If letter writing is on the endangered species list these days, then illustrated letters may be said to be on the extinct animals poster, along with the Great Auk and the Pig-Footed Bandicoot. Fancy taking the time to put pen to paper and write longhand, page upon page of correspondence, to someone you love, or at least like. (Longhand, what’s that? I can hear all the West Coast techies scratch scratch scratching their nobby heads.) Totally out of the realm of reason, I suppose, is using even more precious time to do a drawing on that same letter of scenes here and there to illustrate perhaps some story you have just related or some emotion you’ve described in the letter itself. Or better yet, taking the time to draw on the envelope. So that by the time the recipient slits open the envelope flap, surely using a letter opener (what the hell is that?the Web 2.whatever crowd wails), our fortunate recipient is already transported to the sender’s world.
Such is the case with two superb books showing us why illustrated letter writing is not only a lost art, but one that should be found again, whether by helicopters with manic strobing lights or a pack of sniff dogs trained to ferret out the smell of octopus ink and papyrus. Maybe a special black ops force would do the trick.
Barring any of those, Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer will suffice. Edited by Peter Neumeyer himself, Floating Worlds packs its glossy pages, which I swear must be 100# stock at least, with the year of intense correspondence between those two authors. Matched together by a publisher—Gorey did the illustrations and Neumeyer the writing—this unlikely duo went on to create one of the most beloved children’s books, Donald and the….
Their partnership began with an episode straight out of one of Gorey’s own macabre, dark humored books. Forced into a meeting by their publisher, Harry Stanton of Addison-Wesley, Stanton took them both sailing in his small boat off of Barnstable on Cape Cod. Attempting to step on to the dock, Gorey loses his balance, falling into the ocean between the boat and the pier. Neumeyer grabs Gorey by his arm and in doing so, dislocates Gorey’s shoulder. They end up in the emergency room with time to kill during which the two pore over Gorey’s proposed illustrations for the Donald book. Soon afterwards, they began their one year correspondence from 1968 - 1969.
What comes across in their letters is their shared obsession with everything literary, philosphical, and artistic. Thoughtful about others’ work, they also turn their wonderfuly critical lens on their own ideas for further collaboration, as well as on what they had written individually before their meeting.
“In any case, I thought about your saying that all your characters made these journeys to borders, and I began to look back on my own books in this light.” Gorey writes to Neumeyer. Several letters later, Neumeyer writes back, “Yes, indeed, your books are about borders, so often borders already crossed, for the visit is in the past when it is remembered…”
Gorey’s translation of French books is equaled by Neumeyer’s penchant for hard to find German ones. And so it goes, as with any true collaboration: each feeding the other’s passion by way of a new perspective, a new thought, even new languages.
Along with these fascinatingly open letters, comes beautiful reproductions of Gorey’s illustrated envelopes which accompanied almost every letter he wrote to Neumeyer. Many of them illustrated some new idea for a potential future children’s book that the two were volleying about. I gladly would have purchased the book for the envelope illustrations alone, whether it is the Gorey fabricated beast called the STOEJGNPF wearing a red scarf for a letter posted close to Christmas (the beast’s name was contrived by using all of their initials: Edward St. John Gorey Peter Florian Olivier Neumeyer), or the “rather curious family” as Gorey calls them, which would be used for their joint children’s book Why We Have Day and Night.
In February of 2011, I went to the Boston Athaneum’s exhibit of original Gorey letters and envelopes. And while nothing can compare to seeing these in the papyrus so to speak, Floating Worlds comes awfully close. Although I wasn’t opening the envelopes myself, I felt as if I was with each turn of a page where another surprising illustration waited. I felt a likewise frisson when I too received illustrated envelopes for a similar one year time period from the artist Sara Lee Cely. Sara Lee and I met during a month long artist residency at Vermont Studio Center. Each week a present arrived in the shape of a new drawing on the envelope addressed to me. Some were of places she had been, including the back porch of my Cambridge apartment. Some were early sketches of her paintings or illustrations of the novel I was working on, in which a character had the Joseph Cornellian practice of putting half his body in a slightly warm oven to take the chill off during cold days.
Sometimes Sara Lee’s letters themselves were illustrated as well. Although our correspondence eventually peetered to a couple of letters per year, and this was ten years ago, I was reminded of it again when I opened More Than Words: Illustrated Letters From the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art by Liza Kirwin. The book was a gift to me from the artist Christine Destrempes and what a gift it is. Inside is a feast for the eyes as illustrated letter after illustrated letter shows us that letter writing does not have be confined to the drabness of the hello-how-are-you-I-am-fine shelf. Take a look at Paul Bransom’s anguished letter and self-portrait to his eventual wife, the actress Grace Bond, who was away in Boston rehearsing a play. Kirwin tells us in the brief paragraph accompanying the letter facsimile, “A year later, at age twenty-one, Bransom married Grace; he also sold five covers to the Saturday Evening Post, launching his career as a freelance illustrator.” Seeing the letter’s illustration so startingly candid in its portrayal of Bransom’s suffering and longing for Grace, one wonders how he could have had the heart energy, yet the physical stamina to paint such an revealing self-portrait, lick the envelope and stamp, and truck on over to the PO.
Or spend time on page 107 where the writer of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s letter to his friend, the painter Hedda Sterne, appears. The writing only takes up three lines on what looks like an 8 1/2 x 11 drawing:
I just arrived.
Do you have time for dinner?
It’s written in French, but Kirwin provides the English translation as well. What’s more, she provides transcriptions of every letter in the book, not next to the letters but, in a terrifically thoughtful move, Kirwin groups them together at the end of the book. The transcriptions are also on different textured paper, with the feel of a 1920’s bonded typewriter paper and in blue typerwriter-like ink. It’s as if Kirwin knows that the beauty of the letters should not be diminished by anything as ordinary as a typed translation of someone’s poor pensmanship. The ninety letters within the book’s covers will convince any reader to stop shooting off attention deficit disorder emails to friends and loved ones and return to a time when letter writing involved contemplation, and contemplation involved time, and time involved a pen (preferably of the fountain variety) and a piece of creamy smooth paper. As Kirwin puts it, “Illustrated letters are inspired communications.” Indeed they are.
But it is the New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm who sums the raison d’etre for letter writing best when she said, “Letters are the great fixative of experience. Time erodes feeling. Time creates indifference. Letters prove to us that we once cared. They are the fossils of feeling.”
- