How could I not pick this book up, a non-fiction tribute to the dying art of letter writing. A pastime that makes the young at heart feel like they have entered old age, because so few people do it any more, it has become old-fashioned!
I am a letter writer from so far back that I didn’t realise how early it began until reacquainting with people from the past via Facebook resulted in some reminding me of letters I had written when I was younger than 10-years-old.
I know I wrote letters when I was at boarding school (from 13), we all did, it was a matter of survival and a tactic to avoid that dreadful feeling at midday as we lined up the staircase waiting to retrieve our lunch to take outdoors, listening to the boarding school mistress read aloud the names of those who had received a letter today, and when your name wasn’t read out – inevitable really – it invoked a sense of disconnect, reminding you that you didn’t live at home, that you couldn’t just visit a friend, a neighbour, your family whenever you wanted, you had to wait for them to write a letter to be in contact. Four years of listening to names being read out is enough of a sentence to instill a habit of letter writing into anyone surely.
Nina Sankovitch has a more romantic view of letters and letter writing and the word joy in the title is a clue. She doesn’t speak of the suffering of not receiving letters, she speaks of the joys of connection.
She gives her son a table and pen and he pens his first postcard letter at thirteen months old, fast forward to the present when he is eighteen and off to Harvard, now she is hankering for more than the brief text messages, tweets and occasional telephone calls, this more disposable form of communication that dominate life today but do not endure. She wants a letter and that desire makes her wonder what it is about a letter that means so much.
Will she convince her son to write to her, the kind of letters she has appreciated herself? Whether she does or not, that desire and the discovery of an old trunk containing letters dating back to the 1800’s that she inherits when she and her husband buy a new house, the seller wanting nothing to do with an old rotting trunk or its contents, send her on a quest of her own through the history of letters and her own personal correspondence, to discover and celebrate what is special about the handwritten letter.
“There have been times when I have needed the reassurance that I am not floating out there alone in the universe, that I am tethered to people who will keep me secure. The letters offer that reassurance. Even if those people are gone, the bond endures through the tokens of connection we passed back and forth, the written manifestation of our relationship.”
The author lost her oldest sister to a fast and brutal bile duct cancer, she has photos and memories of the times they shared, but it is the letters, postcards and birthday cards that keep her most alive within, just as the hundreds of letters written by James Bernheimer Seligman that she inherited in that trunk, a young man she never knew, but came to know through his correspondence created in her imagination, a vision of a person that almost seemed real.
From the ancient Egyptians to the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise, from the letters received by President Lincoln after his son’s death to the correspondence of Edith Wharton and Henry James, Nina Sankovitch attempts to divine the allure of the letter. She takes us on journey through a stack of published letters that have been preserved and published, introducing those interested in letters and the epistolary form, to a long list of references that speak of great love, erotic fantasy, a mother’s love, a son’s last words from the front and much more.
I enjoyed the book and its introduction to some of the great literary correspondences, including the one found in her own backyard. I did find it overly sentimental in parts and despite the great introduction to those letter writers in history, there were too many examples of short encounters with little depth that had the effect of being easily forgotten.
It may have been better to highlight fewer, more memorable examples than some of the less engaging examples that pad out the book. On the other hand, readers have varied interests. I know I could easily have been swept away by a more in-depth discovery of fewer pairs of letter writers.
The relationship between Gertrude Stein, Alice B.Toklas and Samuel Steward (a poet and novelist I had never heard of) was one of the sets of correspondence that stood out for me. Steward wrote a letter to Gertrude Stein that was to become the beginning of a lifelong friendship, (interspersed with trips to Paris to see the two women), much of it conducted through letters and when Gertrude died he and Alice continued to write for another 20 years until her death.
Steward also wrote a journal, religiously writing notes every evening of all that had happened during the day, from which he penned his memoir Dear Sammy. A character in his own right, Steward left the world of academia to become a tattooist and pornographer remaining committed to the lifelong friendship he developed with Gertrude and Alice.
Ultimately, by referring to so many pairs of correspondence, we find something here for everyone, whether it hails from the present, our more recent history, or medieval characters like Heloise, the cloistered nun writing to her lover Abelard in the early 1100’s.
I have moved Madame De Sévigné’s Selected Letters to within reach and feel inspired to become acquainted with one of the world’s greatest correspondents, a prominent figure in French society and literary circles in the 17th century, her letters continuing to enchant readers 300 years after they were written.
And do I still write letters? Absolutely, I just wrote one last week to an Irish poet!
So when did you last write a letter?
A timely and nostalgic reference to a dying form of communication and literary art form.
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.