Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Who was Harry Ransom?

Does the name sound familiar?  If you are a Sassoon aficionado, it will, though you may not know anything about the man who bore the name.  If you are not a Sassoon enthusiast, the chances are you have never heard of him at all.  He was not a celebrity or even a significant historical figure.

Ransom, who died in 1976, taught English and was an administrator, and later president, of the University of Texas at Austin.  In 1957, he founded the Humanities Research Centre at the university.  He wanted to make it a focal point for one of the best collections of rare books and manuscripts in the United States, America's equivalent of the Bibliotheque Nationale.   Specifically, he wanted it to be a research centre, not just a library.  Long before he acquired the Sassoon archive now held there, he had amassed a huge collection of English and American literary history, including significant content by British and Irish writers such as D H Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce and George Bernard Shaw.

When Ransom left his post as director in 1961, his successors continued to expand the collection, which subsequently moved to a new building of a more suitable size, designed by architects selected by Ransom himself.  Its present staff refer to it as a "place of discovery" and to Ransom himself as "a visionary".  The more I found out about it, the more I have come to realise that it is not merely a library but a gallery, a museum, a conservation centre and much more besides.

Siegfried Sassoon features prominently in the collection, along with other First World War poets. The HRC's holdings include letters to or from Max Beerbohm, Edmund Blunden, Sydney Cockerell, Henry Head, H M Tomlinson, Philip Gosse (junior), and other illustrious names from Sassoon’s social circle.  In Spring 2014, the centre hosted a special exhibition entitled (perhaps somewhat unoriginally) "The World at War 1914-1918". One of the organisers of the exhibition was Dr Jean Cannon, a member of the SSF whom I was lucky enough to meet at the 2014 conference on British First World War Poetry at Wadham College, Oxford.

A review of the exhibition in the New York Times (those who are interested can read the full review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/22/arts/design/viewing-world-war-i-through-the-prism-of-the-personal.html ) included Sassoon's original 1917 manuscript of "The General" (complete with drawing), and 469 other artefacts, and aimed to focus on individual experience, in the form of letters, diaries, photographs, posters, sketches and other items from the Harry Ransom Centre's collection. (It rather amused me to note that the NYT published an apology a week later for misspelling the word "Dulce" in the title of Wilfred Owen's famous poem as "Dolce".)

The next important visitor to the Harry Ransom Centre will be our own Vivien Whelpton, who will be there in April to research the second volume of her biography of Richard Aldington, to be published by Lutterworth.  I am looking forward immensely to hearing Viv talk about her experiences in Texas.  In the meantime, to see a fascinating short film about the Harry Ransom Centre, take this link: http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/multimedia/video/2014/discovery/

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Bringing Sassoon to Texas

One of our members has kindly sent me a present.  It’s a document I’d seen before but never had much time to study, as I didn’t have my own copy.  It is the catalogue of an exhibition that took place at The University of Texas at Austin in 1969, only two years after Siegfried Sassoon’s death.  You may be aware that this university holds an almost unparalleled collection of original Sassoon material, including diaries, letters, manuscripts and valuable first editions of some of his publications.

Looking through a catalogue like this has the serendipitous effect of bringing to mind many different aspects of Sassoon the man: his humour, his artistry, his courage and his sensitivity.  I was eleven when he died, and it is good to know that he was appreciated in his lifetime and so soon afterwards; the introduction to the catalogue is written by none other than his old friend Edmund Blunden, who himself would die five years later, having far exceeded Sassoon in academic achievement but never quite equalled him in fame or literary merit. Nowadays Blunden is becoming more appreciated, but Sassoon’s posthumous reputation has eclipsed all except Wilfred Owen among the war poets, his conduct during the First World War now being seen as an example to others in an increasingly violent international political climate.  Younger people are holding up Sassoon as an icon of our times and attempting to emulate him, in their writing and in their lives.

Blunden describes Sassoon as “more of a book-hunter than a fox-hunter” and comments on the religious aspect of his poetry, which sadly continues to be much ignored by other critics. It is clear even from this short introduction that Blunden understood Sassoon’s character better than almost anybody (he did after all arrange his first contact with Dennis Silk). He focuses on Sassoon’s originality as a person and as a writer, which I think is key to the continued popularity of his work.  To have had Siegfried as a friend, a privilege never granted to most of us who are alive today, would have been to experience his character in full, not only in person but in the shape of letters such as that written to Roderick Meiklejohn in 1917, a few days after making his Soldier's Declaration: “I saw the authorities here today, &, as I expected -- coals of fire were heaped on my rebellious head ... I have gone too far to withdraw, even if I had the faintest desire to do so." Or this one, to Blunden in 1944 after hearing of the death of their mutual friend Rex Whistler, killed in action aged 39: "I suffered a few minutes of bombed out feeling -- it really made me shake my fist at the war. But I have learnt to control such experiences..."

It is just as well he had, because, at the time of Siegfried Sassoon's death, the world was in the throes of a conflict that would make a lasting impact on the international political scene as well as on the culture of many nations.  Noam Chomsky's important essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals", had been published earlier in 1967, and Sassoon would certainly have been aware of it, since it had been published as a supplement to the New York Times Review of Books.  In it, Chomsky referred back to a quotation from the critic and philosopher Dwight  Macdonald: "Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster."  Surely Sassoon was one such, but (to the best of my knowledge) he did not condemn.

By the time the exhibition was put on, other events had stirred up even greater opposition to the Vietnam War, including film of a South Vietnamese officer shooting a prisoner in the head.  The protests were spreading, and on 15 October 1969, while the Sassoon exhibition was running,  coordinated demonstrations were taking place throughout the USA.  The Kent State shootings and the "napalm girl" were yet to come.

I wonder how much influence reaction to the Vietnam War had on public perceptions of Sassoon, and whether the coincidence of his death during this period had something to do with the subsequent growth in his popularity.  I wonder, in fact, whether this is one of the reasons a university in Texas was keen to acquire a collection relating to Sassoon and his work.  Perhaps a subject for further investigation...