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September events celebrate culminating achievement of ‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett’ project
samuel beckett books

An index — done right — is a wonderful playground where one can explore answers to myriad questions, basking in the material as long as one likes.

Imagine the possibilities when the subject in question is Irish-born writer Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) who, says The Guardian, is “often recalled as the lonely genius of modernism” but was also a “convivial friend and collaborator.” In the correspondence Beckett carried on with a wide circle of associates throughout his life, as the Sydney Review of Books noted, “there is hardly any public posturing here but rather an increasing self-eschewal on facing fame.”

All sides of Beckett are on display in the interactive index dubbed Chercher. Its name alludes to the opening of a letter — “Cher ami” (“Dear friend”) — and to the French verb “to seek.” Chercher impressively rounds out “The Letters of Samuel Beckett project, which “has served for decades as a laboratory for humanities research, building the scholarly careers of generations of Emory graduate students and creating a comprehensive research portal of importance to Beckett scholars worldwide,” says Jennifer Gunter King, director of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. 

“The effort was one of many initiatives at Emory that helped to establish the Rose Library as a leading archival repository for the study of modern Irish poetry and literature,” King adds.

With that history, it is fitting that the Rose will be the future home of the project’s materials. According to King, “The Rose Library will preserve the research files of the Beckett Letters project. The celebration of the project’s launch is also an invitation to imagine — in partnership with Emory faculty who, like the Beckett project founders, are creatively driving research in the humanities — where we go next.”

Activities beginning in September include:

The exhibit “Selections from the Samuel Beckett Collections,” Rose Library  

Screening and discussion of the film “Waiting for Beckett,” White Hall, Room 206

This documentary, made in 1995 for public television, will be introduced by Melissa Shaw-Smith, co-producer and co-director who worked with the film’s director, the late John Reilly.

Hosts: Department of Film and Media, and Professor Jing Wang’s class Documentary Film and Media

“Unscripted Wisdom: Mastering the Art of Interviewing on Film,” Woodruff Library, Woodruff Seminar Room of the Rose Library (10th floor)

The session — about conducting and using interviews within research projects — will include examples of recorded interviews from the Rose Library’s John Reilly Samuel Beckett audiovisual material collection as well as a Q&A with Melissa Shaw-Smith. Jonathan Coulis, oral history coordinator at Emory Libraries, and Gaby Hale, outreach archivist at the Rose Library, will lead the session. 

Edited film interviews on the Chercher website help personalize and contextualize some of the recipients of Beckett’s letters (e.g., Martin Esslin, Hugh Kenner, Raymond Federman, Linda Ben-Zvi, Mel Gussow, Edward Albee, Bill Irwin, Mary Manning Howe and James Knowlson).

Launch of Chercher, Woodruff Library, Jones Room

Refreshments at 5:45 p.m., program at 6:30 p.m. 

This overview of the project includes readings from Beckett’s letters by Brenda Bynum and Robert Shaw-Smith, as well as recorded cameos. 

Chercher is an open-access interactive index of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” in Public Archives. It marks a collaboration of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” project with the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) and the Rose Library. Come celebrate this partnership and the role that Emory students have played in its development. 

Events are open to all. For those who cannot attend the Chercher launch in person, there is a Zoom option. A recording also will be made for later use.

First came the books

It is worth recalling the project’s origins. In 1985, Beckett authorized Martha Dow Fehsenfeld as editor and Lois Overbeck as associate editor to locate and transcribe his letters, which are scattered around the world.

A key proviso Beckett made was that the letters could not be published until after his death. He added: “You will get round and see these people, won’t you?”

This was not a rhetorical question, and the editors readily assented. As Overbeck observed, this directive “made all the difference.” The result of this sweeping project of discovery and research is some 16,000 letters in public and private collections.

The editors were joined by George Craig (University of Sussex), who also served as French translator, and Dan Gunn (American University of Paris). Viola Westbrook (Emory) was the German translator for the edition and worked with the editors on German research. “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” was published in four volumes by Cambridge University Press between 2009 and 2016. The edition also has been translated into French and German, with Italian and Chinese editions still in process. 

Beckett did not give interviews, but his letters present information about the origins of his works, their preliminary versions, publication and production history, translation and interpretation. According to Overbeck, “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.” 

When the Irish Times reviewed the fourth volume in 2016, it said: “So all praise to the editorial team: Fehsenfeld herself; Lois More Overbeck, the general editor; Dan Gunn, who contributed the magisterial introduction to this volume; and George Craig, with his brilliant French translator’s preface. No one will envy them their 31 years’ hard labour; all readers will appreciate their extraordinary achievement.”

Similarly, a review in The Guardian held that “the editorship of these letters provides a model of scholarship and a masterclass in selection.” In 2021, founding editor Fehsenfeld received an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin.

Then the leap to metadata 

Although more than 16,000 letters were consulted and transcribed in the editing process, the selected edition could include only about 25% of them. “Following publication of the final volume, the question arose of how to make the research of the project available to future scholarship,” says Overbeck. 

The project worked with Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) to develop Chercher, a website both flexible and precise. Sara Palmer, digital text specialist at ECDS notes, “Chercher realizes the potential of a successful partnership between subject experts and technologists and demonstrates the possibilities for research and teaching in digital scholarship.”

In 2018, an online, open-access Location Register of Beckett’s Letters in Public Archives was established to preserve and disseminate the cumulative knowledge of this unique archive. Users can browse by recipient, physical description, sender and recipient addresses, language, repository, collection and previous publication. These features have been incorporated into Chercher.

Chercher indexes:

  1. The content of each letter — persons, places, organizations, productions and publications;
  2. Beckett’s writing, translating, directing, reading and attendance at events; and
  3. References to artworks, music and world events. 

In Chercher, the two primary search modes are “Letter Data,” which includes those in public archives along with their physical state and location, and “Index,” the people, places and things Beckett mentions in his letters.

Notes Overbeck, “As a searchable data set, Chercher enables researchers to explore patterns and interrelationships within the letters, thus suggesting starting points for future research and analysis.” Moreover, it will continue to grow as more letters enter publicly available collections.

Early reviews reveal grateful users. Matthijs Engleberts of the University of Amsterdam called the index “fantastic and even more wide-ranging than ‘just’ the letters (which is Herculean enough in itself).”

And Gerald Dawe of Trinity College Dublin commented: “My word, what an archive; I could be gone for months inside this.”

And, throughout, an invaluable experience for students 

Approximately 400 Emory students have been involved with the project, with many crediting it with developing a breadth of transferrable professional skills that have continued to shape their careers.

As “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” materials transfer to the Rose Library, an advisory board of Emory alumni associated with the project has formed. The advisory board will maintain Chercher by accessing and integrating new materials into the metadata as well as managing project outreach. Membership will rotate every three to five years.

Inaugural advisory board members include:

  • Patrick Bixby, president of the Samuel Beckett Society and associate professor of English in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University
  • Julie Gaillard, assistant professor of French at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
  • Jason B. Jones, senior academic accreditation specialist at Woolf, an edtech software startup and global collegiate higher education institution 
  • Kevin Lucas, Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches in the writing and communication program
  • Derval Tubridy, professor of literature and visual culture at Goldsmiths, University of London

Now, be part of furthering engagement with Beckett 

Housed at Emory over its long life, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” project has achieved undisputed global significance. All members of the Emory community are welcome at the upcoming events, either to advance or begin their understanding of “a writer held in highest esteem by a large and diverse international audience,” says Overbeck.

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