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Austin, Texas: Storehouse of British culture

In England on Nov. 8, 1960, a New York book dealer overslept. In the rush to Sotheby's London auction house, he grabbed a black raincoat and buttoned it to his chin to hide the pajama tops he was still wearing. It was his bankroll, however, not his attire, that attracted all the attention at Sotheby's. He refused to be outbid.

According to Anthony Hobson of Sotheby's, on that day the book dealer bought five of Oscar Wilde's letters for L220 ($615 back then) 173 of Robert Southey's for L1,950 ($5,450), and the manuscript of D. H. Lawrence's "Etruscan Places" for L2,000 ($5,600).

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He was obviously no neophyte to the British book market. Five months earlier he bought half of the entire Sotheby's sale (including every lot of a T. E. Lawrence collection) and at a Christie's charity sale, purchased the manuscript of E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India" for L6,500, three times the existing English record for a modern manuscript.

The following spring he swept up the manuscripts of Edith Sitwell (for L17, 928 -- $50,000) and Graham Greene (L14,550), along with stacks of letters of George Bernard Shaw, Yeats, and the Pre-Raphaelites.

The New York book dealer was buying up Britain's literary treasures for the University of Texas, which was oozing with oil money and trying to put itself on the academic map through one of the most ambitious rare-book and manuscript acquisition programs in recent history.

Unfortunately for Britain, the "Elgin-marbles syndrome" -- art follows the empire -- had come home to roost. In the back pages of the London Observer and the Times Literary Supplement, writers lamented what they saw as crass Texans in covered wagons carrying off into the sunset Britain's literary heritage.

Immediately, the British began toughening up the National Heritage Acts and clamping down on the export of literary "national treasures." Its Arts Council initiated the unprecedented practice of buying the notebooks of living poets, and the British Museum quickly coughed up L5,000 for the manuscript of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" before the University of Texas could get its hands on it.

In Paris, the Bibliotheque Nationale followed suit to prevent Proust's niece from selling a rare collection of the writer's work to these nouveau culture vultures in the Lone Star State.

Overnight, the University of Texas had inflated and revolutionized the international book business, as well as roused the ire and envy of European bibliophiles. In the process, however, it built up one of the most remarkable but little- known libraries in the world, the Humanities Research Center (HRC) in Austin.

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The seven-story "Texas Modern" limestone archive on the Austin campus contains, among other things, the Brudenell manuscript of "The Canterbury Tales, " a 14th- century codex of Dante, and an 11th-century compendium of astronomical texts by an abbot at Tegernsee, Germany.

"We're not trying to buy our way into top rank, but that's certainly one way of doing it," says Bill Todd, an English professor who works half-time for the center and recently helped the university acquire for $2.4 million a Gutenberg Bible -- one of five complete copies in the United States.

While it is hard to consider such trophies of antiquity peripheral to its collection, the archives' strong suit is modernity. The university can claim, without hyperbole, that it has the best collection in the world of 20th-century British and American literary manuscripts. Coming from a town that is usually remembered for Willie Nelson and its "I brake for armadillos" bumper stickers, that is quite a mouthful.

In addition to owning such literary esoterica as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's spectacles and Evelyn Waugh's walking sticks, the center contains the manuscripts and correspondence of Waugh, George Bernard Shaw, and scores of lesser- known British authors, which arguably outclass even those at the British Museum. The collection of 20th-century French manuscripts is unexcelled outside Paris. In his book, "Great Libraries," Anthony Hobson lists the Austin center alongside the British Museum, the Bibliotheque Nationale, and the Bodleian Library of Oxford. Hobson writes: "Future biographers and literary historians are likely to travel to Austin as inevitably as students of Balzac now visit Chantilly."

That a state university should become such a literary mecca seems at first glance hard to fathom, particularly in Texas, where the state Legislature is more apt to spend millions on a new swimming pool or football stadium than on preserving authors' memorabilia. University faculty members complain that the Legislature is "anti-intellectual," comparing its attitude to that of the North Carolina legislator who once refused to vote to buy more books for Chapel Hill professors until they could prove they had read the books the legislature bought them the year before.

Much of the explanation for the humanities center's presence in Austin is plain and simple petrodollars. The University of Texas, which holds the deeds to 21 million acres of rich oil fields and grazing land in west Texas, has an endowment of around $1.3 billion. That endowment continues to bubble out of the ground at an estimated rate of $10 million to $12 million a month. Within a few years, the 145-branch University of Texas system is expected to become the wealthiest in the country. (At the moment, Harvard is still ahead, with $1.6 billion.) Perhaps even more important to the center's existence than money, however, is the vision of one man -- Harry Huntt Ransom.

