The Last of the Big-Time Spenders
So you thought libraries were dull? The University of Texas has spent millions stalking the globe, buying everything from the first photograph to Houdini’s magic gear, all to get one of the world’s most impressive collections—and itself in trouble.
To much of the outside world, literary culture and Texas are like champagne and crude oil: sampling the one while smelling of the other is in poor taste. The very idea of a group of Texans spending millions of dollars in public funds to install in Austin one of the greatest rare book and manuscript collections in the world is inherently comic, like a village of Eskimos founding an opera company or Addis Ababa seeking a franchise in the National Football League. Nevertheless, the thing has been done. The Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, only twenty years ago a vision in one man’s mind, is today one of the finest and, from several points of view, one of the most impressive collections of literary artifacts in the world, a cultural treasure probably better known in London and Paris than in Dallas and Houston. In its vaults is an impressive array of original manuscripts by the literary giants of the century, including Under Milkwood, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Waiting for Godot, not to mention the books, papers, and all the furnishings of Evelyn Waugh’s library and Erle Stanley Gardner’s study. The Humanities Research Center has cost millions of dollars, provoked charges of empire building and academic megalomania from embittered critics, and even led to the firing of one UT president. But there it is, its very existence certifying that whatever else it is, UT is more than just another state university. Now the question is: what on earth are we going to do with it?
Seen from the outside, the HRC looks like anything but what it purports to be. It is pure Texas Modern in design, a massive, flat-topped rectangular limestone box with narrow, hermetically sealed windows that resemble oversized gun slits. A visitor wandering in from the Mongolian steppes might be pardoned for mistaking it for anything from an aboveground missile silo to the emperor’s royal handball courts. When it was being constructed in the sixties, student rumor had it that the roof was designed for helicopter landings in times of civil disturbance, and that the elaborate and highly visible electronic security equipment was there to guard John F. Kennedy’s brain, which would be kept on the fifth floor.
In fact the truth about the HRC is, from some perspectives, even more extraordinary. Little known to most Texans, partly because it has always operated with a secrecy worthy of the CIA, the Humanities Research Center is one of the most remarkable libraries in the United States and even the world. In his book Great Libraries, Anthony Hobson of Sotheby’s, the London dealers in fine arts, lists the HRC as one of five American institutions that bear serious comparison to such venerable European monuments as the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. (The others are Harvard, Yale, the Pierpont Morgan in New York, and the Huntington in San Marino, California.) The HRC’s rare book and manuscript collections in modern British and American literature are unmatched anywhere, its holdings in modern French literature unsurpassed outside of Paris, and its special collections in the history of science, theater, architecture, botany, and especially photography are the envy of libraries and archives around the world.
But if you are one of the many thousands of listeners who heard UT President Lorene Rogers boasting about the HRC in a halftime radio interview during last year’s Texas-Oklahoma football game, you already know some of that. What you may not know is that besides pride and UT’s apparently insatiable zeal to be known as Number One, Dr. Rogers may have had other motives for her praise. Messing with the HRC is one of the things that cost Stephen Spurr, her loudly lamented predecessor, his job. Almost from the moment it was conceived in the mind of UT’s late Chancellor Harry Ransom, the HRC has been at the center of the perennial, acrimonious, and sometimes comic-opera power struggles between the faculty, administration, and Board of Regents on that campus. Everything about it, from the way it came to be, its funding, how it is administered, and its relationship to the other libraries in the system, has fed the fires of these controversies. Since 1974 when Rogers took over the Austin campus, though, some of the fires have died down. Last year the HRC’s funding was for the first time made a regular line item in the budget, rendering it as secure as the accounting department or the Longhorn Band.
The building that houses the HRC is named the Harry Ransom Center after the UT chancellor largely responsible for its existence (more than one cynic has speculated that Ransom gave his own initials to his pet project as a way of making sure the building would be named after him). It cost only a little more than $7 million to erect on a campus where a swimming pool requires $6 million and a basketball/public events center $29 million.
