Thursday, March 19, 2015

On Letters and Posterity (#SOL 15, Day 19)

Love Letters (M.A. Reilly, 2012)

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.  - William Shakespeare


I'm not sure why we wrote one another--long letters handwritten, but we did across a year--letters hand delivered and sometimes left behind after departing for the other to find. This is how the courtship (if one even uses such language these days) began. I kept those letters in the bottom of a desk draw well after we married, and added to that file the handwritten notes signed with:

 All my love, All ways, Rob.


There's something about the handwritten letter that cannot be aptly substituted by email, tweet, text, or even the typed facsimile. Perhaps it's the press of the pen to the paper that makes it more deliberate, more intimate.

A few weeks ago, I read The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, which is an exchange of letters between Leslie Marmon Silko and James Wright. The letters were recommended by David Weksler (@dweksler) and surely I am the better for having read them (thanks David). For they are tender, wise, and honest. The two exchanged letters across 18 months, up until James Wright died. The letters chronicle their growing friendship, their writerly advice to one another, and their admiration for the other as person.  I find it interesting that they met only twice.  Once before they began exchanging letters and the last time was a few days before James Wright died in 1980.

As I read I was taken by Silko's description of her finances. I love her novel, Ceremony. She writes about the difficult financial times she is facing after Wright inquires in a manner that typifies so many of his letters--full of humor and concern.

He writes on October 20 1979,
Having said this much, however, I confess that I've been wondering about your present condition, the circumstances under which you are living and working, and your plans for the next year or few years. What I am talking about is probably (no, certainly) a violation of your privacy, a curiosity that is plain rudeness however one looks at it; and I hope very much, and somewhat perilously, that you won't be offended by my indelicate nosiness. This is all just a polite way of saying that I've been wondering how you're going to make a living in the absence of that job in New Mexico and in the process of your writing. Now my situation is different. I am a teacher by profession. I am a Ph.D. in English Literature, a Full Professor (don't you love the capitalization?) of English at Hunter College of the City University of New York. I have tenure; so it is unlikely that I will be fired unless I get so drunk I ignore my classes entirely or else perform an unnatural act with a badger in such a way as to obstruct rush-hour traffic: and I don't drink at all (a real teetotaler),  and I'm too old to badger...
Silko responds on November 5, 1979:

So although the finances are precarious, my writing is better when I don't teach. Ceremony paid fairly well while it was in hard cover, but in paper it brings about $1,700 per year...I decided to wait for Storyteller before applying for a Guggenheim again--anyway, I got too busy this year to bother with it -- but I will certainly do it next year.
     I seem to manage somehow so far, Jim.
     ...Anyway I have horses and old Navajo rugs to sell before I run out of typing paper (pp. 91-92).
I love the trust and chance each takes in revealing themselves to the other, and perhaps in doing so also allows each to name something about their own selves.


I'm fascinated  by letters of all types and so for a good portion of this day I have been  reading letters of an historical nature. Mary Stuart's letter to Henry III on the 8th of Feb. 1587 slays me. It's so commanding, courageous, and yet desperate in the very same breath--written a few hours before her execution.

This is a translated version from Shawn Unser's book, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.

I think of Mary's letter in light of another letter to The Times Charles Dickens wrote nearly two hundred years later. This too is chronicled in the Unser text. Dickens takes a stance against public execution. He recounts what he had witnessed the day before along with 30,000 other people.  (And we think ISIS is the lone group of barbarians?)

About 500 people were present at the beheading of Mary Stuart.


I think of these letters juxtaposed here and wonder if we are not more often what we write, than how we act. 

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