‘Lost treasures’ to be unearthed by archivists
A hidden treasure trove of unpublished poems, letters and notes belonging to one of Scotland’s most respected writers is to be revealed for the first time.
The archive of the works of poet, academic and critic, Douglas Dunn will be brought to life by the University of St Andrews. The biographical collection spanning his entire literary career and private life will be made available to the public, thanks to recent funding from the Carnegie Trust.
Much of the collection is deeply personal, from diaries and journals to letters from fellow writers Ted Hughes, Edwin Morgan and Seamus Heaney. As well as original manuscripts and unseen drafts of his best-known work, the archive contains unique material such as early poems and short stories written by Dunn as a schoolboy.
Professor Dunn (66), a recently retired lecturer at the School of English, agreed to the sale as a mark of his affection to the St Andrews community, despite current interest from the US in British literary archives. The prolific writer, who joined the University in 1989, was Director of the University’s Scottish Studies Centre and founder of the popular MLitt in creative writing. Following the recent funding success, he will work closely with the University during the archival process, which is expected may take several years.
Dr Chris Jones, a senior lecturer with the School of English, approached the Trust when he heard that the University had acquired over 100 boxes of documents spanning a forty year period. The resulting near £20,000 funding will also pay for some complementary work on the archives of George MacKay Brown and Norman MacCaig already held at Edinburgh University.
Dr Jones commented, “What we have here is an enormously important collection of documents providing the inside story to some of the most significant poems of our time. St Andrews is very lucky to have acquired the collection since many American universities, such as Emory, are buying up the papers of eminent British and Irish writers – most recently those of Seamus Heaney and Salman Rushdie.
“The funding from the Carnegie Trust will give us the opportunity to research an untapped archival resource of enormous importance to Scottish literary studies – the entire life story in words of not just one of our best writers, but one who is a key figure in the literary legacy of the University.”
Dunn, described as `amongst the finest of our poets’ by broadcaster Melvin Bragg, was awarded the OBE in 2003 for his services to literature. Though the full extent of the collection has yet to be discovered, it is known to contain material from throughout Dunn’s literary life, from his first poem to marked transcripts of his critically celebrated Elegies, written following the loss of his first wife to cancer.
“It’s not really an exaggeration to claim Elegies as the most significant work of mourning in the English language since Tennyson’s In Memoriam‘, commented Dr Jones.
The complete archive includes numerous poems, screenplays, novels and short stories, alongside annotated manuscripts, hand-written drafts, book proposals and diaries. Material is not restricted to the written works of Dunn himself, but fellow writers Ian Crichton Smith and Norman MacCaig, as well as numerous pieces sent to Dunn over the years by aspiring poets.
The archive comprises an eclectic collection of material, encompassing all areas of the writer’s life, tracing his movements over time through diaries, TV schedules and press cuttings to the more obscure – an article on Czechoslovakia, notes on church art, post office receipts and a poem called Twinkle Bloody Twinkle. Not one to shy away from political comment, the collection includes the full manuscript of Dunn’s 1990 work The Fiscal Fake v Poll tax.
Written pieces include critiques on a wide range of writers including Byron, Larkin, Burns, MacDiarmid, Shakespeare, Pope, Johnson, Fielding and Sylvia Path, whose husband Ted Hughes had corresponded with Dunn.
The collection also contains reflections on Dunn’s time spent in Hull, where he was first a student, then librarian at the Brynmor Jones Library under Philip Larkin, who later became a great friend.
Dr Jones continued, “What will be especially interesting to supporters of Dunn, both aspiring poets and academics alike, is that the archive provides a real insight into the evolution of a poem. By comparing the heavily annotated manuscripts and original drafts to the final version, the family tree of a poem’s genesis and evolution really comes to life.”
The funding will allow the University to appoint an archivist to begin the lengthy task of opening up the collection and creating an online catalogue. The collection will sit alongside archival material related to literary luminaries such as Siegfried Sassoon, J.M. Barrie and Andrew Lang, placing St Andrews firmly on the map as an important resource for literary holdings.
Dr Norman Reid, the University’s Head of Special Collections, said, “What is interesting about the collection is that it does not just contain poems, but a huge range of Dunn’s output, from his correspondence with editors to letters of a more personal nature to family and friends. From an academic perspective, it provides a unique insight into both Dunn’s methods and the ways in which he wanted his work to be presented.
“At this stage it’s difficult to tell exactly what is in there, but it will be very interesting to see what treasures the collection holds. Certainly we will have a very clear picture of the evolution of Dunn the poet through his earliest writings, which will make future scholars of his work fully appreciate why he is rightly regarded as one of the most significant writers of our time.”
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Ref: Dunn archive 100209
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