The Harry Ransom Center partnered with Central Market to present “Dining with Harry Houdini,” a cooking class inspired by the life of the legendary performer and stage illusionist, on Sunday, October 16, 2016. [Read more…] about A touch of illusion… and sprinkle of paprika
The trick is to bring Houdini back. Show him to us. Let us hear him speak, watch him make his magic, feel his presence among us, let Houdini live again! [Read more…] about Houdini speaks to the living
This Halloween marks the ninetieth anniversary of the death of the great illusionist Harry Houdini. Born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest in 1874, he got his start as a trapeze artist before turning his attention to magic. [Read more…] about Houdini: Illusionist and collector
James Machin is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, working on a thesis on early weird fiction, circa 1880 to 1914. He is also the editor of Faunus, the journal of the Friends of Arthur Machen. His research at the Ransom Center was funded by a dissertation fellowship supported by the Creekmore and Adele Fath Charitable Foundation and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.
One of the joys of archival research in the Ransom Center is wandering off-track to follow hunches or simply indulge one’s curiosity. The subject of my thesis is early weird fiction, and while the bulk of my time at the Center was spent investigating material from the 1890s relating to Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, and John Buchan, I couldn’t resist looking up H. P. Lovecraft in the old card catalogue. I found a single item listed on one index card: a letter from Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger. The name was a familiar one: Henneberger was the publisher who established Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s, the pulp title that is remembered today for publishing several of H. P. Lovecraft’s most influential stories.
The letter was several pages of closely packed typescript sent from 598 Angell Street, Providence, Rhode Island—the house the family had moved to in 1904 after the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather—and dated February 2, 1924. The year was to be a significant one for Lovecraft: he was about to uproot himself from his home of 20 years to join his soon-to-be wife Sonia Haft Greene in Brooklyn. Lovecraft struggled to find work, the marriage failed, and some have identified this episode as being the point from which many of his subsequent troubles and frustrations ensued. A common lament is that it all could have been so different: soon after the letter was written, Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship of the Chicago-based Weird Tales. If Lovecraft had properly seized this opportunity with both hands, the story goes, he would have established himself as the man of letters he was born to be, and avoided languishing in obscurity and poverty for the rest of his life.
Lovecraft scholar and biographer S. T. Joshi has identified some reasons why Lovecraft made the decision that he did: Greene was already established in New York, Lovecraft knew that Weird Tales was already financially hamstrung by a debt of tens of thousands of dollars, and—perhaps most importantly—Lovecraft didn’t think there were enough writers producing weird fiction of a sufficiently high quality to populate the pages of the magazine. There is plenty in the letter of February 2 to further evidence Joshi’s account. It also reveals that Lovecraft’s concerns go considerably beyond his lack of confidence in the availability of suitable material, and beyond even his lack of faith in the tastes of the wider reading public. They even go beyond his negative opinion of the “whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business.” For Lovecraft, the problem was contemporary culture itself:
We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation.
Lovecraft’s frustration with the bland timidity of the mainstream could hardly be expressed in more forthright, if perhaps histrionic, terms.
Elsewhere in the letter (which is over 5,000 words long—Lovecraft was one of the most prolific and prolix correspondents of his age), Lovecraft expands on his projected novels Azathoth and The House of the Worm, neither of which were ever to materialize. He ruminates at length about what makes good weird fiction, and is generous and enthusiastic in his recommendations of authors he considers would be an asset to Weird Tales. He also outlines what he regards as the only feasible plan by which Weird Tales could perhaps successfully operate: the engagement of a small pool of appropriately gifted ghost-writers that would enable an editor to accept submissions not of publishable quality but demonstrating the required spark of originality. It’s difficult not to speculate that had Lovecraft accepted the editorship, this pool of writers would have inevitably included members of that ‘Lovecraft Circle’ who are now considered some of the definitive genre writers of the period: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and Robert Bloch. Alas, it was never to be.
