Harry Ransom Center

D.J. Britton, award-winning dramatist and director, explains the research behind the “Sultan and the Saint” at Prothro Theater in the Harry Ransom Center.

Photo Credit: Claire Schaper | Daily Texan Staff

D.J. Britton, dramatist and Swansea University creative writing director, showcased his current research on the history of St. Francis of Assisi in a lecture Friday at the Harry Ransom Center.

The lecture was part of Swansea University’s Texas Showcase — a week-long tour presenting Welsh university’s research with stops at UT, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston.

Britton said the project, a collaboration with experts from both UT and Texas A&M, focuses on St. Francis’ role during the early 13th century as a peacemaker for the Middle East.

“I am personally very interested in the relationship between the ‘long view’ and the ‘short view,’” Britton said. 

Britton said he was a journalist before becoming a dramatist. According to him, journalists are focused on the short view, which are current events and factual information. As a dramatist, he gets to have a little more freedom by writing in what he calls the long view, which consists of creatively imagining what happens between the facts.

“As journalists, we tend to talk about things in the short view,” Britton said. “In a piece of theater, what you can explore are the things between the facts.”

Britton said the project’s work on the “Sultan and the Saint” is comprised of the collaborative efforts from researchers from various fields, including medieval studies, religious studies, poetry, journalism and Islamic studies.

“I’ve never seen a project so disciplinarily diverse,” English professor Kurt Heinzelman said. “Especially one with so many objectives, both in the short term and the long term.”

In Britton’s presentation, he focused on the meeting of St. Francis and Sultan Malik al-Kamil of Egypt during the Crusades. In 1219, St. Francis sought to gain an audience with the Sultan by crossing enemy lines during the Fifth Crusade. St. Francis travelled to the Sultan’s camp on the bank of the Nile River in hopes of converting him to Christianity. Britton said St. Francis did not succeed but came back with ideas about reconciliation between Islam and Christianity.

“We know that they met, and we know that it wasn’t a hostile meeting,” Britton said. “We don’t know what they said … now that’s a great opportunity for a playwright.”

Britton said he wants to explore what little is known about the Sultan and St. Francis’ meeting. That research, he said, will eventually come to life on stage.

“It’s a very unlikely friendship between these two people,” Britton said. “Let’s just imagine one afternoon that they are together acting out their parts.”

Author Jayne Anne Phillips speaks about the characters in her new book “Quiet Dell” at the Harry Ransom Center on Thursday. 

Photo Credit: Cristina Fernandez | Daily Texan Staff

Author Jayne Anne Phillips, read from her new book, “Quiet Dell,” at the Harry Ransom Center on Thursday.

“Quite Dell,” deals with the true horrific tragedy about a serial murder committed in Phillips’ hometown of West Virginia in the year of 1931. 

The historic event is about a widowed mother, Asta Eicher, becoming infatuated with a man named Harry Powers, who turns out to be a serial killer, eventually murdering Eicher and her three children. According to Phillips, the novel focuses more on one of Eicher's daughters, Annabel.

“I invented the personalities, perceptions, relationships even of these real characters,” Phillips said.

Phillips said her mother would tell her stories about the history of the murders. 

“I was drawn to this material because I’ve known about it all my life,” Phillips said. “But it was really this picture here [of Annabel] that really influenced me.”

This crime was one of the first crimes of the Great Depression, according to Phillips, and functioned as a warning and a lesson to women at the time. This caused another lead character, journalist Emily Thornhill, to become involved in the case. 

“It was spun as a warning and lesson to women which irritates Emily Thornhill really much, and irritated me,” Phillips said. 

Phillips said that while writing her book, it was interesting working with the evidence and gathering research over the years for the making of the novel. 

“I like to work with something. I need a shred of something real. I needed to go from the beginning to the end and even beyond the end,” Phillips said.

History junior Marlene Renz said she has not read the book yet, but she is very interested to do so after hearing hearing from Phillips about how the research went. 

“I thought it was so interesting how she gave the different perspectives and point of views in the book, and I really like how she tied in the research,” Renz said.

While working with the case, Phillips got the chance to go to the house that the family once lived in and visit their graves. She noticed that the graves were unmarked and that bothered her because the tombs marked the end of a family.

“I said to myself ‘If I finish this book, I am going to make sure there are foot stones here at these graves,’” Phillips said.

