Marginalia: On Letters As An Art Form

This week, a new literary journal, The Letters Page, was launched in the UK, by the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The Editor, Jon McGregor, is also the writer-in-residence there and had been running a Tumblr for some time to gather reader responses. The Editorial Board includes such well-known writers as Colum McCann, Sarah Hall, Naomi Alderman, William Fiennes, Roddy Doyle, Maile Meloy and others. Their mission:

We’re interested in exploring what letter writing means to people — and has meant since writing was invented – in their literary cultures and their personal lives.

We’ll be publishing essays, memoir, fiction, travelogue, reportage, poetry, criticism, interviews… any creative form of writing, so long as it comes to us framed as a letter.

When I received my first issue in PDF form, I quickly printed it out to settle down and read the included letters — 10 in total, including the Editor’s. As I read each one, with the associated footnotes to explain either the background / context behind certain references in a letter or notes about the letter’s author, a kind of child-like happiness filled me. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf referring to letter-writing as the “humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”. And, how, a well-written letter (or, I admit, a letter-like email) has always made me feel closer to the person who wrote it, even when it is not intended for me and I don’t know the writer personally. In this, letters are different for me than that other intimate form of writing — the diary or journal. With the latter, you know that the writer was mostly writing for himself/herself — that it was a form of self-communication. With a letter, you know that the communication was meant for another — a specific reader — without whom the letter is not really a letter.

It also made me think about how letters had been a big part of my life till just a decade ago. Boarding school: writing to parents during term-time and to friends during the breaks. Away at University: writing to family and friends. Vacations: writing carefree on carefully-chosen postcards. And, while I don’t want to sound like a Luddite, because email and text messaging and social media have all helped me communicate more easily and efficiently than ever before, there’s just something about the long-hand letter — the various rituals involved both in the writing of it (the joys of stocking up on beautiful stationery and pens, as one example) and the receiving of it (the waiting in for the postman on his rounds — it was almost always men back then) — that just make it a more intimate and personal way of communicating than the ubiquitous digital forms.

During a certain teenage phase, when acute shyness rendered me wordless in front of certain people, I found it much easier to dash off the most eloquent (I like to think, at least) letter instead. Letters were my primary way to declare love to someone or to explain a book I’d read that had blown my mind. I once broke up with a boyfriend in a letter…. to his mother (long story for another time). One blue-gold English summer, I wrote rambling letters almost every single day to a boy I secretly wished would become mine (only to find, when the cooler autumn term brought him back, that I was more in love with his words than with him). And, a decade ago, on a muffled, snowy Midwestern afternoon, an old classmate’s letter, having been re-directed from various prior home addresses, finally cornered me to confide, bittersweetly, that my first love from high school had married my doppelgänger.

About a decade or so ago, a friend and I, separated by vast geographical boundaries decided to write letters long-hand to each other. It was an interesting experiment that lasted only a few months. I think we both enjoyed it because we wrote several Legal-sized pages at a time about anything and everything and, to be quite honest, tried to dazzle each other with our creativity and worldliness. Well-written words have always seduced me and these letters that I received did too. I remember the heady anticipation – rushing home from work on the days that I expected one. Then, reading it several times over of an evening, almost memorizing the bits I liked best. And, finally sitting down to respond a day or two later, nerves jangling at first, then the words flowing out like molten lava. It was just as well that we stopped, for they were becoming a dangerous addiction.

Still, the love for letters and letter-writing persists. These days, it is sated passively by reading the published letter collections of famous people. Listed below are some of the volumes on my shelves of letters read over the years. I don’t think any other form of writing will give us quite the same first-hand account of relationships described in intimately beautiful prose and enigmatic insider references meant only for the two between whom the letter exists.

[Note: I find that I own altogether too many letter collections, so, for this post, I’m sticking with some of my absolute favorite ones. We’ll return to the others by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce, Maxwell Perkins, etc., another time.]

1) Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf – Most of these are as stunning as her prose novels. As with her journals, Woolf used her letters as staging ground for her fiction.

I feel that, in the great age of the world, before this present puling generation had come along, you and I and that remarkable figure, Gwen Darwin, were all congenial spirits.

2) A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, 1932-1953 – Probably the most well-known literary love letters for their steamy passion, but, equally, their amazingly lucid prose.

I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon’s soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.

3) The Love Letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning – Some of the most genuine admiration and respect for each others’ poetry that I have come across. A love that endured till their deaths.

I was thinking the other day that certainly, and after all (or, rather, before all), I had loved you all my life unawares, that is, the idea of you. Women begin, for the most part (if ever so very little given to reverie) by meaning, in an aside to themselves, to love such and such an ideal, seen sometimes in a dream, and sometimes in a book, and forswearing their ancient faith as the years creep on.

4) The Element of Lavishness: Letters of William Maxwell and Sylvia Townsend Warner, 1938-1978 – 1300 letters over a 40-year-long friendship. How many of us are as lucky? And, on every single page, there is love, gratitude, respect – even as they discuss everything from literature to politics to neighborly gossip.

You have a way of putting praises that makes it hard for me to walk afterward. My feet have a tendency to not touch the ground. Listing a little to the right or left, I levitate, in danger of cracking with happiness. When one has been pleased one’s whole life as profoundly as I have been pleased by your work, one does terribly want to do a little pleasing in return. I mean I love you.

5) Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell – 30 years’ worth of delicious letters between two sensitive souls who, while their poetry could not be more different, inspired each other. It was an unconsummated love, as Bishop preferred women. Which, of course, didn’t prevent Lowell from almost proposing and then recounting the almost-proposal in one of his letters.

…. our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.

6) My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933 – 5000+ letters over 30+ years (although this volume is about 650 letters only). The rich, energizing, sensuous prose, the vibrant times they lived in (e.g. the World Wars and the creative artist surge across Europe and America) were all rich fodder for these two hungry minds that fed off each other. It was not an easy relationship, though, as each wanted more from the other than was possible.

Please leave your regrets — and all your sadness — and misery — If I had hugged all mine to my heart as you are doing I could not walk out the door and let the sun shine into me as it has — and I could not feel the stars touch the center of me as they do out there on the hills at night — or the silver of the sagebrush way off into the distance as well as nearby — seem to touch my lips and my cheek as it does —

7)  Transatlantic Love Affair: Letters to Nelson Algren – Another ill-fated love affair. Simone de Beauvoir fell for Algren when she first met him on a trip to the US in 1947. These letters span 20 years and 4 continents. She spared him no detail of her daily life and her honest, rich prose gives us a view into both her fertile, productive mind and her cosmopolitan world. For all her fierce feminist intelligence and Parisian chic, when it came to loving a man, she was just as unsure and emotional as the rest of us.

My own nice, wonderful, and beloved local youth, you made me cry once more, but these were sweet tears as everything which comes from you. I just sat in the airplane and began to read the book, and then I wished to see your handwriting, and I came to the first page, regretting not to have asked you to write anything on it, and there it was, the tender, loving and lovely lines you had written for me. So I put my forehead against the window and I cried, with the beautiful blue sea below me, and crying was sweet because it was love, your love and my love, our love. I love you. The taxi driver asked me: “Is he your husband?” “No,” I said. “Ah! A friend?” And he added with a very sympathetic voice: “He looked so sad!” I could not help to say: “We are very sad to part. Paris is so far.”

8) Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne – An epic romance, of course. Ill-fated again, as Keats died at 25. But, his talent, fueled by his muse, created such prodigious works that they still stand among the best in English literature.

So let me speak of your Beauty, though to my own endangering; if you could be so cruel to me as to try elsewhere its Power. You say you are afraid I shall think you do not love me – in saying this, you make me ache the more to be near you. I am at the diligent use of my faculties here; I do not pass a day without sprawling some blank verse or tagging some rhymes; and here I must confess, that (since I am on that subject) I love you the more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.

9) Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals – Mad, bad and dangerous to know, Lord Byron was a terrific letter-writer, whether writing to his wife or to his many mistresses. He was a rascal and a rogue and they all loved him for it. Some of the letters are so sly and funny now, because we know what really went on with his serial seductions of those poor, unsuspecting women.

If tears, which you saw & know I am not apt to shed, if the agitation in which I parted from you, agitation which you must have perceived through the whole of this most nervous nervous affair, did not commence till the moment of leaving you approached, if all that I have said & done, & am still but too ready to say & do, have not sufficiently proved what my real feelings are & must be ever towards you, my love, I have no other proof to offer.

10) Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh – A selection from Van Gogh’s vast collection of letters. You can read the entire lot annotated and online here. Or, just go for the entire 3-volume hard-bound collection like I did. I’ve written about Van Gogh before here.

We are nothing but links in a chain. Old Gauguin and I, at bottom, understand each other, and, if we are a bit mad, what of it? Aren’t we also thorough artists enough to contradict suspicions on that head by what we say with the brush? Perhaps, someday, everyone will have neurosis, St. Vitus’ Dance, or something else. And, does not the antidote exist? In Delacroix, in Berlioz, in Wagner. As for the artist madness of all of us, I maintain that our antidotes and consolations may, with a little goodwill, be considered as ample compensations.

11) 84, Charing Cross Road – Just the sweetest exchange of letters over some 20 years between Helene Hanff, a New York City writer, and Frank Doel, a London bookseller. If you’re a bibliophile like me, you will love this one and its sequel, The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street (where Hanff goes to London to meet her pen pal friends). It’s a platonic friendship, but deeper and closer than most other relationships, the geographical distance notwithstanding.

I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages someone long gone has called my attention to.)

12) The World’s Greatest Love Letters – And, if you’re now unsure which of the above to start with, try this slim volume of selected letters (although, I must warn you that not all of the above writers are included). Still, there are some gems from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn (such love, then, “off with her head”; surreal, no?), Abelard and Heloise, etc. And, a few witty ones, like this, from Laurence Sterne to Lady P.:

O my dear lady—what a dishclout of a soul hast thou made of me!—I think, by the bye, this is a little too familiar an introduction, for so unfamiliar a situation as I stand in with you—where heaven knows, I am kept at a distance—and despair of getting one inch nearer you, with all the steps and windings I can think of to recommend myself to you—Would not any man in his senses run diametrically from you—and as far as his legs would carry him, rather than thus causelessly, foolishly, and foolhardily expose himself afresh—and afresh, where his heart and his reason tells him he shall be sure to come off loser, if not totally undone?