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Harry Huntt Ransom

Harry Huntt Ransom
Intellect in Motion

The first comprehensive biography of the visionary university chancellor who propelled the University of Texas at Austin to lasting levels of stature and established one of the world’s finest cultural archives, the Harry Ransom Center.

November 2008
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378 pages | 6 x 9 | 45 b&w photos |

Both a life story and a portrait of public higher education during the twentieth century, Harry Huntt Ransom captures the spirit of a dynamic individual who dedicated his talents to nurturing intellectual life in Texas and beyond. Tracing the details of Ransom's youth in Galveston and Tennessee and his education at Yale, where he earned a doctorate, Alan Gribben provides new insight into the factors that shaped Ransom's future as a renowned administrator and defender of the humanities.

Ransom's career at the University of Texas began in 1935, when he was hired as an instructor of English. He rose through the ranks to become chancellor, stepping down in 1971 during a volatile period when debates about the University's central mission raged—particularly over the question of commercializing higher education. The development of Ransom's lasting legacy, the Humanities Research Center bearing his name, is explored in depth as well. Bringing to life a legendary figure, Harry Huntt Ransom is a colorful testament to a singular man of letters who had the audacity to propose "that there be established somewhere in Texas—let's say in the capital city—a center of our cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation."

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Abbreviations
  • About the Author
  • Chapter One: Beginnings
  • Chapter Two: Texas, Tennessee, Travels
  • Chapter Three: The Scholar
  • Chapter Four: The Teacher
  • Chapter Five: The Bare Fact of War
  • Chapter Six: Climbing the Administrative Ladder
  • Chapter Seven: The Rare Books Collection
  • Chapter Eight: The Texas Quarterly
  • Chapter Nine: The Rare Books Collection and the Academic Center
  • Chapter Ten: Vice President and Provost
  • Chapter Eleven: University President
  • Chapter Twelve: The Chancellor
  • Chapter Thirteen: Cambridge on the Range
  • Chapter Fourteen: A University in Transition
  • Chapter Fifteen: Prerogatives and Protests
  • Chapter Sixteen: A Chancellor's Prophecies
  • Chapter Seventeen: Staying the Course
  • Chapter Eighteen: "Mr. University"
  • Chapter Nineteen: Farewells
  • Chapter Twenty: Legacies
  • Notes
  • Index

Alan Gribben was a Professor of English at the University of Texas from 1974 until 1991 and now chairs the Department of English and Philosophy at Auburn University at Montgomery.


During the transforming decade of the 1960s, an energetic humanist named Harry Huntt Ransom assumed the highest administrative posts at the University of Texas at Austin, for a time even holding the offices of president and chancellor simultaneously. Improbable as this English professor's rise to such powerful positions had seemed, after he was profiled by numerous journalists as innovative and newsworthy, Ransom and his endeavors became known far beyond the broad borders of Texas. He led his state-supported institution onto the national scene as a consequential force in many areas of academe, including the sciences, engineering, liberal arts, political science, business, medicine, education, communication, and athletics. Ransom also took advantage of the university's oil-fueled surge of funds to establish and supervise a massive rare books and manuscript library that earned international distinction. His direct influence ended in 1970 when he stepped down abruptly from the chancellorship, but the momentum he had generated would prove lasting. His shaping guidance can still be detected in the vast and prominent institution with which his name was once synonymous.


Although Harry Huntt Ransom was born in Texas, spent nearly all his life in the state, and is listed among quintessential Texas figures, his family had deeper ties to North Carolina, and his personal affinities and friendships would frequently turn his eyes and thoughts toward his forebears' native state. Before settling in North Carolina, however, the paternal side of his family had first been prominent in Virginia. The Ransoms were descended in North America from one Peter Ransom (1615/-1663), who came to Virginia as a landowner in 1652. James Ransom (1725/-1785), an early settler in Gloucester County, Virginia, participated in the American Revolution, and his son James, born in 1744, served as a delegate in 1775 to a convention of the provincial assembly in New Bern, North Carolina. Robert Ransom, Sr. (1800-1865), was too elderly to take part in the American Civil War, but his sons Robert Ransom, Jr. (1828-1892), and Matthew Whitaker Ransom (1826-1904), distinguished themselves in service for the Confederacy. Robert gained the rank of Major General, and Matthew, an attorney after the war, served as a United States Senator from 1872 until 1895 and was Minister to Mexico until 1897.


Following the Civil War, Robert Ransom, Jr., who had married Mary E. Huntt in 1856, became a farmer and engineer in North Carolina. A son was born to them in 1867. This first Harry Huntt Ransom spent much of his boyhood in and near Richmond, Virginia, and absorbed stories of the wartime exploits of his father and uncle. He attended private schools in Virginia and then enrolled as a sixteen-year-old freshman at Western Maryland College in Westminster, Maryland, for the 1883-1884 academic year. He left that school in 1886 before the spring term ended. A classmate named George S. Wills remembered him as "a brilliant student" but "erratic," partly because of a "lack of money." Two years later Ransom graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Greek. He then commenced an itinerant career as a teacher and school principal in North Carolina.


Despite the potentially helpful eminence of his relatives, Ransom elected to leave the region in 1891. His son would explain that the senior Ransom "came out to Texas to teach because the family was pretty well impoverished in North Carolina. . . . He was . . . a casualty of the post-Civil War period." There was widespread migration from the American South to Texas during the 1890s. Perhaps Ransom had heard of the burgeoning prosperity and civic beauty of Galveston Island on the Texas coast. Galveston's population of more than 29,000 people, though being overtaken by nearby Houston, was still surpassed in size only by Dallas and San Antonio. A cosmopolitan mixture of seaport bustle and refined languor, it was a city of gas-lighted parks, broad esplanades, and attractive squares whose financial district, the Strand, was almost as important to the state of Texas as the cotton exported from the Galveston wharves.


For two years, beginning in 1891, the senior Harry Huntt Ransom taught grades seven and eight at the public Goliad School. In 1893 he was promoted to a vice principalship at the Bath Avenue School, but was obliged to add to his earnings by teaching at a night school for boys. During this period he married, in his mid-twenties, a woman named Annie Martin, about whom little is recorded. According to family tradition she was born in Alabama, her ancestry was aristocratic, and the wedding took place outside of Texas. The couple had a son, Robert Martin Ransom (born in 1895), and a daughter, Julia Clay Ransom (born in 1899).


On January 26, 1895, Ransom published a letter to the editor in the Austin Statesman exuding the self-confidence of a man who had adopted the state of Texas as his permanent home and felt qualified to address its legislature in the state capital's leading newspaper. Conceding that "we educators" are said to be "theoretical and encyclopedia laden, being devoid . . . of business-like propensities," he proceeded to argue on behalf of legislation enabling communities to issue bonds "for school purposes." He also advocated "local tax in towns and cities," because according to "the State Superintendent of Public Instruction the schools of our State have outgrown the State apportionment." The letter was signed, "Respectfully, Harry Huntt Ransom, Galveston, Texas."


His financial situation improved somewhat in 1896, when he was selected as principal and teacher of Latin in the 5th District City High School. Then in 1898, at the age of thirty-one, he settled into a lengthy stint as principal of the new Ball High School, where he taught Greek, history, and political economy. One of Ransom's students from this period would provide an emphatic testimonial about his abilities many years later: "I had four years of Latin and four years of Greek" at Ball High School, wrote Mrs. H. E. Barnett, Jr. "He was a brilliant man, and I believe I learned more English from him than I did from my regular English teachers."


