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Summer Blogging V: Life and Letters


In his essay “Writers & Artists” (which appears in his 1989 book Just Looking: Essays on Art) John Updike writes about the “graphic beauty of old manuscripts,” and lucidly describes the visual experience of the handwritten document by Pope or Boswell, Max Beerbohm or Evelyn Waugh.  He concludes the essay with, “Small wonder that writers, so many of them, have drawn or painted: the tools are allied, the impulse is one.”  Looking at Rockwell Kent letters is a visual tease about how his cursive speaks to his art.  Is there a secret? Does his penmanship open up a ground floor window on the artist?

It is a precise hand, but the low slung letters are, to me, somewhat incongruous with the dramatic definition within his drawing.  The letters appear quickly written–as if composed all with the fingers and not with the wrist.  They are in ink, and there is just a hint of a stroke to the letters, though I don’t know what kind of pen Kent wrote with.  As the arbiter of the letters for this blog post I don’t see the art here, though the first lines of the letters used as titles in the digital archive reveal the man: mood and relief translated by correspondence.  The experience of reading handwritten letters in a library is an experience with art, this is one secret of letters, even as with Rockwell Kent’s letters, when they look at a glance very much alike.  Each one is unique, each one is its own pen stroke.

Summer Blogging: Letters and Life IV

kent_mobyOne of our important holdings within our Special Collections is our Rockwell Kent collection, which is detailed here (along with digital representation).  There will be a more detailed appreciation of Kent’s letters in a post soon, but along with acknowledging this collection this summer of blogging about letters, lets ask the question, why are letters collectible?  We have literally hundreds of published collections of letters, but as I’m fond of quipping, “We’ve yet to buy anyone’s collection e-mails.”  It’s not just that letters are a paper-based genre; a letter is a window on the soul precisely because the writer is getting out, but, at the same time, doesn’t expect any help with their escape.  This comes from the time a letter opens up, that is, the time needed for a reply.  What makes a letter a unique literary form, at least in part, is that a personal letter is an essay written in the tone of a conversation.  It is a confession, but one with all the component parts of an essay.  One of the most approachable literary forms, it is also, like cursive through which a letter might be made, polished.  This is one reason, anyway of why libraries are collectible and Kent’s correspondence will give us a good place to start in on the other reasons…

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters III

In the stacks yesterday and I come upon The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, in two volumes, Charles Scribners and Sons, 1909.  The editor Roger Ingpen credits Mary Shelley in his introduction with being the savior of Percy’s letters, there is an illustration of him as a boy for a front piece.  Dark blue leather bindings, with gold letters on the spines, Volume One has a book plate suggesting it was shelved in Herring Cole, a crossed out Dewey Decimal number, and if the dates on inside of the back cover are accurate, the book was first checked out in 1952, and last checked out in 1970.  An old book of letters is a lot like a June afternoon that is lovely and still  and right here, it’s in reach.

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters II

hensherIf you’re going to have letters, you’re going to have handwriting.  If you’re going to have letters, you’re going to have cursive.  On that topic there is The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher,  a book inspired when Hensher “realized that I had no idea what the handwriting of a good friend of mine looked like,” and written “at a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether.”  The book is part reflection, part history of penmanship instruction, part plea with fate that handwriting not simply evolve into nothing.  This is not a rant–Hensher is a witty and lucid writer and ultimately his point is that handwriting “involves us in a relationship with the written word which is sensuous, immediate and individual.  It opens our personality out to the world, and gives us a means of reading other people.” It’s part of the case about why handwriting is a sufficiently different experience from texting or e-mail worth serious contemplation.

This certainly is a title that should be part of a “serious read” about letters…

Summer Blogging: Letters & Life

Meant to get this going earlier in June, rather like a letter written and not yet mailed, but for this summer I’m going to blog about letters in the collections of the SLU Libraries.  Published one way or another.  This was inspired by this piece on National Public Radio on 400 waxed Roman writing tablets found during an excavation in London.  These are believed to be the oldest handwritten documents on record, found in Great Britain.  The piece details what has been recovered: All the tablets were originally coated in black beeswax, on which messages were written. The wax has long since been lost — but the stylus that was used to mark the tablet sometimes cut down into the wood, leaving marks behind. Think of how a pad of paper can retain the imprint of a message from a page that’s been torn away. There is a just enough left to be read, there is just enough to have written evidence of daily life on the “wild west frontier of the Roman Empire.”

