Feb. 15, 1999
Volume 51, No. 20
Enniss mines, records the evolution of writers' lives
When he talks about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Steve Enniss is prone to drifting. His eyes wander off behind slender wire-frame glasses, and his soft voice floats away as if he's channeling friends from college or an aunt and uncle he last saw years earlier.
Enniss only met Hughes in the last two years of his life and, of course, never knew Plath, Hughes' first wife who committed suicide in 1963. But his job now is getting to know them both. As curator of literary collections in Woodruff Library's Special Collections, Enniss sifts through the mountains of material--two-and-a-half tons of it--that make up Hughes' papers, which Emory acquired in 1997 and which have since made the University the envy of libraries and private collectors nationwide.
During the years that make up the bulk of this collection, the late 1950s and early '60s, Hughes was prone to scribbling gems of sudden inspiration on anything close at hand, newspaper wrappers, discarded envelopes, etc. Enniss knew before he even began studying them that suffused among these literary artifacts was the creative life of a true artist, a man who stands among the greatest poets of his time. But what Enniss didn't count on is that he'd be getting two such lives in a single archive.
"Plath was writing in the same household at the same time, and they reused paper," Enniss began. "Ted, in particular, would pick up discarded copies, drafts of her short stories or poems, and just turn them over and start work on the other side." For example, one item is a page from a typewritten manuscript of Plath's novel, The Bell Jar; the typewritten text is marked up in blue pencil, and the page is torn in three pieces, taped back together, with a handwritten draft of Hughes' poem "Digging" on the back side.
"What I find most intriguing is what this artifact says about the intimacy of their collaborative relationship," Ennis said. "While they were each individual and distinct talents, they influenced each other; you see shifts in Plath's subject matter and in the directness of her lines. The presence of a manuscript with each of them on opposite sides serves as a wonderful metaphor for that kind of collaborative enterprise."
And not only are there insights into the two artists' creative minds, but other aspects of their lives as well. At Hughes' request, certain personal correspondence will be kept off limits from researchers, but what is on the record has much to reveal. There are many letters to Lucas Myers, a mutual friend who served as go-between after Hughes and Plath met at Cambridge in 1956. In his letters to Myers, Hughes could take on the mien of a love-struck schoolboy. "If you see Sylvia Plath," Hughes wrote in one note from that year, "ask her if she's coming up to London, give her my address. Get her somehow, free lodgings for her as for you." And then as the closing: "Don't forget Sylvia, and discretion."
Not all of what Enniss knows about Hughes came from the letters. Before the poet died in October, Enniss spent time with him on several occasions at Hughes' cottage in Devon, at a reading with Irish poet Seamus Heaney in London and also over dinner with English Professor Ron Schuchard and his wife, Keith. Once Enniss accompanied Hughes on a trip to the North Devon shore simply to see the waves crashing on the cliffs.
"Ted talked about ships foundering on those rocks," Enniss recalled. "Looking back on experiences such as that, I tend to encounter them again in some of the poems because this is country Ted and Sylvia both wrote about. Ted would say, 'There's where the elm tree was. Sylvia wrote a poem about it, and it fell a number of years ago.' Or he'd point to an ancient mound behind the cottage and say, 'This is the mound Sylvia loved so much when we were hunting for the house.'"
Enniss does enjoy the relationships he forms with writers, and there have been many over the six years he's been at Emory. Special Collections boasts as fine an archive as any in the world for the study of contemporary Irish literature (including Heaney), and Enniss also supervised the mammoth effort of cataloguing the James Dickey papers, acquired in 1993.
"When I was an undergraduate and contemplating what I'd end up doing, I had no idea there were such jobs [as mine]," said Enniss, who graduated from the former Emory library school and also has a PhD in English from the University of Georgia. "I enjoy having as one of my work responsibilities to absorb and know the writing, to be paid to know these writers' work."
Irish poet Derek Mahon has sent an annual batch of papers to Emory for some time now, and Enniss recalled watching Mahon's work evolve from earliest draft to published form. "That was true of his recent collection, The Hudson Letter," Enniss said. "I was reading drafts of this thing called 'The 12th Street Letter.' I vicariously lived with that work as Mahon worked to bring it to completion."
There are also nuggets of discovery that Enniss admitted can be moving. In the Hughes papers Enniss stumbled upon a photograph of Plath with the couple's young daughter Frieda and infant son Nicholas. The scene reminded Enniss of "Perfect Light," one of the poems in Hughes' cathartic Birthday Letters, the collection released last year focusing on his relationship with Plath and which earned him a posthumous Whitbread Prize.
"It's as if you're looking back to two people who are about to go over a precipice, and you want to stop it," Enniss said of digging through these artifacts. "You pick up a photograph of a happier time--just after their marriage, for example--and you have this foresight of what's coming. That knowledge adds a tragic element to these artifacts and cuts close to the bone."