Ellen C. Kennedy, an author and translator who was a founding member of the Howard County Poetry and Literary Society, died Feb. 28 of kidney failure at her Columbia home. She was 87.
“Ellen was a very rare person who was an interesting combination of being an intellectual and a sophisticated person of scholarly pursuits,” said Jean Moon, a co-founder of the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. “There was always something of a free-spirit quality about her which I will miss.”
The former Ellen Conroy, daughter of Philip Conroy, a literary agent, and his former wife, Helga Norgaard Conroy Trudeau, a World War II crane operator and taxi driver, was born in New York City and raised on East 84th Street.
“Although Ellen did not inherit her mother’s physical strength, she did inherit her mother’s resourceful spirit,” Ms. Kennedy’s daughter, Erin Kennedy Pelger of Missoula, Montana, wrote in a biographical profile of her mother. “A bookish sort, Ellen escaped into the world of words. She skipped a year at Washington Irving High School and attended Barnard College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree.”
While at Barnard, she joined the Columbia Players Theatre group, where she met and fell in love with Padraic “Pat” Kennedy, a student at Columbia University.
After graduation in 1953 from Barnard, she moved to Vienna, Austria, where her future husband, whom she married in 1955, was stationed in the Army. The couple then moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to attend graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where Ms. Kennedy became a dedicated scholar of French literature, particularly the works of Albert Camus.
Ms. Kennedy earned her master’s degree in 1961 and moved to Washington with her husband when he joined the fledgling Peace Corps and later became director of VISTA during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
During her years in Washington, she translated Camus’ “Lyrical and Critical Essays,” which was nominated in 1969 for a National Book Award in Translation. She also spent a decade lecturing at colleges across the nation as a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow.
Influenced by the civil rights and African independence movements, Ms. Kennedy became interested in francophone African and Caribbean poets, culminating in 1975 with the publication of “The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French," which many consider to be her landmark work.
The Martinique poet Alme Cesaire coined the term “negritude” in his 1938 poem “Notes on a Return to the Native Land.”
“In a seeming anomaly, these poems of black awareness, beauty and rage are now accessible to the English-speaking world through the efforts of a genteel, 43-year-old white American suburban woman, one with two Irish names at that,” The Sun observed in a 1976 profile.
Of her work, Ms. Kennedy told the newspaper, “I’m the intermediary. I’m not interpreting negritude. I’m sharing the experience of the literature.”
“In projecting their private visions, fears and frustrations, they allow us to see and feel what they have felt and seen, and to discover anew the bonds that unite us all in brotherhood,” Ms. Kennedy wrote in the book’s introduction.
She explained in the Sun interview that the study of black French-speaking writers is “the most exciting intellectual voyage I expect to be on.”
The genesis of Ms. Kennedy’s interest in negritude poets was stimulated by her role as a Peace Corps wife as part of a group of American women welcoming African diplomats’ wives to Washington.
Of her 12-year effort, she told The Sun: “What you aim to do [in such translation], is to try to preserve the images as intact as you can, to even try to preserve a certain roughness of texture. You try to find something that works successfully in English, something that has the same emotional impact and, as near as you come to it, the same beauty.”
When developer James W. Rouse, founder of the Rouse Co., named her husband as the first president of the Columbia Association, a nonprofit organization that owns and manages the community assets of Columbia, the couple moved in 1972 to a home overlooking Wilde Lake.
Her daughter wrote that Ms. Kennedy viewed Columbia as something of a “cultural desert.”
To offset this, Ms. Kennedy joined hands with two other like-minded women, Jean Moon, general manager of the Columbia Flier newspaper, and actress Prudence Barry, founder of the Actors’ Company in Howard County, to found the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society in 1974 with a $1,000 grant from the state arts council. They founded it in the basement of her home, which remained its headquarters for 30 years until she stepped down as its president in 2004.
“We had a shared love of literature,” said Ms. Moon, who now heads her own public relations firm. “This whole thing had been Ellen’s idea.”
During her time as president and chief executive officer of HoCoPoLitSo, as the society is popularly known, Ms. Kennedy brought to Columbia literary luminaries Saul Bellow, Edward Albee, Isaac Bashevis Singer, W.S. Merwin, Henry Taylor, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Stanley Kunitz, Derek Walcott, Allen Ginsberg and dozens more.
In addition with her work for the society, Ms. Kennedy also developed and produced for Maryland Public Television “The Writing Life,” a cable television series featuring conversations with the writers HoCoPolitSo brought to Columbia.
“She was so intelligent and had a perspective that was uncommon,” Ms. Moon said. “She always very much took a world view.”
Ms. Kennedy and her husband donated 1,500 of their books associated with the society’s guest artists to Howard Community College, which is known as the Kennedy Collection and housed in a reading room in the college’s library.
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