Phillips said the tombstones of the graves will be uncovered on Nov. 8.

Richard Davenport-Hines discusses the life of Victorian General Charles Gordon as part of a “British Studies Seminar” series at the Harry Ransom Center on Friday evening.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Tacy | Daily Texan Staff

Author Richard Davenport-Hines discussed the life and character of Victorian General Charles Gordon at the Harry Ransom Center on Friday, as part of its weekly “British Studies Seminar” series.

Davenport-Hines described Gordon’s rise from an artillery officer to a general and his eventual death during the evacuation of British troops at Khartoum.

“I’m going to look this afternoon at one of the oddest fish in the Victorian aquarium,” Davenport-Hines said. “A somber, menacing, grotesque creature who was idolized in his lifetime by English public opinion.”

According to Hines, Gordon grew fond of war after his involvement in 1856 in the Crimean War.            

“Gordon disliked military life but liked war,” Davenport-Hines said. “War was, for him, the only acceptable form of pleasure in life.”

Davenport-Hines said that, in 1862, Gordon led a group of Chinese officers fighting in the Taiping Rebellion, earning him the name of “Chinese Gordon.” Davenport-Hines also talked about Gordon’s intense Christian faith.

“All his actions were ruled by God’s presence,” Davenport-Hines said. “He saw himself living each day in the hands of God.”

According to Hines, Gordon’s death occurred during his evacuation of British troops in Sudan.

Martyn Hitchcock, an Austin resident who attended the lecture, said Hines’ lecture gave him a more detailed understanding of Gordon’s significance. 

“This talk was effectively a biography and character description, which enabled me to fill in my knowledge of him,” Hitchcock said. “[I learned more about] the strange person he was.”

Davenport-Hines said Gordon had a drinking problem toward the end of his life, despite his strong Christian faith.

Davenport-Hines also said Gordon had a disdain for women and preferred the company of men and prepubescent boys.

“He found all women either fearsome or repulsive,” Davenport-Hines said.

James Stratton, international relations and global studies senior, said he had limited knowledge of Gordon before coming to the event.  

“I had heard about the Mahdi rebellion in Sudan,” Stratton said.

Stratton said he was interested in learning more about Gordon’s sexuality.

“Also, [I was interested by] his sort of disdain for the female sex,” Stratton said. “[I’m interested in] how people back then interpreted sexuality and how they dealt with it. He totally repressed it and covered it up with religion, and so how people in the past dealt with sexuality and their feelings was very interesting to me because of my own background.”

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Award-winning novelist Ian McEwan presented his new novel, “The Children Act,” at the Harry Ransom Center on Wednesday.

McEwan is well known for his short stories and novels for adults and has won various awards for his distinguished works, including “Amsterdam,” “First Love” and “The Child in Time.” 

The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at the University, became home to McEwan’s archive in May. The archive includes drafts of his already published novels and some unpublished material from his adolescent career. 

McEwan said his newest novel was born from his interest in how one makes judgements.

“As ethical decisions are to be made on a daily basis, I began to take an interest in how judgments are made,” McEwan said. “It is not only judges who have to make verdicts.”

Virginia Reeves, a former member of the University’s Michener Center for Writers, who attended the presentation, said the McEwan archive is a great opportunity to get a closer look at information that only scholars or students writing their dissertations would be able to access.

“You get to see letters and drafts that have not been published, so I think it’s a wonderful thing,” Reeves said.

McEwan said the idea of judgements remains a focal point throughout the novel, first making an appearance in the first chapter. McEwan said his book is based on the idea that making judgments and verdicts often carries grave consequences.

Following the presentation, Ransom Center members and students formed long lines to buy copies of the novel and get an autograph from McEwan. 

Shannon Geison, a finance and government sophomore, said McEwan’s reading gave her a better understanding of his work that she read while she was in high school.

“In high school, I read ‘Atonement,’ which is probably regarded as his most famous book, and I absolutely loved it,” Geison said. “I really enjoyed seeing more of his work because I had only read one and was thus really excited to learn more about it and especially him reading it himself.”

Michener Center Director James Magnuson said McEwen’s presence was welcome at the Ransom Center as he is one of the most distinguished novelists of his generation.

