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Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

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Fellows Find: Jimmy Hare photography collection reveals early photojournalism history

 

Jimmy Hare. “Revolutionary with bullets.” Undated.
Jimmy Hare. “Revolutionary with bullets.” Undated.

John Mraz is a research professor in the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades “Alfonso Vélez Pliego” of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla. He received a fellowship from the David Douglas Duncan Endowment for Photojournalism and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Research Fellowship Endowment to study “Jimmy Hare’s Photographs of the Mexican Revolution.”

In 2012, my book Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons was published by the University of Texas Press. The leading combat photographer of that struggle was Jimmy Hare, who brought to Mexico the experience he had acquired in the Cuban-Spanish-American War (1898) and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). The Ransom Center is home to the James H. Hare collection, and, as my book had concentrated on the Mexican photographers (and specifically on determining their commitments to the different factions), I decided to investigate Hare’s photography of the Mexican Revolution in greater depth, with the idea of producing a short monograph on his imagery of that struggle. There are approximately 120 images (largely in the form of lantern slides) in the archive relating to the Mexican Revolution (1911–1917). The great majority of these are of the 1911 battle of Ciudad Juárez, though some ten images of the 1914 U.S. invasion of Veracruz also can be found in this archive.

I had hoped to find new images, especially of the Veracruz invasion, and documents (diaries, field notes, letters, clippings, etc.) written by Hare that could be incorporated into the monograph. It appears, however, this Hare gave that material to his biographer, Cecil Carnes, for the book published in 1940, Jimmy Hare: News Photographer. Furthermore, many Hare photographs that I encountered in the Carnes book and in the illustrated magazine Collier’s are not part of the Ransom Center’s archive. The monograph I had wanted to write will have to wait until the discovery of other parts of Jimmy Hare’s archive.

Although I could not carry out my proposed project, I did find convincing evidence that Jimmy Hare must be considered among the world’s first modern photojournalists. This is an important discovery for scholars of press photography, as we have generally argued that modern photojournalism begins with the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 and photographers such as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and the Hermanos Mayo. Modern photojournalism is defined by several elements: the photographs are spontaneous rather than posed; they have been taken in the midst of action and with a small camera that permits the photographer to get in that situation without being exposed to enemy fire; the imagery often contains movement within the frame, either because that actually occurred or because the photographer created it by moving the camera slightly or by leaving the diaphragm open longer than necessary; and the photojournalists are committed to one side rather than being neutral observers. Hare alluded to such imagery in his foreword to the Carnes book: “I want to stress the fact here that what I did was to try to obtain pictures of action in the early days of war photography— not just static group scenes.” Obviously, modern photojournalism required gaining access to the front; the censorship practiced by all the armies engaged in World War I prohibited photographers from taking the pictures Hare and others were able to make in the Cuban-Spanish-American War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the Mexican Revolution.

Working in the Ransom Center allowed me to compare Hare’s imagery of struggles where he obtained access to the front to those he made of the Russo-Japanese War and of World War I, which are largely posed scenes of daily life behind the lines. It also permitted me to contrast his photography with that of another early photojournalist whose archive is found in the Ransom Center, Ernest William Smith, who took pictures of the Boer War in 1899. Smith’s images are almost entirely posed—British troops and Boer rebels stand in front of the camera in groups—or they are taken from a distance, in what might be described as “establishing shots.” I have no idea which camera Smith worked with, but there are no “pictures of action” such as Hare described.

Hare was not the only photojournalist to cover the Cuban-Spanish-American War. John C. Hemment photographed that struggle for Hearst publications, and hundreds of illustrated books were produced to celebrate the U.S. triumph over Spain. Whether Hare can be considered the first modern photojournalist will require work in the archives of individuals such as Hemment. Yet, at this early point in my research, it is clear that Jimmy Hare is certainly among the first modern photojournalists in the world.

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Fellow discusses work on wartime photography collections

Fellows Find: Gloria Swanson biographer discovers rich material in Ransom Center’s archive

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard.  Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well.  Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up.  Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.

 

When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff.  The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism.  She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris.  She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.

Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life.  I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs.  Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today.  Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall.  There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.

Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format.  Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem!  Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there.  She’s taking care of them.’”  The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.

I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s.  These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns.  In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco.  Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did.  They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.

Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that.  It is the ideal archive.

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.

 

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Biographer Stephen Michael Shearer uses Gloria Swanson collection to paint a more in-depth portrait of the star in new biography

Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”
Cover of Stephen Michael Shearer’s “Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star.”

