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/
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