Vol. 2 No. 6 2009

In Possession on Letters

An essay by Madeleine Mysko

In A.S. Byatt’s novel, Possession, the character Roland Michell—the young literary scholar—opens a packet of letters, hidden long ago by a Victorian poet, and makes a discovery:

Letters, Roland discovered, are a form of narrative that envisages no outcome, no closure. His time was a time of the dominance of narrative theories. Letters tell no story, because they do not know, from line to line, where they are going . . . [Letters] exclude not only the reader as co-writer, or predictor, or guesser, but they exclude the reader as reader; they are written, if they are true letters, for a reader.” (Possession, p. 145)

I’m only halfway through Possession and am taking my time getting to the end. It’s a beautifully written novel, but it requires the same level of attentiveness exacted by that packet of old letters Roland Michell was so thrilled to find hidden in the library. But Wwhat a pleasure to spend time in the rooms of Byatt’s elaborately constructed conceit—a sleight of hand that works only because the letters in the novel are not true letters, but narrative devices in a piece of fiction.

I wandered into Possession right around the time that I was coming to terms with a discovery of my own about reading collections of letters - —real ones. I’ve been pushing laboriously through Letters of Ted Hughes, edited ted hughesby Christopher Reid (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). I’ve been losing my way in that hefty collection, and also losing interest. Perhaps the fault is mine, through inattention. But it struck me that Byatt’s Roland Michell had put his finger on it: “Letters do not know, from line to line, where they are going.” It struck me too that, given these are the observations of a fictional character, there is a delicious dramatic irony in this stretch of dialogue, for the implied author of this novel knows very well where those letters are going: iIt is she who creates them, with care and concern as to where they are going, for they must serve as a narrative thread for the reader’s pleasure.

On the other hand, with real letters, if there is any narrative thread to be found, it is thanks to the attentions of the editor who, having found that thread, makes it visible in the selection and design of the entire collection. For this reason, the thoughtful reader of a collection of letters pays close attention to the editor’s introduction. In his introduction to Letters of Ted Hughes—which actually represents just a fraction of the letters Hughes wrote in his lifetime—Christopher Reid writes that he hopes “a compelling and satisfying narrative will emerge,” and that he feels the best mode of reading is “from start to finish.” But he makes it clear that his purpose as editor is not to hand the reader “a biography in disguise,” but is rather to arrange the letters so as to present Hughes the Writer, “from project to project, from book to book.”

Reid sets himself a difficult task in the case of Ted Hughes. Though Hughes is an important writer, such a thrust would have to be strong indeed to drag the ordinary reader from the undercurrent of curiosity churned up by mere mention of that tragic biography. Indeed, Reid’s own remarks about the biographical material caught up in the letters—“the episodes involving the suicides of Sylvia Plath [Hughes’s first wife] and Assia Wevill [Hughes’s second wife], and the death of Wevill’s daughter, Shura”—serve mostly to send all but the most high-minded of readers searching for the very letters written during those episodes.

I tried to read these collected letters from start to finish, seeking not merely biography but the true sense of Hughes the Writer—the sense that Reid hoped I’d find—but for me a “compelling narrative” just wasn’t emerging. Perhaps it is only the devoted reader of Ted Hughes’s vigorous literary output, the reader interested in discovering more about what occurred at the time of their creation—both in daily life and in Hughes’s mind—who can fully appreciate the “thrust” of this collection. That reader would likely be a scholar. That reader would not necessarily be reading from “start to finish.”

To these two on my desk—the weighty novel Possession (with its provocative plot that twists and turns about the discovered letters of fictional poets) and the weighty Letters of Ted Hughes (real letters written by a real poet, arranged about around his literary projects)—add a third: Letters from Black America, edited by Pamela Newkirkpamela newkirk (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009). Is it an exercise in the obvious to compare the editorial projects of Christopher Reid and Pamela Newkirk? Christopher Ried selects and arranges letters that span the life of one poet; Pamela Newkirk selects and arranges more than 200 letters written by numerous Black Americans as long ago as 1775 (Phillis Wheatley to General George Washington) and as recently as 2008 (Alice Walker to President-Elect Barack Obama). Still, beyond the obvious, Iit’s useful to compare the projects of these two editors with respect to their concerns for the reader. How has each approached the need for some sort of narrative thread? How does an editor go about making—out of hundreds of collected letters, whether written by one or written by many—a single book that can be read, as Reid proposes, “from start to finish” with pleasure?

In her admirably straightforward introduction, Pamela Newkirk acknowledges the “literary and historical void” one finds when searching for an African American epistolary tradition. She describes her own collection as pamela newkirk
an attempt to fill that void, “by presenting a multidimensional portrait of African American life from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century through illuminating letters of ordinary and exceptional "African Americans."

Newkirk’s narrative thread is indeed “multidimensional.” From start to finish she doesn’t run a single thread of “African American history” (earliest letter to latest), but rather weaves multiple threads by grouping letters according to the rich and various dimensions of African American life they best present. Thus the 1893 letter from the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar to his mother, Matilda Dunbar, is on page 11, right where one would expect it, within the first chapter, “Family.” But the 1895 letter from Paul Laurence Dunbar to the writer Alice Ruth Moore (his future wife) appears late in the book on page 269, within the chapter “Art and Culture,” where one would expect to find polite words of introduction from a man of letters to a woman of letters. Then there is the beautiful 1897 letter in which Dunbar writes to “Alice, My Darling”: “Someday when I can hold you in my arms and punctuate every sentence with a kiss and an embrace, I may be able to tell you how happy your letter has made me . . .” Of course, this letter appears in “Courtship and Romance” (page 66).

Newkirk’s solution in managing all those letters (written by all thosemany people across all thata considerable span of time) is the obvious one: Arrange them into chapters by topic. (In addition to the above-mentioned chapters, Newkirk employs “Politics and Social Justice,” “Education and the Art of Scholarship,” “War,” and “Across the Diaspora.”) A glance at my bookshelf confirms that another anthology of letters I own—800 Years of Women’s Letters, edited by Olga Kenyon—employs the same strategy with equal success.

The obvious having been stated, Iit’s useful to note further that arranging the letters in that way - —neither by continuous chronological thread nor by a succession of biographical threads, but by topic—does affect the reading experience. As the reader proceeds from first page to last through Letters from Black America, the experience is indeed that of multiple and richly woven dimensions of African American life—and what contributes to that richness in this collection especially is the weaving of the “ordinary and exceptional.” In “Family,” alongside the warm exchange back and forth between the exceptional Dunbar and his mother, is one letter from a relative unknown—the Missouri slave Ann Valentine, an ordinary woman writing to her husband Andrew who was serving in the military in St. Louis. Valentine apologizes that she has not written immediately: “I got no one until now to write for me.” She writes that she is treated badly. She writes of the cries of their child, of the need for more money. She closes with hope and affection: “Do the best you can and do not fret too much for me for it won’t be long before I will be free and then all we make will be ours.” Woven as they are of intimate exchanges between real people—the ordinary and the exceptional, the unknown and the famous - —the narrative threads bundling these letters by their various topics are like strong ribbons: The bundles are held together; the bundles are also beautiful.

Which returns me to the title of the novel, Possession. For the reader, the pleasure in reading letters is lodged partly in the very possession of sentences not intended for the reader at all, but for (as Roland Michel puts it) “a reader,” who has somehow lost—or given up—sole possession. Pamela Newkirk, in pointing to the hundreds of epistolary anthologies, says that reading a letter written to someone else satisfies our “voyeuristic yearning.”

But the pleasure is thus partly in the privilege, isn’t it? And how that privilege is enjoyed differs from reader to reader. Biographers, historians, and literary researchers examine the letter for details that inform or confirm or enlighten. Collectors hold the letter for its value on the market. Lovers of language and human discourse savor the letter, as letter—one more to savor in the epistolary tradition, one more to serve perhaps as an example of epistolary art (such as, for example, a Ted Hughes letter.)

This morning I took from my shelf Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: Letters, Selected and edited by Robert Giroux (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1994). It’s a fat volume, 639 pages. I opened at random to page 243:

While we were away, the cook took up painting—proving that art only flourishes in leisure time, I guess—and has turned out to be a really wonderful primitive, so we shall probably start peddling her on 57th St. & making our fortunes. We found a large rock painting she had done—a bird—using a big lichen as part of his body. We are afraid to comment too much for fear she’ll begin on the walls. Lota told her to please clean the garbage pail—she is half-savage and very dirty, although a fine cook—and ten minutes later we found it painted in violent reds and pinks and blacks. Lota has some pots that Portinari did for her and we have to admit the cook’s are much better.

Bishop wrote these sentences to her friend, Dr. Anny Baumann, on July 28, 1952. But oh, to sit at my desk and read about the cook and her art—a narrative so warm and colorful and witty that it’s easy to get caught up in it, easy to forget Bishop isn’t addressing me. It would appear that I have returned to this letter for the privilege of that possession, for I will take whatever comes my way from this dear poet, who died too young, whose Complete Poems is so modest in size. Never mind that she didn’t write directly to me. I’m grateful to Mr. Giroux, who collected these letters. I’m grateful to those who gave up sole possession.

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