King’s Ransom

Here's one thing that's already great about UT: At the Humanities Research Center, you can see some of the most extraordinary cultural artifacts of all time. All you have to do is ask.
Photograph by Dan Winters

WHEN I WAS A STUDENT at the University of Texas at Austin in the early nineties, a story got around about the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. It didn’t qualify as campus legend; too few people had heard it. It was more like a rumor, and it went like this: If you rode up to the fifth floor of the HRC—that is, if you could find the HRC, which was a chore before $14.5 million in renovations were completed this spring—you could fill out a request form and then be allowed to look at the journal Jack Kerouac kept while he was writing On the Road. That’s right: the very journal, written in Kerouac’s own hand in a small, spiral-bound notebook that was no doubt kept in the back pocket of his dirty blue jeans while he was, literally, on the road.

But there was one thing you had to keep in mind. To see the journal, you had to have a valid reason. And if you weren’t writing a biography of Kerouac or making a documentary on the Beats and you didn’t feel comfortable lying, you could still get in if you remembered the magic word. Write “inspiration” in the space marked “purpose of research,” and the keys to the kingdom were yours.

I didn’t give the story much thought at the time. But a few years later, when I was between careers and in possession of plenty of free time, I went by the HRC to suss things out. It happened that the rumor was true. A particularly helpful librarian pointed me not just to Kerouac’s journal but to other items in the Kerouac collection. In papers obtained from the widow of Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s friend and role model, were dozens of letters Kerouac wrote while he was struggling to find his voice. The stream-of-consciousness flow was there in his prose but none of the confidence. That changed, though, with the letters he wrote after On the Road was published. Suddenly his signature was taking up half a page.

An afternoon at the HRC turned into a week. I’d arrive in the morning, think of an artist, and ask for the moon. Half an hour later, I’d be holding a handwritten draft of Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night or a letter from jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker written during his court-ordered dry-out at a California mental hospital. (Parker’s handwriting was immaculate; each g looked like it had taken five minutes to write. But the message was less deliberate: “Man—please come right down here and get me out of this joint. I’m about to blow my top!”)

I’ve since learned just how much HRC there is. It owns one of the surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed with movable type. It owns the first photograph ever taken. As an American cultural archive, it is ranked not far behind the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library; the only university libraries consistently mentioned in the same breath are the Beinecke at Yale and the Houghton at Harvard. The HRC has the personal papers—manuscripts, journals, letters, and the like—of a long list of true literary lions, including Joyce, Twain, Faulkner, Beckett, Hemingway, Ginsberg, Singer, Wilde, Waugh, and Pynchon. Its photography collection is one of the finest in the world, with thousands of images from the Farm Security Administration’s famous photo project and more than a million taken by San Antonio panoramic photographer E. O. Goldbeck. Then there are the oddities that show the artist behind the art. Gertrude Stein’s pens. Carson McCullers’ cigarette lighter. Edgar Allan Poe’s desk. Marlon Brando’s address book.

If you took the time to find the HRC, the allure was simple, and it wasn’t a desire to be nearer to celebrity. It was something more. The HRC humanizes the superhuman. When you pick up a page of Joyce’s final revisions to Ulysses, you’re not looking at the most important novel of the twentieth century. Rather, you’re glimpsing a moment in time, an instant when Joyce was just a man and Ulysses just an idea.

RANSOM BELIEVED THAT THE BOOK represented the end of the process,” HRC director Tom Staley told me in his office one morning in August. “You get the story down, you print it, and then other people read it. But where did that story come from? What you really ought to study is this trajectory, as I call it, of the imagination. What are the false notes? What was thrown out; what was kept? So in the end, what the student studies is the creative process.”

That was Harry Ransom’s vision when, as vice president and provost of UT, he founded the Humanities Research Center in 1957, and it still guides Staley as he presides over almost everything that happens at the HRC: fundraising, acquisitions, conservation, exhibits. Staley has the refined charm of a Pennsylvania-born Fulbright scholar turned university administrator. Yet he’s a passionate storyteller, particularly when the conversation gets around to the right topic, like James Joyce—nearly every inch of shelf and wall in Staley’s office is occupied by books about or pictures of Joyce—or the HRC.

“When Ransom decided in the fifties to make a special collection and create the center,” Staley said, “he believed Harvard and Yale had the great collections of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, Cambridge and Oxford had the great early collections, and Texas was just a young university. So he decided to collect what wasn’t already gathered up, as it were, and he went after the late-nineteenth

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