But misfortune struck the family during the next decade, when Ransom's wife died (the date is unclear, but daughter Julia Clay was a young girl at the time). Few glimpses are available of the senior Ransom during those years, so a letter he wrote from Ball High School to James Stephen Hogg on August 12, 1904, is of interest. Hogg had been an effective anti-monopoly reformer who imposed regulations on insurance companies and railroads during his terms as state attorney general and governor in the preceding decades; later becoming an affluent attorney and investor, Hogg remained a potent force in the Democratic Party. Ransom predicted that "the time will come when the Texas Democracy will call on you again to lead it in the fight for reform of abuses as it did in the nineties." Indeed, "the blessings of our great state reforms are due to your wise influence and direction; and the people of Texas will forever hold you[r] name and memory in highest esteem and sacred reverence. . . . You are still the people's preference and the Cincinnattus of Texas Democracy."


The public-spirited citizen who harbored these passionate political sentiments now found himself free to remarry. A Ransom family genealogy chart records his second marriage as occurring in 1905, though in the sometimes-unreliable Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910, both Ransom and his new wife state that they had been married for only two years. Whatever the case, Ransom's bride was Marion Goodwin Cunningham, member of a pioneer Texas family; her father, North Carolina-born Harvey S. Cunningham, had been a merchant in Victoria, Texas. Her maternal grandfather, Sherman Goodwin (1814-1884), a noted physician, had moved to Victoria, Texas, from Burton, Ohio, in 1849. In 1951 Harry Huntt Ransom would extol his great-grandfather Goodwin as a pioneer representing "Texas at its enduring best" and quote Goodwin's observation that "to all who have nursed the dying sick it is clear that both transient and fatal illness can open understanding, sympathy, and self knowledge." The heritage of anecdotes about this physician ancestor, coupled with the medical world experience of Ransom's mother—in combination with an awareness that his namesake on his father's side, Dr. Henry Huntt, had been a charter member of the Washington, D.C., Medical Association and a physician to seven U.S. Presidents—would account for the younger Harry Huntt Ransom's early ambition "to grow up to be a doctor." He also harbored a great admiration for Admiral Cary T. Grayson ("one of the heroes of my . . . youth"), the attending physician for President Woodrow Wilson.


Marion Goodwin Cunningham, born in 1870, was three years younger than her husband. Educated at Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia, she had served as a medical missionary (with administrative rather than nursing duties) in Louisville, Kentucky. Like Ransom, she had lost a first spouse. From her previous marriage to a Texas minister named Barron, she had one daughter, Jean Barron (erroneously listed in the 1910 census as Marian E. Barron), who had been born in 1892.


On November 22, 1908, this second marriage for both Ransoms produced its only child. A few weeks later the parents, devoutly Episcopalian, took the infant boy to the Trinity Episcopal Church, a Victorian Gothic Revival-style edifice decorated with a Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass window and located at the intersection of two palm tree-lined streets. In the attached Eaton Chapel they christened their son Henry Huntt Ransom, a name gradually discarded in favor of "Harry." In a photography session following the ceremony, the father held the baby beside the baptismal font. Afterward the couple returned to their home on Ball Avenue, also known as Avenue H.


Soon after Harry's birth, however, the Ransoms moved to a stick-styled residence on Broadway (or Avenue J) among close-ranked wood-frame edifices with large shutters and tall front stairs mounting to first floors that were six or eight feet above the street level. Galveston homes had taken these precautions since a calamitous hurricane on September 8, 1900, had inundated the bridges to the mainland, destroyed 3,000 homes, and killed 8,000 of the 38,000 citizens. Many years later the younger Harry Huntt Ransom would declare his intention someday "to complete a book-length narrative essay on the Flood, which . . . my father counted as the main adventure in his otherwise rather prosaic life."


Here at 1803 Broadway the Ransom family was interviewed extensively for the 1910 census. The senior Ransom was "43 on last birthday." He owned his home, which had a mortgage. His wife was forty years old and was not employed. In addition to little "Henry Huntt Ransom" and his mother's daughter Jean, there was Julia C. Ransom, age ten, who "can read and write," and her brother Robert M. Ransom, age fifteen, "clerk in bank." The census also listed two African American servants: Mollie Hopes, age forty-five, single, who "cannot read or write," and a man named Hopes, first name omitted, thirty-six years old, a "barber in barbershop." He "can read and write." Young Harry's only recollection of Galveston would be a "sense of being held up to the light, a window with bright sunshine on the curtain."


