Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Gathering
Other People's Collected Letters

In my library, there is a library table in the design of a book.  And on this library table are two rows —and counting—of books of other people's collected letters:  from Charles Lamb's letters on the far left, to Michelangelo's letters on the far right.

And in the middle of my library table are the letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Queen Victoria, John Steinback,  Louisa May Alcott, Alexander Woolcott, Charles Darwin,  Joyce Kilmer, Robert Southey, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to name a few.

And on my library shelves, in my Mary Hyde collection, are still more volumes of other people's collected letters—books which once stood tall on the bookshelves of the Four Oaks Library:

To me,  reading other people's letters is like being a fly on the wall who peers over the shoulders of authors as they share their thoughts on paper with friends and acquaintances.

Here is a gathering of ten other people's letters that you may enjoy reading:

Frate Jacopo—As I have to have certain things painted here, or rather to paint them, I have occasion to inform you of the fact, as I need a certain amount of fine quality azure, and if you have some you could provide me with immediately, it would be a great convenience to me.  So arrange to send to your brethren here as much of the fine quality as you have available and I promise to take it at the just price.  And before I collect the azure I'll have the money paid to you, either there or in Florence, whichever you prefer.
    On the thirteenth day of May [1508].

Sir Thomas Bodley's letter detailing the building of what is now known as Duke Humfrey's Library:


Sir, Mr Principal Hawley, hath sent me some part, of your Cambridge collections :  which were worthy the copieng, for their age and antiquitie :  though they giue but little light, for any point that was in doubt, about the builders and building of our third erected Librarie.  Howbeit it should appeere, by Mr Principals letter, that yow have better stuffe behind, to cleere many doubts, that may concerne that whole foundation.  This makes me long for your returne, though I would not yow should hasten, to leaue any thing vnobserued, that is there to be had of any worthe, ether touching our foundations, or the order, and statutes, and regiment of their Libraries:  which also I hope, they will impart without any scruple.
   Within this fortnight, I trust,  I shall haue ended with my carpenters, ioiners, caruers, glasiers, and all that idle rabble : and then I goe in hand, with making vp my barres, lockes, haspes, grates, cheines, and other gimmoes of iron, belonging to the fastning and riuetting of the bookes : which I thinke  I shall haue finished, within two or three monethes.  But of this and other maters, we shall heereafter conferre, at very good leasure.  In the meane while, I can not but enjoine yow, to be carefull of your health, and not to be more lauishe, then yow must of mere necessitie, in wearing out your eies, with the transcriptes of those dustie, and rustie parchment manuscriptes.
                                          your trewe affected frind
From Aino [Aynho] Dec 24. [1599]      Tho. Bodley.

Yow must by no means omitte, to take good notice of their orders, in placing and disposing their librarie books : whether they doe it, by the Alphabet, or according to the Faculties.

I haue a brother dwelling at Bluntsham, within 10. miles of Cambridge : to whome I would intreat yow to conuey the inclosed by such meanes, as yow may ether finde out by the Cambridge London cariar, or by some other where yow are.


Sir                                               Lichfield, May 18th, 1735
   I hope You will not imagine from my Silence, that I neglected the kind offer which You[r] Brother was pleased to make, that You would take care about my Books; I had wrote much sooner, but that I did not know till to day wither to direct.
  The Books, (of which I have written a Catalogue on the other side) were left with Mr. Taylor from whom I had reason to expect a high regard to my Affairs.  There were in the same box, which I left lock'd, some papers of a very private Nature, which I hope fell into good hands.  The Books are now, I hear, with Mr. 
Spicer of Christ Church.  I beg you, Dear sir, that you will be pleased to collect them with what care you can, and transmit them directed to me at the Castle in Birmingham Warwickshire, to which a Carrier goes weekly from Oxford.  I will very thankfully repay the expenses of the Boxes, Porters, and Letters to your Brother, or whoever else You shall think fit to receive 'em.  I am sorry to give You this trouble which I hope You'll excuse from a former Schoolfellow.  Be pleased to answer this by the next post, for I long to know in what condition my affairs stand.  If Mr. Congreve be in college pray pay my compliments to him, and let him know I should think his correspondence a pleasure and would gladly write to him, if I was inform'd what college he is of.  I have many other Acquaintance in the University whom I remember with Pleasure, but shall not  trouble You with messages, for I shall esteem You sufficiently kind if you manage this Affair for, Dear Sir, Your humble Servant,
                                                           Sam.  Johnson
My humble Service to Mr. Spicer.
NOTE: "Johnson's Undergraduate Library," as these books became known as, is my tentative topic for next month's blog post.

