Sunday, September 15, 2013

`The Best of the Letter'

In the nineteen-seventies I had a friend, a would-be poet who lived less than two hours away, with whom I exchanged long, hand-written letters, scratched out sometimes daily and always in a rabid fever about books. His tastes were pleasingly eclectic and overlapped with mine. We shared enthusiasm for an unlikely batch of writers – Sherwood Anderson, Robert Burton, Jules Renard, Konstantin Paustovsky, Cesare Pavese, Edward Dahlberg, Thomas Traherne, Italo Svevo, Henry Green and Sergey Aksakov, among others. We were college dropouts in our twenties and crazy about books, and didn’t live in the same city. But for the occasional telephone call, our only option in that pre-internet age was epistolary.  How long is it since any of us have written or received a dense, meaty, overheated letter, whether bookish, angry or romantic, and posted it via U.S. mail? I can’t remember either. Email has erased the urge and turned communication almost strictly utilitarian – or goofy, or obscene. Never again will scholars be able to collect letters comparable to those written by, say, Keats, George Santayana or Flannery O’Connor. Who keeps texts or tweets? Who would want to? 

Imagine being, like John Childs, a printer living in Bungay (shades of H.G. Wells), the recipient of a letter like the following from Charles Lamb, dated Sept. 15, 1834. According to Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd, one of Lamb’s friends, the essayist had received a letter from Childs, “whose copy of [Essays of] Elia had been sent on an Oriental voyage, and who, in order to replace it, applied to Mr. Lamb.” Lamb replies: 

“The volume which you seem to want is not to be had for love or money. I with difficulty procured a copy for myself. Yours is gone to enlighten the tawny Hindoos. What a supreme felicity to the author (only he is no traveller) on the Ganges or Hydaspes (Indian streams) to meet a smutty Gentoo ready to burst with laughing at the tale of Bo-Bo! for doubtless it hath been translated into all the dialects of the East. I grieve the less, that Europe should want it. I cannot gather from your letter whether you are aware that a second series of the Essays is published by Moxon, in Dover Street, Piccadilly, called The Last Essays of Elia, and, I am told, is not inferior to the former. Shall I order a copy for you? and will you accept it ? Shall I lend you, at the same time, my sole copy of the former volume (Oh! return it) for a month or two? In return, you shall favour me with the loan of one of those Norfolk-bred grunters that you laud so highly; I promise not to keep it above a day. What a funny name Bungay is! I never dreamt of a correspondent thence. I used to think of it as some Utopian town, or borough in Gotham land. I now believe in its existence, as part of Merry England! 

“[Here are some lines scratched out.] 

“The part I have scratched out is the best of the letter. Let me have your commands. 

“CH. LAMB, alias ELIA.” 

At this point, Childs disappears from literary history. We know he died at age seventy in 1853. The reference to the Indian rivers is from Book 3 of Paradise Lost, lines 435-436: “the Springs / Of Ganges or Hysdaspes, Indian streams.” The Hysdaspes is a river in the Punjab. “Gentoo” is an archaic term for “Hindoo” or “Hindu.” “Bo-Bo” is “a great lubberly boy” in Lamb’s “Dissertation Upon Roast Pork.” Childs lives, at least in memory, because Lamb replied to his question with a funny and charming letter. Lamb died three months later, on Dec. 27, 1834, at age fifty-nine.

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