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Fellows Find: Scholar explores connections between Langston Hughes and other black writers around the globe

Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.
Cover of Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter," published by Knopf.

Shane Graham, Associate Professor of English at Utah State University, is the author of South African Literature after the Truth Commission: Mapping Loss (2009), and the principal editor of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence (2010). He has published articles in Modern Fiction Studies, Theatre Research International, Studies in the Novel, and Research in African Literatures, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. His work at the Ransom Center was funded by an Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship.

An Alfred A. and Blanche W. Knopf Fellowship allowed me to spend a month at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the connections between African-American poet Langston Hughes and black writers throughout the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe. I began this research some time ago at the Beinecke Library at Yale University, where the great majority of Langston Hughes’s papers are deposited. The Ransom Center holdings allowed me to expand and enrich my investigation into these transatlantic connections in innumerable ways.

For instance, the Knopf records and the Nancy Cunard papers contain correspondence with Hughes, typescripts of his poems, essays, and speeches, and media clippings about his books. Moreover, the Transcription Centre records include information about its parent organization, the Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF), which established important links between African and diasporic writers. The Transcription Centre papers also contain records and reports from the important “Conference for African Writers of English Expression” held at Makerere College in Uganda in 1962, which the CCF co-organized and which Hughes attended as a guest of honor. These holdings provide small but important pieces to the jigsaw puzzle I am trying to complete sketching the transnational connections between Hughes and his many friends and correspondents.

Among other unexpected treasures I discovered were dozens of letters that Jamaican poet and novelist Claude McKay wrote to his agent and to Nancy Cunard in Paris, from a period when McKay himself was living in Marseille, Spain, and Morocco. While not proving an immediate link to Langston Hughes, these letters do establish McKay as an equally transnational figure and have prompted me to return to the Langston Hughes papers to investigate the two men’s relationship. I’m happy to report, then, that my time at the Ransom Center opened up an important new area to explore in my book-in-progress.

Fellow uses astronomy collection to research novel

John Pipkin, of Southwestern University and The University of Texas at Austin, discusses using the Herschel collection at the Ransom Center to conduct research for his forthcoming novel The Blind Astronomer’s Atlas. Pipkin’s research was funded by the C. P. Snow Memorial Fund and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment.

The Ransom Center is now receiving applications for its 2011–2012 research fellowships in the humanities. The application deadline is February 1, 2011, but applicants are encouraged, if necessary, to request information from curators by January 1. About 50 fellowships are awarded annually by the Ransom Center to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Scholar explores vaudeville circuits and regional architecture

Paula Lupkin, a professor in the American Culture Studies Program at Washington University in St. Louis, recently spent time as a fellow working in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection at the Ransom Center. Her research yielded some surprises and insights into the regional vaudeville circuits in the Southwest, which she shares here.

When I arrived at the Ransom Center to take up the Mayer Filmscript Fellowship, my intention was simple: to learn as much as possible about the design and use of the fabulous vaudeville theaters designed by architect John Eberson for the Interstate Amusement Company in Texas. These theaters are an important component in my study of regional architecture in the Southwest at the turn of the twentieth century.

Many of them are no longer extant, and it was essential to find period photography and documentation of the buildings themselves. The Center is home to the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection, which has the most complete photographic record of the theaters, as well as accounts of their planning, construction, programming, and management. Right away I found wonderful pictures, theater programs, and company records that suggested how and why the buildings looked as they did. Through these materials I learned a great deal about these fantastical structures, which included themed interiors, starlit skies, luxurious lounges, and even child care centers.

To an architectural historian, these archival sources were rich indeed, but they were not the greatest treasure I found during my fellowship month. After about a week, I came across something that transformed and enriched the way I think about those theaters: a 1912 program for Interstate’s southwestern vaudeville circuit.

Of course I knew about circuits before I saw this pamphlet. From the first day in the archives, the company’s business records made it clear that the theater buildings were only one part of Interstate’s system of delivering talent to the public in a profitable and efficient way. The company assembled talent into programs of entertainment, known as “bills,” and then sent the acts on a railroad journey from theater to theater. Some were the elaborate venues designed by Eberson, but equally important were the smaller towns and more modest opera houses that allowed performers to travel profitably the long distances between places in this region, with regularly spaced “jumps” between gigs. The circuit was an experience designed from a business perspective to make efficient use of the existing rail lines to offer as many shows as possible on consecutive nights.

With this basic knowledge of the vaudeville circuit, I began to see that Interstate’s theaters were more than a regional group of buildings linked by a common architect and ownership; they served as a series of nodes within an entertainment transportation system. Interstate’s building activity was not restricted to theaters; the company was constructing patterns and systems of movement along the Illinois Central, the Frisco, the KATY, and the Missouri Pacific Railroads.

The 1912 pamphlet I found crystallized and confirmed this rereading of the history of theatrical architecture. This clever piece of ephemera presented Interstate and its southwestern vaudeville circuit in the guise of a railroad system. The red cover introduced “The Interstate Line” as “the Route of Superior Attractions.” As was typical in railway literature of the time, the name of the president and local agents of both the national and local officials of the company are listed in the brochure. The “railway” president was the company president, Karl Hoblitzelle. The “traffic manager” is listed as Cecilia Bloom, the company’s booking agent. For each city on the circuit, the local theater manager is listed as the “city passenger agent.” The week’s entertainment bill is presented as a special train, “The Interstate Flyer,” which leaves from Chicago and runs in seven sections (acts) to Fort Worth, and then on to the rest of the cities on the circuit.

With this pamphlet in hand, as it became clear to me that the Interstate Company envisioned itself not as a series of theaters, but an infrastructural system and a space-time experience that united performers and audiences across the southwest. Actors traversed the territory in a series of rail cars, dressing rooms, hotels, and restaurants, playing to urban audiences in theaters in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Galveston, and Birmingham. The performers and audiences were linked together, defining a regional entertainment landscape.

My newfound understanding of the theaters as part of the railroad-based geography of the vaudeville circuit fits very well into my developing project, “The Great Southwest: Trade, Territory, and Regional Architecture.” Most studies of regional architecture focus on formal and material similarities between buildings in a particular location. My project moves away from style and suggests instead that regional architectural patterns are formed by banking, commerce, and transportation networks. Looking at the triangular strip of land between St. Louis and Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I map financial and architectural connections between buildings and sites along the conduits of the railway lines.

What I found in the Hoblitzelle-Interstate collection helped me understand that these buildings are regional not on the basis of their appearance, but as elements of a regional entertainment system: like beads strung along a necklace. The “Interstate Line” brochure encapsulated that in a series of images, confirming that my own way of understanding the theaters was shared by the company itself, and no doubt by the vaudeville performers themselves, whose lives and experiences were defined by movement from theater to theater on the spine of the railroad system.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

Cover of Tom Kemper's 'Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents'
Cover of Tom Kemper's 'Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents'

Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (University of California Press, 2009), did research for his book in the Ransom Center’s film collection with funding from the Warren Skaaren Film Research Endowment. He shares some of the surprising information he discovered while working with the Myron Selznick papers and the David O. Selznick collection at the Center.

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This “Hollywood first” coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks), it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

That digging led me to the Myron Selznick papers at the Harry Ransom Center, where I discovered incredible documents on the achievements of this leading agent in the 1930s. Selznick arranged packages of clients for productions (stars like Carole Lombard and William Powell and directors like Gregory La Cava or George Cukor), earned them shares in the film’s profits, and maneuvered short-term contracts for Hollywood artists—actions we tend to associate more with modern Hollywood than the classical period. Yet all are documented in the treasure trove of the Center’s archives.

One of the best moments for me as a researcher came when I discovered the files for the opening of Selznick’s London branch. There I discovered a long document in which he outlined, as a model, the operations of his Hollywood office. It gave me an invaluable historical perspective on the files as well as a blueprint for my research. I had a wonderful time at the Ransom Center and can’t wait to return (in Hollywood fashion, I’m writing a sequel to my book!).

Scholar explores Hemingway family papers

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.