Emory Report

 November 3, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 11


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 some students."

Thirty years later, Schuchard still remembers that experience firsthand.

-Michael Terrazas

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