“We are very happy to bring him back to Austin, and certainly any publication of Ian McEwan is reason enough for celebration,” Magnuson said. 

When tourists visit the National Mall in Washington D.C., they aren’t aware of the work and planning that goes into determining the different memorials’ details, said Phillip Kennicott, Washington Post art and architecture critic, in a speech at the Harry Ransom Center on Tuesday.

Kennicott said the District of Columbia War Memorial, which commemorates the fallen soldiers of World War I, involved many underlying factors and decisions that the public is unaware of.

“It’s a subject that’s kind of hidden in plain sight in Washington,” Kennicott said. “What people don’t realize is  there is this whole political backstory that there are in fact these organizations, like the Commission of Fine Arts, that have power, they were federally appointed people — they’re still federally appointed — to kind of go through every single detail [of the memorials].

Kennicott said people don’t appreciate the complexity of the architectural planning involved in the memorials in Washington. Kennicott also said one of the things that goes unseen is the memorials transformation, and he said he urges students to visit memorials surrounding them.

“When we visit Washington, we go there, and we just sort of see [the memorials] finished, and we don’t see that process of evolution,” Kennicott said. “There’s a lot of authorities to sort of guide these things to looking better. You don’t necessarily know that when you see Washington, but, when that process works well, it actually works really well. … I would love for students to get out and look at the memorial landscape that’s all around them.”

Steve Enniss, director of the Harry Ransom Center, said remembering history and how it is construed plays a key role on how the present is characterized.

“The topic of how we remember the past is of vital importance to how we define who we are in the present,” Enniss said. “So that kind of historical memory, whether it’s expressed through monuments and memorials, is vitally important for defining who we are in the present.”

Elizabeth Garver, associate professor and co-curator of the World War I memorial at the Ransom Center, said the World War I memorialization shows the impact it still has today.  

“For memorialization, it’s much more about how we’re still under the influence of World War I and the peace treaty, and all these boundaries rewritten after the war, the boundaries of Europe, the boundaries of Africa, the boundaries of the Middle East and how we’re still under the influence of the first world war,” Garver said.

Two-term U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins didn’t start publishing poetry until he was already in his 40s — but now, even writings from his early childhood will be available at the Harry Ransom Center. 

Collins, now 72 years old, is one of the most widely read poets in America. Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center, said Collins’ agent offered to add the expansive archive to its collection. The archive contains photos and compositions from Collins’ childhood, as well as diaries, datebooks, recordings and drafts of poems. 

Enniss said the Collins archive will be a worthy addition to the center’s poetry holdings.

“Billy Collins is a rare poet whose work has attracted a wide popular audience, and, at the same time, he has been recognized with some of the highest honors a poet in this country can earn,” Enniss said. 

Collins’ popularity has not made him immune to criticism. English professor William Scheick, who disagrees with Collins’ approach to poetry, said he still finds his work engaging.

“Collins is simply wrong about the nature of language, especially in narrative forms,” Scheick said. “Even so, Collins is clever, invitingly readable and, so, a delight to accompany into the experiences he celebrates.” 

English professor Kurt Heinzelman said he believes Collins’ work is important to the world of poetry.

“Billy Collins has given poetry a popularity and a performative stature that has been lacking since the time of Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost,” Heinzelman said.

Enniss said Collins’ collection of notebooks would be one of the more engaging features of the archive once it were to become available to patrons of the center.

“Certainly Collins’ manuscript notebooks, in which he works out the shape of a new poem, are some of the most fascinating things in the archive,” Enniss said.

The archive will be available at the Ransom Center once all the documents have been processed and catalogued.

Twenty one personal letters written by J.D. Salinger, author of “The Catcher in the Rye,” have been added to the Salinger collection at the Harry Ransom Center. In the letters, Salinger, who was known for keeping out of the public eye, directly addresses his reservations about the publishing process.

The letters, which were sent over a 40-year period, were nearly all addressed to Ruth Maier, a classmate of Salinger at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania until Salinger dropped out in 1938. After purchasing the letters from Maier’s family for $25,000, the Ransom Center added them to their already large Salinger collection, which also includes short stories, galley proofs, typescripts, and other writings — both published and unpublished. 

In November, an unknown source pirated two unpublished works from the Ransom Center and sold them for publication online.

