Last volume of Samuel Beckett's letters celebrated at Emory
By Melissa Gilstrap | Oct. 20, 2016
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This month, Emory’s Laney Graduate School and the Letters of Samuel Beckett Project celebrate the publication of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1966-1989” by Cambridge University Press, the fourth and final volume of the “Letters” editions.
Each volume spans critical periods of the acclaimed Irish-born writer's work. Beckett’s letters reveal a man whose life and art offer paradigms for the cross currents of the 20th century, extending the limits of fiction, drama, poetry and criticism.
Beckett wrote drama for stage, radio, television and film. The letters show how the visual arts and music compelled his attention and reveal the influence of paintings on his stage images and musical forms on the patterns of his prose.
Close associations with theater artists, painters and musicians resulted in much collaboration during his lifetime, just as his texts have continued to inspire artists, composers, and other writers to create new work.
The newly released Volume IV reflects the public’s and the media’s increased attention and, with it, a huge influx of letters from old friends and new correspondents. In spite of this, Beckett found ways to retain the privacy necessary for his writing.
Exploring the possibilities of television
The period covered by Volume IV is one that sees the publication and production of many new works. Beckett explored the possibilities of television as he worked closely with technicians in Stuttgart and London to realize “Ghost Trio, “... but the clouds...,” “Nacht und Träume” and “Quad.”
In his stage plays, Beckett found the dramaturgical means to focus audience attention analogous to what the television camera would permit. He expanded the presence of the personal interior through recorded sound, in such works as “That Time,” “Footfalls,” “Rockaby,” “Ohio Impromptu,” “Catastrophe” and “Quoi où.”
Beckett also continued to write poetry during his final years, ranging from the brief, often witty “Mirlitonades” to the open-ended musing of “Comment dire.” Although he became increasingly impatient with his own physical limitations, Beckett’s letters during this time remained responsive to the needs of others.
Publishing Beckett's letters
In 1985, Samuel Beckett authorized founding editor Martha Dow Fehsenfeld to publish his correspondence. Lois More Overbeck was asked to join the project that same year, and from 1985 until his death in 1989, Beckett himself helped to facilitate their research through access and interviews.
In 1990, the project became affiliated with the Laney Graduate School at Emory, and, with Laney’s support, received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as the Florence Gould Foundation. In 1992, the American University of Paris became a center for the edition in France. The editorial team also expanded to include George Craig and Dan Gunn.
“For Samuel Beckett, letters were first of all a human exchange: they were a means of keeping in touch, of spanning distance and time,” says Overbeck, the project's managing editor. “Both the tempo and immediacy of contemporary communication suggests that Beckett’s letters may be among the last great literary correspondences.”
Indeed, Beckett’s correspondence is copious, totaling more than 16,000 letters. The letters, however, are scattered across the globe in both public and private collections.
For nearly 30 years, the Beckett editorial team consulted and transcribed all extant letters to make the selections included in all four volumes of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett.” The complete edition comprises letters selected for their bearing on his work, including some 2,500 letters with another 5,000 quoted in the annotations.
The edition also contains all of Beckett’s writing — published, unpublished or abandoned — including his criticism, reviews, essays on arts, descriptions of paintings that are later transposed into stage images, and observations on musical composition that inform the patterns of his prose.
Engaging generations of students
“The Letters of Samuel Beckett” is a treasure for scholars, artists, critics and diverse audiences who hold Beckett’s work in highest esteem. But the project has also been professionally important to graduate students who credit their involvement for developing a breadth of transferrable professional skills that have continued to shape their careers.
Lisa Tedesco, dean of the Laney Graduate School, says she appreciates the opportunities that the project has presented to students at Emory and the American University of Paris.
“The graduate experience is devoted to rigorous research and meticulous scholarship,” says Tedesco. “The discipline and focus required to cull, analyze and translate the incredible body of Beckett’s correspondence has developed skillsets in our students that go far beyond literary research.”
For Laney alumna Laura Barlament 01G, the “Letters” experience helped her to develop communication and collaborative skills. “I learned about establishing relationships…. I have seen how to ask questions astutely. I have experienced how a community of scholars from different disciplines can work toward a common goal," she says.
For Brian Cliff 01G, the experience exposed him to a professional network. “My work with ‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett’ not only helped me to develop and refine essential critical and research skills, but exposed me to a web of contacts that will be of great help to me over the course of my career," he notes.
And for Jennifer Nesbitt 99G, her participation shaped the way she conducts research. “The most obvious benefit I have derived from the project has been greater knowledge, skill and resourcefulness in research," she explains. "It has taught me to follow threads of information to a larger picture and to develop a key scholarly aptitude: the hunch.”
The project also benefitted from the work of scholars at the end of their academic careers, as volunteers from Emory's Emeritus College, made up of retired faculty, offered their time, expertise and experience to proofread manuscripts and proofs with editors.
Commemorating Beckett's impact
Beckett’s letters are pivotal for scholars and students of Beckett’s work, but at the same time, they are also very human and accessible. As David Sexton recently noted in the London Evening Standard, “every one of them, however brief, is a considered act by Beckett. Each is an example of how he conducted himself. Taken together they constitute a substantial addition to his body of writing.”
Tedesco agrees. “The importance and influence of Beckett’s work to the arts, culture and thought is well known and specially regarded,” she says. “One of the beautiful things about the 'Letters' project and the editions created is to see Beckett’s work — and Beckett himself – illuminated in an entirely new way.
"The 'Letters' have breathed immersive life into Beckett’s philosophies, his artistic processes, his keen and critical observations of himself, the world, and other work, and much more," she says.
The publication of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1966-1989” is being celebrated through a series of events this fall at Emory and throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Upcoming events include the following:
Oct. 24: "Mary Hutchinson Observed: From Bloomsbury to Beckett"
One-woman performance by Brenda Bynum sponsored by the Emeritus College
• The Luce Center, 825 Houston Mill Road
• 11:30-1 p.m., free parking
• $7 if lunch is included; register here.
Oct. 31 – Nov. 5: "Samuel Beckett's Life and Work: An Exhibition"
Courtesy of Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
• Dobbs University Center Commons
Nov. 3: "Engagement in the Arts: Samuel Beckett in Prison"
Lois Overbeck and Alan Mandell discuss "Waiting for Godot" in San Quentin and The San Quentin Drama Workshop
• White Hall, Room 206
• 4-5:30 p.m., parking in the Oxford Road Deck
• Free, no ticket required; learn more here.
Nov. 5: "Words Fail So Simply Much Love"
Chamber reading with musical interludes from Schubert, played by Don Saliers. Also featuring Barry McGovern and Alan Mandell with Brenda Bynum
• Glenn Memorial Auditorium
• 7:30-9 p.m., parking in the Fishburne Parking Deck
• Free; learn more here.
Dec. 12: "The Letters of Samuel Beckett"
A evening of words and music to mark the publication of the fourth and final volume of "The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1966-1989," with Annabel Davis-Goff, Nick Laird, Colum McCann, Colm Toibin and the Tesla Quartet.
• New York City, 92/Y, Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street
• Venue: Buttenwieser Hall
• Tickets from $34; learn more here.
Retired faculty in Emory's Emeritus College volunteered as proofreaders for the letters of Samuel Beckett.