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J. D. Salinger at the Harry Ransom Center

By Molly Schwartzburg

Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.
Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.

When Jerome David Salinger died in January, he had been dodging fans and journalists for more than 40 years. Salinger rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, an era of media expansion in which writers became celebrities, and in which celebrity itself could shape an entire literary career. Like many young writers, Salinger first embraced fame. But he soon came to despise it, famously retreating to small-town New Hampshire and refusing to publish after 1965, though he is rumored to have continued writing. One way he protected himself was by holding tightly to his copyright, refusing permission to publish the personal papers and manuscripts that surfaced over the decades.

The Harry Ransom Center is one of a handful of repositories that house small collections of J. D. Salinger manuscripts. Such collections have generally been sold or donated by the writer’s friends or colleagues, or have arrived at as part of the working files of a magazine that has published Salinger’s work. The Ransom Center’s collection contains letters and manuscripts sent by Salinger to his long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, who sold them to the Center through a dealer in 1968.

Salinger met Murray in the late 1930s, and over the course of more than two decades (1940–1963) wrote her a series of newsy, often funny letters that provide substantial information about his efforts to publish his stories in various magazines. Most of the letters were written early in his career and show Salinger maturing into a serious writer. They also reveal much of his witty, wry personality; Salinger inhabits various personae in his letters, composing with off-the-wall humor (including an in-joke about Salinger’s taste for Ovaltine) and sometimes signing the name of one of his own characters. He shares his thoughts about other writers—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway (whom he met in Paris during the war)—and exposes details about his relationships with three women: Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin), his first wife Sylvia, and his second wife Claire. Salinger enclosed stories with some letters, notably including draft fragments of the first published Holden Caulfield story, “I’m Crazy” (1945), and drafts and fragments of two unpublished works.

Though these materials have long been available to researchers, they remain unpublished and cannot be quoted in scholarly publications. There is little doubt that J. D. Salinger’s death will prompt renewed interest in his life and work among scholars and general readers alike, and we must wait to see how the literary estate will choose to proceed with permissions. In the last few weeks, many of Salinger’s friends and neighbors have spoken openly for the first time about their relationships with the writer, and their openness seems promising: New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross published snapshots and reminiscences of her long friendship with the writer in the magazine, while inhabitants of Cornish, New Hampshire, have eagerly described to journalists the (often marvelously creative) methods they devised to protect their neighbor from curious and unscrupulous visitors alike.

Librarians and archivists have a practical interest in gaining more information about Salinger; the current lack of information about much of his life and work limits our ability to describe the artifacts in our possession, such as books inscribed from Salinger to unidentified recipients and manuscript drafts whose place in the chain of composition cannot be identified without access to earlier and later versions. In the meantime, we continue to encourage those interested in searching the collection to visit the Ransom Center. Visitors to the Ransom Center can view a display of some of the items discussed above in our main lobby from February 26 to March 12. The opening of the display corresponds with “A Tribute to J. D. Salinger,” an event with readings of Salinger materials by Elizabeth Crane, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, and John Pipkin. This event is co-sponsored by American Short Fiction.

Author Andre Dubus's Papers Acquired By Harry Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
Notebook from Andre Dubus collection
The Harry Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American writer Andre Dubus (1936-1999). Dubus was widely considered a master of the short story. His story collections include Separate Flights (1975), Adultry and Other Choices (1977), Finding a Girl in America (1980), We Don’t Live Here Anymore (1984), and Dancing After Hours: Stories (1996), among others.

Curator's Choice: Among 200 Poe objects, this one stands out

By Molly Schwartzburg

The Ransom Center’s Koester Poe collection contains 72 letters written by Edgar Allan Poe, 16 of which appear in the bicentennial exhibition, From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe. One of these letters has become my favorite item to share with visitors during tours through the gallery. Written in January 1848, the long, newsy letter is mostly a summary of Poe’s professional doings during 1847, but toward the end, Poe suddenly pours out a lengthy description of his wife Virginia’s slow, painful death of tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed Poe’s mother. It is a fascinating document that shows how entwined the personal, the professional, and the poetical were in Poe’s life—a fact confirmed by many artifacts in the exhibition.

The letter is written to George Eveleth, a medical student who wrote Poe a fan letter in 1845, initiating a correspondence that lasted until at least July of 1849, three months before Poe’s own death. Several letters between the men survive. They primarily concern Poe’s professional life and opinions, as well as Eveleth’s desire to purchase various publications of Poe’s works. In July 1847, Eveleth had written Poe a letter containing several questions, one of which referred to an open letter Poe had published in “The Spirit of the Times” in Philadelphia two weeks earlier. In that piece, Poe had defended himself vigorously against charges including forgery and fraud, posed by one of his literary rivals, Thomas Dunn English. In that piece, he defended himself in part by referring cryptically to a “terrible evil” in his personal life. Soon after, he launched a famously successful libel suit against the magazine in which English’s piece was published. This professional crisis, combined with the trauma of Virginia’s long deterioration and death, and Poe’s own illness, made 1847 one of the most difficult years of the writer’s life.

Poe was unable to respond to Eveleth until January of the following year, and the resulting letter seems to mark a turning point; early in the letter he states that he feels “better—best. I have never been so well.” He offers numbered answers to Eveleth’s many questions, ticking through his publishing plans and literary rivalries—including the English affair—with vigor. When he reaches the number ten, the letter shifts tone. He writes, “You say—‘Can you hint to me what was the terrible evil’ which caused the irregularities so profoundly lamented? Yes; I can do more than hint.”

The description that follows is stunning—Virginia’s slow decline is described in painful detail, and the reader has a precious glimpse of this pivotal moment in Poe’s life. But what is most remarkable about the passage is its tone. It does not shift from the professional to the personal, as one might expect; it shifts from the professional to the literary. Poe’s description of Virginia’s death is a beautiful prose construction, equal in artistry to his greatest tales and essays. It is written not in the language of the grieving widower, but that of the great artist performing to his audience; each sentence deserves to be diagrammed. Two in particular seem carefully constructed to manipulate Eveleth just as Poe manipulated magazine readers as the author of Gothic tales. Both set up a strong emotional reaction in the reader by ending with a word or phrase directly opposite what the reader expects: “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity” and “I had indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife.” The second half of each of these sentence shocks, particularly in the second example, in which Virginia’s death is reduced to a cure for her husband’s suffering—not because Poe wished for her death, but because it works so beautifully as a narrative device for his audience of one. Each time I share it with visitors in the gallery, I am as disturbed as they are.

Perhaps Poe’s ability to write with such art is a sign that he can view Virginia’s death with perspective; as such, perhaps this letter is a sign of his (temporary) rehabilitation. Whatever the reason, the lines about Virginia are unsettling in just the manner of Poe’s best tales and poems—but more so, being a description of the death of a real beautiful woman, not just an imagined one.

You can view the original letter in its entirety in the Edgar Allan Poe digital collection.

You can read transcriptions of all surviving letters between Edgar Allan Poe and George Washington Eveleth, as well as “Mr. Poe’s Reply to Mr. English and Others” in The Spirit of the Times on the Edgar Allan Poe Society’s website.

You can see this and many more original artifacts until January 3, when the exhibition closes.

“Existentialism for Beginners”

By Alicia Dietrich

Franco-Mauritian author Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio wrote his first book at the age of eight, published an award-winning first novel at 23, has garnered comparisons to Albert Camus, and won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature. Decades prior, Le Clézio spent time as a scholar in residence at The University of Texas at Austin. Learn more about this lauded author and see his reading list for a 1976 University of Texas seminar on modern French literature in Jesse Cordes Selbin’s article “Existentialism for Beginners.”

From the Author: Alan Furst

By Alicia Dietrich

The Cultural Compass recently spoke with historical spy novelist Alan Furst, who is reading tonight at the Ransom Center. The program will be webcast live. Here is how Furst has been occupying his time lately:

“I’m hard at work in two ways: maybe the more interesting has to do with promotion. I’ve been a writer for 25 years, 15 books, and now I’ve been led to discover, by Random House marketing people, the literary chat room. On reflection, since printing was invented, no other system of communication like this has ever existed. Short paragraphs, query and response, a kind of intellectual tennis, in minutes not days, achieved by the internet. And the protocols of e-communication seem to enhance, not limit, the discourse. In other words, you point to trails, you don’t go down them, but the person you address may, and the witnesses—audience?—because it’s an open forum—may do so as well.

“Also, not an anti-climax to me, I’m writing the hell out of a new book, about southern Europe in 1940/41, excited to confront new politics, new history, new ethnographies—the anthropological espionage novel!! You heard it first here.”

Learn more about Furst by viewing his reading recommendations, the inventory of his archive, and a profile that explores his writing process using Furst’s archival materials at the Ransom Center.

Listen to Jayne Anne Phillips read from "Lark and Termite"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has acquired the papers of American novelist Jayne Anne Phillips. Phillips has published six novels and story collections over the last three decades. Her most recent work is Lark and Termite (2009).

Phillips visited the Ransom Center recently and recorded a reading of Lark and Termite, which you can listen to here.

