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Summer Blogging: Life and Letters X

One of the great reading experience with letters is reading a correspondence.  What was the back and forth? How did the two personas that emerge in the letters interact?  There are famous correspondences such as The Adams-Jefferson Letters; the Complete Correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, a two volume work, or better still, a two volume conversation with history.  One on display in our Browsing Collection is Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder.  Letters long and short (they exchanged post cards as well as epistles), and they include a lot of writing about reading, a lot of writing about work.  Berry and Snyder are of course important literary figures in the modern American scene, but their orientation to the life of the mind and simultaneously to life working with one’s hands makes this a very immediate and available book.  A perfect book for summer–for a summer divided between the garden and the library.

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters IV

downloadThe late Frank Kermode was perhaps the most influential literary critic of his generation, and in 1995 he edited with Anita Kermode The Oxford Book of Letters.  It is one in the voluminous series of anthologies published by Oxford UP.  There’s an anthology for whatever time period or genre you’re interested in, including letters.  Only someone with Kermode’s taste and confidence could have even thought of compiling an anthology like this, although, because the letters were chosen for reasons of their individual quality–“[we] have tried to leave room for the less illustrious, whose performances as writers may well be confined to epistolary correspondence undertaken for reasons of business, friendship, or love–the reasons, after all, for which the vast majority of us exchange letters–and written quite without regard for qualities that might win the admiration of an uninvited posterity”–there is something of a feeling of jumble here.  There is a lot of fine writing, but there is also the feeling of being in an antique shop where the inventory was acquired without any overriding purpose.  No sense of place, no sense of commonality.  Which is not meant to discourage potential readers, but rather, to wonder a’loud about the role of a correspondence in the composition of letters…

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters VIII

Along with the letters of individuals, we have collections of letters by individuals grouped by who they are.  These collections represent cultures within societies, these collections represent people at various times in history.  Many of them are of particular note (we’ll highlight them this summer) including Letters from Prison: Voices of Women Murderers by Jennifer Furio.  The premise of the book is simple, Ms. Furio establishes an “epistolary relationship” with a number of women serving murder sentences.  She does not hide their crimes, but works letters these women wrote to her to emphasize the women’s “humanness.”  Who are they? Why?  Through the letter the women are able to render themselves for Ms. Furio to then represent.  This is a startling, important collection of letters.  We have many of these.

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters VII

veilQuestioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women by Marnia Lazreg  gives us the tradition of the open letter.  Even in this digital time, the “open letter” metaphor for a communication with an individual (or here, individuals) that is shared with a greater audience persists.  This is perhaps because of the concept of voice in a letter–each letter adopts the tone of voice in the interesting middle ground a letter holds between essay and conversation.  You want to let an audience in on something, write an open letter.  The perseverance of the metaphor bespeaks the intimate written in a letter, Lazreg’s book is a narrative of her experiences, and the praise for the book centers on her candor–something of course that can be achieved in a letter and makes letters fascinating.  While this books uses the “open letter” as a narrative device, it serves well as an illustration of letters in our collection.

Summer Blogging: Life and Letters VI

BIG BOOKS OF LETTERS…some of our collections of published letters are, well, leviathan.  Saul Bellow: Letters is 552 pages worth of letters (excluding index and acknowledgements).  Herzog is, in contrast, 341 pages.  Volume One of The Letters of Robert Frost is 773 pages of letters, Volume Two is apparently still in the offing (our copy has a book plate dedicated to Ladd L. Young of the class of 1944).  Volume IV of Henry James: Letters (four!) is 784 pages–I have no idea what the four volume total is, but there is another multi volume collection from the University of Nebraska Press.  The point here being that this is illustrative of the place letters took in some people’s lives, writing letters was a significant self-exploration within their existence.  Secondly if one wanted to immerse oneself in the life of a letter writer some summer, collections are available to accommodate.  On page 512 in Henry James’ letters he writes to Bernard Shaw, I do such things because I happen to be a man of imagination and taste, extremely interested in life, and because the imagination, thus, from the moment direction and motive play upon it from all sides, absolutely insists on and incurably leads a life of its own, for which just this vivacity itself is its warrant.  Lost for the summer, indeed, in the best possible way.

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.