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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.

Q and A: Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley speaks about legacy of Literary Modernist Critic Hugh Kenner

Hugh Kenner and Chuck Jones. No date. Photographer unknown.
Hugh Kenner and Chuck Jones. No date. Photographer unknown.

Hugh Kenner, considered America’s foremost commentator on literary modernism, was unlike any other literary critic before or since. His scholarship ranged from Ezra Pound to geodisic math to animator Chuck Jones, and he personally knew the modernists about whom he wrote. Los Angeles Times critic Richard Eder once wrote: “Kenner doesn’t write about literature; he jumps in, armed and thrashing. He crashes it, like a party-goer who refuses to hover near the door but goes right up to the guest of honor, plumps himself down, sniffs at the guest’s dinner, eats some and begins a one-to-one discussion.”

Kenner’s archive resides at the Ransom Center. Cultural Compass spoke with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley about Kenner’s legacy, approach, correspondence with modernist writers, and their friendship.

The Ransom Center doesn’t usually collect critics’ archives. Why was it important for you to acquire Kenner’s papers?

Hugh Kenner was clearly an exception for us. He was one of the most important critics of the most important literary movement of the last century: modernism. His stature as a critic, his influence on literary criticism generally, and his close study of such modernist writers as James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Samuel Beckett make his archive a tremendous resource for scholars and students.

The archive holds all of the letters that Eliot, Pound, Wallace Stevens, Guy Davenport—one after another of major critics and writers—wrote to Kenner. These letters are extremely valuable and revealing. To have figures of their stature writing to a literary critic was rare.

Kenner’s archive offers an opportunity for graduate students, young scholars, and anyone else for that matter, to study the working life of a major literary critic. Kenner brought life not only to these modernist writers but also to the period itself.

As a modernist scholar, how has Kenner influenced you?

The most obvious influence on me is his work on Joyce. The early work he did in Dublin’s Joyce perfected a kind of critical dialog with the author. Certainly he influenced me in the attention he gave to the text. It was more than simply the explication of the text, more than simply close reading. Kenner went beyond that. He brought these writers to a kind of living presence. It’s a very rare critic who can do that.

I was intrigued by Kenner’s writing style. It was arcane yet simple, direct, and humorous. He used words that were outside the usual vocabulary of literary critics. His mind was so fertile. He could talk about the newspaper in the same way he could talk about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

What distinguished Kenner’s approach?

He had a mathematical mind, and he could follow things in physics and calculus that most people wouldn’t understand. Science and mechanics, bodies of knowledge that were outside the usual literary focus, blended into his sense of understanding of the world. For example, he’d say: Dublin is on this latitude, and on that day there was a full moon. And of course with Joyce, it always worked.

He was an enormously learned man, but he wasn’t pedantic. He had a lively and engaging style. It wasn’t deadly, as the style was of many of the critics of that period. He’d come at things at an angle so different that the angle itself was worth noting. He was just so startling. You never knew what he was going to come up with.

What was your relationship with Kenner?

We were friends. We both taught at the Institute of Modern Letters, which was an eight-week program in the summer. I edited the James Joyce Quarterly, and he helped me on that. We had a very good relationship. We’d meet at these various conferences and do gigs together, as they say. So I knew him well.

He used to come have dinner with our family when our kids were very little. They’d imitate him and say with an odd voice: “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh wow!” They just loved him. He told them a story about Buckminster Fuller. “Bucky,” he said, “would tell you that nature would give this tree life and light. Then if you put it in the fireplace, this tree would give that light that it took from nature back to you.” Kids can understand that. He was always interesting.

What are some highlights of Kenner’s papers?

The letters between Kenner, Eliot, and Pound are of great value. They reveal the questions that Kenner would ask Eliot, for example. You see his mind as he grapples with, as he says, “Tom’s work.” To watch his mind work and to watch his engagement with these great modernists is a tremendous opportunity for students and scholars to see what great literary criticism was like in those days.

He really got to know these writers. Kenner once said to me that when he was a graduate student a professor had told him: “If you want to be a student of modernism, you should go and meet the great modernists and talk with them.” He visited Beckett a lot, he visited Pound at St. Elizabeth’s, and he knew Eliot and discussed his work with him. With Kenner, you always realized that these writers were human beings first.

What is Kenner’s legacy to literary criticism?

It isn’t that he made a great discovery of this or that. It’s that he was able to see these modernist tropes clearly. He was the great elucidator, the one who really understood the writers and brought their works out. He understood the way in which modernists trapped by the century’s culture and age worked their way out of it. Whether it be Virginia Woolf or Joyce, Kenner understood what their dispositions were toward the culture, their reactions to the culture, and how their work was so important to them.

He had a great understanding of and sympathy for Eliot. He understood Eliot’s attempts to remove the personal from the work of art. That’s why Kenner titled his book about Eliot The Invisible Poet.

His work on Pound was seminal. Probably no one wrote better about Pound than Kenner. His book The Pound Era is really the history of modernism and what modernism was.

There’s no Kenner school. He always went out on his own, explored things on his own. He was unique, and he remains unique. There’s no one quite like him. I think that is part of his charm and his great contribution to our culture.

Donald Davie, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and Carroll Terrell in Maine. No date. Photographer unknown.
Donald Davie, Hugh Kenner, Louis Zukofsky, and Carroll Terrell in Maine. No date. Photographer unknown.

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

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.

 

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