Known for her poetic prose and her in-depth study of family dynamics, Phillips has received critical acclaim and major literary prizes, including a Guggenheim fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Phillips is professor of English and director of the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing at Rutgers University, Newark.

The acquisition contains manuscripts in multiple states for Black Tickets (1979), Machine Dreams (1984), Shelter (1995), Motherkind (2000), and Lark and Termite, as well as dozens of individual short stories and essays, some never published. Phillips’s school records, early writings, family photographs, notebooks, business documents, fan mail, and related ephemera provide insight into the writer’s life, writing process, family relationships, and publishing history.

Poe Mania: View more than 4,000 Poe-related images, but "I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer"

By Alicia Dietrich

Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847
Manuscripts in scroll form of Edgar Allan Poe's tale, "The Domain of Arnheim," 1847

The Ransom Center has launched the Poe digital collection, where online visitors have the opportunity to see collection and exhibition items, ranging from manuscripts in Poe’s meticulous hand to his annotated copies of the “Tales and Poems” and “Eureka.” The Ransom Center’s Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram, who curated the From Out That Shadow: The Life and Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe, shares his thoughts on Poe and the digital collection:

Edgar Allan Poe has always been a favorite author for visitors to the Ransom Center who want to see a few manuscripts but don’t have a formal research agenda. So many people find a personal connection with Poe. When I was nine, I discovered “The Casque of Amontillado” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I loved the chill down the spine and Poe’s use of “big words” that sent me rushing to the dictionary. Here was an adult author who could also tell a good story!

Poe’s widespread popularity led us to mount digitized versions of all of his manuscripts at the Center, alongside printed copies of his works with his annotations and related materials. We anticipate considerable use of the digital collection by scholars and students, although much of the material has already been published. Whatever the reason for visiting the site, online viewers will be fascinated by Poe’s eerily precise and beautiful script (of course visitors to the Center can see the real thing in the upcoming exhibition devoted to Poe, opening September 8).

Many discoveries were made along the way as we assembled materials for the exhibition and the digital collection. We uncovered some uncataloged materials from the vast Poe collection of manuscripts and printed materials assembled by the Baltimore collector William H. Koester. Among these was a large group of sheet music based on Poe’s poems—these are now all online. Not to mention the book that Poe left by mistake in his doctor’s office shortly before his miserable death in Baltimore. It bears the mysterious notation “Augusta” (in quotes and not in Poe’s hand) on one page.

Even if you work your way through the collection and go on to read or re-read his works and letters, I guarantee that you will never fully grasp Poe the man or writer. He remains fascinatingly elusive. There is, for example, the matter of his mysterious death from unknown causes, still under debate. Some critics regard him as a talented humbug, while others claim that he is the most original American author of his century. Take, for example, the manuscript of one of his lesser-known stories, “The Domain of Arnheim,” which is in the exhibition and online. No one can really tell if this is a carefully crafted work of literary irony directed against the excesses of Romantic prose, or an example of Poe’s own tendency to overblown rhetoric. For me, this very elusiveness is the essence of his appeal.

Poe Mania: Can you out-decode Poe?

By Alicia Dietrich

In 1839, while working as an editor for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger, Edgar Allan Poe encouraged his readers to send in cryptographs, or short encrypted texts, that he would then attempt to solve. He explained that the “ciphers” should be simple substitution ciphers, that is, readers should substitute a particular symbol for a particular alphabet letter every time it appeared in a statement. The readers responded, sending, by Poe’s estimate, “nearly one hundred ciphers.” He claimed to have solved all but one, and that one, he argued, was not a true cipher.

Poe was so captivated by cryptography that he incorporated it into his story “The Gold-Bug” in 1843. In this story, the character William LeGrand must solve a puzzle to find a buried treasure.

Learn more about how to solve cryptographs and then practice your decoding skills on the Poe Project website.

Poe Mania: Parody Poe for the chance to win

By Alicia Dietrich

“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”
“The Vulture,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”

Written by: Alicia Dietrich

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” has been one of his most popular poems since its publication in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror newspaper. This popularity has led to a number of parodies, or humorous imitations, of the poem. The tradition of writing parodies of “The Raven” dates back at least as far as 1853, when Graham’s Magazine published “The Vulture: An Ornithological Study.” Its first stanza begins:

Once upon a midnight chilling, as I held my feet unwilling
O’er a tub of scalding water, at a heat of ninety-four;
Nervously a toe in dipping, dripping, slipping, then out-skipping
Suddenly there came a ripping whipping, at my chamber’s door.
“’Tis the second-floor,” I muttered, “flipping at my chamber’s door—
Wants a light—and nothing more!”

Visit the Poe Project website to compose your own parody of “The Raven,” and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win Poe-centric prizes.