Even so, the HRC is one of a very few facilities on the UT grounds whose contents have a sale value many times that of the building itself and the real estate it rests upon. During the years that the HRC was acquiring most of its holdings, UT had a greater effect on the prices of rare books and literary manuscripts than the Federal Reserve Board has on stocks and bonds. By the tactic of being willing and able to pay far more for what it wanted than anybody else imagined the materials were worth, the HRC for a time came quite close to cornering the market—especially in modern British and American authors—provoking envy, admiration, and resentment in a world considerably less genteel and more competitive than most readers might imagine. Accordingly, the price of such literary artifacts has risen sharply. A limited first-edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses purchased by the HRC in 1958 for $425, for example, would now bring $10,000 at auction; Ezra Pound’s A Lume Spento, his first book, has increased in worth during the same period from $400 to $18,000; Hemingway’s Three Stories and Ten Poems from $300 to $6,000. If you think that such prices have provoked speculation, greed, and crafty practices among book-dealers and collectors, you are exactly right. But more of that later. For what it is worth—and the UT Regents have been convinced over the years that it is worth something like $55 million in public and private funds—the HRC carries the name of the university into international circles of scholars and bibliophiles where Russell Erxleben and Earl Campbell are completely unknown.
Just in modern literature alone, the area of its main claim to eminence, the HRC’s holdings invite disbelief. Among them are holograph originals, and often successive drafts, of the following books:
William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!
D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, The Rainbow, The Plumed Serpent, and others
George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman, Major Barbara, Arms and the Man, and others
T. E. Lawrence’s (Lawrence of Arabia) Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World
E. M. Forster’s Passage to India
Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Malone Dies, and Watt, in both the French and English versions
Joseph Conrad’s Victory
Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon
Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, The Comedians, and others
Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra
W. H. Auden’s Age of Anxiety
Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street
Dylan Thomas’ Under Milkwood and many individual poems.
The HRC owns as well the complete library and personal papers of Evelyn Waugh, including manuscripts and letters, and even his furniture and walking sticks; also of Tennessee Williams, Edgar Lee Masters, Dame Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, and publisher Alfred Knopf. Even Irving Wallace’s and Erie Stanley Gardner’s literary remains are there. The mystery novelist’s entire study, crammed with curiosities and gewgaws—ceremonial swords and drums, guns, stuffed turtles, and animal skins from around the world—was transported to Austin and reconstructed there piece by piece inside the cottage that housed it. It is located on the fourth floor of the Academic Center building where the HRC holds its exhibits and stores its accumulated artworks: busts and portraits of literary figures, collected works of various book illustrators, and original works by Matisse and Picasso.
Also in the possession of the HRC are countless pages of letters to and from just about every English, American, and French literary figure of the past hundred years, among them more than a thousand each to and from such figures as Eliot, Forster, Lawrence, and Pound. Most are as yet unpublished. Some, for the protection of the privacy of persons yet living or their relatives and friends (including 2600 letters in a collection revolving around Eliot and a woman friend), may not even be read until specified dates in the future. So extensively has the HRC collected that, to my considerable astonishment and chagrin, a librarian directed me to a generous selection of my own and my wife’s letters to a minor novelist of long-term and intimate acquaintance who had somehow persuaded the library to buy his papers. The two or three demented souls in Austin who might have wondered what vile things I may have written about them privately will find that, like Eliot’s, my letters are under cover until I am long dead.
More significant, the Carlton Lake Collection of modern French literature, donated to the HRC by its owner, contains manuscripts, proof sheets, first editions, unpublished letters, and other memorabilia from Céline, Gide, Sartre, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ionesco, Genet, Beckett, Colette, Valéry, Verlaine, Debussy, Rimbaud, and Cézanne. The manuscript of T. H. White’s The Book of Merlyn, the fifth and previously unpublished and unknown volume of The Once and Future King, was discovered in the HRC. Published by UT Press, it is now a national best-seller. One may expect similar discoveries to come out of the HRC in future years, since whole crate-loads of material have been acquired by the library much faster than they can be indexed, a difficult and time-consuming process.
Nothing short of a dictionary-sized catalog could do justice to the wealth and, as my letters show, the occasional promiscuity of the HRC’s holdings. The Gernsheim Photography Collection, bought in 1964 for $338,000, to considerable negative comment, has made the HRC perhaps the finest museum of photography outside of the Eastman in Rochester. The library has raised $366,000 in the last few years by selling off the duplicates, which represented only 2 per cent of the total collection. A conservative estimate of the auctionable value of the Gernsheim Collection is $3,500,000. The HRC owns the first photograph ever taken; it is on a metal shelf in the sixth-floor stacks, protected from decay in an air-tight glass case filled with helium. They also own Gertrude Stein’s cape and fan, the professional and personal effects of Harry Houdini, countless theater costumes and circus memorabilia, the presidential campaign papers of Barry Goldwater, 3000 World War I propaganda and recruiting posters, and a large collection of bubble-gum baseball cards, autographed balls, bats, and uniforms. Negotiations are in progress to purchase the archives of a rock critic, including 45 rpm records, posters, and concert programs. It is just possible that Texas taxpayers may end up owning a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair or Mick Jagger’s mascara brush.
