Earlier this year, an old signed steam trunk, complete with boxes, was received by Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections at University College Dublin. Its content – the personal correspondence of writer Mary Lavin (1912-1996) – is a treasure.
In his will, Lavin bequeathed his archive of literary manuscripts to the UCD Library, including drafts of his short stories, and manuscript and typed material. This acquisition of the Lavin estate consolidates this very special collection and can now be found alongside the literary archives of Maeve Binchy, Frank McGuinness, Edna O’Brien and Patrick Kavanagh.
In 1985, the acquisition of the Kavanagh Archives – and their preservation in Ireland rather than their loss to the United States – was a famous cause, achieved in part through a public fundraising initiative led by the late Professor Gus Martin and that included his appearance in The Late Late Show. Martin had been one of the first champions of Lavin’s work: in a lengthy essay in the Irish Jesuit journal Studies in 1963, he challenged the critical neglect of his work and wryly suggested that his reasons lay more in “l history of advertising than the history of literature. ”. In 2021, our purchase of the Lavin Archives was made possible thanks to the support of alumni provided to the UCD Foundation’s Arts and Humanities Support Fund and in particular the generosity of UCD alumnus Dr. Joseph Hassett.
What light can such papers shed on the life and work of a literary writer? Lavin’s case is particularly important, as a writer whose work rose to public prominence during his lifetime and since. She is now recognized as one of the greatest short story writers, but national recognition here lags far behind her international reputation.
As the archives show, his contemporary Eudora Welty identified Lavin’s distinctive talents in the early 1950s, a few years before Lavin’s long relationship with the New Yorker began. This relationship – traceable through contracts, remittances, and correspondence with editors Bill Maxwell and Rachel MacKenzie – stands out in these journals as one of the most vital of his literary career.
Lavin was born in 1912 in East Walpole, Massachusetts and was the only child of Nora Mahon and Tom Lavin. Unusually, Nora and Tom had met on a ship returning from America to Ireland, but had spent their first years of marriage in the United States. When Mary was nine, her mother decided to return to Ireland, and mother and daughter lived in Athens for a short time before Tom returned to Ireland. The family lived first in Dublin and then in 1930 in Bective, County Meath, Mary’s home for much of her life.
She began her bachelor’s degree in English and French in 1934, graduating with a master’s degree in 1936. In a particularly informative tale for apprentice writers, Lavin ended her doctoral research on Virginia Woolf by writing her first story, Miss Holland , on the back of a typed draft of his thesis. The story was published a year later in Dublin Magazine and in 1942 her first short story collection, Tales from Bective Bridge, was published, winning the James Tait Black Memorial Award.
Readers of Lavin’s work will know the special strength of his stories of widowhood. This has a strong autobiographical source: in 1954, just 12 years after their marriage, her husband William Walsh passed away, leaving Lavin the sole parent of three young daughters (her youngest was the late Caroline Walsh, the influential literary editor of the Irish Times) . His life as a writer acquired a more urgent financial dimension: this is very evident in his archives through the attention paid to literary contracts, remittances and copyright. The signing of his first contract with The New Yorker in 1958 was a turning point (as revealed by the doctoral research of Gráinne Hurley, drawn from the archives of the UCD); over the next 18 years he published 16 of his stories.
Two simple ephemeral pieces from the archives bring these events to life. One is a signed menu card from the Cunard White Star range, a treasured souvenir from a trip to the United States that she made with her father in 1938 (Tom died in 1945). He not only mentions the transatlantic crossings that were at the heart of his youth, but also the subsequent importance of speaking tours and American publishers in sustaining his writing career.
The second is an invitation to Michael Scott, her second husband whom she married in 1969. Scott was a former Jesuit whom she first met as a student at UCD in 1930. The occasion, in March 1968, is the presentation of the award by the National University of Ireland of an honorary doctorate to Lavin. Notably, other recipients include Valerie Lady Goulding, activist for the disabled and co-founder of the Central Remedial Clinic and later a senator, and Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary.
“Precious please keep”
Much of Lavin’s correspondence is with other writers, and her generosity as a mentor to young writers, as well as the rich hospitality she has offered in her Dublin and Co Meath homes, skips newspapers. A letter from Seamus Heaney is hand-marked with Lavin: “Precious please keep it.” There is a long correspondence with Michael McLaverty and also with the unjustly neglected American writer Elizabeth Cullinan, whose work has been well defended by scholar Pat Coughlan in these pages. Other Irish correspondents include Seán Ó Faoláin and Thomas Kilroy; U.S. correspondents include JD Salinger (whose letters remain in the possession of the Lavin family) and, as previously mentioned, Eudora Welty.
More than 30 letters and cards survive between Welty and Lavin in 1950-1967. They met when Welty visited Lavin and his family at the Abbey Farm in 1950 and remembered their welcome – “how warm, good, satisfying to the soul, full of joy” – remained perennial for many years later. Her expression of sympathy for Lavin immediately after William’s death in May 1954 is touchingly simple: “Dear Mary, Oh, I’m so sorry! I wish I could be there to tell you, and if I could, do anything. Two years earlier, writing to thank her for sending her her new collection, A Single Lady, Welty stated unequivocally what exactly she loved: they do – they charm the heart and the mind, as well as the eyes and the eyes. ears !
Other letters attest to less pleasant moments in his career and show how murderous literary critics have been for Lavin. In an undated letter, which was probably written around 1967, John McGahern wrote Lavin reassuring her, “Why should you dwell on an opinion about your work? Great work arises from a lonely conflict, far from what Byron called the irritating fumes of the company stove. That peace that you so beautifully suggested to me, when time becomes eternal time, when a room becomes more than the known world, when you manage to get these pencils in your hands, you have been paid and will be paid for. His personal support is bolstered by an implicit gesture to the long-lasting literary reputation, with McGahern’s invocation of Byron’s famous 1822 letter to Thomas Moore: “The truth is, my dear Moore, you live by the stove. of society, where you are inevitably swayed by its heat and vapors.
Writing in this article on March 26, 1993, the day after Lavin’s death, the late Eileen Battersby wrote with characteristic acuteness that Lavin was “one of the most subversive voices in modern Irish fiction.” This subversion, Battersby rightly argued, was achieved not only by the theme but also by a deceptively calm writing style: “His art explored the often brutal tensions, disappointments and frustrations dictating the relationships existing within so-called “normal families”. She never exploited extremes, she could see claustrophobia in ordinary situations, she never used special effects, she didn’t have to.
In his final salute, Battersby chose these lines written by Lavin in 1959: “Writing short stories – for me – only looks closer than normal in the human heart. The whims and annoyances therein have their own integral design. Fortunately, today our students of Creative Writing and Irish Literature, as well as visiting students and scholars, now have the opportunity to study and learn from Lavin’s articles on his writing process, ” variations and contrarieties ”of editing and critical reception, as well as on the triumphs of the writer.
Margaret Kelleher is President and Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama at UCD and a Board Member of the Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI)