Monday, August 18, 2014

`The Still-Existing Part of Life'

In her introduction to The Norton Book of Friendship (1991), Eudora Welty explains why readers find insight and charm in personal letters and, by implication, such extra-literary works of literature as diaries, marginalia and commonplace books: 

All letters, old and new, are the still-existing part of a life.  To come upon a personal truth of a human being however little known, and now gone forever, is in some way to admit him to our friendship. What we've been told need not be momentous, but it can be as good as receiving the darting glance from some very bright eye, still mischievous and mischief-making, arriving from fifty or a hundred years ago.” 

It’s the human spark. We slip complacently into the conceit that literature is a mausoleum, not evidence of life on the page. Letters remind us that every text started as a throb in someone’s consciousness – a whim, a gripe, a connection. It’s heretical in some quarters, but I would gladly sacrifice Keats’ poems if that were the only way I could hold on to his letters. The same is true for William Cowper and even Flannery O’Connor, whose letters I turn to more often than her fiction. It’s more complicated with the other great letter-writer in English, Charles Lamb, whose letters and essays merge on the page and in memory, often one a rehearsal for the other. 

In the case of Marianne Moore, her letters are often dry and formal affairs, without the elegance, wit and half-concealed revelations of her best poems. Only rarely does she flash in her correspondence. Edward McKnight Kauffer was an artist and designer who befriended both Moore and Welty. He seems to have been chronically depressed, feeling unappreciated for his art while well-paid for his advertising work. He died in 1954 of alcoholism at age sixty-four. Two years earlier, Moore gave him a pep talk in a letter, and it’s a magnificent gesture of compassion and a fine piece of writing:
“To speak is to blunder but I venture, for I know the bewilderment one experiences in being misapprehended. We must face it, as you said. When we do well – that is to say, you – in designs of yours which are standard – the Ethyl horse-power, the Gilbey’s port, the Devon downs, the girl in the helmet with the star and effect of velvet darkness, the tall hat on the Victorian table, the door with the keyhole made dramatic, -- there is a flash of splendour apart from the pretext; and when a thing snares the imagination, it is because of a secret excitement which contributes something private – an incontrovertible to admire afresh at each sight, like the bloom and tones of a grape or the glitter of Orion as one emerges into the dark from the ordinariness of lamplight.” 

It seems not to have worked on Kauffer but I feel better just reading it, for its form and sentiment. As William Maxwell says at the close of a letter he wrote to Welty in 1954 (What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, 2011): “Well it’s wonderful to be alive. Wonderful to be a writer. Wonderful to grow roses. Wonderful to care. Isn’t it?” 

[In 2012, Ronald Sharp, co-editor with Welty of The Norton Book of Friendship, published in The Georgia Review a remembrance of working with her on the anthology. He points out that they included “Ithaka” (Da Vinci’s Bicycle, 1979) by their mutual friend, Guy Davenport. The story, Sharp says, “was one of the initial suggestions Eudora had when I first talked to her on the phone that day. (She loved telling the story about how she and Guy had gone off to the movies together to see the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine when she was giving a reading at the University of Kentucky. They both loved it.)”]

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