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Anita Desai's latest book now on shelves

By Alicia Dietrich

Anita Desai talks with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley at the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium at the Ransom Center.
Anita Desai talks with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley at the 1994 Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium at the Ransom Center.

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.

Win a copy of Denis Johnson’s latest book

By Kelsey McKinney

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 hrcgiveaway@gmail.com with “Johnson” in the subject line by midnight CST tonight to be entered in a drawing for the books.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view full-size images.

 

 

A glimpse into J. M. Coetzee’s bound drafts: "Life & Times of Michael K"

By Molly Schwartzburg

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.

 

Please click the thumbnails to view larger images.

 

In Memoriam: William B. Todd (1919–2011)

By Richard Oram

William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.
William Todd and F. Warren Roberts discuss a rare book beneath a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, ca. 1961. Unidentified photographer.

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.

The Paris Review celebrates James Salter Month

By Alicia Dietrich

Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
Photo of James Salter by Linda Gervin.
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.

They’re also highlighting items from Salter’s archive at the Ransom Center, including an outline and title ideas for what would become Salter’s novel Light Years.

Need more reading to get your James Salter fix? Check out his list of recommended books from the fall 2007 issue of Ransom Edition or an audio interview with Salter from March 2007.

Preview archive materials related to Wallace’s posthumous novel “The Pale King”

By Alicia Dietrich

Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
Cover of 'The Pale King' by David Foster Wallace
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.

The Writer’s Project: Searching for something to say

By Alicia Dietrich

Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Noah Gordon. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
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.

How are unpublished manuscripts unearthed at the Ransom Center?

By Elana Estrin

The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Reading Room at the Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Research in archival libraries like the Harry Ransom Center can be a bit of a treasure hunt. Every so often, researchers strike scholarly gold: locating and publishing previously unpublished works.

The most recent unearthing at the Ransom Center are unpublished short stories by crime writer Dashiell Hammett, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center. Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, located one short story, untitled but nicknamed “So I Shot Him,” which he will publish in the February 28 issue of The Strand.

This story has received much attention, raising the question: how do discoveries at the Ransom Center come about?

Molly Schwartzburg, Ransom Center Curator of Literature, calls the process a “collaborative enterprise.” When a collection comes to the Ransom Center, archivists sort and catalog the materials. Curators guide and assist the scholars, while scholars sift through collections and use their subject expertise to draw conclusions.

“At the Ransom Center, unpublished manuscripts sit waiting to be published. It’s our job to protect and provide the material, and to make sure that scholars can find those items and make them more widely available,” Schwartzburg says.

When scholars announce a “discovery” at the Ransom Center, it usually means one of two things: publication or identification. Steve Mielke, Head of Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging at the Ransom Center, says that in some cases, the word “discovery” may be a little misleading.

“When I see a headline saying that a manuscript was discovered at the British Library, for example, I realize it’s probably been there and known about for some time. It’s just that someone took note of it and decided to do something with it,” Mielke says. “There are lots of things here at the Ransom Center that are unpublished. That doesn’t mean we don’t know they’re here. If everything we cataloged were widely known, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.”

It’s tempting to imagine these unpublished manuscripts sitting long-forgotten in a box full of cobwebs until a scholar comes along. In reality, these discoveries generally come from collections that are fully cataloged. But that’s not to discount these discoveries. Although the Ransom Center may have known about these works, they have, in a way, been lost to those who haven’t come to the Ransom Center to read them. When a scholar publishes a previously unpublished manuscript, the work becomes accessible to many more people.

Take the Dashiell Hammett story to be published next week, for example. It’s been listed as “unpublished” in the Center’s card catalog for at least 22 years and listed online in a finding aid as “unpublished” for five years. The manuscript remained unpublished, despite being viewed by many scholars using the Hammett collection, until Gulli looked into the matter. He conducted research to make sure “So I Shot Him” hadn’t been previously published and then sought and received permission from Hammett’s estate to publish it. As a result of his efforts, anyone can read “So I Shot Him” when it’s published in The Strand.

