News Release: Arts and Humanities

Aug. 11,  2011

Beckett Letters at Emory Receives NEH Grant

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The Letters of Samuel Beckett project, based at Emory University’s Laney Graduate School, has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support completion of Volume III and IV of a four-volume critical edition, and the preparation of a one-volume edition for a general audience. The grant, which totals $280,000 over a 36-month period, with an additional $30,000 to match gifts to the edition, is one of 249 humanities projects across the nation to be funded by the NEH.

Making Research Accessible

“The NEH is honored to support some of the most outstanding research of our day,” says Jim Leach, chairman of the NEH. He said the grants awarded “promote new areas of research, and make the breadth of human experience more understandable and knowledge more accessible than ever.”

Scholarly Editions and Translations Grants from the NEH enable the preparation of editions and translations of significant literary, philosophical and historical texts, and documents that are currently inaccessible or available in inadequate editions.

Along with support of the Laney Graduate School, Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Emory University, NEH grants have underwritten the basic research on the letters of Beckett, the Irish writer widely known in this country for his play “Waiting for Godot.”

Second Volume to be Published

The much-anticipated second volume, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956,” will be published in Europe in September and in the United States in October 2011. It will cover the period in which “Godot” premiered. Beckett wrote the original version of the play in French, “En attendant Godot,” which was first performed in 1953 in Paris.

History of the Project

In 1985, Beckett asked Martha Dow Fehsenfeld to edit a selected edition of his letters. Now founding editor, Fehsenfeld is joined by co-editors Lois More Overbeck at Emory, George Craig, emeritus professor at the University of Sussex, and Dan Gunn at The American University of Paris. The edition will select from more than 16,000 of Beckett’s letters found in archives and private collections worldwide. Beginning in 1929 and ending with Beckett’s death in 1989, “The Letters of Samuel Beckett” mark six dynamic decades of the 20th century.

Michael Dirda of The Washington Post remarked that “admirers of Samuel Beckett, arguably the greatest writer in English of the second half of the 20th century, have grown used to waiting for Godot . . . In the meantime, these similarly anticipated letters have quite definitely arrived.”

Although new letters continue to be discovered, “work on volumes three and four is already well begun,” says Overbeck, general editor and project director. At Emory, several generations of graduate students have been involved in the research and editing process, providing a foundation for their future teaching and scholarship.

Jennifer Jeffers, professor of English at Cleveland State University, began working on the project while earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature at Emory in 1991. “Without a doubt, working on the Beckett project deepened and broadened my research skills and knowledge,” she says. Jeffers is now the author of several articles and books on Beckett’s works as well as general editor for the Palgrave Macmillan series devoted to Beckett.

The first volume “The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2009 to wide acclaim.

J.M. Coetzee of The New York Review of Books noted especially the work of editors, faculty and students who worked on the edition. “The editorial work behind this project has been immense. Every book that Beckett mentions, every painting, every piece of music is tracked down and accounted for.”

Coetzee added, “The standard of the commentary is of the highest ... ‘The Letters of Samuel Beckett’ is a model edition.”

The first volume was chosen as one of the “Books of the Year” in 2009 by Gabriel Josipovici, Stefan Collini, Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney, who called it “the most bracing read of the year.”

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