Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Spring 2007 Newsletter

The American Twenties with Rodney Phillips

Drawing of a man and woman dancing together

This original Norman Bel Geddes drawing of a
dancing couple became interior decoration for
the New York City nightclub, Palais Royal
Cabaret. ca. 1923.
Courtesy of Bel Geddes Estate.

Where did the idea for an exhibition on The American Twenties originate?

It was a general concept that came from the planning committee for the 50th anniversary gala, actually.

We decided to make it about the United States in the 1920s, because that's the decade that really was the beginning of most of what we know now as "modern" and "contemporary." And it was also a decade of huge change—a lot of conflict, a lot of confrontation—and it seemed really exciting, for those reasons, to make an exhibition about that time period.

The exhibition has 14 sections. How did you choose these sections?

They came out of reading books about the period, and they came also out of the material at the Ransom Center. There are a lot of materials in the Ransom Center about the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, and so that's how that part of the exhibit was chosen.

There were themes that just sort of jumped out of the decade, too. Cops and robbers—the first hard-boiled detective novel was written in the twenties. The whole rage for hard-boiled fiction was fueled throughout the decade. Also, labor and capital, or "strike," as we call it—there was a considerable amount of labor unrest during this time period. It was also sort of the beginning of the modern factory as we know it. So that jumped out at us.

The obscurer one is called "Chinese shadows," which is about the translating of Chinese poetry into English, or the transference of Chinese and east Asian culture into the United States and its effect on literature, fashion, and decoration, among other things.

Were there any surprises once you started going through collection materials to find items to include in the exhibition?

We did find photographs. This was a surprise. There were about 20 photographs of Alice Corbin Henderson that were taken by Ansel Adams—they worked on a book together. And in this folder were these 20 very thin paper proofs of Alice. That was a surprise. There is a Man Ray photograph of Hilda Doolittle, the poet. So that was a find; I was glad to see that. There is a western photograph of D. H. Lawrence. So after hearing and discovering that the Ransom Center was weak in that area, we kept finding these little surprises throughout the collection.

We found some photographs of Carl Sandburg, lots of them. They were all taken of his family and his wife, and they were all taken by Edward Steichen, so that was a surprise. As it turns out, Sandburg was married to Steichen's sister. So that's why these photographs were taken, because this was his brother-in-law. And I hadn't known that before, so that was exciting. There are a couple of photographs of Steichen in uniform because he had just gotten out from the service in the war. They had either been taken by Sandburg or his sister, so it was fun to find those.

When you have so many items from which to choose, how do you narrow down what you want to include in the exhibition?

You try to pick items—photographs, manuscripts, books, other things—that are iconic, that have maybe a little bit of symbolism for the time. So we did that in many cases. In other cases, there were materials that were too good to pass up that we wanted to have other people see.

It was also a matter of trying to have [new] items. I mean, we could have had 400 items of modernism alone, but the Ransom Center had already done that exhibit, and that's only one of the 14 parts, so we tried to equalize the amount of material in each of the different parts.

We tried to choose items that hadn't been exhibited a lot of before. So things are not going to be the familiar "icons" of the Ransom Center. But having said that, I'm sure the photography people knew about the Steichen photographs, they just hadn't considered them as master prints, because they're snapshots, small photographs, but that's great for me. I like that part of the exhibit. The exhibit is both high and low culture, so there are snap shots and there are master print photographs, side by side, so to speak. There's cops and robbers right next to modernist monuments.

Do you have a favorite item in the exhibition?

One of my favorite pieces is a small pamphlet called "Rhymes To Be Traded For Bread." It was poetry of Vachel Lindsay, who was a poet, but he wanted to see the United States. So, he tramped around the countryside like a hobo with these pamphlets on him of his own stuff that he had printed up, and he would trade them for food or a night in somebody's barn or something like that. He was also a great orator, and he would chant his poetry. In any case, this little pamphlet has his writing on it, and it's a very rare thing because probably most of them were destroyed. So that's one of my favorite items.

What makes this exhibition special for you?

I think for me, one of the points of the exhibition is to show people more about what is at the Ransom Center—it's a great treasure trove, a great resource for history, and for studying our own history and our own culture. And this exhibit tries to show us where we came from—now at the beginning of a new century—where we came from in the early part of the previous century.

I think you'll see things that are familiar, conflicts that are still happening. For instance, you'll see things like the first radio broadcast that was in 1920, and now we have television and computers. So we've come a long way in some cases.  

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