, as a popular, bearded “Papa.”

I found many other collections at the Ransom Center  that help to illuminate the literary and cultural life of Chicago—especially the Alice Corbin Henderson collection. Henderson was Harriet Monroe’s editorial assistant at Poetry magazine, published in Chicago, where Hemingway’s poems first appeared in 1923. Though Hemingway’s letters to Monroe have been published—and the spectacular multi-volume Hemingway letters project will complete what has been missed—the materials at the Ransom Center provide the other side of the correspondence, the incoming letters to Hemingway. Like the 1920 letter from Grace Hall Hemingway, these letters give voice to the people and places that shaped Hemingway’s life and work.”

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

By Elana Estrin

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.

‘Every now and then you have to think outside the box’

By Elana Estrin

Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”

That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.

“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”

The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.

For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.

“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”

One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.

“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”

Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.

“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.

Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.

“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.

While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.

“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”

The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.

“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.

In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

Scholar explores Hemingway family papers

By Mary Dearborn

As a fellow at the Ransom Center last year, independent scholar Mary V. Dearborn uncovered new information about the Hemingway family while studying the Ernest Hemingway collection and Leicester Hemingway’s New Atlantis collection. She’s currently working on a book based on her findings: The Hemingway Family: The Human Cost, which is scheduled for publication in 2011. Her research at the Ransom Center was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Dearborn says her book will “tell for the first time the hundred-year story of a tragic American family,” and shares some highlights from her research at the Ransom Center:

I was working in the Hemingway family papers, and I was astounded by what I found there. The papers were mostly Ernest’s mother’s, containing all her correspondence, records, and photographs. None of Hemingway’s previous biographers seem to have really looked at this material, perhaps dismissing it as “domestic” and thus trivial.

Grace Hemingway is usually written off as a cold, castrating shrew—the picture of her that her son wholesaled, blaming her for his father’s suicide. She was definitely difficult, but she was a fascinating woman, and her marriage was a complicated and nuanced relationship of power that Ernest learned a great deal from, for good and ill.

The added bonus is that in these papers there are numerous anecdotes and descriptions of Ernest’s upbringing, contributing to a far more well-rounded picture of the boy and young man than we have previously been given. Ernest once confided to Max Perkins, his editor at Scribner, that he couldn’t write freely while his mother was still alive—not at all the impression he commonly gave out! Their relationship was, until her death in 1951, fraught and intense—and heretofore unexplored.