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Researching in the J.M. Coetzee Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

In 1969, the Nobel Prize-winning South African novelist J.M. Coetzee received his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin after writing a dissertation on the early work of the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. That same year, Beckett was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. More than forty years after earning his Ph.D.—and after having written nearly a dozen novels and numerous works of criticism—in 2011 the University of Texas at Austin acquired the author's papers to be held in the Harry Ransom Center. The archive contains nearly 160 boxes of material, including drafts of his novels and of his autobiography, personal and business correspondence, family photographs, and recorded interviews. While the novelist was born in South Africa and recently has become an Australian citizen, it seems to make sense that his literary archive would be housed at the location that helped to shape his understanding of literature and its role in politics.

Opening of the Papers for Research 

coetzee-books-tell-you-whyWhen the Harry Ransom Center acquired Coetzee’s archive in 2011, it needed a couple of years to get it ready for researchers. By March 2013, the Center issues a news release* about the opening of the archive, noting that “the bulk of the archive traces the author’s life and career from 1960 through 2012.” The archive has offerings for researchers in many different fields and areas of study, from South African politics during apartheid to the literary publishing world to the personal life of the author. According to David Atwell, “[s]cholarship on [his] fiction is flourishing. However, he is also an enigmatic writer—emotionally compelling but guarded. With the opening of the papers, researchers will be able to study his creative processes at source. In making this possible, the Ransom Center has created an exciting prospect for contemporary literary studies.”

Coetzee himself was pleased to learn that his archive would be housed in Austin: “It is a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here . . . .” To be sure, the writer relied upon the Ransom Center’s Beckett holdings while conducting research for his dissertation. The writer went on to say, “I write these words from my home on the south coast of the Australian mainland, an area prone to destructive bushfires. It is a secondary source of satisfaction to me that, even if this house itself goes up in flames, the work of my hands will have been whisked away to a place of safety in the vaults of the Ransom Center.”

Learning More About the Author's Life and Work

from-the-heart-of-the-country-coetzeeThe novelist was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1940. He spent much of his early life in the country, and he graduated from the University of Cape Town before pursuing work in England. For several years, he worked in the U.K. before moving to Texas to pursue his graduate degree at The University of Texas at Austin. Since then, he has published 13 novels and many essays and pieces of literary criticism. Many of his novels have won the Man Booker Prize, and Coetzee won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003—the second South African writer to be awarded the prestigious prize. 

What materials in the archive are most likely to draw interest from researchers? Given that the archive is so far-reaching—much like Coetzee’s works and his career—there are, we mentioned, numerous avenues for conducting research in the papers. We are particularly excited about manuscript drafts and notes for Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), the writer's seminal anti-imperial novel, and Disgrace (1999), the author’s allegorical critique of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We are thrilled that the papers are now open to researchers, and we encourage you to consider visiting the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin.

Browse our J.M. Coetzee Collection

*Read the full news release here.

Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.


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