                                                                         September 27, 1796
  My dearest friend,—White or some of my friends or the public papers by this time may have informed you of the terrible calamities that have fallen on our family.  I will only give you the outlines.  My poor dear dearest sister in a fit of insanity has been the death of her own mother.  I was at hand only time enough to snatch the knife out of her grasp.  She is at present in a madhouse, from whence she must be moved to an hospital.
  God has preserved to me my senses,—I eat and drink and sleep, and have my judgment I believe very sound.  My poor father was slightly wounded, and I am left to take care of him and my aunt.  Mr. Norris of the bluecoat school has been very kind to us, and we have no other friend; but thank God, I am very calm and composed, and able to do the best that remains to do.  Write,—as religious a letter as possible but no mention of what is gone and done with.—With me 'the former things are passed away,' and I have something more to do than feel.
  God Almighty have us all in His keeping!
                                                                                    C. Lamb
Mention nothing of poetry.  I have destroyed every vestige of past vanities of that kind.  do as you please, but if you publish, publish mine (I give free leave) without name or initial, and never send me a book I charge you.
   Your own judgment will convince you not to take any notice of this yet to your dear wife.  You look after your family; I have my reason and strength to take care of mine.  I charge you, don't think of coming to see me.  Write.  I will not see you if you come.  God Almighty love you and all of us!

To Walter Savage Landor, Esq.
          Kesdwick, Jan 23, 1811
. . . Your abhorrence of Spencer is a strange heresy.  I admit that he is inferior to Chaucer (who for variety of power has no competitor except Shakespeare), but he is the great master of English versification, incomparably the greatest master in our language.  Without being insensible to the defects of the Fairy Queen, I am never weary of reading it.  Surely Chaucer is as much a  poet as it was possible for him to be when the language was so rude a state.  There seems to be a material point of difference between us—you think we have little poetry which was good for any thing before Milton; I, that we have little since, except in our own immediate days.  I do not say there was much before, but what was there was sterling verse in sterling English.  It had thought and meaning in it.  At present, the surest way to become popular is to have as little of either ingredient as possible.
 Have you read Captain Pasley's book? I take it for my text in the next Quarterly, and would fain make it our political Bible.
                                God bless you!                          R.  S.
[Robert Southey]


                                                                 Concord May 28th [1864]
    My Dear Mr Fields

   Many thanks for the green 'Maine Woods,' through which I have been delightfully wandering in spite of rainy weather, feeling the while as if Thoreau were walking with me again, so entirely does he seem to have put himself in the book.
  Mrs. Hawthorne frequently expresses her satisfaction in & gratitude for the fitting & friendly cares bestowed upon her & hers during the sad yet beautiful Monday which will not soon be forgotten.  Mr Hawthorne is gone but [she] still finds herself patiently, hopefully awaiting his return.  Many of us have the same feeling, I fancy, because he was one of those who are felt not seen, & we all not really miss him till we turn the last leaf of his story without end.
  Father and mother desired to be remembered, & with love to Cousin Annie I am
                                                                          Very Truly Yours
                                                                          L. M. Alcott

Mr. Gladstone goes on like a madman.  I never saw anything to equal the want of patriotism and the want of proper decency in Members of Parliament.  It is a miserable thing to be a constitutional Queen and to be unable to do what is right.  I would gladly throw all up and retire into quiet.
                                                                [Queen Victoria]

                                                  Box Hill, Dorking, April 16, 1879

MY DEAR STEVENSON,—I have had but the song of a frog for a correspondent since your last letter reached me; and my note is Batrachian still.  A hint of suppressed influenza seems to have been the cause. . . .
My 'Egoist' has been out of my hands for a couple of months, but Kegan Paul does not wish to publish it before October.  I don't think you will like it: I doubt of those who care for my work will take to it at all.  And for this reason, after doing my best with it, I am in no hurry to see it appear.  It is a Comedy, with only half of me in it, unlikely therefore to take either the public or my friends.  This is true truth, but I warned you that I am cursed with a croak.—I am about one quarter through 'The Amazing Marriage,' which I promise you, you shall like better. . . .
                                                      Yours very cordially,
                                                       George Meredith


