This post originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of the Harry Ransom Center’s monthly eNews. How would you update Norman Mailer’s “The Hip and the Square” list for 2015? [Read more…] about Insider’s perspective: The hip and the square
Meet the Staff is a new Q&A series on Cultural Compass that highlight the work, experience, and lives of staff at the Harry Ransom Center. The series kicks off with a Q&A with Amy Armstrong, who has been an archivist at the Ransom Center since January 2009 and is head of the Archives Cataloging Unit in the Archives and Visual Materials Cataloging Department. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts degree from St. Edward’s University and a Master of Science in Information Studies degree from The University of Texas at Austin. Armstrong has processed many collections at the Ransom Center, including the papers of Sanora Babb, William Faulkner, Paul Schrader, Denis Johnson, and the McSweeney’s publishing archive. She also catalogs non-commercial sound recordings in the Ransom Center’s holdings.
Tell us about any current archives you’re working with.
I’m currently processing the records of McSweeney’s publishing house, which is a dream come true. I also catalog non-commercial sound recordings, which are sort of a “hidden collection.” We have almost 14,000 recordings, [including] some amazing recordings from Erle Stanley Gardner, Norman Mailer, and Denis Johnson. I’m committed to making them easier for patrons to find and use, and if they aren’t preserved, they’ll deteriorate.
What is your favorite collection that you have processed?
I actually love all of them, but one of my favorite collections is the Sanora Babb papers. Babb was an amazing woman who had big aspirations beyond the plains of Oklahoma and Kansas, where she lived in the early 1920s. After immigrating to California, she wrote a novel about Dust Bowl migrants. However, the contract for her book was cancelled, because John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was simultaneously being published. Babb was also married to cinematographer James Wong Howe, who was Japanese, at a time when interracial marriage was illegal. She loved life and didn’t take it for granted.
What is your favorite thing about your work?
My responsibility as an archivist is to ensure that the materials we’ve been entrusted to preserve are made available as widely as possible for anyone to use. I get such a thrill when I know someone has come into the Reading and Viewing Room and used a collection I have processed. After all, that’s why the Ransom Center exists and why are all so committed to the work we do here.
Have you had a favorite experience processing archives?
Denis Johnson autographed a book for my husband, who is a big fan. I was so touched by his kindness and generosity. It really made my year.
What is your favorite book?
The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Mexican-American writer Luis Alberto Urrea.
What is one of your primary interests?
Have you lived anywhere unusual?
I grew up in San Antonio and lived for three years in England when my mom worked at RAF Alconbury, an American Air Force Base.
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The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.
In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.
Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.
Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.
One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”
Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.
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In January 1971, J. Michael Lennon wrote a letter of encouragement to Norman Mailer after watching the author get into a raucous televised debate with Gore Vidal. Mailer responded, sparking a lifelong correspondence between the pair.
Lennon went on to become Mailer’s personal archivist and authorized biographer, as well as Emeritus Vice President and Emeritus Professor of English at Wilkes University. He has written and edited a number of books about Mailer, including Norman Mailer: Works and Days (2000). His most recent book, Norman Mailer: A Double Life, comes out today. This biography draws on unpublished documents, including Mailer’s letters, as well as Lennon’s personal relationship with the author. In 2009-2010, Lennon visited the Ransom Center on a fellowship funded by the Norman Mailer Endowed Fund to conduct research for the biography. Cultural Compass spoke with Lennon about his new book, his work in the Ransom Center’s archive, what first attracted him to Mailer’s writing, and more.
You knew Mailer well before starting work on Norman Mailer: A Double Life. While researching and writing, were you ever surprised by anything you learned about him?
I was surprised at the intensity of his depression after his second novel, Barbary Shore, received extremely negative reviews in 1951. He became more depressed (but not clinically) than I had previously thought and actually investigated the possibility of working in a prison or becoming a lawyer. The other things that surprised me were the extent of his many passionate love affairs and the number of young writers, hundreds of them, with whom he corresponded, and encouraged, something that went on from the 1950s until his death in 2007.
What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
I hope readers will see how immersed Mailer was in the great events and issues of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first years of the next one. He saw and wrote about World War II, the Cold War and the espionage and counter-espionage that accompanied it, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements, technology and the environmental movement, and the early space exploration effort. Mailer not only wrote about these things, he also debated them publicly on just about every major talk show in existence. He is the most important public intellectual from the literary world in my lifetime. He was also a terrific biographer and wrote memorable biographical books and essays on a score of iconic figures, from Marilyn Monroe and Madonna to JFK, Muhammad Ali, and Hemingway. Also some infamous individuals—Gary Gilmore, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hitler. And Jesus Christ, in his 1997 novel, The Gospel According to the Son.
What first drew you to Norman Mailer as an author?
His daring, his edgy style, his exploration of his identity, and his self-awareness.
The Mailer archive is the largest single-author collection at the Ransom Center. Have you been through every box? How do you organize and prioritize your work in the archive?
Yes, I think I have handled every piece of paper in it. Building on the pioneering work of Robert F. Lucid, my mentor, my wife and I organized Mailer’s papers and then helped the Ransom Center’s staff create the Mailer finding aid. During my several visits to the Center, I used the finding aid to organize my request list so that I could spend my time reading and note-taking. The system devised by Steve Mielke and his team made my research efforts considerably easier. I am indebted to the Ransom Center for expert and thoughtful help over the past eight years.
Norman Mailer once wrote, “[Boxing] arouses two of the deepest anxieties we contain. There is not only the fear of getting hurt, which is profound in more men than will admit to it, but there is the opposite panic, equally unadmitted, of hurting others.”
Mailer used boxing to explore many of the violent debates of modern American life, debates about sex, gender, race, and even literary style. The Fight, Mailer’s book-length account of the 1974 heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, touches on many of these subjects while capturing one of the most famous and memorable boxing matches in history. Mailer’s love of the sport shines through as he describes the precision, skill, and art of two of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Mailer’s unabashed egoism and racism are equally evident. Since its publication in 1975, the book has been both widely celebrated and deeply criticized, much like Mailer himself.
In this draft page of The Fight, Mailer offers a description of the charismatic and often outrageous boxer Muhammad Ali. Mailer writes, “Is it possible that Muhammad Ali is the only American in the 20th century one does not need to describe?… when he is looking his best (and Ali has his days) then not only is the greatest athlete who ever lived standing before you but a fellow who is in danger of being the most beautiful man.” Though few could rival Mailer’s oversized ego, in Ali, Mailer may have met his match.
The opening page of Norman Mailer’s handwritten draft of The Fight is on display through August 4 in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Literature and Sport. Megan Barnard, Associate Director for Acquisitions and Administration, will lead a curator’s tour of the exhibition on July 31 at 7 p.m.
Mailer’s archive is held at the Ransom Center.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.
Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.
Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.
Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.
Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.