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Fellows Find: John Steinbeck’s “ideal woman”

Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.
Cover of July 1950 issue of "Flair" magazine.

Heidi Kim is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She visited the Ransom Center in December 2012 on a travel fellowship to research her monograph in progress, Invisible Subjects: Asian America in Postwar American Literature.

Some archival trips, like my recent trip to the Harry Ransom Center, are highly directed expeditions. I was on a mission to look at the revision of specific sections of John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden (1952). But there is also always the pleasure of the archive, given time and an extensive collection like the Ransom Center’s, which draws a researcher to explore the small pieces of an author’s oeuvre that can shed light on the concerns of his more famous works.

One of the detours I took was to look at a piece of Steinbeck’s with which I was not familiar, a minor feature in the short-lived but highly ambitious fashion magazine Flair (the Ransom Center holds a rare, complete set of its run). In Flair’s July 1950 “All Male Issue,” several famous men, including child actor Brandon de Wilde and industrial designer Raymond Loewy, were asked to draw and describe their ideal woman. Steinbeck drew a curvaceous nude, a sketchy, muscular outline emphasizing her attributes. The caption read:

“Novelist John Steinbeck snorted as he drew, sounded off: “Guys that talk about the ideal woman just don’t like women. I don’t want an ideal woman. I just like dames. Anyway, the ideal woman is for kids. I think a couple of centuries from now people are going to look back on these times and think all babies were born from mammary glands…”

For any Steinbeck scholar, this brings up an all-too-familiar debate about his unrealistic or misogynistic depictions of women—certainly a fair critique in some respects. However, through this almost defiantly sexualized sketch, Steinbeck was also exploring a growing concern about the repression, conformity, and over-civilization of the postwar era, popularly identified with the 1950s. In his mind, this was far more perverse than the healthy animal sexuality and physicality he extolled in his 1930s naturalist works, sometimes to a degree that readers found uncomfortable. The best-known example is the ending of The Grapes of Wrath (1939), in which the character Rose of Sharon, who has just had a stillborn baby, breastfeeds a half-dead, starving man and smiles mysteriously.

I’m skeptical of Steinbeck’s flippant claim that he was “just” drawing a dame rather than an ideal woman, and that the ideal woman is “for kids” (implicitly only for kids). A domesticized dame who can make a home and family was decidedly his ideal woman, as embodied by Abra in East of Eden. She likes to cook and is also a “straight, strong, fine-breasted woman, developed and ready and waiting to take her sacrament,” that is a sexual awakening from her boyfriend, who is living in an ecstasy of religious purity. Similarly, Suzy, the prostitute with a heart of gold in Sweet Thursday (1954), is no good at “hustling” because she is “too small in the butt and too big in the bust,” a state of body that reflects her state of mind: affectionate, faithful, and nurturing.  Steinbeck’s heroines have generous hearts and generous bodies.

This is not simply objectification; as a naturalist (or post-naturalist) writer, Steinbeck depicts one facet of danger to mankind as the unfitness or unwillingness to bear and nurture in a harsh world where, in Darwinian fashion, fertility of land, women, or even mind contributes to survival. As with animals, human fitness must be shown physically. The purely evil Cathy of East of Eden has a boyish body with undeveloped breasts that do not enlarge even during her unwanted pregnancy, seemingly through sheer willpower. Her body mirrors her stunted moral sense and her deviant use of sexuality as power, and symbolizes how unfit she is to be a force of good in Steinbeck’s myth-inflected narrative. In death, her already insufficient body vanishes from life and human history: “And then her eyes closed again and her fingers curled as though they held small breasts. And her heart beat solemnly and her breathing slowed as she grew smaller and smaller and then disappeared—and she had never been.”

Researching Austen in Austin: Archival research reveals connections between Jane Austen’s characters and real-life celebrities and politicians

Janine Barchas is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin. Barchas used the Ransom Center’s collections as she conducted research for her book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity, published this past fall by John Hopkins University Press. She writes about working in the collections and how they guided her research.

Did I do a lot of research for my new book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen in the Harry Ransom Center? You bet!

