Emory Report
September 22, 2008
Volume 61, Number 5



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22, 2008
Twenty years of Ellmann Lectures

Ron Schuchard is Goodrich C. White Professor of English.

When the distinguished Italian novelist Umberto Eco arrives at Emory to begin his lectures on “Confessions of a Young Novelist” on Oct. 5, the much-anticipated event will mark the 20th anniversary of the biennial Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature, inaugurated by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney in 1988.

Many in the Emory community remember Professor Ellmann’s annual spring-time returns from Oxford University in England, 1976 to 1986, his Emory arrivals marked by literary lectures that were attended by huge audiences that came to hear the biographer of Yeats, Joyce and Wilde speak eloquently about serious literature.

As Emory’s first Woodruff Professor, he also played an instrumental role in setting the cornerstone for our literary archives, helping acquire rare books and manuscripts by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, and adding his own collection of Yeats in the process.

Before Professor Ellmann died, then president James T. Laney flew to Oxford to inform him that Emory would establish a lecture series in his name, and when Laney asked him whom he wanted to inaugurate the series, Ellmann replied, “Seamus.”

Seamus Heaney filled Glenn auditorium to capacity during his three lectures in April 1988, and when he signed copies of his books at the Emory Depot, the line stretched from there to Clifton Road for two hours.
Before he departed, Heaney presented to Special Collections (now MARBL) the manuscripts and correspondence for his lectures, subsequently published as “The Place of Writing.” Director Linda Matthews, moved by Heaney’s generosity in Ellmann’s name, was inspired to extend the growing collections into the contemporary period. Little did we know then of the synergy that would develop between MARBL and the Ellmann Lectures.

From their conception, the Ellmann Lectures aimed to bring the world’s best writers and critics to Emory’s doorstep, to fill the need for a recurring intellectual celebration of the highest order, as the Norton Lectures have done for Harvard, the Clarendon Lectures for Oxford, the Clark Lectures for Cambridge. And we wanted to move beyond the unadorned rituals of these restrained academic enterprises by creating festive occasions for the lecturer and the community, with all deep-South hospitality and generosity.

Thus began the president’s reception and dinner at Lullwater, the dean’s dinner for faculty in Carlos, the Friends of the Library dinner in MARBL, the cuisine ranging from pig roasts and barbecues to low-country shrimp and grits, the accompanying music from bluegrass to classical, from Frankie’s Blues Mission to the Emory Chamber Players, all spirits refreshed from sweet-tea spigots, Coca-Cola dispensers and margarita fountains.

These unique occasions have become indelibly printed in the memories of the Ellmann lecturers, who say they have never before enjoyed themselves so much in an academic venue, and who tell other writers not to miss the Ellmann Lectures if invited.

Emory brings to campus during each series an international selection committee comprised of Ellmann’s former students, colleagues and admiring scholars who seek to perpetuate the Ellmann tradition of speaking to literary-minded audiences in jargon-free language.

Free of departmental, college and university politics, they aim to choose well-spoken writers who can step outside their creative writing, address a topic of major concern in their own or modern writing, and attract and appeal to a large community of readers. Priority of selection goes to creative writers, who also read from their works.

Following the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, the Ellmann lecturers have included the British novelists A. S. Byatt, David Lodge and Salman Rushdie, the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, and now Umberto Eco.
Each of these writers has brought wonderfully different audiences to Emory, especially Mario Vargas Llosa, who attracted huge Hispanic crowds that gathered around him like a rock star, so popular is he in their reading lives.

Even two years’ notice, however, is insufficient to book some world-class writers, a number of whom have wished to come but have regretfully declined for various professional reasons, including the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vaclav Havel, Tom Stoppard, Philip Roth, and J. M. Coetzee, among others.

When a writer has been unavailable, we have happily chosen three of the most prominent literary critics writing today — Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Helen Vendler of Harvard University, and Denis Donoghue of New York University.

We invited each to bring a major poet, and through their choices we had readings from Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and Pulitzer Prize poets Anthony Hecht and Jorie Graham.

As the lectures grew in prominence and prestige, so did MARBL, and all the lecturers and poets have requested tours of the collections. In consequence of these visits, MARBL now has the Anthony Hecht archive and the Seamus Heaney correspondence.

On the way in from the airport, Salman Rushdie also asked to visit MARBL, and at the reception for him at Lullwater he was asked by President Wagner, “Why don’t you place your papers at Emory?” To which Rushdie replied, “Why don’t you ask me?”

The rest is history, and now we have not only the Rushdie archive but his presence as a distinguished professor for five years. Mario Vargas Llosa, at the end of his lectures, said that would gladly return to teach occasional seminars. Thus, one of the long-term bonuses of the Ellmann Lectures has been to generate fabulous archives for MARBL and distinguished teaching for the University.

When I invited Umberto Eco to give the Ellmann Lectures, I had no idea what his response might be, and so I was utterly delighted when he sent an alacritous “yes”, saying that he had long wished to pay homage to a man who had not only helped him immensely with Joyce but who had written a major review of his first novel, “The Name of the Rose,” in the New York Review of Books, a review that catapulted him into recognition and prominence in America.

It was immensely pleasing to hear that, 20 years after his death, Richard Ellmann still has the power to draw great writers to Emory.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Eco’s opening lecture, “How I Write,” through to his reading from his novels, Oct. 5-7.

For details, visit www.emory.edu/ellmann.