What Harry Ransom wanted was a collection that, as it was phrased at the time, would “put Texas on the map.” A former English professor who had risen through the academic ranks and a passionate bibliophile himself, Ransom was the kind of administrator who is far better at generating ideas than at seeing them through in detail. The words most often quoted to describe Ransom by persons who admire the way he did things are those of former UT Dean of Arts and Sciences John Silber: “He could not tell the difference between the actual, the possible, and the totally inconceivable. He was, therefore, a man who could imagine new possibilities.” According to HRC Librarian Bill Holman, whom Ransom lured back to the Southwest (he is an Oklahoma native) from the directorship of the San Francisco Public Library, “Ransom had dreams far beyond his capacity to execute them. He collected people the way he did books. People arrived here ready to go to work and already salaried to find they had no desk or office, no parking space, and no real job or assignment. He expected you to be able to create your own.” Holman, himself a talented book designer and printer, is that rarest of species, a passionate bureaucrat. What he sees in the HRC is what he believes Ransom saw: “One of the most unique endeavors in the history of the Southwest. A librarian has to think of the future more than about himself. The system is bigger than the man. Can you imagine what this collection is going to mean fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years from now when you and I are dead and forgotten?”
By ordinary standards Texas already had quite a good rare books library in 1957 when Ransom first began talking about his idea for a research center. It centered around the John H. Wrenn Collection, given to the university in 1918 by Major George W. Littlefield of Austin. The strengths of the Wrenn Library, criticized in its day in some of the same ways the HRC has been criticized, are mainly in English literature from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. But Ransom realized, says Warren Roberts, a onetime English professor who assisted the chancellor from the start and who is now the HRC’s director, that the great collections at venerable institutions like Harvard and Yale could never be duplicated at any price, and scarcely imitated for anything less than a very large fortune. It made far more sense for Texas, a relatively new university, to specialize in a field where competition was less intense and real uniqueness possible—the twentieth century in England and America. By 1960 Texas was well on its way to its present distinction in the field. “We simply stole a march on time and did it,” Warren Roberts says today. “Before anybody realized what we were doing we built a library which cannot be matched anywhere.”
Although Ransom’s earliest acquisitions came from private gifts (he had been scouting for funds as early as his tenure as dean of Arts and Sciences from 1954 to 1957), what gave the HRC its real start, were direct grants bestowed upon the project from the Board of Regents. By going to the Regents, Ransom did not have to justify his project to the Legislature, no doubt by that tactic cheating posterity of what might otherwise have been a debate of genuinely comic-heroic proportions, but also making sure his dream had some chance of coming to pass. In fiscal 1958—1959, he persuaded the Regents to part with $2 million for the center—$500,000 from regular regental appropriation and $1.5 million designated from “other funds.” With most of that money, $1 million to be exact, Ransom bought the collection of T. E. Hanley, a brick manufacturer of Bradford, Pennsylvania, who had what turned out to be an uncanny knack for collecting books. Now the heart of the HRC’s modern holdings, the Hanley Collection was especially rich in D. H. Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot, and Shaw. Hanley, a somewhat eccentric gentleman of little formal education who was married to a former Egyptian belly dancer, had books and manuscripts under every bed, filling most closets, and spilling over into his barn. When his insurance company grew edgy and suggested he take either the books or the paintings (he also collected modern art) to a safer place, Hanley, who had little contact with other collectors, was introduced to Ransom by a New York dealer.
Ransom, whose charm was legendary, had a gift for talking to people of all kinds in whatever language made most sense to them. Without the time to make a detailed appraisal of the collection’s contents, Ransom somehow made Hanley believe that Texas was where it belonged. Before Harvard, Yale, and other interested bidders were able to prepare their offers, one of the great literary sales of the century had been made and the goods transported to Austin in a guarded truck caravan. Warren Roberts, a radarman on a destroyer in the Atlantic during World War II, remembers the days of unpacking the crates as among the most exciting in his life. “Nobody,” he says, “not even Harry, really knew what we had. We had made a calculated gamble, based largely on the dealer’s word and Harry’s quick appraisal. But when we started taking it out of those boxes—it was in no particular order really—we were astonished. None of us dreamed of all the things that were in it.”
