Schuchard works to create
'living literary collection'
Students in Ron Schuchard's Irish literature classes think they know
what they're getting into: a semester of great Irish voices, from W.B. Yeats
and Samuel Beckett to contemporary writers like Thomas Kinsella, Michael
Longley, Seamus Heaney and others. What they don't expect is the opportunity
to study firsthand the written relics of these writers' creative processes,
much less to walk into class one day and come face to face with them.
But that's often what they get. An English professor who specializes
in Irish literature, Schuchard has worked for much of the past 20 years
to turn Emory's collection of Irish literary works into the envy of libraries
all over the world. And building the collection has rather attractive fringe
benefits-oftentimes the writers come along as a package deal.
"Most of the major writers are in it or have shown interest in being
part of it," Schuchard said. "They've come to Emory, read their
poems or works here; they like the library and Special Collections, and
they're very impressed by what they see here, particularly the working conditions
and the special amount of care given to the papers."
So the writers come back to read again. And sometimes they reserve an
hour or so to make a handful of lucky students very happy to have come to
class that day. Some of those students may even decide to pursue literature
as a career because of their exposure to the collection. Schuchard knows,
because it happened to him.
A doctoral student at the University of Texas in the '60s, Schuchard
was in Austin at the time when then-Chancellor Harry Ransom-with the help
of gushers of Texas oil money-was building UT's library into one of the
nation's premier institutions. "It was changing my life," Schuchard
said. "I saw the manuscripts of Yeats and Eliot and Joyce, and it had
a tremendous impact on me, to be in Texas of all places, and to see some
of the finest manuscript riches that I'd ever seen."
Little did he know that a decade later he would be at Emory as a young
professor when the University struck a geyser of its own in the form of
the 1979 Woodruff endowment. The first Woodruff scholar was English professor
Richard Ellmann, whose passion was to build a collection of Irish literature.
When Ellmann died in 1987, the University established a lecture series
in his name, and the first Richard Ellmann Lecturer was Seamus Heaney, the
recent Nobel laureate. In 1988 Heaney donated the manuscripts of his lectures
to Emory and so began a turning point that saw Special Collections shift
toward contemporary Irish authors and poets.
"Since then we have been able to create a unique archive of living
writers," said Schuchard. "We now have a critical mass of 10 contemporary
writers, all of whom know each other. We have, in many instances, both sides
of a correspondence; we have not only their manuscripts but their personal
correspondence, manuscripts that they sent each other and shared."
Schuchard deflects much of the credit for the collection to manuscript
curator Steve Enniss, Special Collections head Linda Matthews and Libraries
Director Joan Gotwals. Together they are able to convince Irish writers
to donate their materials while they are still working, but this task is
not always as difficult as it may seem, Schuchard said. With boxes and boxes
of papers collected over a lifetime, the writers realize the problems of
preservation, security and accessibility to scholars. Also, these world-renowned
poets, talented and significant as they may be, do not often top bestseller
lists, and the financial incentive is alluring.
But some of the pieces most enticing to Schuchard are those collected
some 50 years after their author and owner died-those of William Butler
Yeats. As director of the W.B. Yeats International Summer School in Sligo,
Ireland, Schuchard spends time every summer lecturing on the Irish renaissance
poet, and Emory's Yeats collection from Lady Gregory-the poet's friend and
patron-offers historical treats that are the dream of any literary scholar.
"He had given her copies of all of his books, and they have her
bookplate in them with inscriptions in his hand to her: 'From the poet to
his friend, Lady Gregory,'" Schuchard said. "He had the habit
of reaching up and grabbing one of his books off her shelf, turning to the
endpapers and using them as a manuscript for a new poem.
"To take students up [to Special Collections] and see a copy of
a book that was in her library, and then open it up and see Yeats' handwriting,
or have a loose manuscript fall out, or see on the endpapers a draft of
a new poem, it's arresting. That can have a real intellectual impact for
Thirty years later, Schuchard still remembers that experience firsthand.
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