           Dear Miss Lowell,                                3 March 1924 Paris
  It is simply ridiculous for me to try to thank you.  From the time that I posted my letter to you I lived in hope and fear that you would do precisely what you did—hope because I knew you could help me more than anyone else and fear because I know I had no right to ask you to do it. . . .
  Your suggestion that I do critical work to get into step with myself is a very keen bit of analysis.  I have a perfect clear cut dissatisfaction with what I have already done but no more than a sort of sense of gravitation toward the thing that would give me satisfaction to do.  Of course I have been trying to get my ideas into shape but they remain pretty nebulous so far.  The rhythmic problem troubles me for one thing.  I suppose the truth is that old brother Algernon made deeper ruts in my brain than I supposed.  Diluted Algernon of course.  I find that under the pressure of any sort of emotion I fall back into cadences which I know to be stale before I use them.   Working with deliberation I can get effects that don't disgust me on rereading but only then.  That's one thing.  The other is the equally basic problem of verbiage.  Where are the living waters of the word?  . . . The trouble is that you people who made poetry of natural diction, who threw the poetic vocabulary so-called into the ashes where it belonged, have left little for the bottom layer but extremities.  I don't mean that I sympathize with the position which you so effectively squash—the position of those who apparently put idiosyncrasy above poetry.  But I do mean that one must get hold of a speech which seems to him fresh—as you did—with the additional factor that you carried over the impression to the rest of the world.  I suppose one answer to my difficulty is the perfectly tenable theory that you can only get a certain amount of poetry out of the speech of any particular age anyway.  But one doesn't believe that sort of thing until one has to. . . .
As I say it is ridiculous for me to try to thank you.  But its all I can do.  Please believe that you have done one of the kindest and most generous things on record in the elaborate books.  Only the suspicion that I wasn't worth saving can possibly detract from your piece of mind.
                   Ada sends you her love and I that and all my gratitude.
                                                         Archie MacLeish

                                                                               New York City
                                                                            November 10, 1934
          Ira Gershwin
        Listen, you contumacious rat, don't throw your dreary tomes at me.  I'll give you an elegant dinner of your own choosing and sing to you between the courses if you can produce one writer or speaker, with an ear for the English language which you genuinely respect, who uses 'disinterested' in the sense you are now trying to bolster up.  I did look it up in my own vast Oxford dictionary a few years ago only to be told that it had been obsolete since the seventeenth century.  I haven't looked up the indices in your letter because, after all, my own word in such matters is final.  Indeed, current use of the word in the seventeenth century sense is a ghetto barbarism I had previously thought confined to the vocabularies of Ben Hecht and Jed Harris.  Surely, my child, you must see that if 'disinterested' is in our time, intend to convey a special shade of the word 'unselfish' it is a clumsy business to try to make it also serve another meaning.  That would be like the nit-wit practice of the woman who uses her husband's razor to sharpen her pencil.  The point of the pencil may emerge, but the razor is never good again for its peculiar purpose.
                                        Hoping you fry in hell, I remain
                                                          Yours affectionately,
                                                           A. W.

                                                          [Alexander Woolcott]

Harper, Henry H. (1905)  The Letters of Charles Lamb In which Mutilated Words and Passages Have Been Restored to Their Original Form; with Letters Never Before Published And Facsimiles of Original Letters and Poems (Volume II).  Boston: The Bibliophile society

Hibbert, Christopher (1985) Queen Victoria In Her Letters and Journals.  New York:  Viking.

Kaufman, Beatrice and Hennesey, Joseph (1944)   The Letters of Alexander Woolcott.  New York:  Viking Press.

Letters of George Meredith Collected and Edited by His Son Volume I 1844-1881 (1912) New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons.

Myerson Joel, Shealy Daniel and Stern, Madeleine B. (1987)  The Selected Letters of Louisa May Alcott.  Boston:  Little Brown and Company.

Ramsden, E. H. (1963)  The Letters of Michelangelo (Volume I).  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Redford, Bruce (1992) The Letters of Samuel Johnson Volume I 1731-1772 (The Hyde Edition). Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Southey, Rev. Charles Cuthbert [1850?] The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey.  New York:  Harper and Brothers.  Note: Reviewed in The American Review, March 1850.

Wheeler, G. W. (1926)  Letters of Sir Thomas Bodley To Thomas James, First Keeper of the Bodlean Library.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press.

Winnick, R. H. (1983) Letters of Archibald MacLeish 1907-1982.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company.

You can view the listings of all of my books of Other People's Collected Letters on Library Thing.