Ransom, an English professor who eventually became president of the University of Texas, dreamed of "putting Texas on the map." He was a passionate bibliophile and armed with political savvy, ample charm, and the sheer gall of a texan whose larger-than-life dreams dictated buying, not simply assorted rare volumes, but the contents of entire libraries and bookstores.

The "Ransom era" -- the nearly two decades it took the late Mr. Ransom to realize his dream -- was a period of stormy university politics complicated by charges that Ransom was "empire building." Throw big money and strong- willed men into the furnace of Texas politics and you're bound to see fireworks. In the last six years alone, power struggles over the humanities center have led to the firing of university president Stephen Spurr in 1974 and the resignation of a director of the center, Warren Roberts, in 1978. Literary treasures

For three years, the center floundered without a permanent director. But last June, Decherd Turner, who left his post as head of the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas to take over the Austin center, accepted the formidable task of ushering this rich, often unwieldy, and controversial institution into maturity.

"Ransom cast a wide net, and in doing so garnered and won his purpose, a wonderfully rich collection. But he also left behind enough problems for the next seven directors," Turner says.

His first six months in Austin have kept him so busy that he apologizes for not having had the time to completely furnish his new office on the second floor. The day we spoke, he had just returned from closing the deal on a private collection in Boston, and had spent three days sorting through another collection in a Los Angeles warehouse.

Entering his office, my eyes scan the room for clues to the interests of the new director. A 19th-century wooden bookbinder's press sits next to his desk; a needlepoint re-creation of William Morris's printing "trademark" is above his head. The only items in the room that belong to Turner are a Japanese satsuma vase in the corner and, quite naturally, the books on his shelves. Leather volumes of Stendhal and Oscar Wilde stare out at eye level. His personal interest in this collection happens not to be the literary contents but the bindings. One by one, he pulls out the work of the great French bookbinders: Pierre Legrain, Paul Bonet, and P. L. Martin.

Turner is soft-spoken but self-assured, and a man of strong opinions. Small in stature, and conservatively dressed, he looks like a bit of New England adrift among ersatz undergraduate cowboys with their eelskin boots.

The new director says he was a friend of the late Harry Ransom, and obviously has a good deal of respect and affection for the founder of the humanities center. "People laughed at Ransom for what they called "buying up the wastebaskets of living authors.' But since then all kinds of institutions have paid him the ultimate compliment: imitation."

"At a time when bibliographical geography was already fixed in the great libraries of the East, Ransom refused to accept the domination of the printed book. It dawned on him that the first edition of a book was the end of the creative process, not the beginning. The most important things in the profile of the creative process are the author's notes, transcripts, corrections, and galley proofs."

Before Ransom and the University of Texas seriously entered international book dealing in the late 1950s and early '60s, trading was primarily in antiquarian editions. The older the book, the greater its value, often regardless of the book's intrinsic literary significance.Recognizing that the great private American universities and libraries (such as Harvard, Yale, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, and the Henry Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.) had already cornered the old-book market, Ransom began exploring a new frontier of literary acquisition: modern British and American manuscripts.

In the mid-1950s, he sidestepped the state legislature and went directly to the university regents for money to build the new Humanities Research Center, where the literary treasures he would bring back to Austin would be housed. In those early years, the center served as an elegant warehouse and purchasing arm for Ransom, who built up an elegant network of aggressive book dealers throughout Europe and America.

One of his early coups came in 1958, the acquisition of a collection owned by T. E. Hanley, an eccentric brick manufacturer from Bradford, Pa.For 30 years Hanley had collected the books and manuscripts of such British giants as Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Shaw, Dylan Thomas, and the two Lawrences (D. H. and T. E.), but had never kept track of his holdings. Taking the sort of gamble for which he became famous, Ransom wrote a check for the whole lot. It wasn't until the crates arrived in Austin by truck caravan that Ransom realized its extraordinary value.

The British Museum founded its library on the personal library of Sir Hans Sloane, a naturalist, and in that tradition the humanities center, through donations and acquisitions, became a "collection of collections." The Hanley Collection was joined by the Parsons Collection (40,000 volumes and 8,000 manuscripts of Americana, art, classics, and Dante), the Norman Bel Geddes Collection (set design), the Hoblitzelle Collection (theater arts), the Weinreb Collection (architecture), and the famous photographic collection of Helmut and Alison Gernsheim, which put Texas second only to the photographic collection at Eastman House in Rochester. (The Gernsheim collection contains what is thought to be the world's first photograph, made by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, the "Father of Photography.")