True, many eighteenth-century books and newspapers can now be read online from the comfort of one’s home computer—and without having to attend to the time-consuming niceties of personal hygiene. As literary historians, we have books and documents at our fingertips (literally) that even five years ago demanded trips to far-flung scholarly libraries. E-tools are making historical research faster while also raising the bar of scholarship—since the skill is no longer in the mere finding.

In Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, I argue that Austen’s novels allude to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates. As the book’s jacket asserts, the “extensive research into the names and locations in Austen’s fiction” takes “full advantage of the explosion of archival materials now available online.”

Digital archives—scholarly databases as well as open resources such as Google Books and even Google Maps—were indeed a great boon to my research. Still, new e-tools do not replace traditional archival spelunking. Nothing beats the targeted serendipity of researching in the collections of a truly great library. In the end, my proximity to the Ransom Center proved just as great an advantage as the e-revolution.

I’ve been asked to identify a few Ransom Center items that shaped, propelled, or redirected my research into Jane Austen.  I picked three: one book, one map, and one manuscript.

1) A BOOK

Humphry Repton’s Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Including Some Remarks on Grecian and Gothic Architecture. London: Printed by T. Bensley for J. Taylor, 1803. [-Q- SB 471 R427 HRC WAU]

The celebrity landscaper Humphry Repton is mentioned by name in Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), a novel slightly critical of the fashion for so-called “improvements” that would fell ancient trees just because they were planted in an unnaturally straight line. The Ransom Center owns Evelyn Waugh’s copy of Repton’s watershed Observations. It is a favorite show-and-tell piece among the Center’s curatorial staff, since the hand-colored illustrations have unique folding flaps that show the “before” and “after” views of the changes that Repton wrought at great estates and at great expense. The front of the book also boasts a list of the clients whose estates are mentioned as “examples” by Repton—his resume, as it were. Austen’s cousins, the Leighs of Adlestrop, appear among this client list. The complete list is a virtual who’s who of England’s wealthy and their landed estates. When, among Repton’s list of Britain’s most fashionable landowners, I recognized the telltale names of Austen’s leading men and women (including Dashwood and Wentworth), I began to wonder whether, long before James Joyce plucked names from city directories, she too had used works like Repton’s Observations as inspiration.

2) A MAP

“The N.W. Bank of Soundings by Captain F. W. Austin R.N. in 1808.” Published by the Hydrographic Office, 1816.

Slowly, I came to believe that Austen’s street names in, for example, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are not casual throwaways to mark the urban setting of Bath generally but compact interpretive clues that reward those with particular knowledge of such locations. At the Ransom Center, I pored over old maps and guidebooks—first of Bath, then Lyme Regis, and other locales mentioned in her stories. Hearing of my Austen research and my queries about old maps, librarian Richard Workman showed me a map of the island of St. Helena, published in 1816 by the Hydrographic Office, which is (in spite of the spelling variation) based upon the painstaking coastal measurements, or “soundings,” taken by Jane Austen’s seafaring brother Frank (Francis William Austen), a ship captain in the Royal Navy in 1808. The existence of Frank’s chart of St. Helena suddenly suggested the larger cartographic sensibility that surrounded Jane Austen. If Austen maps her fictional characters with uncanny precision, she may have gleaned this impulse from another cartographer in her family. While this map was not direct evidence, it offered a larger historical and family context for Austen’s own cartographic exactitude.

3) A MANUSCRIPT

Letter by James Edward Austen-Leigh (1788–1874) to Mr. Cheney, dated April 14, 1870.

Some years ago, in preparation for my first University of Texas class on Austen in 2005, I flipped through the manuscript card catalogue under “AUSTEN, J,” on the off-chance that the Ransom Center owned an actual letter by Jane Austen. It does not. Instead, I found a letter by Austen’s nephew and family biographer, James Austen-Leigh, who published his Memoir of Jane Austen in 1870. When I read it, I was surprised and intrigued. On the face of it, the note is a rather obsequious thank-you for “a kind letter of approbation” about his memoir, received from the brother of a former schoolfellow. In 2009, Deirdre Le Faye identified the recipient as Edward Cheney (1803–1884), whose brother was Robert Henry Cheney (1799–1866). The short letter also asks Cheney whether the cancelled Persuasion chapters should be published in a future second edition of the Memoir. Most suggestively, Austen-Leigh’s letter alludes to the difficulties of finessing the biography of his aunt:

In treating of a subject so mixed up with private matters, I have been chiefly anxious, by no means to offend, and, if possible, to satisfy my own family, & those old personal friends whom, next to my own family, I care most for.