When scholars publish manuscripts located at the Ransom Center, Schwartzburg says more praise is due to the scholar’s initiative.

“It’s not about the item being discovered. It’s about the scholar having vision and foresight, judging the current market and cultural landscape, and recognizing an opportunity. It’s that scholar taking initiative and investing the time and energy required to make the item available,” Schwartzburg says.

Identification is another type of discovery. For example, a scholar may find that an unidentified sheet in the Tennessee Williams archive is actually part of an early draft of one of his plays but with different character names. In other cases, a scholar may discover that an unidentified document in one author’s collection was actually written by someone else. For example, while cataloging Norman Mailer’s papers, Mielke found that many aspiring writers sent their work to Mailer and asked for feedback. If one of these aspiring writers later turned out to be a well-known writer, then finding his or her early works in Mailer’s, or anyone else’s, archive would be considered a discovery.

Schwartzburg cites Gulli’s initiative in publishing “So I Shot Him” as a prime example of how the Internet has expanded accessibility to the Ransom Center’s collections. Manuscript collections and their contents used to be listed in card catalogs. In 1990, the Ransom Center began converting the card catalogs to online finding aids. At this writing, more than 80 percent of the collections listed in the card catalogs are now accessible in online finding aids. With the help of a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, Gulli was able to use the Dashiell Hammett papers’ online finding aid and digital scans to conduct all of his research remotely.

“Online finding aids have radically changed the nature of research. You can sit at home, drinking your cup of coffee, reading the finding aids, and discovering materials,” Schwartzburg says. “This is why it’s such a priority for us in public services and the manuscripts division to get as many of our card catalog collections converted to online finding aids as possible. It’s an ongoing effort. We’re constantly going back and selecting card catalog collections for conversion so just this sort of thing will happen more often.”

On next Monday, February 28, Cultural Compass will share an interview with Andrew Gulli about how he located and decided to publish “So I Shot Him.”

Ransom Center accepting applications for Mellon Summer Institute in Spanish Paleography

By Alicia Dietrich

Petition for summons by the corregidor Andrés Fernández de Herrera, Valle de Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1596. HRC 117, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts collection. Harry Ransom Center.
Petition for summons by the corregidor Andrés Fernández de Herrera, Valle de Cochabamba, Bolivia, 1596. HRC 117, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts collection. Harry Ransom Center.

Applications are being accepted by the Ransom Center for the Mellon Summer Institute in Spanish Paleography, occurring in Austin June 6-24, 2011. The institute is an opportunity for scholars to acquire intensive training in reading late medieval and early modern manuscripts of Spain and Latin America. All application materials must be received by Tuesday, March 1, 2011.

Fifteenth-century bookbinding includes ninth-century Bible fragment in front and back covers

By Alicia Dietrich

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Michael Laird, adjunct professor in the Graduate School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin and the proprietor of Michael Laird Rare Books, shares some recent discoveries he made about a Bible in the Ransom Center’s collection.

Scholarship begets scholarship; ergo bibliography, the study of books as physical objects, builds upon earlier discoveries, while seeking to answer questions about the transmission of texts, the provenance of books, and their bindings.

In fall of 2009, Ryan Hildebrand, head of book cataloging at the Ransom Center, wrote about an unusual nineteenth-century fore-edge painting that adorns a fifteenth-century book at the Ransom Center, namely a Latin Bible, printed in 1481 by Johann Amerbach, of Basel.1

While the name of the fore-edge painter (John T. Beers), is known 2, questions remain about the bookbinding itself, and of the manuscript fragment contained therein, specifically: When and where was the binding made? Can we identify the text of the manuscript fragment, and determine its date of origin?

It is an extraordinary fact that certain ornamental tools that were stamped on early bookbindings were unique to a particular workshop and thus can help to identify specific binderies—or even specific bookbinders. The study of early bookbindings has made significant progress during the last decade, particularly in Germany where vast databases of Gothic bookbinding tools now appear online3.

