Tuesday, December 29, 2009

In Praise of Letters

"We must make a religion of that last thing - endurance," Tennessee Williams wrote in a letter to his friend, Joseph Hazan. "Read the collected letters of D.H. Lawrence, the journal and letters of Katherine Mansfield, of Vincent van Gogh. How bitterly and relentlessly they fought their way through! Sensitive beyond endurance and yet enduring! . . . . They live, they aren't dead. That is the one ineluctable gift of the artist, to project himself beyond time and space through grasp and communion with eternal values. Even this may be a relative good, a makeshift. Canvas fades, languages are forgotten. But isn't there beauty in the fact of their passion, so much of which is replete with the purest compassion?"

The above is from The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams: Volume 1, which I was surprised and delighted to find on the library shelves. The book hadn't been checked out in two or three years, and so I feared it was missing. But there it was! I was grateful, but also slightly appalled on Tennessee's behalf that no one had checked out his letters in the last few years. This is a writer so fine that even his letters shimmer with poetry and light.

But how many of us seek out letters? I confess it's a format I sometimes overlook, in spite of my devotion to The Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which I was ridiculously pleased to learn was also a favorite of Tennessee Williams. Although I've read one of the Williams biographies, I didn't know--or had forgotten--that he was interested in van Gogh, and had even planned to write a play about him. But that's one of the pleasures of letters--intimate documents that illuminate the inner workings and passions of your heroes and others.

If you're a fan of van Gogh, check out The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. He was a gifted writer as well as a voracious reader, and after urging his brother to read Jane Eyre, writes: "I wish all people had what I am gradually beginning to acquire: the power to read a book in a short time without difficulty, and to keep a strong impression of it. In reading books, as in looking at pictures, one must admire what is beautiful with assurance--without doubt, without hesitation."

If you enjoy the letters of writers, check out The Habit of Being: Letters by Flannery O'Connor, whose dark sense of humor is evident throughout. Of her advance copies of her novel, Wise Blood, she wrote: "My nine copies have to go to a set of relatives who are waiting anxiously to condemn the book until they get a free copy."

Other collections of letters available at the library include those of Mozart, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Truman Capote, Mark Twain and Jane Goodall.

Do you have a favorite collection of letters that you'd like to recommend? Here's your chance!

1 comment:

Karen said...

As a college freshman writing a term paper on Mozart, I obtained through the magic of Interlibrary Loan a collection of the letters of Mozart and most of his immediate family. The book itself was delightful - so old it came wrapped in all kinds of protective coverings with a severe notice that I was not to take it out of the college library by any means. The individual pages were thin as tissue paper with the tiniest print. But the letters themselves were the best part, giving human voice and scale to a larger-than-life musical genius from the unreachable past. The family squabbles, nicknames, jokes in questionable taste, tales of far-flung journeys and musical triumphs in opera halls and palaces - an amazing story but all the more so coming directly from the source and those closest to him. The letters have since been reprinted many times so they are easy to obtain and enjoy, without any threatening library instructions. :)

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