Friday, June 22, 2007

Oh, The Humanities!

The Smithsonsian may be America's Attic, but the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas is America's crazy uncle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a fat wallet. It's got a Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455), the First Photograph (ca. 1826), film archives of David O. Selznick and Robert De Niro, paintings by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and major manuscript collections of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tennessee Williams, and Norman Mailer. It's even got Dorothy's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The overview of the place in the most recent The New Yorker had me waxing nostalgic a little.

I've got a soft spot for the place because I used to hang there back in my UT days when I was suffering under delusion that a life in academia would be beneficial. Under the influence of Bill Stott's class on Documentary Expression, I spent many hours going through the James Agee Collection researching Agee and Walker Evans and their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Kurth Sprague also gave me a private tour of the Tom Lea Collection. Although the U gets some knocks for being an overwhelming environment that doesn't care about undergrads, I always found lots of great academic opportunities and people willing to nurture your intellectual curiousity if you made the effort.

That said, the HRC gets some knocks because gathering this trove of stuff means throwing down some serious coin. That has some regarding the HRC as a bunch of rich Texans with fat wallets and no appreciation for the significance of the work they are buying. That's selling the HRC a little short. My understanding is they do a great job archiving this material for future generations and making it available to the academics of today. Besides -- to paraphrase Ross Perot -- if God didn't want all that stuff here, he wouldn't have given Texans so damn much money!

Still others wonder "What are Arthur Conan Doyle's Undershirts Doing in Texas?" Or put another way: why would anyone pay good money for some of that shit? Yeah, maybe they don't need the old sandwich found in one of Isaac Singer's boxes, but you never know what is going to provide the "Rosebud Moment," the seemingly unimportant object that is actually the Rosetta Stone for the secrets and meaning of person's life.

Thanks to Emphemera for reminding me to get off my duff and write this.

No comments: