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October 1, 2001

First Person

Ronald Schuchard is Goodrich C. White Professor of English


An exciting University and communal event begins next Sunday afternoon when the English novelist David Lodge, author of such comic satires on the academic world as Changing Places and Small World, comes to Emory to deliver the sixth series of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature (see story).

Many of us still feel the formidable intellectual presence of his predecessor in 1999, English novelist A.S. Byatt, and there are some who recall the inaugural lecture and stirring voice of Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney in 1988. Still others know and affirm the lasting impact of Ellmann’s own lectures during the decade he came to Emory annually from Oxford University before his death in 1987.

Frequently I am asked about Ellmann and the lectures endowed in his name; the questions come from colleagues in all divisions of the University who have read and enjoyed his award-winning biographies of Joyce, Yeats and Wilde. Thus, in anticipation of Lodge’s arrival, I am grateful for the opportunity to characterize the Ellmann Lectures in this column for our whole community.

When Richard Ellmann came to teach at Emory each spring from 1976 (becoming our first Woodruff Professor in 1982), he brought with him new public lectures—“The Uses of Decadence,” “Oscar Wilde at Oxford,” “Henry James Among the Aesthetes,” “Freud and Literary Biography,” “James Joyce: Side and Front Views,” “W.B. Yeats’ Second Puberty,” “Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland” and others—that collectively were a testament to his extraordinary range as a critic of modern letters.

All of these lectures were soon published separately by the Library of Congress as models of their kind. The audiences that assembled for those lectures were unlike other University audiences. People from every academic department were there; they came because they knew Ellmann addressed the general reader, illuminated the relation of literature and life, and spoke with an urbanity, a wry humor and wit, and an elegance and sureness of language not to be heard elsewhere.

When it became apparent that illness would prevent his annual return, the University acted at once to preserve the legacy with a lecture series worthy of his contribution both to Emory and to modern letters. Before his death, he chose his friend Heaney to give the inaugural series.

From their inception, the Ellmann Lectures aimed to commission major writers and critics to step outside their creative or scholarly writing and deliver three original lectures on a topic in modern literature of abiding importance to them. The creative writers conclude with a reading from their own work, while the critics invite a major poet of their choosing to conclude the series. Thus, with the lectures of Denis Donoghue, Helen Vendler, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., we enjoyed, respectively, the presence of Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Anthony Hecht and Jorie Graham and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.

The high quality of the lecturers is entrusted to an international selection committee comprised of Ellmann’s former students, colleagues and friends, all of whom treasure the humanistic tradition of his writing and lecturing. Removing themselves from academic politics and trends, they are charged to identify writers and critics who are themselves removed from the encoded language (or jargon) of academic schools and coteries and who can speak eloquently of their personal engagement with serious literature to a general audience. The committee always welcomes nominations of future lecturers from members of the Emory community.

It is of immense importance to the humanities that some of the great lectureships are alive and well today, some in their second century: the Clarendon Lectures at Oxford, the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, the Norton Lectures at Harvard, the Anderson Lectures at Toronto, the Trilling Lectures at Columbia, the Bancroft Lectures at Berkeley and a few others.

But even in their young history, the Ellmann Lectures at Emory have quickly joined the ranks of these prominent predecessors; they are all necessary beacons of intellectual excellence, the living voice, the spoken word; they all maintain a vital humanistic tradition in the midst of academic cycles and transformations. They themselves continually generate significant, unexpected developments:

When Heaney donated to Emory all the manuscripts and correspondence related to his lectures, the Woodruff Library was motivated to develop its unrivaled archives of contemporary Irish literature during the following decade. The sustained excellence of the lectures has led to Emory’s fruitful relation with Harvard University Press, which now publishes and distributes each series to a large number of readers.

In the short aftermath of our national catastrophe, the Ellmann Lectures invite our gradual return to a rational world and a celebration of imaginative writing. We have in David Lodge one of the master novelists of our time to speak to us about “Consciousness and the Novel.” His three lectures grow out of several years of intensive research that he undertook in cognitive science in preparation for his new novel Thinks…(2001). Lodge’s restless, philandering protagonist, Ralph Messenger, director of the prestigious Center for Cognitive Science at a major research university and much in demand as a pundit on artificial intelligence and human consciousness, enters into a series of relationships, events and discoveries that dramatically underscore the truth of his primary dictum: “We can never know for certain what another person is thinking.”

As novelists can learn from cognitive science, Lodge believes, so can cognitive scientists learn from consciousness in novels. Thus, I heartily invite everyone in the Emory community to attend David Lodge’s Ellmann Lectures and his reading. It will be Classic Lodge. There are many simple reasons for coming; as one woman replied when asked why she flew across the country to come to the last series, “I just like to be bathed in the language.”



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