Emboldened by success, Ransom moved into the London book auctions with a suddenness that set the market on its collective ear and enraged many traditionalists. In June 1960 alone Texas bought half the total value of a major sale at Sotheby’s, including every item relating to T. E. Lawrence, and at a charity sale for the London Library acquired the majority of the offerings, including the manuscript of Forster’s A Passage to India. At £6500 (approximately $18,000 in those days), the price paid was nearly three times the English record for a modern manuscript, much less one by a living author. In November 1960 and again in the following May, Texas bought every item it bid for, and at sales of modern literature it bid for nearly everything. Edith Sitwell’s papers were secured for almost £18,000 and Graham Greene’s for £14,500 at charity sales. An even larger quantity was bought privately, often directly from the author: C. P. Snow, A. A. Milne, Robert Graves, and Stephen Spender. Consternation, as one might imagine with Ransom’s agents tossing around sums unheard of previously and with no seeming limit to either their appetites or their pocketbooks, ran high in Great Britain and in France, where the Bibliothèque Nationale had to step in to prevent the removal of a Proust collection Texas tried to buy from the author’s niece. As Anthony Hobson notes, the British Museum suddenly was willing to pay £5000 for the manuscript of Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, and the Arts Council set up a fund to acquire materials from living writers, a thing never before done there.
Like Harry Ransom, Warren Roberts is a Texas anglophile of a kind they don’t hardly make anymore. His office on the third floor of the HRC resembles the study of a bookish Church of England vicar, tastefully furnished in a slightly fussy way, with dark furniture and leatherbound volumes on handsome wood shelves, the narrow windows admitting little of the dazzling Texas sunshine outside and the fluorescent lights overhead left off in favor of green-shaded brass desk lamps. Just returned from six months in England, where he is supervising a group of scholars preparing a multivolume edition of D. H. Lawrence’s letters, Roberts is uncomfortable at being asked about the process he once described in print as “cultural privateering” and too polite by far to defend it by pointing out the obvious: art follows empire, and has since long before Alexander the Great began exporting exotic artifacts and learned slaves from Persia and Egypt to bring to his Macedonian countrymen. If Texans with big bankrolls are bearing away an irreplaceable part of England’s modern literary heritage, then the process is at the very least much prettier than that country’s systematic picking clean of large parts of Asia and Africa in the two centuries preceding.
Like the auction price of other forms of art, the cost of buying rare books and manuscripts is less a measure of their intrinsic worth to anyone using them than of what the market will bring. Fashion and speculative fevers regulate the book market quite as much as they do the trading of hog-belly futures or building lots. But not all costly items are of value to humanistic scholars. The first London edition of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, for example, dated 1726, can bring as much as $600 on today’s retail market. As anything but a curio, however, it has little use. Swift complained bitterly after publication that some important parts of his manuscript had been tampered with and politically controversial passages blotted out. He made sure of corrections and added prefatory material in later editions. Scholars have long since agreed that as a guide to what Swift really meant to say, the first edition is the worst possible text to use. Those are the kinds of questions, considered in great detail, that a library trying to make judicious use of its resources needs to ask in evaluating a purchase. Among other things, Ransom’s critics on the UT faculty insisted this was not being done.
From their perspective, there is no doubt that those critics had a point. In 1969, the faculty’s standing committee on the library reported to the president that Texas, the second most richly endowed university in the United States, ranked thirty-seventh in the amount it spent on buying books for the General Libraries. In 1970 it fell to fiftieth. For a university almost compulsive in its ambitions to be of the “first class,” the General Libraries’ acquisitions budget of $230,000 in 1969 was wholly, almost laughably, inadequate. Harvard, which seems to be the institution Texans seem most determined to compare to their state university, and which is the only one in the country with a larger endowment, was spending $1.7 million for the same purpose. Michigan and Berkeley, which make a good deal more sense as competitors, spent $1.4 million and $1.5 million respectively at the same time. G. Karl Galinsky, the classics department chairman, who probably spends his spare time shouting at the wind, had the temerity then to compare that small sum with the $13 million being used to expand the football stadium from 65,000 to 81,000 seats.
Bill Holman believes that such criticisms were shortsighted and petty. “Why tear down one great institution,” he asks, “to build another one? Texas has the money. If you can go to the Regents and make the case for your library, they will build it. The policy-making people on the Board are by and large concrete-minded. If you can show them a tangible achievement, like a library or a medical center, they will do it.” Recent history, moreover, seems to bear Holman out. In the last five years under Head Librarian Merle Boylan, now departed to the University of Washington, the books and materials budget of the General Libraries on the Austin campus has increased to $2 million out of a total budget of $5.6 million. By way of comparison, the HRC budget this past year allocated $600,000 for acquisitions out of a total of $1.14 million. The problem, Holman insists, was weak leadership in the General Libraries all along. There never was a necessary conflict, he says, between the HRC and the other libraries on campus, which ought from the start to have been seen as allies.
Unfortunately, however, the HRC had first to become a pawn in the symbolic power struggle that has made the university and the state look unnecessarily silly to the rest of the academic world so many times in the last twenty years. It got caught between the business-oriented Regents and those abstractly ambitious faculty and administration members who seek to make every serious difference of opinion into a contest between darkness and light, crocodile morality and selfless virtue. By deluding themselves that they have no interests as a class beyond the common good of all, and by easy access to that most vociferous element of the student body which can usually be mobilized to act upon the same assumption, faculty members all over the country often achieve an effect upon public debate that is out of proportion to the cogency of their point of view.
To put it bluntly, faculty attacks upon the HRC and Ransom’s policies in building it had less to do with the specifics of the case than with wounded dignity and with power. One handy way the Texas faculty has always had of seeking power is to pretend, even among themselves, that academics in other parts of the country are accustomed to having a lot more of it than they do here, and that the UT Regents’ failure to consult the faculty in a detailed way before making fundamental decisions about future institutional goals and how to allocate funds, whether for football stadiums or libraries, prevents the place from becoming, in that troublesome phrase, “a university of the first class.” In fact such consultation as does take place, whether one is talking about Penn State or Harvard, is almost entirely ceremonial. The large size and complexity of an institution like the University of Texas almost requires that it be run at the highest levels more like a corporation than an academic department. The concept of faculty self-government has limited application in a time when a Renaissance man on a university faculty is as rare as a physics major on the Longhorn’s defensive line. Most faculty members simply do not understand the needs of other programs and disciplines and are prevented much of the time by jealousy and self-interest from learning about them. Faculty deliberative bodies often find themselves incapable of coming to agreement without astonishing delays on the most basic issues that are indisputably theirs to decide: academic requirements, grading policy, hiring and retention of colleagues, etc. (One could argue that administrative infringement in tenure decisions, the most problematic issue dividing many campuses, has generally resulted from the near incapacity of most academic departments to fire anybody at all unless forced to do so by outside pressures.) In truth academics are very well served by the current setup, since corporate-style governance has allowed, in fact encouraged, vast growth, departmental specialization, huge research funds, high salaries, and a hierarchical world view that permits faculty at places like UT to pass on most of the basic teaching work to low-paid graduate students.
But regional styles grate on ears unused to Texas plain talk. Big Money at Yale may whisper quietly its transformations to perform; at UT it sounds like former Regents Chairman Frank Erwin—who drives an orange Cadillac instead of a tasteful black one, or a Mercedes-Benz such as a Yale trustee might favor. So nobody really knows what Harry Ransom said to the Board to convince them to build the best by god collection of modern literary manuscripts in the English-speaking world, but devotees of the Ronnie Dugger school of academic demonology, a school generally sympathetic to faculty complaints, suspected the worst. Rumors circulated that money was being passed under the table, that this or that member of the Board had a special understanding with the booksellers who acted as Ransom’s agents, allegations that were never supported by so much as a shred of evidence. Bill Holman, who in his career in San Francisco exposed a crooked bookbinding arrangement that was costing the city as much as $50,000 a year, enduring payoff offers, lawsuits, and even a death threat in the process, says the idea is nonsense that Ransom or anybody else profited improperly from the HRC, and offers to show the financial records to anybody who thinks he can prove otherwise. “Ransom just wasn’t motivated that way,” he insists, “and anybody who thinks he was just didn’t know him at all.” An Austin book dealer who has not done much business with the HRC personally, but who is familiar with some of the sales that have been made, says, “I’d be astonished if anybody ever made an illegitimate nickel off the HRC.” The book dealing fraternity is a small one; the market value of rare books and manuscripts is well known and sharply watched.
But the spectacle of millions of dollars being committed on trust to what appeared to many to be Harry Ransom’s vainglorious hobby, while the General Libraries languished and faculty salaries did not grow as rapidly as most would have liked, was bound to cause trouble. Probably Ransom’s biggest mistake, from a public relations standpoint, was failing to respond to criticism from beneath him in the hierarchy or from outside the university. Partly he is said to have been fearful of too-close scrutiny from the Legislature. No rare book library comparable in scope has ever been built by public money at a state university; almost all of the HRC’s equals, Harvard, Yale, the Huntington, even the special collections at the New York Public Library, are funded from private sources. “That’s why they still lie low,” according to the same book dealer who denies chicanery. “What they fear is they will have to try to convince some of the idiots that are in the Texas Legislature that these things are worth the money.”