Although best known for her role as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson was a legendary actress even before then.  She starred in countless silent films, working with celebrities Cecil DeMille and Charlie Chaplin.  Vivacious and enigmatic, Swanson was known for her extravagant clothing, spending, and love life.

 

In his new biography Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer utilized the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection, which includes personal correspondence, professional contracts, and ephemera.

 

Swanson was not known for being revelatory or reflective, and an interesting quotation from one of Swanson’s 1943 diary entries, held in the Ransom Center’s collection, stands out in Shearer’s book. She writes, “God’s wisdom finds no solace, no satisfaction in sin, since God has sentenced sinners to suffer.”  This introspective quote is at a discord with her usual attitude of rarely expressing remorse, whether for her inveterate spending and debts or the many hearts she broke.

 

Swanson also worked hard to gloss over anything negative and to cultivate an image of perpetual stardom. Her dramatic and charismatic persona was always on display, drawing men and women alike to her. “Swanson was drenched in her concept of her own allure and femininity,” said Shearer.  Swanson’s carefully crafted autobiography Swanson on Swanson reflects this tendency to conceal the negative aspects of her life and showcase her greatness, but holdings such as this diary entry help paint a portrait of Swanson that goes beyond Norma Desmond and Swanson on Swanson.

Notes in Norman Mailer archive shed light on Lee Harvey Oswald

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.

Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.

Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.

One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”

Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.

 

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New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

The Ransom Center recently published a new finding aid for one of its richest collections of early manuscripts: the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired in 1986, along with 1,100 other rare early printed editions of English literature that form the Pforzheimer library. The manuscripts include nearly 2,000 items dating from 1485 to 1844 that feature original correspondence from European monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats. Represented are works and letters by notable figures in British history such as Oliver Cromwell, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, John Evelyn, John Locke, Samuel Pepys, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

 

The new finding aid represents the first-ever online description of the Center’s Pforzheimer manuscripts and provides a new wealth of detail about the collection. Each manuscript has been individually cataloged, and digitization of all of the Pforzheimer manuscripts is ongoing. As digitization is completed, the descriptions and images will be added to the Ransom Center’s publically available digital collections.

 

The Pforzheimer manuscripts have several thematic strengths. For example, there are letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I relating to the ultimately failed negotiations for her marriage to François, Duke of Anjou. Another theme encompasses letters and documents signed by participants in the regicide of King Charles I of England, including two letters by Oliver Cromwell. Another grouping is anchored by a significant collection of letters by philosopher John Locke and additional letters by other English Enlightenment-era thinkers from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Several founding members of the British Royal Society are represented in this group, especially Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn—two famous diarists of the period who provide modern-day historians with first-hand perspectives on English culture, politics, and science in the period. Among Evelyn’s materials are original hand-drawn sketches of gardens and naval battles, and letters to colleagues discussing the classification of herbs.

 

Another highlight is a beautifully extra-illustrated 1833 biography of Sir Walter Raleigh, created by nineteenth-century collector John Dillon to hold his extensive collection of original manuscripts by Raleigh and his contemporaries along with more than 500 rare prints and original art. Other items of significance to the history of art and literature include letters by seventeenth-century poet John Donne and eighteenth-century playwright William Congreve; a rare early seventeenth-century copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar translated into Latin; and a vellum handwriting showcase book from 1606 by Esther Inglis, one of very few known women calligraphers of her era. There are also two letters by members of the early Quaker religious movement, Margaret Askew Fell Fox and Isaac Penington.

 

The largest group of manuscripts in the collection originated from the Bulstrodes, an aristocratic English family prominent in Middlesex in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By far the bulk and the most significant of these manuscripts are 1,469 handwritten newsletters dating from 1667 to 1689 received by Sir Richard Bulstrode (1610–1711) while he was stationed in Brussels as an English diplomat. These newsletters provided Bulstrode with information from England that could not be printed in public newspapers, such as parliamentary business. The reportage in the newsletters offers today’s readers a first-hand insider’s perspective on English history and London culture in a tumultuous time. Readers will find reports on England’s involvement in North America, hostilities with the Dutch and French, court hearings about government censorship, parliamentary debates on the right of habeas corpus, the formation of the Whig and Tory political parties, the Popish Plot and persecutions of Catholics, the uneasy succession of Charles II by the Catholic James II, the Rye House Plot, the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary, and accounts of court gossip in the 1670s and 80s that involved Mary’s sister—the future Queen Anne.

