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Tim O’Brien becomes first fiction writer to win Pritzker Award

Tim O'Brien. © Marion Ettlinger.
Tim O'Brien. © Marion Ettlinger.

Novelist Tim O’Brien has been awarded the 2013 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing, marking the first time a fiction writer has won the $100,000 prize. O’Brien, whose archive resides at the Ransom Center, is the author of such works as The Things They Carried (1980) and In the Lake of The Woods (1994).

The Ransom Center acquired O’Brien’s archive in 2007. The more than 25 boxes of material document the author’s life and work, including a story about war he wrote as a boy, his military jacket and awards, weather-damaged letters received from his family while he was in Vietnam, a map of that country heavily annotated decades later, and his research notes for his novels. The bulk of the archive consists of materials related to O’Brien’s novels, including If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Northern Lights (1975), Going After Cacciato (1978), The Nuclear Age (1985), and July, July (2002).

Related content:

Read more about what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.

View selected items from his archive.

Fellows Find: “How to Revise a True War Story”

Snapshot of Tim O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.
Snapshot of Tim O'Brien in Vietnam. Unknown date and photographer.

John K. Young, a professor of English at Marshall University, reflects on the production history of Tim O’Brien’s novels and their implications for the kinds of narratives that are possible for soldiers’ experiences in the Vietnam War. Young received a fellowship from the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund.

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it,” Tim O’Brien writes in “How to Tell a True War Story.” As the O’Brien papers at the Harry Ransom Center reveal, perhaps the most prominent American novelist of the Vietnam War has kept on telling true war stories not only by mining his experience as a foot soldier across numerous works that often blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction, but also by continuing to revise those books, from the initial appearance of selected chapters in magazines, across typescripts and page proofs for first editions, and even to paperback reprints. While the Center’s collection does not include O’Brien’s earliest manuscripts (most of which he destroyed), it does enable scholars to trace O’Brien’s process of revision across multiple stages of a work’s production. In keeping with this refusal to let a text settle into a fixed, final form, O’Brien returned most recently to The Things They Carried, his 1990 masterwork, for a 2009 edition that contains substantial changes to the stories “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “The Ghost Soldiers,” although these revisions are too recent to have made their way to the Austin archive yet.

During a month-long fellowship in the summer of 2012, I made my way through five of O’Brien’s major works: If I Die in a Combat Zone, his Vietnam memoir; Northern Lights, his first novel; Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award for 1979; The Things They Carried; and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien’s fictional response to the My Lai massacre. In each case I found fascinating instances of what the editorial theorist John Bryant calls “revisions sites,” moments in a text that offer divergent readings in response to author’s and publisher’s multiple versions. While many of these changes seem minor—adjusting punctuation or reworking the order of a sentence—even such small moments can take on striking interpretive implications. The closing lines in the opening chapter of Cacciato, for instance, describe the protagonist, PFC Paul Berlin, as he watches the title character on his AWOL escape from the war: “‘Go,’ whispered Paul Berlin. It did not seem enough. ‘Go,’ he said, and then he shouted, ‘Go!’” The exclamation mark did not appear in the book’s first edition or in the versions of the first chapter that had been previously published in Ploughshares and Gallery. For a 1986 paperback reprint, O’Brien changed the punctuation, subtly heightening Paul Berlin’s emotional connection to the runaway soldier and, by extension, to his own fantasies of flight, which make up much of the narrative. Similarly, one of Cacciato’s several “Observation Post” chapters—in which Paul Berlin reflects on his tour of duty so far and the comrades who have been killed—first included a paragraph in which he attempts to reconstruct the sequence of those deaths, ending with the line “Then Cacciato.” This suggests the possibility that Cacciato has himself been dead from the time the novel begins, a reading that would add another layer of imagination to the platoon’s journey from Vietnam to Paris. But O’Brien deleted this line for a later paperback edition, returning Cacciato’s fate to greater levels of ambiguity.

Some revisions are much larger in scope. To take one example, the typescript of The Things They Carried originally included a chapter entitled “The Real Mary Anne,” which followed “The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” a powerful narrative about a high school girl from Cleveland who visits the war and eventually so embraces its chaos and moral rupture that she leaves the Green Berets behind, disappearing into the jungle. Whereas Things often returns to an episode to announce that it was not “true,” at least not in the factual sense, “The Real Mary Anne” (in Box 15, Folder 7) insists on perhaps the book’s most improbable story as entirely accurate, declaring, “there is substantial evidence that the pivotal events in this story actually occurred.” At the suggestion of his editor at Houghton Mifflin, O’Brien cut this chapter altogether from the published book, an omission that locates “Sweetheart” along the same lines as the book’s other chapters, in which the truth of a reader’s experience of the war trumps fidelity to historical detail. Readers often take this story to be the most clearly “made up,” even as such reactions may say as much about ongoing social assumptions about gender and war. While the inclusion of “The Real Mary Anne” might have more overtly interrogated those cultural biases, without it Things still oscillates artfully between metafiction and real expressions of trauma.

It is at this level that the array of revisions in the O’Brien archive is most telling: how they depict the ongoing effort in O’Brien’s texts to represent the trauma of war, and of Vietnam in particular. On the one hand, O’Brien’s work articulates the impossibility of not telling these stories; on the other hand, “How to Tell a True War Story” and other texts respond to the intractable problem of only a few readers—other Vietnam veterans—being able to truly understand the stories. Dr. Jonathan Shays, a psychiatrist who has worked extensively with Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, explains in his book Achilles in Vietnam that “Traumatic memory is not narrative. Rather, it is experience that reoccurs.” For Shays, one of the most important steps in addressing—which is not to say “curing”—the effects of post-traumatic stress comes from “rendering it communicable, however imperfectly.” Readers of Cacciato and Things, especially, have long known the ways in which these texts respond to the difficult necessity of rendering the war communicable at the level of fractured plots and thematic resistances to closure, but the materials in the Ransom Center allow them to discover as well the ways in which O’Brien’s processes of writing and revising themselves speak to the undying truths of war.

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

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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.

The book jacket for the first edition of Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451."
The book jacket for the first edition of Ray Bradbury’s "Fahrenheit 451."

This Veteran’s Day Weekend: Free Book Giveaway of Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"

Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'
Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is an account of soldiers’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Like his other National Book Award-winning work, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried offers readers a glimpse of war that neither glorifies nor camouflages its realities. O’Brien himself has said he is only attempting to tell a “true war story.” Because of O’Brien’s frank depiction of war and strong use of language, The Things They Carried has been challenged and banned by some counties and schools.  In connection with the Ransom Center’s exhibition Burned, Banned, Seized, and Censored, visitors are invited to see the exhibition during Veteran’s Day weekend, Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, and receive a free copy of The Things They Carried while supplies last. Tim O’Brien’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.

In the Galleries: "Love and Relationships"

Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

In one of Tennessee Williams’s early writings in which he interviews himself, he identifies his audience as “the wild at heart kept in cages.” He also notes that the play Battle of Angels is a prayer for “more tolerance and respect for the wild and lyric impulses that the human heart feels and so often is forced to repress in order to avoid social censure and worse.”

The human heart and its freedom becomes a theme in both of the current exhibitions, whether about the personal life and work of Tennessee Williams, as seen in Becoming Tennessee Williams, or in the characters and novels featured in Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century.

Williams’s draft of The Glass Menagerie, when it was still titled The Gentleman Caller, represents Williams’s personal and professional life. You see him working through what will become his iconic play, but you also see doodles and a dedication to his grandma Rose, who “perforated the lid of my own particular cubicle, thus preventing suffocation and allowing me to continue certain activities inside.” Another important Rose in his life was his sister, whose correspondence to her brother demonstrates their close bond. She writes: “The memory of your gentle, sleepy, sick body and face are such a comfort to me… if I die you will know that I miss you 24 hours a day.”

A more tempestuous relationship is brought to a close in an elegantly written letter from Williams to former lover Pancho Rodriguez. Williams writes: “One thing for which I don’t pity myself is the two years we spent together… You were you, wild, wonderful, a poem.” He caringly instructs Rodriguez to “keep faith with all the beautiful things in your heart… Walk tall, walk proud through this world.”

The exhibition demonstrates how film adaptations modified relationships in Williams’s written work. In Sweet Bird of Youth, the ending was changed to achieve a happy Hollywood resolution, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, the dialog about Blanche’s first love was heavily revised to appease the censors.

Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century reiterates the topic of love and relationships, specifically in writings by Tim O’Brien, Don DeLillo, and James Salter. In Tim O’Brien’s typescript from The Things They Carried for the chapter “Stockings,” love supersedes borders and war zones. Henry Dobbins uses his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a talisman, and we see O’Brien crafting the passage, crossing through lines and adding a large handwritten section of notes. The story ends with the girlfriend breaking up with Henry, but the power of the remembered love keeps him, and his fellow soldiers, going.

A strong marriage bond connects Jack Gladney and his current wife Babette in Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Gladney muses: “Sometimes I think our love is inexperienced. The question of dying becomes a wise reminder. It cures us of our innocence of the future. Simple things are doomed, or is that a superstition?” He continues: “Babette and I tell each other everything… turned our lives for each other’s thoughtful regard, turned them in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep into the night… In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now.” DeLillo’s handwritten notes for the novel are featured in the exhibition.

James Salter’s novel The Light Years charts the trajectory of another marriage. At the start, the husband, Viri, “wants to enter the aura surrounding her [his wife], to be accepted… [but] soon after they were married, perhaps an hour after… the desperate, unbearable affection vanished, and in its place was a young woman of twenty condemned to live with him… the mistake she knew she would have to make was made at last… She had accepted the limitations of her life.” Later in the novel Nedra explains how impossible it is to live with her husband and summarizes it as ”what turns you to powder, being ground between what you can’t do and what you must do. You just turn to dust.” The novel portrays what happens when one’s heart’s passion is not pursued, as Williams seems to warn against in his “prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”

The exhibitions are rich with original materials that give glimpses into human emotion, fictional and personal. Becoming Tennessee Williams and Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century are on view through July 31, 2011.

The Writer’s Project: Searching for something to say

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.

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of "The Things They Carried"

2010 marks the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling. The book depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of 43.

The Ransom Center acquired the archive of the National Book Award–winning writer in 2007, and a finding aid for the collection is available online. Also, read what O’Brien has to say about his papers residing at the Ransom Center.

 

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