In 1912 the senior Ransom, yielding to the lure of a better job opportunity (Galveston's economy had been severely affected by the storm), moved to Houston, now a city of nearly 80,000, almost twice the size of Galveston. Already it had begun to benefit from the combination of pine and cypress timberlands, cotton, railroads, and (since 1904) oil production that would give it a bright economic future; in 1914 the completion of the Houston Ship Channel would overcome the city's remaining disadvantage of lying fifty miles up Buffalo Bayou. Finally a deepwater seaport, Houston would then double its population within a decade. There, in that booming coastal city, the senior Ransom spent four years teaching Greek, Latin, and other subjects at the large Houston Senior High School. He left that post in 1916 to head the Latin Department of the new, immense South End Junior High School, where he stayed for another year. Nearly half a century later, the younger Ransom would grant an interview in which he voiced impressions of his father during these years.


My first memory of my father is his running up and down the halls chanting one of the Homeric passages or another. He was a relatively small man, with fiery red hair and a temper that went with it. . . . He was . . . very much interested in . . . persons from other climes and other environments and other cultures. He was not the sort of pal-companion father but very affectionate and very attentive to my interests in ideas and language.


Soon after their move to Houston the Ransoms purchased a dark-brown two bedroom bungalow for $3,500 in a northern addition called Woodland Heights that was designed for upper-middle-class professional people. The slight elevation of the area helped its drainage and prevented mosquito infestations and outbreaks of the yellow fever that still plagued central Houston. Well-to-do people had erected mansion homes along a spacious esplanade designated as Heights Boulevard, but more modest homes like the Ransoms' were constructed on the streets intersecting those premier addresses. The Ransoms' lot was fifty by one hundred feet. Their living room had "built-in seats at the side, and is finished in the mission style. . . . The whole house is equipped with beautiful electric fixtures," promised an advertisement. A front and back porch added space to the one-story dwelling. Little Harry found, "on first coming to 525 Woodland, the sense of the emptiness of the house," but he soon also knew "joy at discovering unused wooden blocks and chips left over from the construction." There were deed restrictions, of course, because Woodland Heights was intended only for white people. The residents had to do without paved streets until 1919. Bread deliveries were available, but people had to cross Bayou Bridge on a trolley to reach grocery stores nearer the downtown district. Inasmuch as Woodland Heights was at the edge of the city, some people kept cows in their yards, and the Ransoms adopted this rural custom themselves. "Our cow and how she got lost and was found," a grown-up Ransom would remind himself in jottings about these years.


Harry Ransom started his schooling at the Travis School Kindergarten, presided over by director Miss Madeline Darough and her assistant Miss Aileen Eads. The next year he began attending the adjacent two-story brick Travis School, whose principal was Frank M. Black. He later recalled the school's proximity to Bayou Bridge and remembered his favorite teacher at Travis—Miss Laura Taylor, "but the first one [whose name eluded him] was beautiful." He suffered a bout of measles and was "examined for tonsil[l]itis." School soon became his most vivid experience, with its spelling lessons ("knife and a fork and a bottle and a cork and that's the way you spell New York"), "the privilege of sharpening pencils," and "trips across the Bayou Bridge to the Licorice Shop after school."


Relatives came to visit, including his cousin Harvey from New Orleans and his uncle Seymour Ransom. Presumably his half-brother Robert, who had stayed behind in Galveston, rejoined the family occasionally. Half-sister Julia Clay now wore "middies," patterned after sailor uniforms, and Jean played the guitar. Harry retained a "vague memory of Jean's marriage to 'Brother George,'" and another "memory of Mother's crying at a letter from Jean." He remembered hearing of a man in the community who committed suicide, and of the burning of a nearby orphanage. He learned about a riot by black soldiers at their military camp in Houston; seventeen people were killed, and several of the rebellious soldiers were executed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. Occasionally the family made excursions to the park and the zoo. In their yard his mother planted geraniums, ivy, red and yellow cannas, and sweet gum trees; everywhere in the neighborhood he saw crape myrtles, pomegranates, fig trees, and jasmine vines. Once he engaged in a territorial fistfight with some children who were cutting off "sucker" branches from the "sycamores on our side of the street." There was also "the misfortune at the shed, and a mark for life," he would recall. Young Harry had jumped from a loft onto a mound of hay that contained a pitchfork that pierced his foot, leaving a permanent scar. Summer nights brought out legions of "fireflies." Among other diversions were "Dad's gifts: Tom Swift! Picture books." Also, "combing Mother's hair." He remembered the "street car to town" and "the girls killed by the train." The first funeral he ever attended, in the summer of 1917, "was a ghastly thing. Terrible lightning storm." More pleasantly, he joined in watermelon parties that made bearable the sultry Houston summers. Perhaps crucially, there was "Dad's reading" as well as (cryptically) "Dad's stroke."


And then, with the advent of the World War, the family was on the move again: Washington, D.C., and Valley Lee, Maryland, in the autumn of 1917, partly to see Jean and her husband, George Hurlbut. "I was in the third grade this year. I remember nothing of what we studied except words—spelling lists which contained words which would appall my college freshmen today," he later remarked. "I was interested in books and got several for Christmas. I was dissatisfied with them, but I don't remember why." However, he did remember "the effect of war—young men enlisting." The Hurlbut family strained the patience of nine-year-old Harry, who would harbor memories of "my hatred of Mr. Hur[l]but and fear of George. Consciousness that things are wrong." With contempt, he endured "'Brother George' (the ass) teaching me 'how to run.'"


When Harry Ransom senior obtained, through a friend, a federal governmental appointment to oversee improvements in educational programs on a Native American reservation, the Ransoms abruptly moved to Park Hill, Oklahoma. There, ten-year-old Harry would witness an incident in which "the Indian boy dies from eating too many cucumbers; the terrible funeral" and the games that included "Indian baseball. The Cherokee vs. Choctaw." Obscure notes he made later referred to "the rebellion against Dad: the hidden gun" as well as "the drive to the school" and "the 'government' men." There were new fears in this raw land: "The terror at lightning," "the trip to Tallequah," "the snake," "'storm cellar.'" The aggregate experience resembled for young Harry, he would subsequently say, that of being suddenly transplanted into a desert. During all of the winter, spring, and summer of 1918, according to notes he set down as an adult, "I learned no Cherokee; I must not have come very close to the boys in the school." On the other hand, "this spring war became very real to me. Since our arrival, the whole talk had been 'government.' Battles were reported and discussed daily." Other types of knowledge were intruding, as well. At the age of ten he had an "awareness of sex for [the] first time in spring of 1918—i.e. in any real sense." And, sadly, "by the age of ten I had still not become conscious at first hand of any great literature, although I was a 'bright' student."


But this lament applied only to his formal school; many years later he described the advantages his father's personal library collection had afforded him:


For a relatively poverty-stricken teacher in those days, he had a large library. He was a book collector in what . . . was for the family a hideously extravagant arrangement. My half brothers [sic] and half sisters were nearly grown when I became aware of books at all, so that the books around me were my father's books and their books. My father had no prissy or pedagogical notions about reading, he simply thought it would be a good idea for me to read things like translations of the Iliad because it was an exciting story, not because it was a classic. So I opened my eyes on books which I didn't understand, I'm sure, fairly early. . . . I learned to read long before I started school.


Harry's mother kept a note that he wrote during this period, laboriously scrawled on ruled tablet paper: "Dear Daddy / I give you these suspenders to hold up your pants. You may run you may dance but these suspenders will hold till they are old, old, old. / With lots of love and good wishes / From Harry / To his Daddy / Merry Xmas."


Then, just as restlessly, his father moved again—this time back to Houston. The senior Ransom taught school as before, but he was unable to find the kind of position he wanted, and his health had begun to decline. Domestic forces were close to dividing Harry's parents, even as cataclysmic world events tore at distant nations.



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