The Harry Ransom Center recently acquired the papers of the late G. V. Desani, longtime professor of philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin. Included is the original manuscript of his most important work, the eccentric novel [Read more…] about Throwback Thursday — 1948’s All About H. Hatterr
To mark Darwin Day today, we share one of the Ransom Center’s more interesting copies of the first edition of Charles Darwin’s most famous work, On the Origin of Species. The Center owns several first editions, but this particular one was sent by Darwin to Sir John Herschel, the most famous English scientist of his day, inscribed simply “From the author.” Herschel was a member of a great scientific family, which included the astronomers William and Caroline Herschel; the Herschel papers are the most consulted history of science resources at the Center. [Read more…] about Darwin Day: The fossil record of a friendship
The book, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Guptill Manning, celebrates the importance of the Armed Services Editions. Published between 1943 and 1947, these inexpensive paperback editions were given to servicemen on the frontlines. As Manning points out, not only did the editions achieve their principal purpose of raising morale, they encouraged a whole generation of readers who retained their appetite for reading when they returned home. Possibly a few stopped bullets or shrapnel. It’s necessary to remember that the cheap paperback edition was still a novelty at the beginning of the war, having been pioneered by Penguin Books in England and Albatross Books in Germany during the 1930s.
Armed Services Editions were made possible by a group of publishers called the Council of Books in Wartime. This group collaborated by eliminating royalty payments and arranging for the production and distribution of paperbacks in the most inexpensive possible formats. The Ransom Center has a couple of connections with these books. Although there are larger collections at the University of Virginia and the Library of Congress, we own more than 1,400 of the books, most of them shelved together as a discrete collection in the stacks, while some are kept with other editions of our major authors, such as John Steinbeck. Because they were printed on poor-quality wartime paper that is now brittle and brown, each is protected in a simple acid-free enclosure, invented by the Center’s Conservation department in the 1980s, and called a “tuxedo case.” Students of publishing history can use the collection to study which books were most successful (Manning concludes that books with a touch of nostalgia or sex were particularly popular with soldiers, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was one of the best-selling titles, even though it was considered a flop when first published in hardback during the 1920s). The books were generally published in an oblong format, with the cover notation “This is the complete book—not a digest.” In all, some 125 million copies were produced.
Among the founding members of the Council of Books in Wartime was Alfred A. Knopf, the eminent literary publisher (the massive Knopf, Inc. archive is here at the Center). Ironically, Knopf was famous for encouraging high production values in his own trade books, but he immediately recognized the importance of encouraging reading and raising morale and contributed a number of series titles by familiar authors in the Knopf stable, including thrillers by James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler and more literary works by Thomas Mann and Sigrid Undset.
In the postwar era, a number of paperback reprint publishers capitalized on increased demand for books, the availability of new outlets for cheap editions, such as chain department stores and drugstores, and Americans’ newly enhanced disposable income. Pocket Books debuted in 1939 and became well known after the war for its lurid covers, which, as Louis Menand points out in an illustrated recent New Yorker piece, graced not only the unabashed pulp of Mickey Spillane but also higher-toned works by William Faulkner and James Joyce. Ballantine and Bantam editions flourished, and the era of the mass market paperback had arrived. Nearly every prominent American hardback publisher developed a line of paperback books. Oddly, Knopf, Inc. was a holdout, arriving late to the game with Vintage Books in 1956. But it was the Armed Services Editions that gave the American paperback its big push.
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Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence: “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons. First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.
Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian). The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf: “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.
The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926. In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.
Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.” Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.
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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, now generally recognized as the closest approximation to “The Great American Novel” and a staple of the high school curriculum, is embarking on yet another new life. Today, a film adaptation opens starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Baz Luhrmann, and it has already been described as one of the most stylish movies ever made. Three previous movies and one television drama based on Gatsby reflect their time periods as much as they do the Twenties.
The film has sent the paperback edition soaring to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. Yet the first edition (1925) was only a modest success, as Fitzgerald notes in a letter in the Ransom Center’s collection. Although his literary reputation went into a swoon in the late 1930s and 40s, the novel was reprinted from time to time, though it was rarely regarded as an American classic. More than a decade after the author’s early death in 1940, biographical and critical re-evaluations finally established The Great Gatsby’s permanent place in the canon of modern fiction. In the above slideshow, a group of editions from the Ransom Center’s collections shows its progress from first edition to the current movie mass-market tie-in. Not for the first time in its history and probably not for the last, Gatsby has been born again.
A case of materials related to The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald are on display in the Ransom Center lobby through June 9.
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Image: The first edition of The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner’s, 1925). The dust jacket by Francis Cugat incorporates several themes of the novel, while maintaining a certain ambiguity. The eyes most likely belong to Daisy, “the girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs” of Jay Gatsby’s consciousness. The jacket was completed before the novel, and Fitzgerald was so fond of it that he claimed he wrote it into his book. Today, intact dust jackets are exceptionally valuable; both of our copies have been repaired.
Until recently, one of the largest objects in the Ransom Center collections has also been one of the least visible. Joan Blaeu’s Nova totius terrarum orbis tabula (1648) is part of the Kraus map collection. Blaeu (1596–1673) was a member of a celebrated family of Dutch cartographers and is best known for his 11-volume Great Atlas. The Ransom Center has a hand-colored set of this monumental work (but that is a matter for a future blog post.)
Blaeu’s great wall map (GWM) is one of the largest ever published, measuring 2995 x 2043 mm, nearly 10 x 7 feet from edge to edge. Another copy was incorporated into an enormous atlas, often cited as the largest atlas in the world, made for Charles II but still the map had to be cropped to fit. Presumably the atlas did not accompany the king on road trips.
For the past 40 years, the GWM has been tucked away in a large wall case on the Ransom Center’s top floor. When we began to think about displaying the map as a focal point for a 2005 exhibition, we discovered that the GWM was simply too large to make a trip downstairs without being damaged, leading me to wonder how it had ever reached its seventh floor location in the first place.
Understandably, only a handful of people other than staff have ever viewed the GWM. A few years ago, we made digital images of the map for a scholar, section by section. These images were then assembled to make a medium-resolution composite image, which was later used when our Kraus map website went live in the spring of 2012. Yet, it was impossible to read the text in Latin and French at the bottom of the GWM, a guide for the use of the map aimed at “geography lovers.” Nor was it possible to appreciate fully the wealth of graphic detail—for example, the fleets sailing in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—that is so characteristic of baroque map-making.
This past fall, Ransom Center photographer Pete Smith took up photographing the map as a personal challenge. He first needed our stacks maintenance unit to remove a range of shelving in order to get far enough away from the map so that he could shoot high-quality images. After two days of work, he had 120 high-resolution images, from which 30 were selected for use.
This was only the beginning. Anybody who has used Photoshop can appreciate how difficult it is to stitch together this many digital images by hand. Fortunately, specialized software was available to create a composite image of the huge map. Processing took a fast computer an hour. Although the final product is a behemoth file of 1.5 gigabytes, the web servers handle it with amazing efficiency.
We often say that viewing a digital surrogate is no substitute for interacting with the original, and it is undeniable that one cannot comprehend the sheer scale of the GWM by looking at it online. On the other hand, it is almost impossible to study the original map in any detail, even if one has access to the stacks. Digitization made essentially invisible object accessible to anyone with a computer.