The result was that while the HRC, with the backing of Ransom and the Regents, won most of its battles, it remained rather isolated from the rest of the campus. Faculty who might have been won over by Ransom’s famous salesmanship and contributed to the HRC’s growth or made use of its resources stayed away. Certainly it did not help when Warren Roberts, contrary to Holman’s current offer to open the books, responded to Ronnie Dugger’s request to look at the purchase records by saying they were nobody’s business. That, as Dugger points out, was a peculiar position for a public employee to take, and one that did nothing to allay critics’ suspicions.
The result of all this secrecy was that when Stephen Spurr became president at UT-Austin in 1971 he acted as if he had a mandate from the faculty to bring the HRC under control by placing its budget under the aegis of the General Libraries. Ransom, by then in partial retirement but still serving as director of special collections, had no difficulty in continuing to see that the HRC monies came directly from regental appropriations, which in effect gave him and the library a much freer hand than the elaborate budgetary processes of the administration would have allowed. But on September 1, 1974, Ransom resigned from that position to concentrate his efforts on the history of the university, which occupied him until his death twenty months later.
Apparently, while trying to conceal exactly what he was doing from the Board, which had specifically instructed him otherwise, Spurr began taking steps to move the HRC budget to a position subordinate to that of the Main Library. On September 24, he was fired by Chancellor LeMaistre, some thought at the urging of Regents Frank Erwin and Jenkins Garrett, both of whom had a proprietary interest in the HRC and its collections. (Garrett himself is a bibliophile and has made generous gifts both to the HRC and the library at UT-Dallas. It bears mentioning that Regent and ex-Governor Allan Shivers is also a collector of books, and of Texana particularly.) No one believes that the HRC affair was the sole cause of Spurr’s firing and the subsequent follies over who would succeed him. The conflict was engendered over a period of more than two years, but there is no question it was a significant factor. (The whole story, as well as it was known at the time, was told by Bo Byers in the December 1974 issue of Texas Monthly. No wonder Lorene Rogers makes a point of her pride.
But now that the dust has apparently settled, what has all this hoarding and institutional self-aggrandizement got to do with education? Can one not, afterall, purchase a perfectly serviceable copy of Passage to India for less than $5 at any decent bookstore? One can. The question of the HRC’s intrinsic worth, however, is more difficult. A visible symbol of UT’s large ambitions, the HRC is also, both historically and in its present uncertainties, a case study of why the university’s visions of unquestioned eminence seem never quite realized. In a larger frame the library also presents the perennial problem of Texas culture beyond Willie Nelson, and, by extension, of the rest of the country’s cultural aspirations as well. Is the growing, tax-supported cultural bureaucracy in the United States a testimonial to our sophistication or just another form of government pomp?
Actually using the HRC’s manuscript materials at first adds to that uneasy feeling of dislocation and contradiction summoned by the thought of all those artistic passions entombed. I made the proper requests to examine some of the library’s Graham Greene papers, entering that forbidding building—almost no one who works there has anything good to say about it—and walking by the armed guard and the bank of television monitors at the entrance to the elevator, which is the only way to get to the collections. After passing those barriers and surrendering anything in which a book or manuscript could be hidden, and having filled out the proper forms and exchanged pens for light pencils, I was handed two manuscripts I had asked to see. The Power and the Glory was written with a fountain pen on bound, legal-sized sheets in a hand that, while minuscule, is still quite readable. Either Greene had a remarkably clear idea of where he was going from the first page, or, like me, he has habit of tearing up the sheet and beginning again when a passage has not gone just right. The Comedians exists in the HRC in several drafts, and also in notebook form, dating from the trip Greene took to Haiti that gave him the idea. Some of the notes are preserved on scraps of newspaper, personal stationery, even a stolen menu. In form they are fragmentary, incomplete, and at times incoherent. Even the man many regard as the greatest living novelist in English has his moments of leaden scribbling, just like those of us who rarely have anything else.
Even so, looking through such literary artifacts can be rather humdrum: most imaginative people lack the patience for scholarship, while many scholars have little imagination. As a writer who sometimes wonders whether he has enough of either capacity, I was considering whether I could stick it out for more than an hour when I turned over the jacket to volume 14 of The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman upon which Greene, obsessive like all novelists, had jotted some notes while reading. There he had scribbled, almost illegibly, a few lines of dialogue that illuminated the man for me like a silent flash of summer lightning. They were the words, evidently, of his drunken and adulterous English hotelkeeper, desperate to ignore the Haitian tonton macoute:
“I’m not interested. I want to run a hotel. I want to make money.”
“What else do you want?”
Fifty or a hundred years from now, a person reading that scrap of dialogue who values Greene’s work as I do will experience a chill, as if the man himself (Greene is now in his mid-seventies) had come quietly into the room and touched his shoulder. Such experiences are what make scholarship exciting. They are, to scholars, both thrilling and sustaining, and in fact are better than having met the writer, because a great artist’s legend, and the self-protective masks notoriety and circumstance compel him to wear, impose a screen between him and his admirers. Writers are what they are on paper. If that scholar/reader has the patience and the imagination, he or she may be moved to create something novel and worthwhile out of the moment, or of a series of such discoveries, and to that degree the purpose of the HRC will have been fulfilled.
In trying to think my way further through the contradictions raised by the HRC, I think of the lift that comes into the voices, even over the telephone, of former Regents Garrett and Erwin, the latter so often cast as the villain in UT’s recurring melodramas, when they speak of Harry Ransom and of what they think of the library he built. The Regents, Erwin says, have precious little to do with whether the university and the HRC live up to their potential. All they can really do is to provide the wherewithal and hope. To readers accustomed to viewing Erwin as the very devil, as Dugger characterizes him in Our Invaded Universities, it is no doubt blasphemy to imagine that he is probably sincere, even worse to speculate, as Bill Holman does, that in a hundred years the HRC will be seen as his monument as well as Ransom’s.
But more than that, I think of my visits to the respective offices of two scholars. The first, Carlton Lake, is a New Englander by birth, but for over twenty years he lived in Paris as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, writing as a freelancer for several other magazines, mostly about art, and putting together the matchless collection of French literature that bears his name. He began his collection in 1935 by paying $210 for a presentation copy of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, inscribed to the poet’s photographer friend Nadar and containing a rare set of proof sheets, which Lake believes is “the most important book of poetry published in the nineteenth century … in any language.” When he lent it to the Bibliothèque Nationale for a centennial exhibition in 1957, a Paris dealer offered him $15,000 for it, a price which by now has been multiplied four or five times at least. He has given it and the rest of his collection to the HRC and moved here to work with it. “I think there is more going on here that is of real interest,” he says in a burst of hyperbole, “than there is going on on all the campuses in Boston combined. They are dead from the neck up. Harvard is sclerotic. People here are excited, don’t you think?” He says he brought his collection here because Ransom convinced him it was the best place in the country to bring it, and that he hasn’t for a moment regretted the decision.
Across the campus in the classics department, G. Karl Galinsky, a passionately bookish man and well-known scholar and teacher, says he is no longer bitter about the HRC and that the major deficiencies of the Main Library have been largely corrected. He is still troubled, though, by the bombastic rhetoric of what he calls “the imperial university” and irritated by what he regards as the attitude on the part of the Regents and the administration that “we built this for you, and you had better be grateful.” There is no other campus that he knows in America where special collections are not considered a part of the general library system and administered as such. “They are hard pressed over there to show that the research and scholarship they talk about are getting done. There is almost no tie-in between the HRC and the teaching mission of the university. We don’t get any reinvigorization of our humanistic commitment from the HRC. In the end they will pin their hopes at the HRC on the Regents, on the imperial policies … perpetuating the elitist, ascetic approach to the humanities. If you foster the impression that this is what humanistic research is all about…” His voice trails off and he shrugs.
There is only one way such impasses may be resolved, and that is through time. Every society that has the means erects monuments to itself, and, like the HRC, they usually reveal its contradictions as much as its glories. Whether in the long run the HRC accomplishes what its supporters have hoped depends as much or more upon what happens in the culture outside its walls as within. If it does become an important center of humanistic thought and research nobody will remember the cost (which, after all, is small compared to that of a few miles of interstate highway), and it will be seen that rather than hurting the UT Main Library, the establishment of the HRC may well have helped shame the Regents and administration into seeing after its needs. Maybe that was part of Harry Ransom’s intention to begin with. Twenty years is a very short time in the history of a great collection.
Carlton Lake aside, however, very few unbiased observers would claim that the HRC is at present what it ought to be. With one or two exceptions, perhaps best known among them William Stott’s book Documentary Expression and Thirties America, the scholarly work that has emerged from the library has not been of the imaginative and synthesizing kind. The HRC’s most characteristic role so far has been as a provider of letters and other materials, either for reprinting in collected editions or for biographies. As often as not, due to the HRC’s generous policy on photocopying and sending materials by mail to interested scholars (adopted partly to deflect criticism), those wishing to use its unique collections have not had to come to Austin to do so. Evelyn Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes did his work without leaving England; when Graham Greene decided to return to his biography of Lord Rochester, abandoned in 1938 and later bought from him by the HRC, he stayed at his home in France. It would be difficult to claim that the collections have attracted scholars of great eminence to locate in any of the relevant academic departments of the university, although the program of instruction has benefited from the occasional visitor.
Scholarly editions of letters and variorum texts of literary classics have their uses, although those uses are usually exaggerated by the persons who prepare them. However imaginatively an edition of letters is edited, doing the job is essentially clerical work. Some scholarly editors are great thinkers and teachers; most are not. As literary documents, incidentally, the letters of many authors are more interesting for what they are not than for what they are. Even with the smutty ones now restored, for example, Joyce’s letters make quite pedestrian reading; the artist who went into exile to create what he hoped would be the conscience of the Irish race found his poverty galling. Poor artists write about money almost as often as stockbrokers do.
But whatever their intrinsic worth, once letters and manuscripts have been made available in print, their value to a library shrinks from precious resource to that of curio. To remain great, therefore, a library must continue to grow. When Bill Holman talks about it, he employs terms like “intensity” and “momentum” that make him sound very much like a football coach. Outsiders have criticized the HRC for promiscuous acquisitions, sometimes justifiably. It often seems the HRC has flung its net so wide, in fact, that it would buy and put a wall around the entire city of Austin as an example of an American city in mid-twentieth century if somebody would provide the money. Holman, however, sees it another way: “You can’t build a collection like this without making mistakes. But how can we know today what will be important to future generations? They criticize us because we don’t know how to say no. The only way to avoid making mistakes is not to make any decisions at all. I know some librarians, you could offer a $50,000 collection for $2000 and they would turn it down.”
Even so, collecting coups of the kind Ransom and the HRC were able to make in the past grow more unlikely, indeed almost impossible, every year. Other universities as different as Stanford, Virginia, Southern Illinois, Tulsa, and Utah are also in the competition, for rare books and manuscripts, as well as the big libraries that usually come to mind. With so many institutional buyers now in the field, particularly since many have public money at their disposal, prices continue to go up and up.
Quite obviously the HRC will need firm and enlightened guidance if it is to avoid bureaucratic entropy: the slow leakage of energy that ends in self-satisfied mediocrity. Priorities need to be maintained that will give shape and coherence to the library’s future acquisitions. There is reason to fear that such goals are not at present being articulated, and it is certain that if the growth of the HRC and the development of the UT instructional program are related at all, it is purely by accident. To some degree this state of affairs is an almost inevitable result of Harry Ransom’s passing, and the fact that Warren Roberts, who administered his visions, plans to retire in three years.
For his part Roberts regards the library as having been built, and, with a common sense one wishes were more generally shared in the UT community, thinks that the academic tone of the campus would be enhanced by a slackening of both anxiety and zeal: “UT is so big now,” he says, “that nobody can destroy it—or change it very much from year to year. It doesn’t really matter very much which individual professors stay or leave. Some departments will improve and some will decline in quality, then come back. It’s like some big thing out of the sea that keeps restoring itself. You can hurt it in individual parts, but the whole organism survives.”
But if UT is an organism, the HRC is its appendix—an inessential part. The next edition of its journal, in theory a quarterly, is a year and a half late. Private libraries print theirs on time and list financial statements and books acquired. The HRC does not. Others seek “friends of the library” groups that are not exclusively academic. Roberts sees the need but says he lacks the energy.
The person who inherits Warren Roberts’ job will have the task of guiding the library into full maturity, bringing it out of hiding, as it were, and ending its isolation from the rest of the university and the private booklovers of the state, the nation, and even the world. Actually it will be the local part of the endeavor that will be the most difficult, since the HRC is already better known to bibliophiles in London, where UT’s inner squabbles are unknown, than it is in Texas. No doubt factions are already forming on the Board of Regents and in interested circles of the faculty, administration, and the HRC to maneuver their own choices into the job. The results of such tribalized infighting are well known at UT; what is less understood is how to avoid it. Perhaps enough has been learned in recent years by most of the concerned parties that they can manage somehow to put aside their mutual suspicions. Then perhaps the HRC will become the magnetic center of intellectual and communal endeavor that a great library should be. Hope for it. Do not, however, make the mistake of betting on it.