Now that I’ve gotten your attention, I must confess rather shamefacedly that I’m not talking here about love letters from an amour, though those are certainly fine and dandy, but about the fact that I just love letters! I love receiving them, writing them, and reading them—especially collections of letters from and to writers.
I remember reading a New Yorker article featuring a tantalizing selection of letters from a young Edith Wharton to her beloved governess. What a revelation! In the letters you just catch a glimpse of a budding author beginning to savor the joys of writing and reveling in her insights into literature. You can almost feel her creative excitement soaking through the page! How wonderful to think that even as a young girl, Edith was entranced with words and very mindful of the emotional effect they could have on a reader. What a sophisticated young lass she was—and how clever and witty!
Then there’s Thornton Wilder—one of my all-time favorite writers. I picked up a used copy of a collection of his letters and spent a good part of my reading time one summer dipping into them. What a delight! During his heyday, everyone wrote letters back and forth constantly—and our boy Thornton was a devoted and energetic correspondent. He knew everyone and wrote to everyone: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, to name just a few. He was also tremendously encouraging to young writers and artists, and there’s a ton of great writing advice sprinkled liberally in many of the letters he sent. They also discuss his own works in progress: the writing of his fabulous play, Our Town, for instance. To catch a peak of his process is fascinating.
When I couldn’t sleep one night recently, I pulled from my handy rotating bookshelf a dark-green, pleasantly aged copy of Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children.Totally charming and disarming! In the midst of his action-packed presidency, Teddy wrote scores of letters to his five kids. They are filled with his joie de vivre; love of nature, family and friends; and tactful chunks of fatherly advice. According to the book’s editor, while planning it shortly before he died, Teddy said, “I would rather have this book published than anything that has ever been written about me.” After reading it, I can see why. Here’s a little glimpse into his own writing struggles from a letter written to his son Kermit in October 1903 from the White House:
“Mother has just taken the three children to spend the afternoon at Dr. Ripley’s farm. I am hard at work on my message to Congress, and accordingly shall not try to go out or see any one either this afternoon or this evening. All of this work is terribly puzzling at times, but I peg away at it, and every now and then, when the dust clears away and I look around, I feel that I really have accomplished a little, at any rate.”
Wow, I know that feeling don’t you? Well, if Teddy can “peg away at it,” so can we!