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Texas History 101

Harry Ransom made sure Texas would be known for more than its cowboys.

By October 2003Comments

Texas’ contribution to modern culture appears to be football, the television series Dallas, and the cult film Texas Chainsaw Massacre, yet on the University of Texas at Austin campus, you will find an entire building that houses the great works of modern Western culture. It is not rare to have an institution with original manuscripts or rare books. But to have original handwritten manuscripts by Graham Greene or the first photograph ever taken? That’s quite an accomplishment.

In 1957, the University of Texas had the second largest endowment in the nation just after Harvard. A few University of Texas academics and administrators, perhaps tiring of the unruly, uncouth, and unsophisticated image of the state, got busy changing the image of the state’s flagship university. It took the grandiose vision of then provost Harry Huntt Ransom and millions of dollars through special appeals directly to the board of regents to create the cultural treasure chest.

Ransom, a former English professor, wanted a collection that would “put Texas on the map.” The University already had a sizable collection of rare books when he began his endeavor. Ransom was a charming, plainspoken man who had a vision, but often no plan to get there. He shrewdly started the collection with the twentieth century and bought up literary works that other institutions had not even considered. By 1958, Ransom persuaded the UT Board of Regents to give $2 million to the Humanities Research Center (HRC). And by appealing to Frank Erwin (who is noted to have driven an orange Cadillac at the time) and the other regents, he avoided the scrutiny of the Texas Legislature, which may have questioned why UT needed millions of dollars to buy some old books.

Through the seventies, the HRC shook the literary manuscript market by pretty much buying everything of value. The HRC beat out old-money institutions like Harvard, Yale, the Huntington, and even the New York Public Library, purchasing entire collections before they were even allowed to bid. The Center’s collections grew, and now Austin is second only to Paris in the volume of modern French literature and more astounding, holds the largest collection of modern British and American literature in the world. There are more than 30 million pages of literary manuscripts, more than 1 million rare books, and more than five hundred first editions hidden away at the University of Texas.

On top of being comprehensive, these archives do not simply highlight the best works and drafts of modern literature known to Western civilization. Nope, the HRC also boasts impressive works of art and photography and has numerous artifacts from the theater and films, including costumes from the movie Gone With the Wind and Leatherface’s mask from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. There is also a sizable amount of literature from what most Texans would consider not modern, including the bible (not a pretty one with gold trim from the Gideons but one of the originals printed by Gutenberg to highlight the movable press in 1454). Harry Ransom, who has been dubbed “The Great Acquisitor,” unequivocally succeeded in putting Texas on the map in the literary community.

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