Category Archives: Books About Letters

The Art – and Artists – of Letter Writing

A gorgeous new book, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters, edited by Smithsonian curator of manuscripts Mary Savig, underscores not only the artistry of a well-penned letter but also the lasting impact of words shared via pen and paper. To read through the beautiful-produced book is to enter the worlds of different artists, joining them in those moments of their life captured in their correspondence.

Artists represented (no pun intended) in the book include Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Maxfield Parrish, Eero Saarinen, and Saul Sternberg.

One of my favorite letters in the collection is the ecstatic note penned by artist Grant Wood after learning that two of his paintings, including American Gothic, were to be included in a show at Chicago’s Art Institute:

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Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters is a book to savor and to share, and reading through it will certainly inspire the writing of letters (perhaps a great gift for college-bound students and/or their left-behind parents?). As I tried to demonstrate in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, the art of letter writing is not a lost art, nor is it a field left only to artists. Anyone can write a letter, and everyone should.

The Art of Love in Writing Letters

Barbara Newman’s fascinating book titled Making Love in the Twelfth Century: “Letters of Two Lovers” in Context was written for scholars and academics but will be cherished by anyone who loves a good love letter. The letters referenced in the title constitute the amazing discovery made at the closing of the twentieth century of the longest existing correspondence from the middle ages.15518

Making love in the twelfth century literally meant declaring love through words, and in the letters Newman translates, written between a “Man” and a “Woman”, plenty of love is made.  I went through this book madly underlining all the beautiful phrases and sentiments – “farewell, you who shine more brightly than the moon tonight and please me more than tomorrows sunrise” – and if  ever a case could be made for plagiarism, I would love to steal these declarations of love and send them off to find lodging in hearts open to love and joy, as well as to those needing the comport of company in the attendant emotions of confusion, distress, and longing.

There is much to learn in Newman’s book, not only from her translations of the letters and her accompanying notes but also from her fascinating essay Making Love in the Twelfth Century: An Essay in the History of Emotions (should be mandatory reading for all students of medieval and renaissance and modern social history) and her brilliant discourse on the possibility of renowned lovers Abelard and Heloise having penned not only those letters already attributed to the both of them, but also the “Letters of Two Lovers.”

Newman underscores that important thing is how the 116 surviving letters prove that the two lovers were “extraordinary people engaged in an extraordinary protect” – and we are grateful for Newman’s translations and explications of their extraordinariness.

Books About Letters

Seven Great Books About Letters

Unknown-1 Royko In Love: Mike’s Letters to Carol by Mike Royko, edited by David Royko – Yes, that Mike Roykop, tough and cynical newspaper columnist – it turns out he had a sweet and vulnerable heart as a young man in the Air Force and he wooed his high school love from afar through his wonderful letters, found by his son after his death and collected in this book.

Unknown-2 Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo by Maria Galilei – Yes, that Galileo – he was a great dad, sending his daughter (ensconced in a convent) needed food, books, letters, and she was grateful and loving in return.

Unknown-1Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto by Joan Reardon – This pair of friends sent more than 200 letters back and forth, writing frankly about sex, men, life, and, of course, food.

Unknown-284, Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff – A letter arrives a London bookstore, inquiring about secondhand books, setting off a correspondence that brought friendship, and then love, into the lives of two correspondents separated by an ocean but united by books.

Unknown-1 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins – The first detective novel, written in epistolary form, that tracks the loss of a gigantic yellow diamond of unearthly beauty and mysterious power. Love and death revolve around the magnificent diamond – and letters tell it all.

Unknown-1Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster – A young woman is sent off to college through the sponsorship of an anonymous benefactor – all he asks in return are regular letters from school. Funny, heart-warming, and unforgettable, this book was a favorite of mine when I was a child and was just as fun to re-read as an adult.

Unknown-1Lady Susan by Jane Austen – Lady Susan Vernon is beautiful, charming, but also self-serving and quite cruel – follow her machinations to marry off her daughter and find a new husband for herself, written entirely in letters back and forth between the various characters in little-known novel by Jane Austen.

Chicago, Here I Come!

Next week I will be traveling to Chicago for two book events. I will be reading from Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, and signing books on Tuesday July 15th at 7 pm at the Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue in Evanston.

On Wednesday July 16th at 7 pm, I will be reading from a different chapter and signing more books at The Book Cellar, 4736-38 North Lincoln Ave in Chicago.

Circa 1972
Circa 1972
I am excited to be going back to Chicago and will be visiting favorite spots, including The Art Institute, Gino’s East, and the Museum of Science and Industry, where I plan to stroll down Old Main Street and take a new photo on the old car – updating the one from circa 1972…
And here is 2014!
And here is 2014!

The Gentlest Art

In 1907, E.V. Lucas published a lovely collection of letters under the title, The Gentlest Art. Letter writing is the art referred to and the letters chosen by Lucas illustrate his point of gentility – and of beauty. letters

Lucas published a second collection of letters in 1907, cleverly titled The Second Post and explained by the epigram, “It’s all very well to talk of your Beethovens & Mozarts. Very good in their way, no doubt. But for the music that counts, give me the double knock.” An early variation of the postman always rings twice.

I found so many wonderful examples of letters in the two volumes put together by Lucas, including many written by James Russell Lowell, a favorite eighteenth century American poet of mine. I am especially charmed by the letter written by Lowell on his 70th birthday: th-1

“I have been forging over the reef of my seventieth birthday into the smooth water beyond without much damage to my keel…”

Proud to Be Member of Letter Writers Alliance

I was made an honorary member of the Letter Writers Alliance, a fabulous group that supports letter writing.  And loved my book, which is great: “This is one of the best books on letters and the love of letters that I have read in a while. It’s not just a dry listing or a facsimile. It really makes letters live. It’s a great book… Honestly, you should really just go buy one. It’s that good.

Check out the rest of the LWA review here, and peruse the site. You too can be a proud card-carrying, letter-writing member of the LWA.

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Letters: Recipe Shared with Julia Child

What do I have in common with Julia Child? Not the art of French cooking. I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. But Julia Child loved writing and receiving letters, and so do I. And in our love for letters, we both discovered an age-old recipe, and a recipe I can follow. A recipe for life.

Julia Child wrote her memoir, My Life in France, using the letters she’d written during her years there to illustrate how that time in her life had been. I wrote my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, to illustrate all the special, unique qualities of letters that make them such a wonderful mode of communication. Neither Julia’s memoir nor my book was intended to offer advice on how to live a good life but when letters are involved, the parallels start percolating. Because the qualities that define a good letter also define a good life (and for that matter, a good recipe).

I set off on a quest to define the special characteristics of letters when my oldest son set off for college and I realized I was not likely to get many letters for him. But I wanted a letter – so much. Why? Why are letters so important to me? The quest began, through history and across the collections of friends, libraries, historical archives, and digging deep into my own green trunk of saved letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is the story of that quest, and of what I discovered.

Once I started looking, I found letters everywhere, including in the memoir of Julia Child. Julia and her husband Paul were devoted letter writers to each other, and to their family and friends. Paul wrote long letters to his twin brother every week, and Julia wrote short but regular letters to the father she did not particularly get along with – except via mail.

The couple created a tradition of the annual Valentine Day’s letter, sent to all their friends and family. These self-produced cards are simply fabulous. I especially love the one of Julia and Paul naked in a bathtub, bubbles artfully arranged to protect privacy. The little caption above their heads, stating Wish You Were Here, is especially lovely and funny – did they really wish all their friends could join them in the tub? Probably not – but they allowed all friends in, via their card.

Letters create a bridge, between writer and reader, between one point in time and another. Not only do letters connect us to the people we love whom are a few hundred miles away – they can connect us to people we love who have passed away, and whom we will never see again. Letters can connect us to people we don’t know – I never met Julia Child but I feel as if we are friends, through her letters – and they can take us back even further, to centuries and places and people we never could have become acquainted with. But through their letters, they become very real, alive and dynamic.

In the centuries to come, anyone reading one of Paul’s letters to his twin brother, quoted at length in Julia’s memoir, will get a vivid sense of what is was like to live in Paris in the twentieth century:

“Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air! Thaaat’s Paris! What a lovely city! …. How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Hela! Dites-Donc! Bouillabasse!!”

In Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I celebrate the bridges built by letters. Bridges built with care and with time. Think about what it takes to write a letter. Think about, for that matter, what it takes to cook a meal. One of Julia’s overriding precepts in preparing recipes – her advice to all cooks – is that care be taken. The care to read the instructions, assemble the right ingredients, and then follow each step to the letter: as Julia says, “a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience…”

This same precept applies to letter writing, and to life. We should be attendant – faites attention! – pay attention – be aware and in the moment – of our lives. Care about what we do, work at what we do, find satisfaction in what we do.

At the end of My Life in France, Julia writes, “good French food is an art… nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushed through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…”

Again, the same in letters, and in life. If we are rushed, the results are terrible – scribbled and inane, burned or sour, too sweet or too gummy or too lumpy. But if we take time, even the most slender of notes or the most simple of meals or the most ordinary of moments can be exquisite, memorable, enlightening, comforting.

I am no good at following a recipe for a meal. I just can’t do it, in part because I am usually doing two or three or four things at the same time that I am cooking – and so I am not paying the necessary attention to get any but the simplest of preparations right.

But when it comes to writing a letter, I find it much easier to focus. I sit down and all my attention zeroes in on the person to whom I am writing a letter. When my son left for college, I thought what I wanted was a letter from him. But now I understand that the letters that I write to my son are what matters most of all. Because they are proof of my care and my attention and my love. A letter I write is the first step of the bridge; every letter brings me closer to him.

Care, Time, Bridge. Three qualities of letters. Not the only three qualities – there are more to discover in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (and more guidance on living and on writing letters). But if you start with these three qualities, taking care, spending time, and building bridges, you are well-placed to begin a wonderful journey.

In letters, in cooking, in love – in anything that we care about, take time for, and share, we find the ingredients to a good life.

It’s Out!

My book Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing is released today.  My first reading will take place on April 24th at the Westport Barnes & Noble, to be followed May 4th at the Westport Public Library. Hope you can join me!

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Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, your loving son.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride – what a good boy, to write to his mother so often- and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

Discovering Inspiration in a Trunk Full of Letters

Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

4lQbZ.jpg.gif

When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, <em>your loving son</em>.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride –  what a good boy, to write to his mother so often–  and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

The publication of my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, is now just one week away. The inspiration discovered over fifteen years ago has finally come to fruition. James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

Quiet Dell: Tragedy and Redemption

I loved Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. It is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying and unforgettable resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. Unknown-1

Phillips takes her time with this novel, allowing layers of the story to grow and deepen and bloom into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness – and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

Phillips’ novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle aged women he found through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs popular in the early 1900s. In his love letters to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. No one knows how many women Powers killed but he was a serial murder who acted out his murderous fantasies for years before being caught.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police and landed him in jail and on trial for his life, Phillips is wise enough to go easy on the revenge – she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment – but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: “The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf.”

The promise of spring, of cycles, of rebirth and renewal. Found in a Quiet Dell.