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DFW Examination Part 1

The Guy with Curious Prose: David Foster Wallace and the Harry Ransom Center

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The Ransom Center's copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Photo by Thomas McConnell Photography
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Housing for the First Photograph, which replicates the backside of the framed photograph. Photo by Thomas McConnell Photography
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Prior to treatment, Stephanie Watkins examines the condition of a rare drawing of Edgar Allan Poe done from life, which is attributed to Rembrandt Peale. Photo by Eric Beggs
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Harry Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley Photo by Gregg Cestaro
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The University of Texas athletics department is getting even more attention than usual as speculation surrounding Mack Brown’s new coaching staff reaches a fever pitch, but the school’s most important acquisitions have been happening off the field, in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center.

As droves of researchers from across the globe line up to pore through materials in the Center’s scholarly archives, one thing is clear: the 2010 purchase of writer David Foster Wallace’s library has earned the HRC an unpredictably massive amount of publicity.

When Wallace – known equally for his epic novel Infinite Jest as for his uniquely personal approach to creative non-fiction – passed away in 2008, he left an unfinished novel, boxes of jumbled files, a heavily annotated personal library and a legacy that’s forever characterized by his paralyzing depression and subsequent suicide.

As a writer, the MacArthur Award-winning Wallace capitivated readers with his conversational narrative style and his penchant for footnotes (Jest clocks in at a staggering 1,079 pages, which includes 388 annotations). As a person, he continues to attract rock star-caliber attention from fans who feel a close connection to the author, whose works often examine the complexity of depression and the philosophy behind self-satisfaction. This means that the HRC has seen increased interest from both scholarly researchers and literary tourists, Wallace fans desperate to catch glimpses of The Real Dave in his personal papers.

“The popularity of the collection has certainly raised our profile,” says the Center’s Cline Curator of Literature, Molly Schwartzburg. “I think more people know about the Ransom Center than would have otherwise, which is wonderful.”

Occupying a windowless, concrete campus building on the corner of Guadalupe and West 21st , the HRC – commonly acknowledged as “one of the best literary archives in the world” – houses thousands of culturally significant artifacts.

“Being in Texas, we’re a lesser-known archive than ones located on the coast,” Schwartzburg explains. “It’s just the nature of being in the center of the country. We have to work hard to get our name out so researchers know us.”

The HRC proudly displays two of its most famous items – an original Gutenberg Bible (one of only 21 copies) and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s historic first photograph – right in the lobby. Primarily though, the Center is home to hundreds of literary archives (including collections from Norman Mailer, David Mamet, Don DeLillo, Carson McCullers and Tom Stoppard, among many others), alongside significant documents like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate papers.

They also own the David O. Selznick Collection, featuring highlights from the producer’s legendary career including dresses worn on the set of “Gone With the Wind.” The Robert DeNiro collection, most of which was gathered and donated by the actor himself, includes thousands of feet of film, stacks of scripts – even complete costumes, down to the weathered jacket from Taxi Driver. Who says archives have to be all dusty pages and leather-bound books?

The University of Texas has a long and complex archival history. While the Ransom Center proper wasn’t established until 1957, the University’s first big acquisition came in 1897, when Swedish settler Swante Palm donated his 10,000-volume personal library to the school. Fast-forward a few decades to Harry Huntt Ransom’s tenure as Vice President and Provost, when the appropriately acronymic Humanities Research Center is officially founded. Under Ransom’s direction, the UT institution blossomed into a well-oiled acquisitions machine, cataloguing carefully selected collections in the HRC’s vast basement storeroom while actively seeking leads on available libraries.

After Ransom retired (amid some budget-related controversy) from his post as Chancellor of the University of Texas system in 1971, the HRC entered a down period and didn’t get back onto a steady track until 1988, when current director Thomas F. Staley – a man whose curatorial style is sometimes compared to Mack Brown’s coaching style – took the reins.

Back in 2007, writer D.T. Max interviewed Staley and explored the success and controversy the famed collector brought to Texas. (Incidentally, Max is currently working on an eagerly anticipated biography of David Foster Wallace that includes information pulled from this collection.)

The HRC was also recently profiled by The Economist, who commented on the increasing number of attacks against the Center’s purchasing efforts. They note that “[m]any 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.” It’s no secret that Staley’s personal passions – for James Joyce in particular, and for famed British poets and playwrights – guide selections for the Center.

And these methods are perfectly in line with Ransom’s original vision for the Texas archives. His intent, according to Max, was to create “a center of our cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation.”

Acquiring collections from modern luminaries like Wallace secures the Center’s spot as a leading destination for ongoing scholarly research.

“I know a lot of people wonder why this stuff came to Texas, why the Ransom Center,” says Matt Bucher, administrator of the Wallace-L discussion group. “For me, it’s a perfect fit given the infrastructure of the Center; really, no other university has that level of American literary archives, period.”

The fact that anyone’s discussing the politics of the process is great news, as libraries and archives rarely inspire such passionate dialogue. And the attention shows no sign of dying down.

“Every time I’m in there trying to look at something from the archive,” Bucher notes, “there’s someone else who’s already requested the box and is sitting right there; it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’ll settle down, but my sense is that more people are going to be attracted to Wallace as a legitimate form of academic studies, and I can’t think of anything else right now that compares to him in literary studies.”

Well, there are a few other authors whose fan base is nearly as fanatical: Don DeLillo, for example, a writer whose extensive archives are also housed in the HRC. His papers contain one half of a recently completed puzzle, a collection of letters exchanged with a young writer (and big fan) – Wallace.

This series exploring the Harry Ransom Center’s David Foster Wallace collection continues tomorrow. We’ll be posting new information and photos from the archive every day this week.

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