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Meet the Staff: Archivist Amy Armstrong

By Gabrielle Inhofe

Meet the Staff is a new Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlight the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. The series kicks off with a Q&A with Amy Armstrong, who has been an archivist at the Ransom Center since January 2009 and is head of the Archives Cataloging Unit in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Science in Information Studies degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Armstrong has processed many collections at the Ransom Center, including the papers of Sanora Babb, William Faulkner, Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, and the McSweeney’s publishing archive. She also catalogs non-commercial sound recordings in the Ransom Center’s holdings.  

 

Tell us about any current archives you’re working with.

I’m currently processing the records of McSweeney’s publishing house, which is a dream come true. I also catalog non-commercial sound recordings, which are sort of a “hidden collection.” We have almost 14,000 recordings, [including] some amazing recordings from Erle Stanley Gardner, Norman Mailer, and Denis Johnson. I’m committed to making them easier for patrons to find and use, and if they aren’t preserved, they’ll deteriorate.

 

What is your favorite collection that you have processed?

I actually love all of them, but one of my favorite collections is the Sanora Babb papers. Babb was an amazing woman who had big aspirations beyond the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, where she lived in the early 1920s. After immigrating to California, she wrote a novel about Dust Bowl migrants. However, the contract for her book was cancelled, because John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was simultaneously being published. Babb was also married to cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was Japanese, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. She loved life and didn’t take it for granted.

 

What is your favorite thing about your work?

My responsibility as an archivist is to ensure that the materials we’ve been entrusted to preserve are made available as widely as possible for anyone to use. I get such a thrill when I know someone has come into the Reading and Viewing Room and used a collection I have processed. After all, that’s why the Ransom Center exists and why are all so committed to the work we do here.

 

Have you had a favorite experience processing archives?

Denis Johnson autographed a book for my husband, who is a big fan. I was so touched by his kindness and generosity. It really made my year.

 

What is your favorite book?

The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.

 

What is one of your primary interests?

Culinary history!

 

Have you lived anywhere unusual?

I grew up in San Antonio and lived for three years in England when my mom worked at RAF Alconbury, an American Air Force Base.

 

Related content:

View other blog posts written by Amy Armstrong

 

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Sanora Babb: “An Owl on Every Post”

By Ady Wetegrove

Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."
Cover of Sanora Babb's "An Owl on Every Post."

Known for her evocative depictions of life in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, author Sanora Babb shares her family’s perpetual bouts with struggles against crop-failure, starvation, mortgage foreclosures, and loneliness in her memoir An Owl on Every Post. Experiencing pioneer life in a one-room dugout shelter, Babb viewed the land—which both tormented and beguiled her—from an up-close, eye-level perspective.

When her family relocated from the security of a small town to an isolated 320-acre farm on the western plains, the young Babb sought to find beauty and joy in her vast and desolate surroundings. The result of her introspection is a body of work that includes essays, short stories, poems, and five books.

In a new edition of her long-out-of-print memoir, An Owl on Every Post, Babb writes with immediacy and lyricism about growing up on the Colorado Plains. An Owl on Every Post reveals the values—courage, pride, determination, and love—that kept Babb’s family from despair and total ruin. The memoir, originally published in 1971, is now available with a new introduction by Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Kennedy.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials related to An Owl on Every Post are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains.

Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains

By Ady Wetegrove

Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.
Photo of Sanora Babb. 1938.

Coming of age on the American High Plains, American novelist Sanora Babb was familiar with the endeavor for dignity among the people living in the poverty-stricken area. With her intimate knowledge of the landscape, she provided access to the daily circumstances of individuals struggling to survive in the Dust Bowl. Babb sought to depict the High Plains as a featureless physical space, while humanizing “the Great American Desert” as the stage on which people’s daily lives unfolded.

The Ransom Center holds the Sanora Babb papers, and some of the materials are highlighted in the Center’s web exhibition Sanora Babb: Stories from the American High Plains. In her fiction, Babb sought to illuminate the stories of those families who left little written account of the unrelenting duress and the socio-economic strife that characterized the American High Plains at mid-century. Materials from this collection are also featured in this Sunday’s premiere of Ken Burns’s new documentary The Dust Bowl on PBS, which draws heavily on Babb’s novels and documentary writings.

