Sitting in on a letter-writing class

A reporter finds the missives of Joyce and Van Gogh rubbing off on the

Dear Reader,

"My dear little Butterfly," writes James Joyce in opening one of his many love letters to his wife, Nora.

It was not Joyce himself, gentle reader, but actually the course in which his letters are studied that piqued my interest. Have you never heard of a college creative-writing course entitled "The Art of Letter Writing?" I certainly had not. Who writes letters anymore? I wondered. And why teach about it in college? Why not just send an e-mail?

For answers to these and other curiosities, dear reader, I found myself week before last taking notes while seated atop a heavy wood table in a cozy room where poet Robert Frost once lectured to Amherst College students. I settled there because all the couches and soft chairs were occupied by 14 undergraduate students. They were rapt, debating with their professor whether Joyce's erotic letters to Nora are great literature in their own right - or mere pornography.

To some in the room (me included, I confess), it seemed a close call.

Either way, it's apparent that old-fashioned letter writing is holding on in Amherst, Mass., where I found these students consuming as their models the letters of Flaubert, Freud, Byron, Emily Dickinson, Kafka and James Baldwin. Believe it or not, this is one of the more popular creative-writing classes on this campus - though a quick Internet search shows nothing like it at other schools.

Lais Washington, a junior majoring in psychology, told me she likes grappling with the devices and styles of great authors and incorporating them into letters of her own, then sending them - each week - to real people. Grievance letters, travel letters, love letters, open letters. All kinds.

A copy of each missive goes to Leslie Katz, truly a woman of letters, who teaches the class. She grades not on content, but on the literary devices and forms used and how well they are executed.

Like many people we know today, Dr. Katz uses e-mail a lot - but that doesn't mean she has to like it. "E-mail is like writing memos and being on the phone a lot of the time," the assistant professor of English told me. She argued easily and well the value of letters in a world sputtering for deeper meaning in a rolling ocean of e-mail and voice mail.

"I do think the art of letter writing will evolve and change because of e-mail," she said. "It may soon feel artificial and old-fashioned to write a certain kind of letter. But I haven't been sufficiently converted to e-mail yet to imagine a letterless world. I still have a profound attachment to the three-dimensional."

To scholar Katz, her class, now in its third year, serves partly as an e-mail antidote by producing better writers and communicators. Her students heartily agree.

"I don't think I ever really appreciated letters as a literary form before," Ms. Washington told me. "After reading Kafka, Dickinson, and Bishop, I appreciate it the way I would a poem or a great piece of writing. There's something very personal in handwriting. You convey intimacy."

Another student I met, a junior named Sasha Quinton, said she finds e-mail impersonal. "A letter is something I keep and cherish, it's something that's of them versus from them, they've touched the paper and chosen the stationary to send to you."

And so it appears to have been with Joyce. The problem, of course, is that the Irish writer's letters to Nora in 1909 weave seamless, sinuous poetic prose with imagery that might make Larry Flynt blush. In class, students seemed a bit embarrassed, but they waded ahead with impressive intellectual detachment into analyzing the writing in those torrid letters.

"It's beautiful," one young woman remarked while discussing a read-aloud passage where Joyce calls Nora "my dark blue rain drenched flower." A sentence later, the tone was distinctly less flowery.

"I don't know if I take it as a touching, beautiful sentiment," a young man quickly countered. "Joyce just has to go through this to get to the other stuff in order to seduce her."

"Is there anything about this that feels writerly or literary?" Katz queried them.

A pause. Then the same young man offered: "I think you can write a love letter to someone without showing explicit carnal knowledge."

Joyce was "an extreme case," Katz explained. Selecting his letters was "pushing our way to the North Pole, the furthest point we could go to." It was also just one class. Van Gogh's letters to brother Theo had students trying in a letter to persuade someone to do something for them - or describe a visual object like a landscape. Other times they went on field trips to put themselves in the letter-writers' shoes: To Emily Dickinson's home a block away or to the local jail, to sit in a cell and feel what French writer Jean Genet must have felt when writing Ann Bloch from prison.

For David Breslin, a junior who sat through Joyce with his baseball cap on backward, the class renewed his interest in letter writing. "I understand now the personal quality - the feeling of ... having to think things out with the mind, pen, and paper. I found out it's nice to send letters - and even better to get them."

Well, that's what I saw on my recent trip. Just thought you might enjoy a peek at this class.

All the best.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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