According to Stephen Enniss, director of the Ransom Center, the letters will provide researchers with a candid insight into the life of the famous author.

“[The letters] will amplify what we know about Salinger and provide a fuller picture of his life. The correspondence is remarkable for its duration — 40 years — and for the open and unguarded way Salinger confided his thoughts to his friend,” Enniss said.

Enniss said the letters also reveal the rigor with which Salinger approached his work.

“I was most taken with what the correspondence reveals about Salinger’s high and exacting standards: He was unable to release new work into the world until he felt it was perfect in every way,” Enniss said.

Enniss said the new letters, and the Salinger collection overall, are important because they make famous authors accessible to today’s readers.

“This certainly opens up Salinger’s work to a new generation of students and scholars and [is] an important way the University fulfills its service to a research community,” Enniss said.

Salinger wrote candidly in many of the 40 letters, discussing Maier’s love life and marital status. In a letter from 1941, he wrote, “I hope you’re happy, Ruthie. You’re probably in love with the big handsome boy who kicks you in the stomach three times daily.”

In a 1978 letter to Maier, Salinger used a more jovial tone: “Ruth Smith Maier Pendergast Walker Snapperstein Combs (you do have a lot of names), Author of “Sheila’s Kid,” cabaret singer, mother of eighteen, Channel swimmer, etc.”

With the letters now available for viewing at the Ransom Center, psychology freshman Logan Hailey said she thinks the letters allow a rare look into Salinger’s personal life.

“Considering the profound literary influence of Salinger, releasing recently discovered letters, though personal, would be incredibly beneficial to both readers and scholars in understanding Salinger’s life and works,” Hailey said.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, the original version of this story incorrectly named J.D. Salinger's collection of work. Additionally, the story misstated the research restrictions placed upon the new letters. They are available through the Ransom Center's standard patron application.

Co-curators Elizabeth Garver and Jean Cannon have curated a collection of World War I posters, photographs and letters that will be on display at the Harry Ransom Center’s upcoming World War I exhibit next February.

Photo Credit: Joe Capraro | Daily Texan Staff

As fall approaches, students and curators at the Harry Ransom Center are wrapping up work on an upcoming World
War I exhibition.

The exhibit is titled “The World at War, 1914-1918” and highlights the lives, loves and literature of those who lived during the “war to end war.” Drawing on the Harry Ransom Center’s extensive in-house collection, the exhibit brings together a collage of various genres of literature and photography to portray the war from the perspective of civilians and soldiers.

Plan II senior Elizabeth Barnes spent her summer as an undergraduate summer intern at the center preparing an audio tour and accompanying booklet for the World at
War exhibition.

She said her experience at the Ransom Center was enriching and eye-opening; The
internship allowed her to comb through archives of photography and literature, selecting and compiling pieces to create the Harry Ransom Center’s first audio-visual tour.

“The Harry Ransom Center hadn’t done an audio tour, so I had a lot of latitude to develop a new experience,” Barnes said.

The tour features voice work of actors from the London Stage,
Barnes said.

Jean Cannon, a literary collections research associate, said the center has a great collection of propaganda from the British, German and Russian governments during that
time period.

“I don’t think we show all the German propaganda, especially the music, because … it’s in German,” Barnes said. “But, it’s fascinating to see the connections between it and a lot of our own music today. Those are the kinds of things that you really only see behind the scenes working at the
Ransom Center.” 

There’s a certain
sobriety about working on an exhibit like this, Elizabeth Garver, a historian and research associate at the Harry Ransom
Center, said. 

“World War I was the first war that was industrialized and mechanized,” Garver said. “The romance and glory of hand-to-hand combat is gone, and what’s left is a lot of the sadness and horror.” 

Cannon said there are points of light, even humor, in the literature. Letters from soldier-poets could be grittily sarcastic, a tone they sought to keep while working with minimal space on postcards and censorship from military officials.

“The soldiers would circulate parody newspapers making fun of the goings-on and some of those can be terribly sarcastic and funny,” Cannon said.

Students interested in the intersection of sports and literature have an opportunity this summer to study works of athletic literary achievment at the Harry Ransom Center until August.

The exhibition, Literature and Sport, contains almost 150 works of literature on the subject of sports by famous writers and literary critics. The pieces are categorized by different games, such as baseball, boxing and bullfighting, and each sport has its own exhibition hall. Works on exhibition include those of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Norman Mailer among othes.

