A Ransom Center staffer in the archive of Norman Mailer, who earmarked his papers for the library before he died, in 2007 (Harry Cabluck/Associated Press)
With 36 million manuscripts and a million rare books, the Harry Ransom Center, on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, is a standout in the exclusive club of the world’s great museum-quality collections. The requisite Gutenberg Bible is on display, along with treasures rarer still: Shakespeare folios; James Joyce manuscripts; the archives of Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, George Bernard Shaw.
These days, the collection is growing. The Ransom Center is on a buying binge, but not with the long-dead titans of literature in mind. Instead, the library is pursuing the private papers of contemporary authors. This fall, the center locked down the papers of the living Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee—spending $1.5 million on more than 160 boxes containing drafts, notebooks, and letters, among other things. It’s also scooping up material belonging to authors like Denis Johnson, Jayne Anne Phillips, Julian Barnes, and Steve Martin (yes, that one). The congratulatory letters that Johnson received after writing Tree of Smoke, or the note he wrote to his family about playing guitar—these may seem mundane now, but the Ransom Center is betting that the novelist just might become the next Hawthorne or Hemingway (whose papers it already has), or maybe the next David Foster Wallace (whose papers it recently scored).
But the library is engaged in more than just speculation. Something else happens when the scribblings of a living artist are placed alongside those of the greats. The center is out to play a role in literary-canon formation, the Ransom Center’s director, Thomas Staley, told me during my recent visit. Gerald Graff, a former president of the Modern Language Association—the principal professional organization for scholars of English and other modern languages—calls this “an interesting switch from tradition, when authors had the decency to die first and then their reputation got to be determined.” Now a library with an interest in what history decides is jumping the gun. For what it’s worth, Graff adds, the strategy is “very Texas, very competitive.”
The idea that the Ransom Center would place its institutional thumb on the scales of history traces back to 1956, when Harry Huntt Ransom, a dean at the University of Texas, called for a library both “historic and prophetic,” to conserve the past and shape the future. His first major acquisitions included manuscripts by the newly canonized modernists D. H. Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, and Samuel Beckett.
Staley is an English professor (like the center’s founder), as well as a Joyce scholar. He’s lined the walls of his office with photos of “his” authors—writers like Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo. Constantly on the hunt for the next big name, Staley solicits recommendations from academics, book reviewers, and other authors. But he’s also interested in the reader on the street. Spotting an undergraduate reading Langston Hughes’s poetry on campus one day, Staley asked which other poets the student read, and jotted down the names. The center maintains a list of 600 authors whose careers it is “keeping watch over.” Staley is no longer secretive about his list; while we were chatting, he considered adding a name he’d just remembered (Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns).
These days, the most popular archive is that of the late David Foster Wallace. Fans trek across the country for the chance to see Wallace’s underlined paperbacks, his early drafts, his e-mails to tax experts. The staff has even received a request for a scan of Wallace’s handwriting, for use as a tattoo.
But it’s a risky game, this betting on contemporary authors. What if Denis Johnson’s hardcovers get remaindered? What if Norman Mailer does not stand the test of time? With an eye toward protecting investments, Staley does his part to promote his authors. Alice Adams, the novelist and short-story writer, was a major acquisition in 2000 and now seems to be the subject of a subtle awareness campaign. Staley admits as much, saying he works at “keeping writers like Alice Adams before the public.” His employees follow his lead. En route to the Wallace archive, one staffer pointed out to me the 27 boxes comprising the Adams collection. Later, another employee, while showing me DeLillo’s letters, offhandedly mentioned her love for Adams’s stories. “She really should be better-known,” the woman said, looking up at me hopefully.