Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Catching up

DAYS SEVENTEEN-TWENTY: We spent Monday and Tuesday morning at the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus in Austin, TX, which is the location of the Alfred A. Knopf Archive. We were looking for papers relating to a proposed 5-volume series on the History of the United States which Knopf was going to publish, and to which Ellen's father, Frederick B. Tolles was invited to contribute Vol. I: From the Beginning to 1790. He signed a contract for the book in 1954, with a deadline for submitting the manuscript in June, 1958. But he was unable to meet the deadline because of illness, and eventually had to give up on the book altogether because a series of operations on a brain tumor, and other complications, made it impossible for him to finish it. However, he was able to write about four chapters of it, about 250 pages in all. That manuscript exists in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore, and I have transcribed it and intend to publish it, with an Introduction, for Ellen's family, and any others who might be interested.

In writing the Introduction - the story behind that unfinished, unpublished manuscript - I realized that there was a piece of the story I did not understand. Why was the 5-volume History of the United States never published by Knopf? Why didn't Knopf find someone to take Fred Tolles' place when it became clear that he could not finish it?  And what happened to the work of the other four authors who were contracted to write volumes II-V? I hoped that the Knopf Archive would provide an answer to those questions. We were not disappointed. It was a very interesting and ultimately rewarding visit.

Harry Ransom Center

Reading Room at the Knopf Archive

Here's how it went. We arrived at the Reading Room and were asked to view a video orienting us to the rules of the Knopf Archive. It is a highly controlled and regulated place. We could take into the reading room only the laptop computer and a digital camera. Everything else went into a locker. No pens allowed: they provided paper and pencils. You are given blue identification papers which establish that you have permission to use the archive. You take them inside and hand them to a staff person. An intern named Susan helped us navigate the archive itself. First you establish an account. Then you use that account to request specific items. Since the archive is indexed, I used the names of the persons involved in this 5-volume series as search probes, starting with Frederick Barnes Tolles and the editor of the series, Walter Johnson. It turned out that those two names generated several files. A staff person retrieved the files from the archive, and put them into boxes. They came out two boxes at a time, with each box holding about 6-8 file folders. You take one box of folders to a special table, and then remove the files, one-by-one, from that box. You are allowed to take only one file folder to the reading table at a time, carefully placing a marker in the box to show where the folder was removed. Since there were two of us, and we had each opened an account, we could each have a folder at the table. You then carefully go through each folder to look for items that might relate to your research. Most of the folders we went through contained correspondence - letters from Alfred Knopf to Fred Tolles or Walter Johnson, or letters from them to Alfred Knopf. Knopf letters were, of course, carbon copies of his typed letters. The folders varied tremendously in how many items they contained - some were very thin, others very fat. You had to look at each piece of paper carefully to see if it was relevant. Inevitably, you would see something that was not directly related but was very interesting. It was easy to be distracted. But in our day and a half there, we managed to get through all the folders we thought might hold the information we were looking for. And we found it. We also found some fairly extensive letters from Ellen's father, and her mother too, written at the time of his illness, which Ellen had never seen and which contained information that was very revealing.

I can't go into all the ins and outs of the whole thing here - I took digital photos of probably 100 letters or more, and it will take time to assimilate it all. But in the final analysis, the series was never published not because Fred Tolles was not able to complete his manuscript, but because the series fell apart for a variety of reasons which provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of publishing. Ellen and I both were amazed that we were actually able to see these documents and get inside the whole process in the way that we did. We learned things about some very famous people who had contact with Alfred A. Knopf, and we learned a lot about Knopf himself. It was quite an experience.

After the reading room closed we walked around the campus a bit. We saw hundreds of high school students who were there for a debating competition. And we got a glimpse of this iconic scene of the U of Texas historic main building which I actually saw for the first time in 1954 when I was part of a college group that made a trip to Mexico from Springfield, MO and went through Austin.

Univ. of Texas

After Austin, we drove to Houston, going through Lockhart, TX, BBQ capital of Texas, spent the night at the Elmores, Jenny Baker's parents, and then today drove to Arkadelphia, AK, via Texarkana, which is where we are tonight. More on all that later.

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