The Atlantic Monthly, March 2012
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.”