Or rather, perhaps not “alas”: Despite its shaky financial beginnings and ongoing precariousness, Weird Tales has survived on and off to this day. Who’s to say that Lovecraft’s determinedly purist and non-commercial editorial policy wouldn’t have sunk the title in double-quick time? Maybe his desk-duties would have hampered his creative productivity even further than his belief that a “real artist never works fast, and never turns out large quantities”:
He can’t contract to deliver so many words in such and such a time, but must work slowly, gradually, and by mood; utilising favourable states of mind and refraining from putting down the stuff his brain turns out when it is tired or disinclined to such work.
Counterfactual speculation is both difficult not to indulge in and largely unrewarding. Perhaps those of us who celebrate early twentieth-century pulp writing and its influence on ensuing popular culture should simply be grateful to Henneberger for starting Weird Tales in the first place, for championing Lovecraft’s work (Henneberger lobbied editor Edwin Baird to accept Lovercaft’s submissions), and for providing a platform for weird fiction despite commercial and critical indifference. If it wasn’t for Henneberger’s enthusiasm and efforts, perhaps many of Lovecraft’s stories would never have seen the light of day and long since rotted away in some forgotten drawer.
The question of the provenance of the letter still baffled me after my return to the UK. It was a single item in a folder of theatrical ephemera and seemed strikingly anomalous in that context. Rick Watson at the Center kindly investigated further and told me that the letter was likely part of the Albert Davis or Messmore Kendall collections, originally acquired by the University of Texas in 1956–1958, both consisting of performing arts materials. When I learned that the collection of Messmore Kendall (1872–195), a lawyer and theatre entrepreneur, included material collected by Harry Houdini, the mystery seemed to solve itself. At the time Lovecraft wrote the letter, Henneberger had engaged him to ghost-write a story for Houdini called “Imprisoned With the Pharoahs,” published later that year in Weird Tales. It seems a reasonable supposition that Henneberger passed the letter on to Houdini soon after receiving it to evidence Lovecraft’s suitability for the endeavour and the unrivalled perspicacity of his views on weird fiction. Thanks to the Ransom Center, we’re still able to enjoy that insight nearly a century later.
With grateful thanks to Bridget Gayle Ground, Rick Watson, and all the Ransom Center staff for their hospitality, time, and expertise.
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The Ransom Center has launched a new platform of freely available digitized images of collection materials on its website. The new site contains more than 8,000 items and will continue to grow as newly digitized images are added on a regular basis.
Presently the collection includes photographs by Lewis Carroll, manuscripts by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, works by artist Frank Reaugh, and items from the Ransom Center’s extensive circus collection, which includes materials related to showmen such as P. T. Barnum, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.
The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.
Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials. Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.
Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.
This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.
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The Ransom Center recently launched a new platform of digital collections on its website, which includes the Harry Houdini scrapbook collection. More than 50 items from that collection, including the scrapbook highlighted in this blog post, can be viewed on the new platform.
American magician S. S. Baldwin (1848–1924), also known as “The White Mahatma,” was a celebrated mind reader or “mentalist” who made several tours around the world, initially with his wife and partner Clara Baldwin, and later with his second wife, Kittie Baldwin. The centerpiece of his act was a question-and-answer session in which he hypnotized his wife. Under his spell, she would answer questions from the audience without having heard the questions. Like his contemporary Harry Houdini, Baldwin insisted that he did not possess any supernatural powers, and he sought to expose spiritualism as trickery.
In 1924 Baldwin’s daughter Shadow sent Houdini her deceased father’s scrapbook from his fourth tour around the world. This magnificent scrapbook is an eclectic mix of photographs from places he traveled, juxtaposed with printed notices of his performances and other items. Many of the images reflect Baldwin’s interest in the indigenous peoples of the countries he visited.
The first image shows a piece of Baldwin’s stationery from his fifth world tour, ca. 1889–1890, embellished with skulls and devils.
The second image features an engraved notice for Baldwin’s performances in Peking, China, in 1879, pasted above a review for an appearance at the Academy of Music (city and date unknown). Notably, the engraving was designed and printed by a local Chinese artist, Ning Foo Shang. Also included are photographs from Burma, British Guiana, and, somewhat incongruously, England (one photograph is labeled “Castle Gate, Nottingham”).
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