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Sighle Kennedy papers, 1920s-1996 bulk 1963-1996 

Kennedy, Sighle.
Phys. Desc: 
13.91 linear feet (13.91 linear feet 21 document boxes 2 note card boxes 2 oversized boxes 4 record boxes)
Call Number: 
Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Biographical Note

Sighle Aileen Kennedy was born on 27 July 1919 in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century. She received her undergraduate degree from Manhattanville College. After spending eight years as a reporter for an architectural and engineering journal, and twelve years working for Catholic Relief Services in countries including South Korea, Kennedy began graduate studies in English literature at Columbia University in 1963. At Columbia, Kennedy was advised by Professor William York Tindall, whom she later honored with an essay in the festschrift Modern Irish Literature (1972). The notebook she kept while reading for her comprehensive exams (Box 2, Folder 1)--part study aid, part diary--shows Kennedy to have been a sensitive, insightful and enthusiastic reader of modern English-language literature, one who was drawn very early in her scholarly career to the writings of Samuel Beckett. Her first comments on Watt, the 1953 Beckett novel that would become her scholarly preoccupation for the next thirty years, reveal Kennedy to have been both horrified by (“His visions are explicitly disgusting. Dear old Ireland--what have we done to ourselves?”) and deeply interested in the book. Several entries in the notebook establish that Kennedy was a devout Catholic, one who took her religion seriously enough to question both her faith and behavior and the church as an institution. The diary also reveals the extent to which sexism pervaded academe in the era; one November 1963 entry briefly recounts a visit with a Columbia professor who, Kennedy reports, advised her that “teaching in a college... is something at which a woman is at a disadvantage.” Nevertheless, Kennedy pressed on, passed her exams, and moved on to the dissertation stage. By 1966, Kennedy had decided to make Beckett's writings the subject of her doctoral study, and in 1969 she was awarded the Ph.D. after completing her dissertation"Murphy's Bed: A Study of Real Sources and Sur-real Associations in Samuel Beckett's First Novel." The dissertation served as the first draft of her monograph, which was published in 1971 under the same title. Just before earning the Ph.D., Kennedy, ignoring her Columbia professor's advice, joined the faculty of Hunter College, one of the more prestigious institutions within the City University of New York system. She was an Assistant and then an Associate Professor in Hunter's English department from 1968-1985, teaching courses ranging from "Expository Writing" to "Women's Search for Self" to modern British literature surveys, to seminars on James Joyce and on Samuel Beckett. In 1967, while working on her dissertation, Kennedy decided to write Beckett a letter related to her research on Murphy. Beckett answered, and he continued to answer her letters for the next twenty years, responding to her questions (to the extent that he ever answered anyone's questions about his writing) and giving her permission to reproduce selections from his unpublished manuscripts. During the early stages of her research for a planned monograph on Watt, Kennedy visited Paris, and met with Beckett for the first time in the summer of 1973. Though Kennedy's attitude towards Beckett was complicated--as would be the attitude of any scholar working with a living writer --the two appear to have gotten along well. Many of Beckett's letters to Kennedy reveal the warmth and generosity for which he was well known among friends and associates, but which was largely unsuspected by the reading public. In the early 1970s, Kennedy decided that her second scholarly book would focus on Watt, and specifically on how the novel developed across the manuscript and typescript drafts. To that end, Kennedy traveled to libraries to gather material. The most important of these trips was her visit to the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, which holds the notebooks in which Beckett wrote his first draft of Watt as well as the typescript of his revised version. While Kennedy produced an outline of her book's proposed structure and arranged some of her research materials and notes accordingly, she was unable to complete the monograph. An article-length version of the work was posthumously published through the efforts of her sister, Sr. Ethne Kennedy (1922-2005), in Dalhousie French Studies in 1998. While teaching and intermittently working on the Watt project, Kennedy also published several scholarly articles on Beckett and on the connections between his work and that of Joyce and Dante. She appears to have taught herself to read Italian so as to read Dante's writings in their original language. Her research materials show that Kennedy had become increasingly interested in Beckett's philosophical influences, including the 17th century Flemish thinker Arnold Geulincx and the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. After Sighle Kennedy's death on 18 August 1996, Sr. Ethne Kennedy (of the Society of Helpers) completed a preliminary organization of her sister's research materials and work-related correspondence. Her handwriting is visible on the covers of many of Sighle Kennedy's notebooks, and in many cases her descriptions of their contents have been retained in this finding aid. Very little purely personal material is included in this collection, though a reading of Kennedy's notes, drafts, letters and especially her notebook entries reveals much about the delight she found in, and the sustenance she drew from, literature during three decades which appear to have been almost totally devoted to reading, research and teaching.

Scope and Contents

The Papers contain scholarly research-related materials gathered and/or produced by Sighle Kennedy during her years as a graduate student in Columbia University's English department (1963-1969) and as a professor at Hunter College (1968-1985). These materials consist of handwritten notes, note cards, drafts (autograph and typed), photocopies, photographs and annotated scholarly journals and books related to Kennedy's work on Samuel Beckett, with lesser amounts on Joyce, Dante, and other writers in whom Kennedy was interested. The collection also includes correspondence between Kennedy and Beckett; letters to and from and other Beckett scholars, academic and trade publishers, and special collections librarians; copies of several articles published by Kennedy, and her book"Murphy's Bed". The Papers are completed by a small collection of audio materials used by Kennedy in her teaching; by a number of prints, including several by the Irish artist Jack Butler Yeats; and by four boxes of books annotated by Kennedy.