Writer T. C. Boyle, whose archive was recently acquired by the Ransom Center, visited today while in Austin for a book tour stop promoting the paperback edition of his novel When the Killing’s Done.
The daughters of Patrick Brontë built a literary empire. Combined, the three women published seven novels and two books of poetry. In 1847 alone, Charlotte published Jane Eyre, Emily published Wuthering Heights, and Anne published Agnes Grey. For the Brontës, literature was a way of life that started young. Charlotte’s unpublished juvenilia book “Something About Arthur,”—housed at the Ransom Center—provides an active look into the childhood imagination of a woman who would become a major part of the Western literary canon.
Charlotte Brontë wrote “Something About Arthur” at the age of 17 shortly after returning from boarding school. The text is 25 pages long and includes a 42-line poem. It is the story of a struggling artist who battles an arrogant aristocrat for the heart of the heroine, Lady Emily Chalwort. Like many of Charlotte’s juvenilia books, “Something About Arthur” is small enough to fit in one hand, measuring only 5.7 cm by 9.5 cm (2.5 inches by 3 5/8 inches). Charlotte’s handwriting is microscopic and barely legible.
Charlotte’s motivation for creating such small books is debated. Patrick Brontë was by no means a poor man, though it is suspected that he may not have wanted to fund the paper cost of his children’s fantasies. The distance from the Brontë house to the nearest store to buy paper could be a reason. Some suspect that the small words kept the stories secret from adult eyes or that Charlotte was merely trying to imitate newspaper print. The most common theory, however, is that the books were originally created for a group of toy soldiers. In 1826, the year the first small manuscript was created, Patrick Brontë returned from a conference toting a set of 12 wooden soldiers for Branwell, the second eldest and only male child. Eventually, each child chose his or her favorite soldier. The stories in these juvenilia manuscripts, it is speculated, were not about the soldiers, but created for them. Thus, the size of the book would need to be in direct proportion to the size of the soldier.
When creating the worlds for their toy soldiers, the Brontë children were divided. Charlotte played primarily with the next eldest, Branwell, leaving Emily to play with Anne. Charlotte and Branwell created an imaginary kingdom and filled it with the characters of their imagination. They named the imaginary world Verdopolis. They created characters with names, occupations, and motivations. Charlotte transcribed their fantasies in her tiny, illegible hand. These fantasies became “Something About Arthur” and what is known as the “Glass Town” series. The majority of Charlotte’s juvenilia novellas are set in Verdopolis, the earliest written at the age of 14. “Something About Arthur” was written three years later, and Charlotte stopped writing about the characters of Verdopolis by her mid-20s.
The Brontë sisters’ fiction has long been the subject of biographical interpretation. The Brontë children were known to be social recluses. Charlotte especially was timid and often struggled to cope with her surroundings. Some scholars claim that because the Brontës spent the majority of their lives secluded, the fiction they produced must be the product of their own circumstances. Yet others dispute this claim. We may not see Charlotte herself in the characters of “Something About Arthur,” but we do see Charlotte’s evolution as a writer. This tiny book shows her love for strong heroines, current events, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her writing mimics gothic literature and the adventure novel, two devices she would discard in her later works. “Something About Arthur” is the beginning of a craft that would be skillfully and carefully honed.
The Ransom Center acquired “Something About Arthur” in 1952 through the Nelda C. and H. J. Lutcher Stark Foundation. Fannie Ratchford, esteemed figure in the Ransom Center’s history, orchestrated the entire affair. Miriam Lutcher Stark pledged her entire library to the university in 1925. Knowing that his library contained a similar Brontë juvenilia piece titled “The Green Dwarf,” Miss Ratchford prompted him to acquire “Something About Arthur” in 1952 when she found it on the market. He did just that. Today both juvenile manuscripts, and Miss Ratchford’s correspondence with Lutcher Stark, can be found in the Ransom Center’s collections.
Last December, another of Charlotte’s juvenilia books sold at auction to Le Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits in Paris. This book was the first in the “Glass Town” series, penned in 1826 when Charlotte was 14. It too is believed to have been written for the wooden soldiers.
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Alexandra Tali Herzog, PhD candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, visited the Harry Ransom Center in June 2011 on a dissertation fellowship to investigate the Isaac Bashevis Singer collection. In her dissertation, she examines the interplay between demonology, libertinism, and religion in Singer’s work. Drawing from the theoretical frameworks of both Kabbalah and gender theory, Herzog analyzes Singer’s unorthodox conception of love and sexuality, attending to his recreation of an erotic, subversive “underworld” in the Eastern Europe of his writings—one permeated with mysticism, magic, demons, and antinomianism.
With the very generous support of a dissertation fellowship, I had the incredible opportunity to spend four weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the treasure trove that is the Isaac Bashevis Singer archive. With its 176 boxes and adjacent collections, the impressive Singer archive covers the period from 1935 until Singer’s death in 1991—although I found a few manuscripts from as early as 1923 and as late as 1995.
As a Singer scholar, the most striking discovery for me was the Center’s impressive holdings of unpublished correspondence, a testament to how prolific a letter writer Singer was. These letters show Singer’s constant reflection on ongoing political and social events, the complexity of his writing process, as well as his interest in literature in general. A prominent Jewish American, a Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize winner, Singer was also—as this unique collection of correspondence reminds us —a complex human being who was witty, charming, brilliant, and not to be trusted in the matters of the heart!
Exceptionally poignant are the exchanges between Singer and his second wife Alma—or “Papa-Pu” and “Mama-Pu,” as they used to call each other—before and during their marriage: “You have all the qualities of a lover—none of a husband,” Alma writes to Singer. These invaluable letters shed much light on their relationship and the tormented life Alma had before she left her first husband and their children to marry Singer. It is well known that Singer was unfaithful to his wife and had multiple affairs. However, it is less acknowledged that Alma was aware of his infidelity and seemed to accept it under the condition that what Singer felt for her was true love and not some volatile feeling.
In a letter, she writes: “As far as your letter is concerned, I am not disappointed. I took it for granted that you have a girlfriend there and I don’t see why you are so embarrassed—you are not even in N.Y. in the least faithful to me—and why should you be so in the country? I have only the choice to come to you and to surrender finally or to put up with the matters as they are.”
In a note hand-written in pencil, dated 19.1.38, Singer writes: “I must tell you that I love you so very much—you will not believe nor understand—but it is true, you are my life. What happens besides you is only framework—but I only love you—and this is all that matters.”
Similarly, years later on September 6, 1970, he still presents the same honesty: “I hope you are well and that you can forgive me my follies. No one is perfect. Nothing can diminish my love for you.” He signs this letter to her (as he did many others): “Your most devoted pig.” As with many other women in Singer’s life, Alma not only nurtured him romantically, but she was also involved in his writing career, pushing him to publish in certain journals and helping him get some business contacts.
Aside from the rich personal life to which the correspondence attests, it is also interesting to uncover Singer’s interactions with other writers. For example, I was not aware of his friendship with the American writer Henry Miller. It is well known that when Henry Miller turned 86, he went on a heavy campaign to get the 1978 Nobel Prize. He encouraged his friends, publishers, and acquaintances to participate in a letter-writing campaign in his support. In this context, he asked Singer to write him a letter of support for the prize. Interestingly (and ironically) that is the year that Singer received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Their correspondence is very interesting as it is both personal and professional.
The Harry Ransom Center houses a treasure of marvels, and I am very much looking forward to analyzing the data that I have assembled, which offers a glimpse of the charm and genius of a Yiddish writer who became part of the American literary canon.
Anita Desai, whose archive is housed at the Ransom Center, recently published The Artist of Disappearance, a collection of three novellas that ruminate on art and memory, illusion and disillusion, and the sharp divide between life’s expectations and its realities.
Born in India, Desai often explores themes related to her homeland in her work, and she has been short-listed for the Booker Prize three times for her novels Clear Light of Day (1980), In Custody (1984), and Fasting, Feasting (1999).
The Ransom Center acquired her papers in a series of purchases between 1989 and 2006. The collection contains manuscripts and typescript drafts for all of her novels, from her first book, Cry, the Peacock (1963), through Journey to Ithaca (1995); works for children; introductions, prefaces, reviews, essays, speeches, and lectures; and correspondence.
Desai visited the Ransom Center for the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium, which explored “The State and Fate of Publishing.” Read the talk she gave at the symposium about her experiences with publishing.
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Writer Denis Johnson, whose archive is currently being cataloged at the Ransom Center, is best known for his National Book Award–winning novel Tree of Smoke (2007), Jesus’ Son (1992), and several plays and poetry collections. Farrar, Straus and Giroux recently published Johnson’s novella Train Dreams, which was originally published in a slightly different form in The Paris Review in 2002.
Johnson’s archive contains materials related to the novella, some of which can be seen in the above slideshow.
In honor of the book’s release, the Ransom Center is giving away two copies of the novella. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with “Johnson” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.
The day-to-day work of a special-collections curator does not leave much time for actually reading manuscripts, despite assumptions to the contrary on the part of outsiders. I sometimes look with envy at researchers who sit with one document for hours at a time. So it was with great anticipation that I set aside time to survey a shipping carton containing drafts of J. M. Coetzee’s 1983 novel Life & Times of Michael K. I chose it because I was halfway through my first reading of this, the writer’s fourth novel and the recipient of his first Booker Prize. After my brief encounter with this novel’s drafts, I could only imagine the rich research potential of the Coetzee archive as a whole.
The novel concerns Michael K, a gardener of unidentified race who may or may not be mentally challenged. When his mother, Anna, becomes ill, he leaves work to care for her. Anna works as a domestic servant for a wealthy couple and lives in a tiny room beneath their expensive apartment in Cape Town. When the city erupts into violent unrest, the wealthy couple flee, and Michael and Anna briefly inhabit their apartment and then begin a long trek to escape the war-ravaged city for the countryside where Anna once lived; I won’t give away the remainder of the story. The portion of the story described above is told in a flat third-person voice, the distanced narration contrasting dramatically with the appalling physical and emotional conditions of the two main characters.
Like the remainder of the Coetzee papers, the drafts of Michael K arrived at the Ransom Center in remarkably good order, carefully arranged by Coetzee (my pleasure in perusing these materials was enhanced by Coetzee’s elegant, eminently legible handwriting—a rare boon for archival researchers). The novel’s nine drafts are held in five hand-bound volumes, and all but the last are titled simply “#4.” Each draft is numbered and bound in sequence. All of the drafts are written (and in one case typed) in one or more yellow or blue University of Cape Town examination books; each of these is likewise carefully numbered and marked with the appropriate version number. Coetzee appears to have bound the volumes together himself, using whatever materials were near at hand: while some are anchored in large file folders using brads, others are bound in large sheets cut from heavy cardboard shipping boxes, held together by hand-cut pieces of thick metal wire bent and pushed through the hole-punched manuscripts. The resulting artifacts have a charm that belies the novelist’s very serious and explicit intent to preserve a linear record of the novel’s composition.
This compositional record is indeed replete with opportunities for scholars of Michael K. The earliest versions of the novel reveal that Coetzee settled upon several foundational elements of the finished novel early on: the characters are named Anna (or Annie) and Michael. They are related. Anna lives in a room on the ground floor of an expensive apartment complex, and her employers flee. She is ill, and Michael comes to help her. Even some wordings in the earliest drafts appear in the finished novel.
But these similarities are accompanied by profound differences. The first five versions are perhaps best described as windows into alternate realities for the characters of Michael and Anna K, who are reimagined anew by Coetzee as he seeks to determine the nature of the novel’s central relationship. In the first version, Michael is Anna’s son, but he is a brilliant poet, not a gardener who is perceived as dimwitted. In the second, Michael is again her son, but is married and has a child; his wife is killed, and his child taken away before he comes to stay with his mother. In the third, Michael is Anna’s young grandson and worships his absent father (notably, this draft is told entirely in the first person by the child). In the fourth, he is her adult grandson who works as a gardener. In the fifth version, he is Anna’s common-law husband.
Only in the sixth version does Coetzee settle upon the published relationship; this heavily annotated draft is much longer than the ones that precede it and appears to mark a major shift in the compositional process. I skimmed through the later drafts and found further interesting changes too numerous to mention here, but found myself repeatedly returning to the variant Michaels and Annas, wondering how many further variations Coetzee may have considered, and wondering, too, at the elements that he apparently never doubted. For instance, he knew from the beginning that Anna’s legs would be swollen—this detail is described in grim detail in the published novel and appears often in the early drafts—but did not know whether the woman’s son, grandson, or husband would cope with this ailment.
The Annas and Michaels have stayed with me, and I have already started reading the novel again from the first page, seeking traces of those lost characters and viewing the swollen legs, the room beneath the apartment, and the names “Anna” and “Michael” with fresh attention.
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Not everyone remembers that Harry Ransom was a fisher of minds as well as of rare books and manuscripts. One of his early catches was William B. Todd, an up-and-coming young bibliographer at Harvard’s Houghton Library who had done his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Todd had served with distinction during World War II, receiving two wounds during the Normandy Invasion. In the late 1950s, Ransom saw that Todd might become the bibliographic intelligence behind the Humanities Research Center, then just a vision.
Once in Austin, Bill Todd, who died this past weekend, settled into a comfortable berth in The University of Texas English Department and began exploring the treasures of the Rare Book Department. In partnership with the English scholar D. F. Foxon, he discovered that the turn-of-the-century forger Thomas J. Wise had spent many hours in the British Museum Library removing leaves from copies of seventeenth-century plays. Wise then proceeded to improve his own inferior copies of plays purchased for a shilling or two. He would then have them rebound and ship them off to Chicago, where they were snapped up by his hapless dupe, the financier John Henry Wrenn. Their ultimate destination was Austin once the University acquired the Wrenn Library in 1918. The Todd-Foxon discovery created quite a splash—so much so that the British Museum asked for its “used” leaves back (they were not successful).
