The Art of Letters
THE person who creates a great symphony, painting, poem, or novel is surely most truly himself or herself in that creation, which represents the best of its creator's capabilities: intelligence, intuition, passion, character, wisdom, craft, skill, imagination. Yet reading someone's journals or personal correspondence may give us a clearer picture of what the artist was "really like."
The editor of any collection of personal papers faces the question of how complete the collection can or should be. There is no such thing as a complete collection of letters. Even when editors believe they've tracked down every last missive written by their subject, other letters can always turn up. And what about the letters written to the subject, letters that in many cases provide the other half of a written conversation? For the ordinary reader, a judicious selection of letters can make the differen ce between a book that is avidly read and an unwieldy monster left on the shelf.
Ernest Samuels, who wrote a biography of Henry Adams and edited the enormous, but wonderful six-volume, 4,180-page collection of his "Complete Letters," has produced a scaled-down, 586-page edition, Henry Adams: Selected Letters (Belknap Press/Harvard University, illustrated, $29.95) that serves just this purpose. Samuels has chosen 240 letters from all stages of Adams's 60-year epistolary career (1858 to 1918) and he furnishes six biographical sketches of the author at successive stages of his developme nt from young apprentice to "benevolent" (if eccentric) old "sage."
Adams's mordant self-scrutiny is as striking in the private person as in the public man: "[N]o matter how little I may ask, I must always make more demand on you than you can gratify," the widowed Adams confessed to Elizabeth Cameron, the married object of his devotions, "... whatever I profess, I want more than I can have.... I am not old enough to be a tame cat; you are too old to accept me in any other character."
Now available from Princeton University Press are the first three volumes of the projected five-volume "Hyde Edition" of The Letters of Samuel Johnson ($29.95 per volume, illustrated). Edited by Bruce Redford, this promises to be the most complete and accurate scholarly edition of Johnson's letters to date, including letters previously unknown and portions of letters previously expurgated. But, while the editor's emphasis has been on providing an edition for scholars, there is much that will appeal to th e common reader, from the forthrightness of Johnson's opinions to the majestic undulations of his prose style.
Neither a literary stylist, a sage moralist, nor a ruminative philosopher, the 19th-century French realist painter Gustave Courbet deliberately cast himself in the role of an untutored provincial upstart. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu, editor and translator of Letters of Gustave Courbet (University of Chicago Press: 726 pp., illustrated, $55), argues that a careful perusal of his correspondence proves that Courbet was not the "illiterate" many believed him to be; that, indeed, he nurtured that image as a way of publicizing his art. "It is impossible to tell you all the insults my painting of this year has won me," the 32-year-old up-and-coming enfant terrible writes to his family in 1852, "but I don't care, for when I am no longer controversial I will no longer be important."
Comprising more than 600 letters, many never before published, this collection provides a lively portrait of the turbulent world of French politics - the 1848 revolution, the Second Empire, the Paris Commune - as seen through the eyes of a populist, anti-imperialist artist. Although the primary appeal here is to the scholar, a good chronology and an index of persons mentioned in the letters enable the more casual reader to follow the events described.
One must have some interest in poets, poetics, or politics to enjoy the stimulating and engaging letters written by the poet and translator Rolfe Humphries to a circle of friends and fellow writers that included poets Louise Bogan and Theodore Roethke, and the critic Edmund Wison. Poets, Poetics, and Politics: America's Literary Community Viewed from the Letters of Rolfe Humphries, 1910-1969, edited by Richard Gillman and Michael Paul Novak (University of Kansas Press: 352 pp., illustrated, $35), introdu ces readers to an American original: an erudite, yet down-to-earth man who was never shy about expressing his views. Young Humphries learned Latin at his father's knee, as Ruth Limmer's biographical essay informs us, and he grew up to become the acclaimed translator of Virgil's "Aeneid," Ovid's "Metamorphoses," and Lucretius's "The Way Things Are."
He was also an inspiring teacher and a dedicated poet in his own right. The letters selected for this collection reflect the many facets of his personality, whether he is offering technical poetic advice to Roethke, debating the merits of political commitment with Bogan, or standing his ground against the demand that he delete a reference to Ezra Pound's anti-Semitism from an introduction he's written to Pound's poems.
Humphries's reactions to his contemporaries pull no punches; note this comment informing his correspondent that he'd revised his low opinion of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" ever so slightly upward: "It ['The Waste Land'] is horrible, and not yea-saying, but it is not the welter of affected blather I first thought. It is insane, but not idiotic." Each section of the book is prefaced by one of Humphries's own poems, which helps give us a sense of his accomplishment.
Simone de Beauvoir's letters to Jean-Paul Sartre caused a great stir when they were published in France two years ago, and not without reason. This English-language edition, Letters to Sartre, translated and edited by Quinton Hoare (Arcade Publishing/Little, Brown: 531 pp., $24.95) is a selection of two-thirds of those letters, written from 1930 to 1963. They are, in more than one sense of the word, love letters, written by de Beauvoir to the man she loved most consistently over a lifetime, her lifelong lover, intellectual partner, and soul-mate, expressing her reiterated love for him while discoursing on her other amorous adventures, often with women whom she and Sartre shared in various complicated triangular relationships. Understandably, these real-life letters have provoked comparisons to the epistolary intrigues of the 18th-century novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." But, although the manipulative mixture of passion and rationalization is familiar, the aims of the modern-day pair are scarcely as malevo lent as Valmont's and Mme. de Merteuil's. From a literary standpoint, however, the latter-day letters are also less stylish.
The jazz-age romance of a happy but unlikely American couple, one a cynical "confirmed bachelor," the other a bright young flapper with literary talents, can be traced in Mencken and Sara: A Life in Letters, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (Doubleday/Anchor Books: 551 pp., illustrated, now in paperback, $15). We get to hear from both sides in this 12-year correspondence between the famed journalist H. L. Mencken and Sara Haardt, through seven years of courtship and five of a marriage cut short by her death. Sprightly, witty, yet tender and caring, these letters - accompanied by helpful annotations and a solid introduction - are a genuine delight to read.
Written in the dark years of 1939 to 1941, Letters from Prague, compiled by Raya Czerner Schapiro and Helga Czerner Weinberg (Academy Chicago, 218 pp., illustrated, $20) is a collection of family letters between the Czerner sisters' grandmother and uncle, still in Prague at the time of the Nazi takeover, and the girls' parents, who were fortunate enough to have escaped to America with the girls' baby brother. To cope with Nazi censorship, the family uses the code name "Tante Steffi" (Aunt Steffi) to refe r to their oppressors: "And Tante Steffi is exactly as difficult as at the time you left - not better, as predicted," Uncle Erwin writes in 1939.
We read first of the parents' difficult, but ultimately successful effort to bring their daughters to safety, then of the never-to-be-realized hopes for the rest of the family to be reunited. "[I]t is so hard for us here," writes the grandmother on receiving a food parcel from her children in America, "we think that when we taste the good taste of what you send, we see you in spirit among us - but don't be angry if I tell you not to spend so much money on us, you need it there." The grandmother and uncle
were to die in the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz as No. 796 and No. 539. This gathering of realistic, yet bravely optimistic letters filled with everyday news, family gossip, anxiety, and love is a poignant reminder of a world destroyed.