Megan Barnard, assistant director for acquisitions and administration at the Harry Ransom Center, said the exhibition showcases not only the mechanics of athleticism, but also the deeper connotations of sportsmanship and the human body. 

“It demonstrates how writers have used sport as a backdrop upon which to examine broader issues related to human nature, personal struggle and the various complexities of life,” Barnard said. 

Barnard said she has already been contacted by one faculty member who will bring his class down to the center to see the exhibition in the fall.

Associate professor of English Coleman Hutchison said the exhibition will be a boon to his students in the fall when he teaches a signature course on the “Literature of Sports.” The exhibit will provide the materials for the class, Hutchison said.

“What’s most compelling about the literature of sport is its diversity,” Hutchison said. “Broad arrays of writers have taken up various sports in their fiction, poetry and essays. That diversity is something that the Ransom Center exhibition represents beautifully.” 

Associate professor of English Daniel Birkholz, who will share the teaching duty for the “Literature of Sports” class, said his only issue with the exhibit was that it was too short.

“My only complaint with the HRC exhibit is that it is going to be taken down too soon for Prof. Hutchison and I to have our fall semester students attend it,” Birkholz said.

Nathan Kinsman, a visitor of the exhibition and training specialist in the College of Natural Sciences, has been a die-hard baseball fan for more than a decade. He said the exhibition provides primary sources on baseball, different from TV, and that’s what draws him.

“The literature itself gives a real insight into people’s feelings, not just scores on TV, and the literature get us inside the feeling of how we interpret the perception of the game,” Kinsman said.

World renowned photojournalist Elliott Erwitt presents a slideshow of more than six decades of photographic work in Homer Rainey Hall Thursday night before a packed auditorium. The Harry Ransom Center recently acquired Erwitt’s photographic archive, including more than 50,000 signed prints.

Photo Credit: Thomas Allison | Daily Texan Staff

World-renowned photographer Elliott Erwitt has photographed a wide variety of subjects, from major historical figures to Parisian passersby and poodles. Erwitt presented personal favorites and well-known pieces at the Harry Ransom Center on Thursday night.

Erwitt joined the Magnum Photos agency in 1953, and his photos will be archived along with other Magnum pieces at the Ransom Center.

Erwitt had a major impact in the world of photojournalism and society in general, said Steven Hoelscher, a professor and chair of American Studies and Geography.

“Few photographers have had a greater impact on American culture than Elliott Erwitt,” Hoelscher said.

Part of Erwitt’s philosophy is that the perception of the photo plays a fundamental role in the quality of the photo, Hoelscher said.

“Photography is the art of observation,” Hoelscher said, quoting Erwitt. “It has little to do with what you see but rather how you see it.”

Erwitt called himself a professional photographer with a serious hobby in photography and began his slide show during Thursday’s event with photographs of dogs that were taken outside of his formal job.

“I like dogs for many reasons,” Erwitt said. “I’m sympathetic to them, they are universal, they don’t mind being photographed and they don’t ask for prints.”

These photos showed many examples of his usage of interesting perspectives and context to create a humorous or surprising photograph.

Erwitt also showed photographs documenting historical events, which Hoelscher said played a major role in shaping the culture of America, as well as the world. Erwitt told the story of a time when he was in Moscow during the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union.

“I took the very first pictures of the Soviet intercontinental missiles,” Erwitt said. “Nobody else was allowed to take pictures but I went through four security checkpoints and took photos. When I was found out, I rushed back to my hotel and developed the prints in my bathroom. It was my first real big coup.”

When asked what the most defining moment of his career was, Erwitt told The Daily Texan he is still waiting for it.

Photojournalism professor and fellow Magnum photographer Eli Reed said he saw Erwitt as more than a colleague.

“I’ve known him for so long, he’s like my best friend and family member,” Reed said. “He’s also the most honest man in the business.”

Photojournalism graduate student Spencer Selvidge said he enjoyed Erwitt’s ability to creatively portray subjects while having fun at the same time.

“His work is very strong in a photojournalistic sense, but he doesn’t take himself totally serious all the time,” Selvidge said.

“It’s what makes him, him.”

Printed on Friday, September 23, 2011 as: "Erwitt recalls photo-centered life."