He hints at the polite need to “satisfy” family feeling and keep “private matters” out of the biography. Is this letter a smoking gun? Since Cassandra Austen burned the bulk of her sister Jane’s letters, we know precious little about the author’s private life. Did family members who lived well into the Victorian age help whitewash and starch Austen’s reputation into the prim spinster of record? What might she have seemed like to us now if such “private matters” had not been finessed, repressed, and burned? In sum, this stray letter first sparked my interest and led to questions about what may have been willfully lost in the critical reception of her work.

Finally, in addition to tracking specific research leads, my work in the Ransom Center included old-fashioned reading pleasures. I cherished being able to touch the Austen family copies of Jane’s own novels that miraculously made their way from Chawton to Texas. I carefully turned pages in worn copies of Steel’s Navy List, where I searched, like the Musgrove sisters in Persuasion, for the names of ships, including those of Austen’s sailor brothers. In old editions of the Baronetage, I deciphered the cramped marginalia of former owners who, like the fictional Sir Walter, annotated their copies with details of deaths, births, and notable events. Maps in old guidebooks unfolded to show me the tourist sites of Bath as Austen would have known them in 1801, when her family relocated there. I even turned pages in the same books that Austen borrowed from the library at her brother’s Godmersham estate! No mere screen experience provides this type of thrill.

 

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Fellow discusses Ross Russell collection and Raymond Chandler

Judith Freeman, a fellow from the University of Southern California, discusses her research in the Ross Russell archive. Freeman’s focus lies primarily with noir, Raymond Chandler, and Los Angeles, but her time in the collections expanded her interest in jazz.

Freeman’s project, “Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles,” was funded by the Erle Stanley Gardner Endowment for Mystery Studies.

Sangorski and Sutcliffe: The Rolls Royce of Bookbinding

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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 cover was 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.

View a video that chronicles the story of the Great Omar, a story that was highlighted in the Ransom Center’s 2009 exhibition The Persian Sensation: ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ in the West.

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.

A Sangorski & Sutcliff edition of Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” is bound in leather with stingray onlay. Photo by Pete Smith.
A Sangorski & Sutcliff edition of Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” is bound in leather with stingray onlay. Photo by Pete Smith.

Daniel Stern archive opens for research

Alison Clemens is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin. She processed the Daniel Stern papers as part of her capstone project for her program, and she shares her experiences working in the collection, which is now open for research.

The Harry Ransom Center acquired the papers of Daniel Stern (1928–2007), novelist and short story writer, in 2009. In doing so, the Center gained an illuminating piece of New York and American literary culture. The collection is filled with Stern’s numerous manuscripts, material related to his careers in writing, advertising, media, and academia, and correspondence with major literary figures, including Bernard Malamud and Anaïs Nin. The material provides a fascinating glimpse of how Stern produced stories as a working writer.

Born in New York City, Stern was raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in the Bronx. He displayed considerable musical talent from an early age. He attended The High School of Art and Music and, upon graduation, played the cello with the Indianapolis Symphony and with Charlie Parker’s band. Stern disliked life in Indianapolis and returned to New York, where he took courses in creative writing and wrote jingles and copy for McCann Erickson advertising agency. Stern rose through the ranks and eventually began working in television at Warner Brothers, where he served on the board of directors in the 1970s.

Throughout Stern’s corporate employment in the 1960s and 1970s, he continued to work on his writing and published numerous novels. The Suicide Academy (1968), to which Anaïs Nin dedicated an essay in her collection In Favor of the Sensitive Man, was popularly successful. In the 1970s, however, Stern would experience two major shifts. First, he left Warner Brothers and moved to the promotions department of CBS in 1979. During this time, he also began writing short stories and sending them to literary reviews, including to Joyce Carol Oates at her magazine Ontario Review. After achieving success as a short story writer, Stern left CBS in 1986 and served as humanities director of the 92nd Street Y until 1988. He assumed teaching positions, including at Harvard and Wesleyan Universities, and joined the University of Houston as Cullen Distinguished Professor of English in 1992.

Stern’s short story collections—including Twice Told Tales and Twice Upon a Time—revisit, revise, and reinterpret literary classics by other authors. Malamud described Stern’s prose as filled with “poetry, inventiveness, verve of style, wisdom in paradox, the argument, [and] wit and comedy.” Stern’s creative process and output is well documented in the papers at the Ransom Center, as the collection contains drafts, correspondence pertaining to specific works, and even unpublished material.

 

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O. Henry turns 150 today

To celebrate the 150th birthday anniversary of American writer William Sidney Porter—better known by his pen name of O. Henry—Cultural Compass has compiled a gallery of images from the O. Henry manuscript collection. The Ransom Center holds two boxes of materials that include letters and manuscripts.

 

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Win a signed copy of an Alan Furst book

Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska
Alan Furst. © Shonna Valeska

Alan Furst, whose papers reside at the Ransom Center, has added a new novel to his list of historical espionage tales set in pre-World War II Europe. Mission to Paris (Random House) follows the story of Hollywood film star Fredric Stahl who travels to Paris in 1938 to make a movie and participate in an informal spy service being run out of the American embassy in Paris.

To celebrate this publication, the Ransom Center is giving away a signed copy of a book by Furst. Visit the Center’s Facebook page to enter to win.

Read a Q&A with Furst about the new novel and his writing process in the Wall Street Journal.

Need more for your Furst fix? Cultural Compass has compiled a list of interviews, videos, recommended reading, and more.

-Watch videos of Furst discussing how he develops atmosphere, the importance of first drafts, his archive at the Ransom Center, and why he writes spy novels.

-Furst’s novel Spies of Warsaw is being turned into a miniseries starring David Tenant and Janet Montgomery by the BBC. Listen to Furst read from the novel.

-View a list of books recommended by Furst

-Read a Q&A with Furst

-Read “Interrogation of a Spy Novelist,” which originally appeared in The Alcalde magazine.

T. C. Boyle's recommended books featured in web exhibition

T. C. Boyle tours the Ransom Center with Megan Barnard, Assistant Director for Acquisitions and Administration. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
T. C. Boyle tours the Ransom Center with Megan Barnard, Assistant Director for Acquisitions and Administration. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

The American Writers Museum Foundation has launched the online exhibition Power of the Word:  Leaders, Readers and Writers, which invites visitors to join in a discussion of how literary works influence lives.

This online exhibition of the American Writers Museum includes writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive was recently acquired by the Ransom Center.  Boyle identifies the works world leaders could read to understand America, his favorite childhood books, and the international writers who have influenced him.

The mission of the American Writers Museum Foundation is to establish the first national museum in the United States dedicated to engaging the public in celebrating American writers and exploring their influence on history, identity, culture, and daily lives.

In the Galleries: Anatomy of the King James Bible title page

Click on image to view larger version.
Click on image to view larger version.

The title page of the 1611 King James Bible is the first title page of an English Bible to feature a depiction of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Though this Bible is traditionally called the “King James,” the title page does not announce the king’s patronage by featuring his image.

The imposing architectural frame, suggestive of a church edifice, is full of human figures, including Moses and Aaron, the Evangelists, and the Apostles. Traditionally, Jesus had twelve Apostles, but the thirteen depicted here include Matthias, who replaced Judas after his betrayal (Acts 1:26), and Paul, who described himself as an Apostle in Romans 1. Each apostle is represented by a symbolic attribute, though not all are easily identifiable.

The first edition’s title page and other materials pertaining to the King James Bible are on view in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence through July 29.

Scholar reads between the lines in new Lillian Hellman biography

Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."
Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris's "A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman."

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.

Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.

As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?

My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.

The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.