"Ransom caused a dramatic change in scholarship," Turner says. "B.R., that is, Before Ransom, literary criticism began with the published text. But the collecting of manuscripts and notes of authors gave professors that much more material with which to write books and feed to their troops, the students. By the 1960s, the Ransom syndrome had become a fact of life, and it gave a whole century of extension to literary criticism."

That the center has a greater reputation in London and Paris that in Houston and Austin comes as no surprise to Turner. "The HRC is known best in the country that yelled the loudest." He is referring, of course, to England. The British have not forgotten how 20 years ago Texas money flooded the London bookshops and auction rooms and swept away now highly inflated cultural treasures.

In 1958, the center paid $425 for a limited first edition copy of James Joyce's "Ulysses," a book that today would bring $10,000 at auction. Much the way Asians and Africans decried British imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries, the British accused Ransom and the humanities center of "cultural privateering." Turner's defense: "Ransom didn't steal England's literary heritage. On the contrary, he saved it."

Much of the ill feeling toward the center grew out of those early chaotic days at the library.

"In the '60s, the material was coming in at a pace that no one could keep up with," Ellen Dunlap, the center's research librarian, says. "They literally didn't know what was coming in the next carload or where to put it. You can imagine the resentment that built up with a British scholar having manuscripts sold out from under his nose. Then when he writes to Austin asking to use the material he is told, 'Sorry, we haven't gotten around to cataloging them yet'!

"In the early years, UT students had first grabs at the collection, and some were given exclusive rights. Personally, I think a little competition in the marketplace is a good Literary treasures thing," Miss Dunlap says, adding that the ill-advised policy of giving preference to Texas scholars was discontinued years ago.

These days the center often has the ambiance of "a little Britain," says Turner, whose secretary was born in Bristol, England. More than a quarter of the manuscript readers who use the center are from Britain, Canada, or overseas, as compared with 21 percent from the UT system. Almost half of the scholars requesting use of the manuscripts are interested strictly in the British material.

Among the other frequently used holdings is the Carlton Lake Collection of modern French literature, containing the many of the letters, first editions, and manuscripts of Sartre, Ionesco, Colette, Gide, Celine, Rambaud, Genet, Tolouse-Lautrec, and Cezanne. Lake, who assembled the collection while working as an art critic for the The Christian Science Monitor in Paris, donated it to the center and now serves as its curator in Austin. Recent attention focused on the discovery in the French collection of the unpublished libretto of an opera Debussy had planned to write for Edgar Allan Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher." Says Lake: "Scholars at the Bibliotheque Nationale dropped everything when they heard about the material."

At any one time there are some 300 scholars using the center -- either in person or through correspondence -- and Miss Dunlap is the resident traffic cop, directing readers to manuscripts and enforcing stringent security producers. Much of her job is answering requests by mail. On the day we spoke, she had on her desk a request for material on Edna St. Vincent Millay, a letter from someone in Colorado doing a biography of Arthur Miller, an editor writing from Wales about the D. H. Lawrence holdings, a request for material on American literary forgers, and someone in California writing about a poem of Dylan Thomas's ("I don't think he ever wrote it," Miss Dunlap says; "I've hunted for that before"). She adds:

"Much of our work is through correspondence. You, for instance, might write in and say you're doing a biography of H. L. Mencken's third wife and want to see what we have. We would get permission from the estate, have the material copied and sent out to you."

She believes that in addition to the center's immense breadth, its strength lies in its depth. "We have not only authors' manuscripts but also correspondence and scraps of papers from their friends and associates and business agents. Whole literary circles have been re-created in certain degrees through our collection."

Quantitatively, the collection consists of some 12,000 pieces of art, 150,000 photographs, 800,000 books, and 4 million manuscripts. Those who are unimpressed by numbers Literary treasures with long strings of zeros, however, might be interested to know that the center has in its possession the manuscripts or author's corrected typescripts of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"; Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!"; Shaw's "Pygmalion"; T. S. Eliot's "The Dry Savages"; Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan"; Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman"; Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory"; Conan Doyle's "A Scandal in Bohemia"; Joseph Conrad's "Victory"; Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"; Dylan Thomas's "Under Milkwood"; Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon"; D. H. Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers"; Sinclair Lewis's "Arrowsmith"; and the only surviving draft of T. E. Lawrence's "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

In addition to its manuscripts of significant literary figures, it has collected the papers of "people who knew anybody worth knowing," Miss Dunlap says, such as Lady Ottoline Morrell, J. L. Garvin (the well-connected editor of the Observer), and publishers John Lehmann and Alfred A. Knopf.