So what these Romans thought of as a disposable (doubtless) way of doing business becomes a centuries permanent record of doing business–but that’s the paradox of letter writing: the occasional document that singularly chronicles the moment it’s written.  Given the prominence and ubiquity of digital tablets (such as the one upon which I’m written) it strikes me that this is the major loss in the decline of letter writing.  People who would never self identify as writers wrote voluminous letters, this medium that was a combination of conversation and essay (in ways digital transmission are simply not) when it was a commonplace was autobiography for everybody…the letter was a literary genre like an other but also uniquely approachable simply because most folks accepted it as a necessity and thus never had second thoughts about writing them.

So this summer I’ll be blogging about letters in the SLU Libraries collections, published every way our civilization has to publish (meaning this side of wax tablets).  It’s a way to explore both the SLU Library Collections and letters.  When was the last time you wrote a letter?  When was the last time you read someone’s letters?  Join us, write someone a letter.

Being Offline

Public Services Librarian Paul Doty will be speaking at the 2nd Annual North Country SLSA Conference, in Lake Placid, New York, on May 23rd. The topic of the talk is about the what and the when students at university are expected to be offline.  That is, when can they expect to have to put down the iPhone for pen and paper or perhaps, even, solitary recall.  For the presentation Paul has prepared a reading list that seemed sufficiently “news worthy” on the topic of technology and learning that this seemed like a good place to publish it.  To preserve a proper (crisp! crisp, I say!) MLA format it’s on a pdf that without further ado, is right here.  Enjoy, let Paul (pdoty@stlawu.edu) know what you think…




FODYLL Mentley Awards

This year the Friends of Owen D. Young and Launders Libraries (FODYLL) will be awarding three prizes for undergraduate student research, which honors Jo Mentley, a former reference librarian who dedicated 27 years to training St. Lawrence students for a lifetime of learning.

The FODYLL North Country Studies Award in the Arts and Humanities

To be considered for this prize, student work must fit the following criteria:

  • Work must focus on topics, issues or concerns having to do with Northern New York or with St. Lawrence University history;
  • Students must make use of library resources;
  • Work must be in the fields within the Arts & Humanities.

The FODYLL North Country Studies Award in the Social Sciences

To be considered for this prize, student work must fit the following criteria:

  • Work must focus on topics, issues or concerns having to do with Northern New York or with St. Lawrence University history;
  • Students must make use of Library resources;
  • Work must be in fields within the Social Sciences.

The FODYLL North Country Studies Award in the Sciences

To be considered for this prize, student work must fit the following criteria:

  • Work must focus on topics, issues or concerns having to do with Northern New York or with St. Lawrence University history;
  • Students must make use of Library resources;
  • Work must be in fields within the Sciences.

All three competitions are open to all currently enrolled undergraduate SLU students for academic work completed between June 1, 2015 and May 13, 2016.  Projects may be traditional research papers, online projects, fiction, poetry, or multimedia works – as long as they meet the criteria for each category.  Students are invited to submit their entries electronically (preferred) or by paper copy along with any supporting media or documentation integral to the project.  If the project involves an oral presentation, students may make arrangements to present the project in person by contacting Theresa O’Reilly by phone:  229-5454, or by email at toreilly@stlawu.edu.

Winners may be asked to complete a Digital Repository Submission Form, which will place their paper in the St. Lawrence Digital Repository.

DEADLINE:  Entries must be received by Theresa O’Reilly, ODY Library, Room 135, on or before: 1:00 p.m. on Friday, May 13th


Baseball Reading Lists

Back when I was also blogging Odyssey Online, a blog for the libraries, I compiled a couple of reading lists about books on baseball here at the ODY “Field of Dreams.”  While it’s a busy time this “late innings” moment in the semester, the sum total of these lists is here:

The last title is a Library of America edition edited by Ian Frazier–Lardner is the author of the short story “You Know Me Al,” and one of the great baseball writers of the early twentieth century.  If you don’t know Ring Lardner’s work there is an imperative read for at least one summer day.


Merle Haggard, RIP

Merle Haggard died yesterday (see the NPR obituary here).  In honor of his memory, a sampling of titles in our collection on country music:

And of course, Haggard’s two autobiographies:

Jim Harrison and the UP

harrison…one more on Jim Harrison.  If you google “Jim Harrison” you find that tributes to the man and his work are flowing and tumbling with the volume and enthusiasm of a spring run off stream, today features one in the Ann Arbor Michigan daily that remembers him in a context of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.   The UP is an important part of Harrison’s writing, both for its remoteness but also for the environmental history living and evident on the south shore of Lake Superior.  Similar in many ways to St. Lawrence County, and for anyone who has spent time wandering in St. Lawrence County meadows and forests aware of the vacant farms and hollowed out towns, the UP of Jim Harrison will be vivid indeed.  Harrison the nature writer is a good primer for a St. Lawrence County saunter, for a mindset to notice the motley and unique hill and dale here…