 

Supported by additional correspondence between Bulstrode, the newsletter office owner Joseph Williamson, and some of Williamson’s clerks, the Pforzheimer collection preserves one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. And through its digital collections, the Center will provide access to a large collection of manuscript newsletters from this era, showcasing the immense value these documents have as primary sources for historical and cultural research.

 

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Fellows Find: Fleur Cowles archive sheds light on woman behind pioneering magazine “Flair”

Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Scholar Teal Triggs works with materials in the Fleur Cowles archive in the Ransom Center’s Reading Room. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

 


Teal Triggs is a Professor of Graphic Design and Associate Dean at Royal College of Art, London. She spent time at the Ransom Center over the summer exploring materials related to Fleur Cowles with funding from the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund. She shares some of her findings here.

 

With the support of the Fleur Cowles Endowment Fund, I was able to spend two weeks at the Harry Ransom Center exploring the personal archive of the journalist, painter, and American socialite Fleur Cowles (1908–2009). As a graphic design historian, my research has focused on the significance of the early 1950s American publication Flair magazine (1950–1951), created and edited by Cowles. The magazine ran for only 12 issues (with a limited-run, 5,000-copy, pre-publication prototype printed in September 1949), yet its influence would continue long after its closure. Whilst the Cowles archive at the Ransom Center is not specifically about Flair, it does contain related materials that provide useful insights into Fleur Cowles’s extensive social network, her commitment to the arts, and importantly for me, her working methods as a writer and editor.

 

Flair was very much a product of its time, simultaneously created as a response to the growth of specialist magazines and a nod to the new medium of television. As Cowles writes: “I wanted a magazine with ultimate dual reader appeal, male as well as female. And, in the frameword (sic) of television’s allure, I wanted a magazine of extraordinary visual excitement.” Flair achieved this with its unorthodox and experimental die-cut covers, unusual paper stock, tipped-in booklets, and luxurious use of space featuring illustration and photography. Undoubtedly, her editorial vision—signified by a drawing of her trademark rose—pushed the conventions of printing technologies and magazine design. Cowles found this a “thrilling gamble.” The original photographs in the collection show her sourcing paper in Milan and capture her exuberance in creating a magazine that has “a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery, with each new reading.”

 

As an editor, Cowles fulfilled, but also shaped, her reader’s aspirations. Flair was ultimately a reflection of Cowles’s own “jet-setting” lifestyle, with features on society’s elite, Hollywood celebrities, and exotic travel. The magazine featured those she knew and places she herself had visited, while often showcasing the contributions made by women with careers in politics. Flair was also a space where she expanded on her interest in design, with stories on interiors, architecture, and fashion. The archive material also shows that whilst Fleur promoted a stylized femininity, she was indeed a pioneer in promoting the role and careers of women in journalism and publishing.

 

Other documents in the collection clarify Cowles’s motivations. Before editing Flair, she was an Associate Editor at Look magazine—a publication owned by her then-husband “Mike” Gardner Cowles. One document that reveals Cowles’s commitment to gender equality is found in a speech she gave to the University of Syracuse and Syracuse Advertising and Sales Club on May 5, 1950. The title of her talk “The Woman in Publishing,” brought a decidedly feminist perspective to America’s publishing history, an aspect of her life I intend to explore further.

 

The opportunity to see the original magazines alongside supporting documents in the collection including letters, cards, telegrams, speeches, and manuscripts presented a rich context for my research, for which I am very grateful, and which will eventually appear in a book about Cowles’s impact on design.

 

Related content:

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Video: Fleur Cowles describes her artwork

Fleur’s Fleurs: “Flower Game” reveals friends and their favorite flowers

Slideshow: Cover art and designs of Flair magazine

Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.
These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

Scholar discusses research in De Niro collection

R. Colin Tait, a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, has used the Ransom Center’s Robert De Niro collection as the basis for his dissertation, “Robert De Niro’s Method: Acting, Authorship and Agency in the New Hollywood (1967–1980).” Tait argues that De Niro has been a major intellectual and creative contributor to the world of film and acting and writes about his research in the De Niro archive. Tait shares how the papers reveal the actor’s commitment to his craft with examples of his “meticulous research, collaborations with directors, and extreme bodily transformations.”

In the above video, Tait discusses De Niro’s place in the film canon.

R. Colin Tait works with papers in the Robert De Niro archive in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Photo by Pete Smith.
R. Colin Tait works with papers in the Robert De Niro archive in the Ransom Center’s reading room. Photo by Pete Smith.

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.”