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The Art of the Letter: What we can learn from illustrated letters in the collections

By Elana Estrin

Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks.  © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.
Al Hirschfeld's 1954 letter to Edward Weeks. © Al Hirschfeld. Reproduced by arrangement with Hirschfeld's exclusive representative, the Margo Feiden Galleries, Ltd., New York. www.alhirschfeld.com.

John Steinbeck stamped his letters with a winged pig, Muhammad Ali’s letterhead alludes to his catchphrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and Al Hirschfeld signed his letters with a spiral-eyed self-portrait. Read about what we can learn from these and other illustrated letters found across the Ransom Center’s collections.

In the galleries: Mailer's character timeline for "Harlot's Ghost"

By Courtney Reed

Norman Mailer's character timeline for 'Harlot's Ghost.' Click image to view larger version.
Norman Mailer's character timeline for 'Harlot's Ghost.' Click image to view larger version.

Norman Mailer was among the most prominent cultural and literary figures in late twentieth-century America. His talent as a writer was apparent early in his career; he received a Pulitzer Prize nomination for his debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, which was published in 1948 when he was only 25 years old. In the 1950s Mailer began publishing commentary about such topics as race, feminism, sexuality, politics, literature, art, culture, and society, in magazines including Dissent, Esquire, Partisan Review, and The Village Voice, which he co-founded in 1955.

Norman Mailer’s 1991 novel, Harlot’s Ghost, is a sprawling, 1,300-page chronicle of the Central Intelligence Agency that blends both fictional and factual characters and events.

On a detailed timeline of the novel, Mailer charts world events and various characters’ activities over more than five years. Mailer created a systematic grid; dates on the left side chronicle the events of various subject headings that run across the top of the chart, including Hunt & Cuban Exiles, JFK, and Judith Campbell. The timeline is covered in pencil and black, red, green, and blue ink.

The chart can be seen in the current exhibition Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century, on display through July 31.

Mailer remained a prolific writer and cultural commentator throughout his long and colorful career. The Ransom Center acquired Mailer’s archive, which fills more than 1,000 archival boxes and makes it the Ransom Center’s largest single-author collection, in 2005.

Photo Friday

By Jennifer Tisdale

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Norman Mailer’s paper-clipped and marked-up copy of “American Tragedy” by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Mailer’s paper-clipped and marked-up copy of “American Tragedy” by Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth. Photo by Pete Smith.
Additional materials for the Norman Mailer papers were received and inspected. Photo by Pete Smith.
Additional materials for the Norman Mailer papers were received and inspected. Photo by Pete Smith.
Students in the ‘Culture Unbound’ exhibition, specifically in the reading nook filled with books featured in the exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Students in the ‘Culture Unbound’ exhibition, specifically in the reading nook filled with books featured in the exhibition. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A student walks by the exterior banner for the exhibition 'Becoming Tennessee Williams.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
A student walks by the exterior banner for the exhibition 'Becoming Tennessee Williams.' Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate intern Kelsey Harmon shows some of John Fowles’ personal effects: his desk, typewriter, and a set of brass knuckles. The desk and its contents are being prepared to go on exhibit in the Center’s Reading and Viewing Room later this spring. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Undergraduate intern Kelsey Harmon shows some of John Fowles’ personal effects: his desk, typewriter, and a set of brass knuckles. The desk and its contents are being prepared to go on exhibit in the Center’s Reading and Viewing Room later this spring. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Norman Mailer’s "real" Facebook

By Jacqueline Muñoz

Facebook. No doubt you’ve heard of it. But did you know that the origin of Facebook really comes from the concept of a “freshman facebook”? Many universities publish and distribute a yearbook of sorts to its incoming freshman students that includes registrants’ photos and a few biographical details about them. The idea is that this book will be a tool to help students get to know one another in the incoming class.

At Harvard University, this directory is known as the Harvard Freshman Red Book Register, and this practice had been in place for three years (started by the class of 1940) by the time Norman Mailer matriculated in 1939. Mailer would graduate in the class of 1943. His Harvard Freshman Red Book Register, published in December of 1939, has a companion Harvard Freshman Red Book, which was published in May and is a summary of the first year in college. In his Register you can see the equivalent of “posting on his wall” in comments he literally penciled in about himself next to his photo on page 93 (“Beautiful, alluring, gorgeous”), as well as those scrawled in by his friends and initialed in good fun—we assume (“We all don’t like him”).

These books are two of the numerous holdings from Mailer’s personal library, which numbers around 900 volumes in the Ransom Center book collection. His library was acquired with his papers, comprising more than 1,000 boxes of materials, by the Ransom Center in 2005 along with another sizeable collection of more than 150 books, the Thomas Fiske collection of Norman Mailer. Within these collections, it is interesting and fun to recreate how Mailer grew from a high school student with a penchant for math, to a college Red Book editorial board staffer and engineering major, and finally evolved into a boisterous and prolific writer who published novels, articles, and poetry on everything from literature to race, feminism, sexuality, politics, art, culture, and society. Among his papers, there are high school and college journals, scrapbooks, grade reports, and even sweet and creative letters written home to his parents. Later materials consist of unpublished stories, handwritten notes, typed drafts, galley proofs, screenplays, and first editions of all his published books.

 

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

 

Discovering "The Sheltering Sky"

By Harry Ransom Center

Matt Morton, a senior in the English Honors Program, Humanities Honors Program, and Government, is working as an undergraduate intern with Ransom Center Curator of British and American Literature Molly Schwartzburg. Undergraduate interns at the Harry Ransom Center have the opportunity to gain valuable behind-the-scenes experience at a major research library and museum. Interns work in a variety of capacities, including developing exhibitions, assisting with collections cataloging, and creating unique multimedia.

Morton has been assembling materials from the Paul Bowles and other collections for an exhibition case that is now on display on the Ransom Center’s second floor through November 13. He shares his experience working on this project:

On my first day as an intern at the Ransom Center, I walked into the building feeling guilty. A lover of all things literary, I was entering my fourth year as an English and Humanities major. Nevertheless, I had ventured inside the Center only twice, both times during organized class visits.

I didn’t know quite what to expect. I had heard horror stories from fellow classmates about internships consisting of making copies and gazing out the window. I knew, of course, that an internship at the Ransom Center would provide the opportunity to do more than grunt work. Still, I was unsure of how I could make a substantial contribution.

I soon found out. I was met by my supervisor, Molly Schwartzburg, who immediately began outlining the projects we would be working on. The first of these was the creation of a single-case exhibition centered on a New York Times article commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of Paul Bowles’s novel, The Sheltering Sky.

Written by Dwight Garner, the article was notable for its references to Tennessee Williams’s review of The Sheltering Sky, and Norman Mailer’s discussion of Bowles in Advertisements for Myself, two works of which the Ransom Center holds original manuscripts. Garner also referred to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life. Carr did extensive research at the Center while working on the biography and even inscribed a copy of the biography to the Center’s staff.

Garner’s article was the initiation of my relationship with The Sheltering Sky, which would progress over a few short weeks. While I was thrilled to be given responsibility for an exhibition, however small, I was simultaneously apprehensive. During my three years at UT, I somehow had never heard of Bowles. How could I create an exhibition focusing on one of his novels?

I soon found that the task was not as daunting as I imagined. Molly and I began by repeatedly touring the mazes of the Center’s collections. Soon I found myself sorting through the Bowles and Williams collections and Mailer’s papers, eventually having to decide which of the enticing collection materials should be included in the exhibition’s limited space. Finally, all that remained was creating the layout, an act that allowed me even more creative freedom.

After only four weeks of work, the exhibition is finished. I hope that it will introduce viewers unfamiliar with Bowles to The Sheltering Sky, as the process of its creation similarly educated me.

Researching 1959

By Jennifer Tisdale

Fred Kaplan worked in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Rooms while researching his book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which was released last month. He describes his work at the Center:

I came down to the Harry Ransom Center for a few days in the summer of 2008 as part of my research for a book that wound up being titled 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley, 2009). I focused mainly on the papers of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg. Without the materials that I found there, my book would have been less rich and complete than it is. Certain letters and diary entries in the Mailer papers forced me to revise my concept and chronology of where and when Mailer acquired or devised some of his most original and influential ideas. Poring through the Ginsberg papers, I was hoping to find connections between his poetry and two excitements of the era: jazz and space exploration. I found both.

Apply for a fellowship at the Ransom Center and "watch works develop in their different stages"

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center announces its application process for the more than 50 fellowships that are awarded annually to support scholarly research projects in all areas of the humanities. Applicants must apply by February 1, 2010, and demonstrate the need for substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections.

Recent fellow Daniel Worden, who received a Dorot Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Jewish Studies, describes his experience at the Ransom Center:

This summer, I worked in the Norman Mailer papers at the Harry Ransom Center, through the support of a Dorot Foundation Fellowship. This research trip allowed me to begin work on my new book project, “Cool Realism: The New Journalism and American Literary Culture.” This book will focus on literary non-fiction from the 1960s and 1970s that adopts techniques from fiction writing. Norman Mailer is key to this project, and the Ransom Center’s collections proved to be a perfect starting point for my research.

Since I was primarily interested in Mailer’s non-fiction writing, I was able to focus the first two weeks of my research on a few key texts, namely, The Armies of the Night, The Fight, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago. On my first day at the Ransom Center, I was thrilled to find an early introduction to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s book about the 1967 March on the Pentagon, that compared his journalistic method to Truman Capote’s, as realized in In Cold Blood. Mailer argued in this draft introduction that he relies less on fact and more on “mood” in documenting events. It is precisely this type of comparison, and the resulting ideas about what constitutes “true” writing and meaningful journalism, that I was hoping to find.

Working at the Ransom Center was a joy. The curators and librarians were incredibly helpful, and I was able to accomplish much during my stay because the environment at the Ransom Center is so conducive to archival work. As an added bonus, Austin is such a vibrant city—there was always something to do after the reading room closed.

Watch the video of Worden discussing his research and describing how one “can watch works develop in their different stages.”