McFarlin Library Department of Special Collections Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

McFarlin Library Department of Special Collections

Renowned author and alumna Rilla Askew donates archive to TU

two women standing beside each other in a room
Dean Karen Petersen and Rilla Askew

The University of Tulsa’s Department of Special Collections and Archives draws students, scholars, journalists and the culturally curious from around the world to explore its literary, historical, photographic, artistic and material treasures. Among its gems are manuscripts and published works by such major writers as Muriel Spark, Christopher Isherwood, James Joyce and Sir V.S. Naipaul. Recently, this trove was substantially enriched when internationally renowned author and TU alumna Rilla Askew (BA ’80) gifted her literary archive to the university.

“Rilla Askew’s generous donation is a remarkable and deeply appreciated addition to our university’s intellectual and cultural life,” commented Karen Petersen, dean of Kendall College of Arts and Sciences. “Over the past few decades, Rilla has combined her creative dynamism with her passion for history and social justice to develop a body of work that is at once inspiring, path-breaking and always immersive. On behalf of everyone at TU, I extend sincere thanks for entrusting this astonishing archive to our community.”

Creativity and excellence

A member of the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, Askew was born in Poteau, a small town nestled amongst the Sans Bois Mountains in the southeastern part of the state. Raised in Bartlesville, Askew lived in Tahlequah for a number of years before moving to Tulsa and completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre at TU in 1980. Later that same year, Askew moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. Rather than seeking the limelight of performance, however, Askew went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at Brooklyn College in 1987.

two white file boxes on a metal shelf (left box has Fire in Beulah written on the side; right box has Early Writing and Unfinished Second Novel written on the side)
A small portion of the Rilla Askew Archive at McFarlin Library

Since then, Askew has published four novels, a collection of short stories and another of creative nonfiction pieces, as well as essays, plays and articles. The gamut of topics Askew has covered is broad and varied. Over the years, for example, she has applied her fictional alchemy to spinning tales involving white settlements in Indian Territory (The Mercy Seat), the Tulsa Race Massacre (Fire in Beulah) and hardscrabble life in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl (Harpsong). While it is impossible tidily to encapsulate her oeuvre, Askew points out that “woven throughout my work are strong threads of social justice, racial and class-based inequity, women’s suffering and endurance, and the persistence of memory.”

Since beginning her writing career, Askew has received numerous honors and awards. These include the Oklahoma Book Award, Western Heritage Award, the WILLA Award from Women Writing the West, an Arts and Letters Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book. Her work has also been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Dublin IMPAC Prize, among others.

Tulsa treasures

Askew lived in New York for over three decades, but in 2015 she came home to Oklahoma. She now resides in Norman, where she is an associate professor of English teaching creative writing at the University of Oklahoma.

Handwritten letter in red ink with the printed words Viking Penguin at the top
One of the many letters in the Rilla Askew Archive

Askew’s decision to gift her archive to her alma mater arose out of several overlapping considerations. TU has long been a welcoming intellectual and cultural community for me,” Askew commented. “In addition, the McFarlin literary archives are internationally renowned, and the librarians do such a wonderful job of preserving and making available materials for students, scholars and the public. And, of course, there’s Tulsa itself. In many ways, this city helped shape me. Some of my most important early years as an artist and a writer were spent here, and I still feel very connected to this city and its people.”

Among the many fascinating items in the Askew Archive are ideas jotted down by the author, drafts representing various stages of her published works, background reading on subjects that informed her narratives, sample dust jackets and reviews. One set of documents, however, holds a special place in their donor’s heart. “When I was researching, planning and writing my first novel, The Mercy Seat, and afterward, I was in regular correspondence with my agent, editors and readers. Rereading their letters — most of them handwritten – after so many years touched me deeply and brought back wonderful memories. I am so glad they now have a permanent home at TU, and I hope that others will find them interesting too.”

Visitors who want to delve into the Askew Archive, which currently awaits professional cataloging, will find 10 hefty filing boxes stuffed full with such fascinating glimpses of the author’s craft and life. And because Askew continues to be as vibrant and productive as ever (her fifth novel, Prize for the Fire, will transport readers to 16th-century England when it debuts this October), the quantity of materials available to consult at McFarlin will grow over the years as Askew adds to her donation.

young man photographed from behind while seated at a table reading letters
Reading correspondence in the Askew Archive

The dedicated staff of Special Collections and Archives at The University of Tulsa looks forward to welcoming you. Come explore with us!

Digital Modernism

For University of Tulsa Associate Professor of English Jeff Drouin, studying Modernism goes beyond analyzing what we already know about literature. It is about formulating new questions and challenging what we understand about the period. The Department of English and Creative Writing’s Modernist Journals Project (MJP) offers graduate students, faculty and researchers outside TU abundant opportunities to engage in these fresh scholarly activities.

New England meets Tulsa

man with grey hair and glasses seated at a desk gazing at a computer monitor
Associate Professor Jeff Drouin

Originating at Brown University, the MJP is the first digital archive of literary magazines from the early 20th century that digitizes complete runs of fully intact magazine issues, including the covers and the advertisements, as primary sources that are free to the public. The MJP was founded by Robert Scholes in 1995. TU Professor of English Sean Latham worked closely with Scholes during his graduate studies and became a project manager for the MJP at Brown. In 2003, the MJP launched the Tulsa location, where Latham became the co-director. Latham stepped down from active involvement in 2014 and is now a senior advisor for the project.

Drouin began his work at the MJP as a freelance coder for the project when he was a Ph.D. student at the City University of New York. He became the director of the MJP at Tulsa in 2014. Drouin works beside Susan Smulyen, the MJP’s director at Brown, in order to digitize the texts in Tulsa. Currently, Brown hosts the digital repository that stores the magazines’ data, while TU provides physical texts from McFarlin Library’s Department of Special Collections. This archive includes magazines from all over the world, such as the Little Review, which contains works from influential Modernist authors. Special Collections also contributes works that contain artifacts, such as authors’ margin notes, to the MJP for digitization.

Discoveries through digitization

young woman smiling while seated at a desk
M.A. student Danika Bryant

The MJP has made many discoveries that have enriched scholars’ understanding of Modernism. “Some of the most important discoveries have been the content itself,” Drouin remarked. “The purpose of the MJP was to uncover content that was lost. Going back to magazines during that time allows us to have a clearer picture of authors who contributed that have been left out of the literary record.”

By digitizing fully intact magazines, Drouin and his MJP colleagues at Brown, as well as TU graduate students involved with the project, have been able to reveal and acknowledge oppressed and marginalized Modernist writers who are missing from the current Modernist narrative. Digitizing these magazines also allows researchers and students to experience the texts’ materiality. “By including advertisements and covers, we can see the different social climates of the era and develop a new perspective on the period’s literature,” Drouin noted.

The language of coding

man gesturing toward a white board while a man and a woman sit at a long table
Graduate assistants learn about coding at the MJP office

Digitizing magazines entails coding and translating text into XML in order to create an electronic transcript. Coding bibliographic information makes it searchable and sortable. Coding, however, benefits not just users. It also allows Drouin and users of the journal to deploy software to discover patterns and see what authors have contributed to the period through SourceForge.

“The natural language processors find linguistic patterns throughout the language of Modernism,” explained Drouin. “These software have given us data sets to analyze that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Natural language processing also helps us discover patterns that we wouldn’t perceive during the normal act of reading, and to ask and answer questions about the magazines and about Modernism as a whole.”

Opportunities for students

The MJP gives opportunities for both English undergraduate and graduate students. The latter, for example, can undertake graduate assistantships with the project. These students learn electronic editing, text and coding as a gateway to digital humanities.

young man in a white shirt seated at a desk
M.A. student Nathan Blue

This semester, M.A. students Danika Bryant and Nathan Blue are working at the MJP to ensure that the magazines are being properly processed through ABBYY, a software used for digitizing texts in order to prepare them for coding. Bryant is currently working through one of the issues of transition magazine, a Modernist journal from the 1920s. “Being able to code again, with results that are tangible this time, gives me a focus that allows me to relax just a bit from my coursework and other jobs,” Bryant commented. “So far, I really enjoy the work that I do with the MJP and I don’t see that changing!”

a paper copy of Scribners Magazine showing the cover
One of the journals being coded by the MJP

Blue also enjoys researching Modernism and seeing where the MJP opens up new doors to new theories. “Modernism was born and grew up in these magazines,” Blue noted. “It is immensely valuable to allow people access to see where Modernism really thrived in their original context: these magazines and journals.” Blue is currently working on using OCR software to train the computer to “read” English, so to speak. Blue then encodes the text with metadata. “These skills allow me a deeper understanding of the nuts and bolts of literature in the digital age”.

Involvement with the MJP helps to teach undergraduate students about periodical culture, which is crucially important in literature and media evolution studies. In Drouin’s view, “physical experience helps students to connect with the physicality of the texts, such as paper texture, print quality and color gradients. The physical aspects provide a perspective on the literature and on the Modernist movement that doesn’t come across in the digital surrogate. Some of the texts have marginalia from the authors who owned them and let us see the authors as people who have lived and loved, instead of just 20th-century writers.”

Recent developments

The MJP continues to transform new ways of working with old texts. For example, the project recently launched a new website with advanced functionalities for teaching and researching. Graduate students are also inventing new analytic modes and the project’s data were migrated to a new virtual repository.

These changes are opening up the computational possibilities for Drouin and his team and will allow researchers to extract data directly from the MJP for their projects. The MJP will also shortly release a new set of material from transition Magazine, a surrealist magazine published in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. “My hope,” said Drouin, “is that the MJP and other projects like it will help researchers break free from constraints and create more accuracy within the study of literature.”

If you are intrigued by the work of the MJP or about digital humanities in general, reach out to Jeff Drouin at