As Cultures Unbind, Personalities Unfold

Picasso shows Lump his new plate

Upon entering the exhibit, nothing immediately grabs your attention. No modern art or flashy pictures.

The Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century display at the Harry Ransom Center, comprised largely of correspondence between authors, requires a close look.

A look that’s worth taking.

But first, they throw you a visual (dog) bone.

At the exhibit’s entrance is a painted white plate. A Picasso original, the china plate depicts Lump, his friend’s daschund. Painted on his lunch plate, Picasso wanted there to be a “plate of Lump’s own,” the description explains. Noting the imprecise brushstrokes, the name Lump suddenly seems very fitting.

Looking up from there are quotes printed in large letters on the wall. Below them on each of the three walls is a row of framed pieces of paper—the original sources of the flashier displays above.

The temptation to glance and move on is strong. After all, some of the letters are two full pages of typed print, single-spaced. But Norman Mailer catches my eye.

A letter from Ernest Hemingway advises, “Remember only suckers worry. You can’t write, fuck or fight if you worry.”

Okay, so maybe I’ll stay for a bit.

Moving counterclockwise, I stop in front of a 1993 letter from Russell Banks to Steve Katz. Of midlife’s pleasures he writes, “there are plenty, it turns out—a happy marriage is one, good health, old friends also in middle age.”

In the same letter he describes the lives of his four daughters, mentioning the continuing drug problems of his third daughter, Maia. And of his second wife, Mary (whom he divorced in 1977), he writes “what was once charming is now almost grotesque.”

In an adjacent frame hangs correspondence between authors David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo.

Near the end of  a letter that expresses his struggle between the balance of fun, seriousness, and respect, Wallace writes, “I have a lot of dread and terror and inadequacy-shit, now, when I’m trying to write. I didn’t used to.”

For his part DeLillo says, “The playwright doesn’t begin to die until after he writes his play; that’s when the fuck-ups happen. We [authors] die indoors, and alone and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about.”

Knowing the outcome—Wallace took his own life in 2008—this line seems particularly poignant.

From the characters and themes in his novel, a reader can get a sense for an author’s perspective and personality.

But can they know the inadequacy that the author felt writing it? Or how parts of his personal life, such as a divorce, might have shaped his characters?

That seems to come from a more personal kind of writing.

Sure, you can see a lot more pieces in a shorter amount of time in an art gallery than you can in here. But the insight gleaned from reading the actual lines (and between them—typewriter use led to many handwritten corrections) is worth the extra effort.

The Culture Unbound exhibit is on display at the Harry Ransom Center through July 31st.



No comments

Be the first one to leave a comment.

Post a Comment