Emory Report
May 7, 2007
Volume 59, Number 30

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May 7, 2007
Building Emory’s literary muscle

By Kim urquhart

In reviewing the archive of Salman Rushdie, Director of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library Steve Enniss was “struck by a reference to Emory” recovered from an e-mail Rushdie sent to his agent in 1996. “Where is Emory University?” Rushdie queried. “It’s a highly regarded school in the American South,” his agent replied.

When Rushdie made his first campus visit in 2004 to deliver the Richard Ellmann Lectures, Enniss made certain that the celebrated writer also knew about Emory’s commitment to the literary arts.

“He was learning about Emory for the first time, and we had to inform him of the strengths that are here,” says Enniss, who later led discussions about the acquisition of Rushdie’s archive.

Enniss ultimately convinced Rushdie that his personal and literary papers would be “in good hands,” and in October Rushdie placed his entire archive at Emory and, in an added boon, agreed to join Emory as Distinguished Writer in Residence.

Enniss has helped the library earn its reputation as one of the fastest-growing literary archives in the country, working with faculty and his networks in the literary community to bring about this rise. Enniss has directed the growth of the library’s literary collections, including major acquisitions such as the archive of the late Poet Laureate of Britain Ted Hughes and the papers of Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney. Enniss was also one of the principal negotiators of the gift of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, a 75,000-volume English language poetry library believed to be among the largest ever assembled by a single collector.

While the Heaney and Danowski acquisitions were nearly 10 years in the making, negotiations with Rushdie were relatively quick in comparison. “Emory’s strong record of success made the Rushdie negotiation easier,” Enniss says. “The names of some of those major figures testify that this is a place where the literary arts are appreciated.”

Enniss recalls one of the first acquisitions he was involved with at Emory, where he began his career as manuscripts librarian in 1992. Head of Special Collections Linda Matthews, who Enniss had known since his days as a master’s student at Emory’s now-defunct library school, asked him to meet with James Dickey to discuss the acquisition of his papers. Enniss drove a rented U-Haul to Columbia, South Carolina, to collect 54 large cartons containing the writings of the Atlanta-born poet and novelist.

“I think Linda sent me because Dickey had such a reputation as a womanizer — she was afraid to send any women on staff,” Enniss says with a laugh. “In any case, I got the job, and quickly became involved in a whole string of acquisitions that unfolded in the 1990s all the way to the present.”

He says that continuing to have a hand in building research collections “remains one of the most gratifying parts of the work I do.”

“Building these collections is a way that the University participates in a broad research community beyond the Emory campus,” Enniss says. His vision for MARBL is only partially related to collection building, however. “Equally important is what we do with those collections once they are here,” says Enniss, who would like to see more classrooms and public spaces “that will allow us to tell the library’s story effectively to Emory students and engage in public scholarship through exhibitions and readings for the Atlanta community.”

Enniss, a native Atlantan who earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Georgia, has been a bookworm since childhood. “I’ve always had a great admiration of libraries,” he says. His office speaks volumes of his literary interests, decorated with framed photographs of literary giants, many of whom Enniss has forged friendships with over the years. A bronze bust of poet Derek Mahon presides over Enniss’ writing sessions as he works to complete a book-length study of the Irish bard. A framed photograph of Enniss and Hughes surrounded by the rocky cliffs of the north Devon coast serves as a reminder of “one of the most moving experiences of my career.”

A few months before Hughes died in October 1998, Enniss visited the poet at the thatched house in Devon that Hughes had shared with his first wife Sylvia Plath. Enniss had read the biographies, the published letters and the journal of the American poet Plath, who committed suicide in 1963. “It was moving to know those accounts of their life and then to be able to visit that house that I had read so much about and have Ted Hughes answer the door,” Enniss recalls.

Shortly after Enniss’ visit, Hughes released his last poetic work, “Birthday Letters,” which explored his complex relationship with Plath. “I had the sense that as difficult and as flawed a marriage as Hughes and Plath had, Hughes was still living in Plath’s presence.” Enniss says. “Her daffodils were still blooming in the yard. I remember Ted pointing out the place where the elm tree stood that Plath wrote her famous poem about.”

“It was like stepping into a chapter of literary history,” Enniss says. He views archives in much the same way. “Stepping into an archive has that same immediacy; it can be absolutely spine tingling. I’ve been fortunate to have many spine-tingling moments working with the collections at Emory.”