Before the stock market crash in October 1929, Babb moved from Colorado to Los Angeles where she found work as a scriptwriter for a radio station and began publishing her literary work in experimental activist magazines. These “little magazines” helped Babb get her foot in the door, and she soon met writers Dorothy Parker, Ralph Ellison, Genevieve Taggard, Nathanael West, John Howard Lawson, Theodore Dreiser, and B. Traven.

Increasingly involved in political activism and social advocacy, Babb worked with the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to set up tent settlements for the dispossessed in California’s farmlands. Babb’s employment with the FSA, as well as her own childhood experiences, provided the subtext for her first novel, Whose Names Are Unknown, which chronicles the lives of displaced High Plains families and their struggle to find work as seasonal harvesters in California.

Although Random House accepted Babb’s novel for publication in 1939, the contract was rescinded when John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was published during the same year. According to Random House editor Bennet Cerf, the market could not support two books with similar subjects. Although both Steinbeck and Babb explore the Dust Bowl exodus of the 1930s, the authors interpret the difficult conditions in starkly different terms. In Whose Names Are Unknown, the intimate world of human relationships relies on testimonial witnessing, while Grapes of Wrath employs symbolic means to represent the condition of “Oakies.”

Disappointed that Whose Names are Unknown was eclipsed by Steinbeck’s work, Babb turned her attention to the manuscript of her second novel, The Lost Traveler (1958). Babb continued to work as a writer and publisher into her eighties, publishing An Owl on Every Post (1971), Cry of the Tinamou (1997), and Told in the Seed (1998). A re-edited manuscript of Whose Names Are Unknown, published in 2004, received critical recognition as a rival to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.

Letters in Knopf archive show challenges Ray Bradbury faced early in his career

By Jean Cannon

Legendary science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, author of the classics Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, died last Wednesday at the age of 91. In his long writing career, Bradbury published hundreds of novels and short stories, becoming an icon in the world of literature that describes aliens, space ships, faraway planets—and the future of books.

Like the 13-year-old characters in his Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury spent much of his boyhood visiting the public libraries of his Midwest hometown, where he was inspired by the works of such writes as Aldous Huxley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Throughout his life he was an enormous supporter of libraries, advocating them as some of the most important institutions in American life and culture. The son of an electrician father and a Swedish immigrant mother, Bradbury lacked the means for a formal college education and prided himself on being largely self-taught. In 1971, in aid of a fundraising effort for public libraries in southern California, he published the essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” Like the characters in his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury feared a future wherein books would become obsolete.

Bradbury faced an arduous challenge in making his own futuristic novels part of the libraries he so dearly loved. Early in his career, he had difficulty garnering interest for his science fiction stories from mainstream publishing houses. He was famously “discovered” by a young Truman Capote, then a staff member at Mademoiselle, who picked Bradbury’s 1947 short story “Homecoming” out of the slush pile of submissions to the magazine and encouraged its publication. The Alfred A. Knopf archive at the Harry Ransom Center, however, reveals that despite Capote’s early advocacy, Bradbury continued to meet with difficulties when seeking a home for his work. In a rejection letter from 1948, a reader at the publishing house professes hesitation toward Bradbury’s first novel, Dark Carnival. The evaluator states that though there is “much talk about town” of Bradbury’s “weird, unusual, and tricky” stories, “the style, while adequate, lacks distinction.”

Three decades later Bradbury, by then a seasoned author with dozens of publications to his credit, became a highly valued writer at the Knopf firm. During the 1970s he worked closely with editors Robert Gottlieb and Nancy Nicholas, who published his Where Robot Mice and Robot Men Run Round in Robot Towns, Dandelion Wine, and When Elephants Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, among others. In a letter to Nicholas (shown in the slideshow above), Bradbury, who often wrote nostalgically of childhood, included a picture of himself at the age of three. He jocularly describes the photograph as “beautifully serious, as if the young writer had just been disturbed in the midst of some creative activity.”

The Ransom Center also houses manuscripts and letters related to Ray Bradbury in its Lloyd W. Currey, Sanora Babb, Eliot Elisofon, Lillian Hellman, B. J. Simmons, and Tim O’Brien archives. Additionally, the Ransom Center’s Lewis Allen collection contains screenplay drafts, correspondence, casting notes, call sheets, and promotional materials for François Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.

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