Sunday, May 29, 2011

Adventures at the Harry Ransom Center: "Culture Unbound"

David Mamet's outline for his 1991 film Homicide, currently on display as part of Culture Unbound. Click on image to enlarge.

While I was in Austin last week, I had a chance to spend a few hours at the University of Texas' cultural treasures, the Blanton Museum of Art and the Harry Ransom Center, UT's place for rare books and manuscripts.

(No--not Royal-Memorial Stadium, you wiseacres.)

I hadn't checked in advance to see what might be on display there, so I was surprised and very pleased to see the Ransom Center's fine exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. It's there until July 31 and it's free; anyone in the area or passing through with the least amount of interest in seeing UT toot this particular, very expensive horn some very impressive archival materials and objects by Writers You've Heard Of should get on over there.

[Aside: It's the Center's mission to become THE archive for the books and papers of 20th- and 21st-century writers working in English; and it's well on the way to achieving that status if, indeed, it hasn't already. They are, and should be, proud of their collection. But, as I was telling my colleague Lynnea the movie lady the other day, both there and at the Blanton (a fairly comprehensive art museum but perhaps best known for its collection of 20th-century Latin American art), there's an almost-palpable, nouveau-riche whiff of desperation to be not just noticed but taken seriously, as if to make the case that UT is more than an overgrown football school. That whiff can become a tad annoying. Just thought I'd let you know what that odor is, should you visit.]

The exhibit focuses on materials belonging to post-WWII writers, actors and photographers that UT has acquired over the past ten years. Here's a partial list of those folks: Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo, Robert DeNiro, Norman Mailer, David Mamet, Arnold Newman, Tim O'Brien, David Foster Wallace, and Woodward and Bernstein. You'll see things like letters and--even better--a brief exchange of letters between DeLillo and Wallace; draft manuscripts and edited typescripts; and some personal items. As I think back on what I saw there, I wonder if the exhibit wasn't occasioned by the Center's recent acquisition of Wallace's archive and library and the recently-published The Pale King: of the writers named here, Wallace is given the most space, and the Center's website currently has a whole page devoted to manuscript materials for that novel not currently on display. Wallace would thus be the draw for many people. No harm in that.

The displayed letters between Wallace and DeLillo were written while the former was working on Infinite Jest and the latter on Underworld. Wallace is an unabashed, even effusive admirer; one of the letters has a funny passage (which I copied down but probably shouldn't quote here due to permissions issues) in which Wallace asks for DeLillo's secrets for the skilful use of rhythm, assonance and alliteration and, in return, promises to perform various menial tasks for the rest of DeLillo's life. DeLillo's tone, by contrast, is harder to gauge. In these letters, at least, he offers only general comments on the discipline required of the writing life. He's distant but not chilly.

And then there are Wallace's books. The Center's placard calls it a true working library, and that's an accurate statement. Before last week, I had read and seen what he did to his books, so I wasn't completely taken by surprise by what I saw. But when I saw them in person, it struck me just how careful and thoughtful a reader he was--and, for that matter, that he wasn't just a writer but a student of writing.

Some more pictures of items in the exhibit are here.

Also part of the exhibit are a couple of display cases devoted to the question of how places like the Ransom Center are dealing/will deal with materials stored in digital formats, especially when changing technologies render those formats obsolete. The short answer is, the Center and other places like it will also have to find and maintain hardware that can read these formats. The long answer is, easier said than done. I have to be honest: I hadn't thought too much before on the implications of outmoded data storage/retrieval devices for the question of accessibility. But then again, the Ransom Center isn't just a big warehouse full of things no one ever sees. Its chief purpose is to safeguard these materials so that researchers and the public can see and use them--indeed, the Center's making them available is a frequent reason cited by those who have contributed their archives. Culture may be unbound, but the media which produce and store its products can sometimes restrict our future access to it.

So, yes: you should go see this, if you have an hour or two to spare. Fans of contemporary (mostly) American writing in general will find much to like and ponder far beyond the Wallace materials.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I smelled that smell too!