Thirty million literary manuscripts. One million rare books. Five million photographs. More than 100,000 works of art. These comprise the holdings of the Harry Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the most comprehensive cultural archives in the world.
The treasures are almost too much for the imagination to behold: manuscripts of some of the world's great authors, from Lord Byron and James Joyce to Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams; priceless paintings by the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera; original Shakespeare folios; musical scores, manuscripts, and audio tapes by such composers as Maurice Ravel and George Gershwin; the first photograph ever taken (circa 1826); the Gutenberg bible (circa 1455), one of only five complete Gutenberg bibles in the U.S., and an endless trove of show business literature and paraphernalia - including countless personal effects such as awards, clothing, and furniture found or bequeathed by various actors, playwrights, photographers, authors, and other “notables.”
With a collection valued at more than $1 billion, the center's only rival for cultural treasures of the last century is the British Library in London.
Last week came news that the 45-year-old center, whose vaults previously were available only to scholars and students, will open its first public galleries in April. This is great news for Texans and anyone else who lusts to see the Harry Ransom holdings in person. Meanwhile, it turns out that the center has an extremely well-done Web site that includes a number of online exhibitions - admittedly a sliver of what the library contains, but an irresistible glimpse into the overall collection nonetheless.
The pages devoted to the Gutenberg Bible, for instance, give a full history of Gutenberg and the birth of printing, and shows readers close-ups of sample pages from the ancient work.
The world's first photograph also gets several pages of attention. A Frenchman named Joseph Niepce took the photo, which required eight hours of exposure to produce. Taken several years before the actual dawn of photography in 1839, it depicts a view outside the workroom window of Niepce's estate in Gras, France.
Other online exhibitions include a centenary celebration of the author Lewis Carroll, who wrote Alice in Wonderland; works by the photojournalist David Douglas Duncan; folktale drawings by the painter John Biggers, and the letters of author John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men), although that section was listed as temporarily unavailable earlier this week.
To my mind, the most fascinating of the online shows is the one devoted to David O. Selznick's film masterpiece, Gone With the Wind. Anybody with the faintest interest in the 1939 movie will find hours of text and photographs to peruse. Two of the chapter headings are “The Search for Scarlett” and “Costumes and Makeup,” which show audition photos of the actresses who tried out for the leading role of Scarlett O'Hara, as well as pictures of the various cast members wearing the costumes and makeup of their characters.
The search for Scarlett produced its own drama. Dozens of actresses tried out for the role, including Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Jean Arthur, Talullah Bankhead, and Paulette Goddard, but none caught the fancy of director Selznick. Filming began without Scarlett: The first scene was the burning of Atlanta. Among the people visiting the set that day was the British actress Vivien Leigh. The instant Selznick laid eyes on her, he knew he had his Scarlett.
All this is recounted in exhaustive text and photos, including pictures of the scribbled call sheets for the auditioning actresses. The Costume and Makeup section offers candid pictures of Leigh, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Thomas Mitchell, Victor Jory, Ward Bond, and other actors posing for “makeup stills.”
There are also beautiful full-color drawings of some of Scarlett's most eye-catching costumes, including the Curtain Dress, the Ball Gown, and the Wedding Dress. A separate page is devoted to the costumes of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, along with an explanation of the bizarre problems he encountered with his tailors.
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