It is hard to wander anywhere in the center without stumbling over something of literary significance. I spent an hour reading in one of the upstairs seminar rooms and discovered such memorabilia as Samuel Beckett's primitivistic doodles, e. e. cummings's grammar school report card ("Basket B, Singing B, Writing C-plus), a post card to a Miss H. Corke from D. H. Lawrence in one of his rare tongue-tied moments ("The unexpected will never cause to happen. Why did you not go to Plymouth? What in the world are you doing? I give it up. It is true, I don't know what to say -- not enough to fill a postcard. D. H. L.").Across the room on the wall is an awkwardly executed 1928 oil painting "Behind the Villa Mirenda," by D. H. Lawrence himself.

When it came to collecting, Ransom rarely skimped.He brought to Austin the personal libraries of Evelyn Waugh, Edgar Lee Masters, and Christopher Morley. The center bought novelist Erle Stanley Gardner's entire study and cottage and painstakingly reconstructed it on the campus, complete with the author's desk, rocking chair, stuffed turtles, carpets, and ceremonial swords.

"Ransom bought an entire book shop in New York, James F. Drake Inc. He bought everything: the furniture, the wastebaskets, the aquarium, even a few people who worked there," Miss Dunlap muses.

Amid the literary gems in the collection is an ample supply of esoterica: Gertrude Stein's cape and fan, circus costumes, autographed footballs, Houdini's magic gear, and one of the largest collections of bubble gum baseball cards in existence.

One criticism frequently leveled at the center is that it is so cluttered with minutiae that it can't dig out the real literary treasures. That complaint gained credence several years ago when the unknown and unpublished manuscripts of T. H. White's "Book of Merlyn," the fifth volume of "The Once and Future King ," was discovered here. It was eventually published by the University of Texas Press, became a national best seller, and prompted speculation that other masterpieces were sitting unnoticed and uncataloged.

"There's a lot more where that ["The Book of Merlyn"] came from. The book was lost in a pile of manuscript material and not clearly sorted out," Bill Todd , the UT English professor who has worked with the center since 1958, says. (Miss Dunlap claims the criticism is unfounded and that the White manuscript was clearly cataloged and had been "used significantly" in two doctoral dissertations before the University Press decided to publish it.)

"I'm astonished and bewildered by what goes on over there," Todd says. "I'm constantly stumbling upon things I don't expect. Nothing like what I was used to at Harvard. They had an annual report of acquisitions. The HRC's past has been frenetic and disorganized. Now is the time for consolidation and conservation."

It would appear the center is at a pivotal point in its history. The days of Harry Ransom's storming into Europe with a fistful of dollars seems to have gone and the way of the huge Texas cattle drives and seat-of-the- pants oil wildcattlers. They have become a part of the frontier folklore.

Despite its immense wealth, the University of Texas is now faced with intense competition for modern manuscripts from universities that have more than money to throw around.

"Much of the increased competition is coming from schools that are pulling school ties, which are stronger than money. I wouldn't be surprised if Harvard hasn't already set upon [alumni] like John Updike," Turner says. And changes in the tax laws in 1969 which stopped authors from giving their papers to the center and writing it off their taxable income as a charitable donation also tightened up the market for modern manuscripts.

Authors are now hoarding their papers againts the days when the tax laws change, or in some cases they are parceling out their manuscripts bit by bit to the few institutions who can afford the exorbitant prices. For these reasons, Turner cannot cast his acquisition net as wide as did Ransom. He must be more selective and turn his attention to technical areas neglected in the past, cataloging and conserving the fragile paper of documents. Furthermore, Turner and his staff will have their hands full with public relations work, combating the old stereotypes and prejudices that grew up during the center's earlier, more rambunctious days.

Turner says: "You still hear all the time, 'The HRC doesn't even know what it has,' and 'It took a lot of good taxpayers' money to build up that collection.' The fact is, this is the only intellectual accomplishment [of the University of Texas] which is known all over the world, and it was purchased at bargain-basement prices." The new director likens the price of assembling the collection to "buying Manhattan from the Indians for a handful of beads."

I asked him if he could ever imagine, in this age of austerity when universities are caught in the economic pinch, that a major research institution like the Humanities Research Center might ever again be mounted.

He smiled at my question and answered simply, "No way."

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