Harry Huntt Ransom: A Celebration

Harry Huntt Ransom: A Celebration


RANSOM: There is a broader concept, much broader than the mere research process or pure technological device or building and facility physically considered. It’s the library as an agency of education conceived top to bottom as the experience that brings the very young student as well as the most senior professor back into the stream of ideas, and gives him the opportunity to go to his regular job, and I’m not thinking simply of the publication of articles and books in that phrase, with a renewed sort of intellectual energy. And it’s that educational agency of course that I am primarily concerned with. STALEY: Harry Ransom, born in Texas, returned to Texas to make his mark on higher education. Ransom received his doctorate from Yale University. After completing his degree, he came to Austin to teach at the University of Texas. Not long after Ransom became an assistant professor of English, his academic career was interrupted by World War II. He joined the Army Air Force Intelligence, advanced from second lieutenant to major, and was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1947 for his contribution to the development and publication of Air Force Magazine during the war. In 1947, having returned to Texas, Ransom was quickly promoted to full professor and earned the esteem of his students and colleagues. One of his students later wrote to Hazel Ransom, Harry’s wife: Surely you never heard of me, yet few days in my life pass that I do not think of him, and realize in deep appreciation who he was and what he did for me. Another former student touched by his brilliant teaching inaugurated a Harry Ransom award for excellence in teaching, given annually to a faculty member in the College of Liberal Arts. Ransom’s talent for administration brought him greater notice and increasing responsibility. His rise within the University administration was meteoric. In 1951, Ransom was named Assistant Dean of the Graduate School. Nine years later, he would be appointed President of the University. On December 8th, 1956, Ransom issued a call for Texans to fulfill their “intellectual obligations” by gathering, preserving, and celebrating the artifacts of knowledge. He spoke of the need for Texas to create a “center of our cultural compass,” a Biblioth Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation. Ransom believed that a university in Texas devoted to “collecting the human record” would attract brilliant young minds. He was right. In 1957, Ransom assumed even greater roles within the University’s administration. He also became Director of the Research Center, a position that would allow him to realize his vision of Texas as a beacon of culture with a pre-eminent library. Under Ransom’s guidance, the Center acquired the remarkable T. Edward Hanley Library, a massive collection of books, manuscripts, and art. Writers from both Great Britain and the United States recognized that the Center was blossoming, and they understood that Ransom was the driving force behind this Texas renaissance. Dame Edith Sitwell, whose collection already resided at the Research Center, wrote to Ransom in 1957 to express her delight that the Center had acquired the papers of Denton Welch, an English writer and painter she admired. Tennessee Williams, who later visited the Center, spoke glowingly of the University and the library where his manuscripts would be housed. “I can’t imagine a better depository for my books and manuscripts than the University of Texas,” he wrote, “And I’m truly flattered that you have offered this haven for them.” Williams’s words have since become a theme of so many of the writers whose archives come to the Ransom Center. Ransom’s talent for administration also extended to the University as a whole. In 1957, the great American folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote: “I’m mighty glad for the University that you are to be more or less responsible to and for the faculty.”ťRansom brought to Texas many renowned professors who became known as “Harry’s Boys,” including Roger Shattuck, John Silber, William Arrowsmith, Vartan Gregorian, and Donald Carne-Ross. Ransom believed that excellence in the humanities was the mark of a great university, and the strength of his belief inspired many on the Texas campus and beyond Ransom founded the Texas Quarterly, a journal that drew international attention to Texas’s commitment to arts and letters. In a 1958 introduction to the first volume of the magazine, Ransom wrote, in an age preoccupied with outer space the area still most important to education is that which lies between the human ears.” In 1960 Ransom was appointed President of the University of Texas, and in 1961, he was elected Chancellor of the University of Texas System. He remained committed to acquiring fascinating new materials for the Center, such as Erle Stanley Gardner’s archive (and his writing cabin, too). In the early 1960s, the Center also received its first gifts from Alfred A. Knopf, the founder of the great literary firm that would come to publish the works of many of the most important American writers. But Ransom’s increasing responsibilities soon drew him away from the daily operations of the library, and he appointed Warren Roberts Director of the Center. For more than a decade, Ransom led The University of Texas. In 1971, he retired as Chancellor and was named Chancellor Emeritus. In this same year, this building, then known as the Humanities Research Center, opened to researchers. In 1970, the celebrated British bibliographer and rare books specialist Anthony Hobson had included the Center in his influential survey of the world’s major collections, Great Libraries. It was one of only four American institutions included in his book. Harry Ransom died in 1976. At the time of his death, he was writing a history of the University to which he’d dedicated so much of his life. In Ransom’s memory, the Humanities Research Center acquired the Gutenberg Bible in 1978. The Center’s name was changed to honor its founder, in 1983. Since then, the Center has continued to work to fulfill Ransom’s vision of a major international institution for research in the humanities, located in the heart of Texas. We celebrate Harry Ransom’s vision and its continuing success. RANSOM: “It’s going to be a long future, I hope, in the building, and any part of my future that comes into it will be a deep satisfaction. I’d like just to make one other confident prediction about use and prospect. There are a great many open shelves and a great many opening opportunities to undergraduate students and others, including visiting scholars of the elder sort, in the closed shelves. I have a feeling, knowing something about the way Texans study and grow, that these open shelves are going to keep inviting open minds.”

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