The Harry Ransom Centre's aggressive acquisition strategy has ruffled feathers, but it will benefit scholars for years to come ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
David Mamet had a problem. After several dozen plays, he was famous enough to feel bad about binning the stacks of notebooks and marginalia that most writers should send straight to recycling. “Why,” he recalls wondering, “had I collected this mass of junk, most of which I never wanted to see again?” So when dealers from the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center came calling, it was a lucky break. Surely there was someone with “a surfeit of time and an interest in the arcane”, who might find such things useful, or at least diverting, he said at the time.
The Mamet papers—300 boxes of drafts, journals and files—were acquired in 2007. It was a coup in a decade of coups for the Ransom Center, which has, since 2000, also acquired the archives of Norman Mailer, David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo and more than 50 other writers. That makes it one of the most successful acquisitions efforts of any research library in recent memory—and one of the most controversial. Many of the complaints have come from Britain, which has never been happy to see British papers go to American universities with deep pockets and hefty endowments.
And the dons have a particular challenge with Tom Staley (pictured), a Joyce scholar and the Texas centre’s director since 1988. Mr Staley is charged with recruiting authors as aggressively as other Texans recruit football stars. He is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the villain in A.S. Byatt’s 1990 novel “Possession”—an academic named Mortimer Cropper from an obscure university in New Mexico, who smoothes over his rough manners with stacks of money and even robs a poet’s grave. In 2007 the controversy had been percolating for so long that it earned Mr Staley a long profile in the New Yorker.
The profile suggests that Mr Staley himself has been unimpressed by the criticism. But the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, "Culture Unbound: Collecting in the 21st Century", represents a tacit response. Alongside a selection of highlights from the archives acquired since 2000 are a series of explanations from authors and their agents about their dealings with the centre. Drawn from various speeches and interviews, these quotes—illuminating and rationalising in turns—are posted on the walls of the exhibition.
Most of them discreetly ignore the financial incentive. Mr DeLillo offered that the boxes of papers “mark the physical dimensions of a writer’s labor.” Mailer reminisced that after some Army training in Texas, he was very impressed by the state’s toughness—although he said he ultimately decided to go with the Ransom Center because it was one of the best archives in the country. (“What the hell. Since it’s going to Texas, let’s say one of the best in the world.”) As for Wallace, he had ignored inquiries from the centre before his death in 2008. But Bonnie Nadell, his agent, explained that organising his papers “was not a task I would wish on many people”. It seems he “left his work in a cold, dark garage filled with spiders and in no order whatsoever.”
There is an element of caprice to the Ransom collection. This exhibition shows only a fraction of the centre’s recent acquisitions, and some of the artefacts here seem random. On display, for example, is a one-off effort from Picasso—a souvenir luncheon plate painted in honour of a friend’s dog. But the prim controversies about the Ransom Center’s aggressive approach to collecting obscure the larger questions about why institutions collect at all, and to what purpose. The tiny share of papers on view foreshadows some of the scholarly work that will be pursued here in years to come. Indeed, the collection's value is in its strategic breadth, as it features many notable writers in correspondence with one another.
Wallace’s holdings, for example, have attracted tremendous attention, partly because his suicide left his work unfinished. Researchers have already begun trawling through the boxes to see what they can find. In a poignant piece for the Awl, Maria Bustillos noted that his library of heavily annotated books includes a number of entries from the self-help genre. Even in the few documents that are highlighted in the exhibition, some of Wallace’s lifelong concerns emerge. One is a recurrent dialogue about the nature and meaning of language. “Language and grammar are the distinctive human attainment,” he wrote in notes for a 2001 essay. “They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: In the beginning was the Word).” In a book on the history of the English language, he underlined the following and added an exclamation point: the average person “is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.” Readers get a sense that Wallace always struggled with the trade-off between clarity and creativity, and saw a moral dimension in this dilemma.
This is reminiscent of an exchange Wallace had with Mr DeLillo in 1995. “How do I allow myself to have Fun when writing without sacrificing Respect and Seriousness, i.e., going back to exhibitionism and show-offery and pointless technical acrobatics?” In his response—also part of the collection—Mr DeLillo wrote: “Where you see fun in my work, I remember doubt, confusion, and indecision.” The two writers corresponded for years, although only about a dozen of their letters are displayed in the exhibition. I preferred the more bracing advice in a 1959 letter sent from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer: “Remember only suckers worry. You can’t write, fuck or fight if you worry.” But, he cautions, that “doesn’t mean not to think.”
These exchanges illuminate the concerns of otherwise solitary writers, and the Ransom Center’s acquisition strategy has kept many such streams of correspondence under one roof. Texas may not be the natural habitat of these papers, but it is a benefit to scholars that the centre has the means to keep writers in the company they kept.
"Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century" is on display through July 31st at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin