I was fortunate to participate in a series of interviews on handwriting, graffiti, and letter writing for a radio show called To the Best of Our Knowledge. Stop by if you have time. It’s a great line up!
Archive for the ‘Historical Letters’ Category
Greetings ~ I know it’s been a while. I hope everyone’s summer is off to a good start. Before you read this you might want to do a quick brush up on the James Joyce erotic letter situation. Everyone good? Okay. . .
Reader Stephen from Ohio asked me the other day: “Now that it’s 2012 & the copyright has expired on the letters of James Joyce, what do you plan on doing with them?” I did say that in For the Love of Letters didn’t I? I said, “Copyright on all of James Joyce’s letters letters expires in 2012.” As it turns out, I was wrong.
If you take a look at the Cornell Copyright page, you’ll see that copyright law is very confusing. When I was writing my first book, I was under the impression that the James Joyce letters were “unpublished.” Although they were technically published in a book I thought because they weren’t meant to be published, like a novel, that they counted as unpublished works. (Unpublished works once entered the public domain 40 years after the author’s death—now they enter the public domain 70 years after the author’s death). That was the incorrect assumption.
A professor from Ohio State University wrote me in 2008 and pointed it out. He said:
“One small correction: these letters won’t enter the public domain in 2012. It is true that Joyce’s unpublished works enter the public domain then, but that means works that remain unpublished then. The published letters are just that – published – and they take on a copyright term of 95 years from date of publication – that is, for letters first published in the Selected Letters (are you prepared for this?) January 1, 2071.”
The painful irony is that if the James Joyce’s erotic letters had never been published then they’d be in the public domain by now. But if they had never been published we may not have known about them. Well, a terrible accident notwithstanding, I plan to be alive in 2071. Stephen Joyce will probably not make it until then.
Reader Jim living in Hong Kong sent me a Washington Post article over the weekend. It was written in August 1985, and the author laments the loss of letter writing compared to the phone call. In August 1985 I was a month shy of my sixth birthday, and it was at least ten years before the Internet came to town. I guess we’ve been scared the letter is going away for a long time, and it has yet to finally go away. Here’s the write up: Letters: Treasures No Call Can Equal. Here are some eloquent points the writer makes:
“On the telephone you talk; in a letter you tell. There is a pace to letter writing and reading that doesn`t come from the telephone company but from our own inner rhythm.”
“There is leisure and emotional luxury in letter-writing. There are no obvious silences to fill anxiously. There are no interruptions to brook. There are no nuances and tones of voice to distract. A letter doesn`t take us by surprise in the middle of dinner, or intrude when we are with other people or ambush us in the midst of other thoughts. It waits. There is a private space for thinking between the give and the take.”
Next, I’m featured on the Crane & Co. blog today.
Finally, we had a visitor here on Valentine’s Day, and I’d like to call your attention to her beautiful blog: Oh Write Me!
The folks at The Alliance of Pentaphilic Curators in Chicago were happy with my eulogy, but they asked me to add a few more juicy examples of letters. Who can blame them? I found some fun ones and had to share. Admittedly, I wanted to turn it around quickly so I headed over to Letters of Note for all the material. And with this project we prove that the intrigue of letter writing will never die!
Below: The first paragraph is in the original, the other two are additional:
Addendum to the Eulogy
Many an important moment has taken place on the precious pages of the letter. In October 1793, Marie Antoinette used the letter to say her final goodbye to her sister in law, hours before going to the guillotine. A March 1827 letter captured 17-year-old Edgar Allan Poe’s teenaged angst as he told his foster father he was leaving the house and never coming back. On March 12, 1901, Andrew Carnegie wrote a generous letter to J.S. Billings and announced that he would be happy to finance the building of sixty-five branches of the New York Public Library—costing $5.2 million total, which Andrew had, of course, in cash. In December 1909, James Joyce wrote a series of letters to his wife Nora in which he described, in great detail, his fondness for her flatulence. So you see, no topic is off limits.
A December 1945 missive saw Ernest Hemingway at his most forthright. He wrote to Ezra Pound’s lawyer, declaring that “He has not been normal mentally for at least the past ten years.” On January 20th 1961, while President Kennedy was giving his inauguration speech, Jack Kerouac was writing to Timothy Leary describing his recent mushroom trip. He said, “Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods.” At the end of the decade, on February 27th 1969, 20-year-old Andy Kaufman wrote a fan letter to Elvis. He stated plainly and truthfully that, “You are Elvis Presley. I am Andy Kaufman.”
A few years later, in April 1974, author E. B. White wrote to the children of Troy, Michigan, at the behest of its librarian, and told them how wonderful books can be. He said, “Books hold most of the secrets of the world, most of the thoughts that men and women have had. And when you are reading a book, you and the author are alone together—just the two of you.” The same is true of letters! In 1996, 13-year-old Sarah found herself alone with Director Quentin Tarantino. He responded to her fan mail with praise, “Thank you for your very lovely letter. It’s the best letter I’ve gotten all year long. It’s cool to hear a girl into horror flicks.”
If you recall, I was asked to write a Eulogy for the letter, and I have done so! This will be read (by someone other than me) on Sunday at the funeral for the letter. Of course, we don’t really believe she’s gone. But! This project was so fun and creative I couldn’t say no. Reader Mike put it perfectly when he quipped, “Stealing from Mark Twain –
‘The news of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’
Eulogy for the Letter
By Samara O’Shea
Good afternoon, we are gathered here today to say goodbye to our good friend, the missive. Also known as the epistle, also known as the note, but most commonly known as the letter. Her age will remain a mystery to us all, and her influence is immeasurable. The work she did spanned centuries and affected the lives of Kings, Queens, Emperors, Presidents, prominent business men, fashionable women, as well as we, the common folk, who simply had a message to send.
Throughout history, the sweet and savory letter was our once only means of communicating over long distances. She made her way across deep oceans and vast countryside. She carried words of love, of gossip, of ridicule, of sadness, of death, and of danger. You name the emotion, and I promise that at one point the letter held it on her light yet profound pages. Whether your message was dire and urgent or simple and mundane, the letter let you confess anything and everything you had to say. She did not judge. Those who received the letter may have judged, but she did not. She acted as the quiet messenger—kindly and openly receiving the thoughts of her creator. As Lord Byron once said of her, “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.” Yes, one could sit all alone in a room, while having an uninterrupted conversation on paper with a lover, business partner, or even a stranger.
One of the letter’s most extraordinary characteristics is her ability to effect the reader again and again. If I were to eagerly unfold a letter from my lover—anxious to read his tender, reassuring words—only to find him confessing that he no longer feels the same and he doesn’t wish to see me any more, then my heart would surely fall to the floor and smash into one-hundred pieces like a vulnerable vase. And if I were to read the same letter five years later, I might laugh and think “Oh. I completely forgot about that guy.” If I were to read the same letter twenty years later then I might smile—remembering fondly my young love and how I thought I’d never survive this broken heart. Perhaps someday my 13-year-old granddaughter might read the same letter. She might find it in a dusty box in my attic and she might feel a new connection with me—one she never thought possible. She’ll now know that I was once young and I, too, know what a broken heart feels like. This has been the cache of the letter all along. It never gets old, because the eyes that read it are always new.
Many an important moment has taken place through the letter. In October 1793, Marie Antoinette used the letter to say her final goodbye to her sister in law, hours before going to the guillotine. In March 1827, 17-year-old Edgar Allan Poe wrote his foster father a vicious letter saying he was leaving the house and never coming back. On March 12, 1901, Andrew Carnegie wrote a letter to J.S. Billings and declared that he would be happy to finance the building of sixty-five branches of the New York Public Library—costing $5.2 million total. In December 1909, James Joyce wrote a series of letters to his wife Nora in which he described, in great detail, his fondness for her flatulence. So you see, no topic is off limits.
And now, at least 100 years later, we have all of these letters in print to read and learn from. We can’t say the same for text messages. Or tweets. Or IMs. Sure, e-mail can be
preserved, but who goes to the trouble of preserving it? And so, we may bury the letter today, but I have a feeling we’ll dig her up again a few years from now, when we realize there’s nothing quite like her, and that quick communication does not always mean genuine communication. But that has yet to be seen, and it seems at the moment that people prefer the instantaneousness of it all. So today we say goodbye to our friend the letter. Our confidant. Our messenger. Our form of expression in both good times and bad. Goodbye sweet epistle. You have literally made us laugh and cry. So long, Farewell, Sincerely, Cordially, Affectionately, With highest regards, All our best, Be well, Parting is such sweet sorrow.
My apologies for being mum the second half of this week. Time got away from me! For now, I’ll alert you to the new book featuring the letters of Julia Child and her friend Avis DeVoto: As Always, Julia (A great gift for the foodie or letter lover in your life). Have a wonderful weekend. I hope to return in full next week.
From Publisher’s Weekly:
“Culinary historian Reardon’s collection of the correspondence between Child and her pen pal, Avis DeVoto (portrayed in the film Julie & Julia by Deborah Rush), bubbles over with intimate insights into their friendship. In 1952, Child was living in Paris when she wrote to Cambridge, Mass., historian Bernard DeVoto after reading his Harper’s article about knives. Her letter was answered by his wife, Avis, who soon became her confidante, sounding board, and enthusiastic fellow cook. The two met finally met in person two years later. As a part of the publishing community, Avis (who died in 1989) was responsible for securing the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, steering the book first to Houghton Mifflin and then to its eventual home at Knopf. Their letters span a wide range of topics, from cookbooks, menus, recipes, and restaurants to Balzac, sex, goose stuffing, gardening, learning languages, the political climate, Sunday afternoon cocktail parties, and proofreading. Witty, enlightening and entertaining, these letters serve as a compelling companion volume to Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”