Fifteenth-century Gothic bookbinding, signed with the name-stamp of Johannes Meigfoge. Ellwangen, Germany. Pigskin over wooden boards, front cover. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fifteenth-century Gothic bookbinding, signed with the name-stamp of Johannes Meigfoge. Ellwangen, Germany. Pigskin over wooden boards, front cover. Photo by Pete Smith.
Careful study of the Ransom Center’s bookbinding reveals an actual name-stamp on the front and back covers. The binding is also adorned with ornamental stamps of birds, flowers, hearts, and Evangelist symbols. (View the above slideshow for more images of these stamps.)

After more than 500 years of use, many of these stamps are no longer easy to see. In special cases, a light pencil rubbing can reveal much more than meets the eye. It was determined that the Ransom Center’s binding is such a case, and Associate Director and Hobby Foundation Librarian Richard Oram gave special permission for rubbings to be made in this instance. These rubbings were then compared with other rubbings that were taken from known binderies of the fifteenth-century.

The name on the binding of the Ransom Center’s 1481 Bible is Johannes Meigfoge. Meigfoge is known to have been active in Ellwangen, Germany, during the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century. Meigfoge’s workshop was first described by Ernst Kryss4, who failed to localize the bindery, but located 38 bindings by Meigfoge, including 35 books printed in the years 1475 through 1513, and 3 manuscripts. The location of Meigfoge’s workshop was convincingly assigned to Ellwangen (eastern Baden-Württemberg) by Heribert Hummel, in 1977.5

Fragment of a 9th-century Latin Bible. John 10:5 used as spine-lining. Manuscript on parchment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Fragment of a 9th-century Latin Bible. John 10:5 used as spine-lining. Manuscript on parchment. Photo by Pete Smith.
Inside the front and back boards of the present binding may be seen an extremely ancient fragment of manuscript that dates from the ninth-century.6 Whereas fragments from old manuscripts were commonly used as strengtheners by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century bookbinders, scholars rarely encounter manuscript material as old as this fragment. And so we can deduce that in the fifteenth-century, this small piece of parchment waste was used by Johannes Meigfoge to strengthen the inside of the spine, where it is still preserved therein.

Although the text of the fragment is hardly extensive, the Caroline minuscule handwriting is quite clear, and reads: In quam cumq[ue] domum intraveritis pri[mum dicite: pac huic domui. This text is from the New Testament, specifically Luke, chapter 10, verse 5:

“Into whatsoever house you enter, first say: ‘Peace be to this house.’”

Words of wisdom from a hitherto unknown ninth-century manuscript fragment—easily the oldest Biblical text at The University of Texas at Austin— afforded by the study of books as physical objects. With its nineteenth-century fore-edge painting, it is a remarkable fact that in one volume we are able to discover evidence of ca. 1000 years of book history.

+++++

1HRC Incun 1481 B471a

2Jeff Weber, Fore-Edge Paintings of John T. Beer (Los Angeles: J. Weber Rare Books, 2005)

3The Einbanddatenbank of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (accessed 8/8/2010)

4Ernst Kyriss, Verzierte gotische Einbande im alten deutschen Sprachgebiet (Stuttgart: Max Hettler, 1953), Tafelband I, no. 53. Ilse Schunke, Die Schwenke-Sammlung gotisher Stempel- und Eingbanddurchreibungen (Berlin, 1996) II, p. 257, offers no evidence for the assignment of this workshop to “Tubingen.”

5Heribert Hummel, “Johannes Meigfoge, ein Ellwanger Buchbinder des 15. Jahrhunderts” (in: Ellwanger Jahrbuch Bd. 27, 1977/78, pp. 187–194).

6Compare the ninth-century Latin Bible fragment at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley: f2MS A2M2 800:3, reproduced by Digital Scriptorium. (accessed 8/8/2010). The Bancroft fragment is thought to be German (as here?)