Trinity College Library Dublin Acquires Beckett Letters
Trinity College Library Dublin has purchased the most extensive collection
of Samuel Beckett letters ever to have been offered for public sale. It
now holds the largest collection of Beckett letters of any research library
in the world, honoring one of Trinity College Dublin’s most famous alumni.
These letters and cards were sent from the Nobel-prizewinning author
to artists Henri and Josette Hayden. Beckett and his wife, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil,
met the Haydens when both couples were in southern France evading discovery
by the Nazis during World War II. The 347 letters in this collection begin
in 1947 and cover the difficult period in Beckett’s life during which his
mother and his brother Frank died.
They also cover the most intensely fertile period of his writing life
when he was completing Waiting for Godot, and working on all three
books of his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable.
There is much for the biographer in this new cache but even more for the
student of Beckett’s literary work.
This latest acquisition cements Trinity College Library’s position as
the world’s primary repository for Beckett correspondence. Key among the
other collections in Trinity are the letters Beckett sent to his friend,
poet Thomas MacGreevy and those he sent to translator and literary critic
Barbara Bray. In the MacGreevy collection, Beckett wrote in a most personal
manner; in the Bray collection he wrote principally about his work. The
Hayden collection links these two correspondences both by overlapping chronologically
and also in being a combination of the personal and the literary. They
allow scholars to see the different ways in which Beckett expressed himself
to different people; they cover the time when the author made his final
break from Ireland after his mother’s death, and also the period of his
first significant literary success.
When the recent volume of Beckett’s published letters by Cambridge University
Press appeared, the editors noted with some regret that while they had
built up a "substantial corpus" of his correspondence, it was by no means
complete, adding that: "By far the most important collection to which the
editors have not had access is constituted by the more than 300 letters
addressed to Josette and Henri Hayden," which, they note, were in private
Trinity was able to make the purchase thanks to the generosity of a
former staff member: William O’Sullivan, keeper of manuscripts in Trinity
from the 1950s to 1982, left a bequest to the library which made this acquisition
possible. Samuel Beckett himself presented some of his own literary manuscripts
to Trinity’s library in the 1960s and gave some of his Nobel prize money
to the institution. He also gave a year’s worth of royalties from the Broadway
production of Krapp’s Last Tape to the Berkeley Library’s building
fund in the 1950s.
This generosity characterized Beckett’s dealings with his friends. In
the case of Henri Hayden, as these letters reveal, Beckett’s assistance
ranged from buying paints for him to introducing the artist to the dealer
Victor Waddington, thereby securing Hayden’s reputation in the art world.
When Hayden became ill in his eighties, the practical nature of Beckett’s
friendship became even more important. He even sorted out the couple’s
taxes and ensured their rent was paid.
"These Beckett letters are very significant for Beckett scholarship
at Trinity College, as well as nationally and internationally. We have
been developing collections of significant Irish creative writers, and
these letters build on the existing Beckett collections the Library already
holds," said librarian and college archivist, Helen Shenton. "We welcome
the opportunity to be able to share these collections with students of
Beckett and researchers across the globe. To mark its arrival, we have
mounted a small exhibition in the Long Room for those who would like to
view this precious correspondence. We intend to make it more widely accessible
for scholars and for the general public in the future."
The Hayden collection follows the acquisition in 2014 of several drafts
of Beckett’s work Ohio Impromptu from the Beckett scholar, Stanley
E. Gontarski. Also in this new acquisition is Gontarski’s correspondence
with Beckett from 1972; a copy of Three Plays (1984) revised by
Beckett; and the proofs of Gontarski’s critical edition of Endgame,
heavily revised and annotated by himself, Beckett and Beckett’s biographer
click on photos
To Henri and Josette Hayden, Foxrock, Dublin, August 1950
"My mother is still declining. It’s like one of those
decrescendos made by the trains at Ussy which I used to listen to at night,
interminable, suddenly resuming just when everything seemed finished and
the silence final. I think she will die in hospital in a week or so."
|Editor’s Note: This is a remarkable letter; what
Beckett is describing is the shape of listening to his mother’s last days
– a shape that will be used again and again, in works such as Rockaby.
Postcard from Ussy, August,
Painting Gerard Dou, Portrait of the Artist from the
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam; 1613-1675
|Editor’s Note: There are a many picture postcards in
the collection. Beckett may have communicated with the Haydens – a painter
and a designer – partly through images. Some are of stunningly banal scenes
– a nondescript stretch of canal or street, or an empty field; others however,
are paintings. This image may be a prefigure to Krapp’s Last Tape, written
"Madeleine rather lacks substance and gravitas. We’re trying
to infuse her with some. She has a kind of irrepressible vivacity. That’s
not what Winnie’s smile is about."
Paris September, 9th, 1963
To Henri Hayden (during production of Happy Days)
|The letters – particularly those from the 1960s and 1970s
– give a vivid sense of Beckett as a person of the theater, working with
actors, directors and producers.
To JH, August 23rd, 1982
Que lentement …
|This late letter, made up of only two words, seems like
a complete late work in its own right.
|Samuel Beckett and Trinity College Dublin
Samuel Beckett entered Trinity College in 1923 at age 17. He specialized
in French and Italian and graduated in 1927. While he was in college he
represented the school in cricket.
Beckett was expected to continue in an academic career and was appointed
assistant lecturer in French literature in Trinity in 1930. He disliked
teaching because he was becoming more determined to become a writer.
Beckett always showed himself a friend to Trinity College Library Dublin.
In 1959, the library embarked upon a fundraising campaign to build what
is now the Berkeley Library. Beckett was asked to write a play with a Library
theme to assist with the campaign. He agreed to attempt it but, as he expected,
could not comply: instead he granted the royalties from a year’s productions
of Krapp’s Last Tape to the campaign.
The foundations for the internationally-renowned collection of Beckett
manuscripts were laid in 1969 when the author generously presented four
literary notebooks to Trinity College Library. These notebooks contain
drafts of works, translations and abandoned prose and drama. One of the
notebooks contains a fragment of Beckett’s novel Malone meurt/Malone
Dies and another contains a significant amount of the radio play Embers.
The library has continued to build on this collection; the key strength
is in correspondence. The letters from Beckett to his good friend the poet
Thomas MacGreevy are unusual in being so open; they show Beckett, as a
young man and a young artist, writing frankly to a close friend. There
is also a large collection of letters to his friend, theater director Barbara
One of the major literary pieces in the collection is a notebook in
which Beckett started writing what became his late great work Imagination
Dead Imagine. Trinity College Library also holds the first edition
of Waiting for Godot which was used in the rehearsal for the first
performance of the play.
The Samuel Beckett Estate donated the notes Beckett took on the subject
of philosophy and literature after he left College.
Apart from the manuscripts, the library’s Department of Early Printed
Books has a full collection of Beckett’s published works and an impressive
range of published scholarship.