Todd made many noteworthy scholarly discoveries and contributed in a variety of ways to the intellectual life of the Harry Ransom Center through his publications (nearly 300 on a dazzling variety of subjects), exhibitions, and advice on acquisitions. Perhaps his greatest contribution was his characteristically thorough and precise examination of the three available copies of the Gutenberg Bible in the annus mirabilis of 1977–78. He undertook this project with his longtime bibliographical partner and wife, Ann Bowden. Together they looked at every significant feature of the Bibles and concluded that the Pforzheimer copy was the one to bring to Austin.
The Todd-Bowden team went on to accomplish labors unthinkable by lesser mortals, such as the first comprehensive bibliographies of the German reprint house Tauchnitz and Sir Walter Scott. Endeavors on these scales were built on world travel, which they both loved, and book collecting (ditto). Their libraries now form part of the collections of the Ransom Center, Lehigh University (Todd’s alma mater), and the British Library. In between their travels and writing, the Todds attended almost every Longhorn football game and entertained extensively. As the comments make clear, the Todds were mentors to a couple of generations of bibliographers and rare book librarians, who will not soon forget them.
James Salter is being honored later this month with The Paris Review’s Hadada Prize, which is awarded annually to a “distinguished member of the literary community who has demonstrated a strong and unique commitment to literature.” The award will be presented to Salter by Robert Redford, who, in an unrelated program, will speak on a panel on campus with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein later this month about the legacy of All the President’s Men.
Previous recipients have included Ransom Center authors Norman Mailer and Peter Matthiessen.
In honor of the award, the magazine is highlighting essays about Salter’s work by such writers as Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian Crouch, Alexander Chee, Louisa Thomas, Geoff Dyer, Doree Shafrir, and Porochista Khakpour.
A digital preview of archive materials relating to David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King is now live on the Ransom Center’s website. The preview, a collaboration between the Center and publisher Little, Brown and Company, includes a series of drafts of the “Author’s Foreword,” which eventually became chapter nine of The Pale King. Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor, provides context about the pages and elaborates on the publication of the novel.
In 2010, the Ransom Center acquired and made accessible Wallace’s archive. The archive contains manuscript materials for Wallace’s books, stories and essays, research materials, Wallace’s college and graduate school writings, juvenilia, including poems, stories and letters, teaching materials, and books. Materials for The Pale King are included in the archive but will remain with Little, Brown and Company until after the book’s publication.
On Thursday, April 15, the Ransom Center celebrates the release of The Pale King with readings from the novel by Kevin Brockmeier, Doug Dorst, Amelia Gray, and Jake Silverstein. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Noah Gordon is a Master of Arts student in English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He teaches tenth grade American Literature as a student teacher at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. He recently spent time at the Ransom Center gathering materials to use in his classroom with high school sophomores and writes here about that experience.
Your high school English teacher probably wanted only your final draft. Even process-based writing instructors expect the final version to represent the author’s best work: scrubbed of grammatical errors and clunkers, defined and refined in logic and narrative structure. As much as possible, the product should be perfect.
It’s no wonder that writing is so daunting for most students. The only writing that they see covered in red ink is their own. Most of the canonical books they read have been edited and revised until every warty word has been excised, leaving a deceptively smooth, unblemished sheen. But how often do students see the actual process?
Now, with 34 tenth graders coming under my charge, I’m about to teach American Literature. How can I help my future students to make meaningful connections through reading and writing?
I visited the Harry Ransom Center to study how professional writers write and in an attempt to make literature more relevant to my life. My experience led me to wonder what would happen if my students read the day-by-day slog recorded in Steinbeck’s journal while they read The Grapes of Wrath. Could the corrections, carets, and scribbles in Whitman’s proofs of Leaves of Grass bring my students closer to writing their own poetry? I imagine a student reading “Two Minutes,” a short story by 14-year-old Tim O’Brien, and saying, “Well, I could do better than that.”
Reading through Anne Sexton’s teaching materials from Wayland High School, I was struck by how difficult teaching teenagers can be, even for a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet. And yet, thumbing through her students’ poems, I was inspired. It was exhilarating to look at drafts that I wasn’t supposed to see, to gain intimate access to each author’s life and to see the students’ vital search to find their words.
Your high school English teacher also probably wanted your work to appear effortless. But exposing the hard work may be the chief power the Ransom Center holds for students: the archive reveals not just the process, but also the project of writing. Every author’s project begins with finding something worth saying to someone. The Ransom Center is a catalog of each frustrated attempt as accomplished wordsmiths struggled to write precisely what they meant.
This is the spirit that I want to bring to my classroom: that meaningful connection is possible through the reading and writing of words. For our writing to be purposeful, we must find something meaningful to say. We must have a project. What becomes clear after reading the preserved papers is that they were written by human beings for other human beings.
I hope to share with my students what I learned from my week at the Center: that the canon’s authors’ godlike craft comes not solely from the natural ability, but from hard work, and that they, my students, potential authors of great literature, have much to contribute.