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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

From the Archives: A Trip to the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin

Megan Hunt

Arriving at the University of Texas at Austin for the first time this August, I was in awe.  They say everything is bigger in Texas, and this was certainly the biggest campus I had ever seen. One of the largest universities in the U.S., UT Austin has 51,000 students and employs around 24,000 people. The campus boasts seven museums and seventeen libraries, while its stadium, pride of place in the middle of the campus, is bigger than Wembley.
Campus view, snapped by Megan Hunt.

The sheer size of the campus meant that my first day was mainly spent exploring the architecture, fountains, and the main student drag Guadalupe Street, where stands the Co-Op where you can literally buy anything and everything with a UTexas logo on it. And I mean anything…

By the time I actually stumbled across the Harry Ransom Center, where I would be conducting my research, I was ready to drop. The heat was intense, averaging around 39°C, and feeling hotter as the Texas sun bounced off the concrete. Once inside the beautifully air conditioned library, I was amazed by how easy it was to register, and how quickly staff were prepared to let me rummage through the papers of one of the most famous and significant actors alive today—Robert De Niro.

The collection was expansive; the research materials and correspondence held in Austin is a testament to the actor’s meticulous preparation for some of his most challenging and
culturally significant roles. Focused on Cape Fear, a remake De Niro persuaded Martin Scorsese to direct in 1991, I sifted through script drafts, annotated by De Niro, as well as a considerable number of research materials relating to prison culture, Pentecostalism, southern poverty, tattoos, and Bible concordances, all of which helped shape the redevelopment of villain Max Cady.

The collection demonstrated just how involved De Niro was in the remake process, and has provided numerous insights for my PhD work, which questions how Hollywood projections of southern religiosity are used to indicate a South that is ostensibly removed from the American mainstream. Examining De Niro’s papers, I learned that Cape Fear’s attempt to unravel the apparent security of white middle-class American suburban identity is deeply rooted in the same ideas concerning education, class, race, and gender that have shaped the direction of southern studies.

Megan Hunt is a second year PhD candidate in American Studies at Northumbria, working with Brian Ward and Randall Stephens.  She is interested in representations of the American South in popular culture. Her PhD research highlights the ways in which southern religious stereotypes intersect with the racial and class-based distinctions that have been used to indicate the region in post-war Hollywood film.

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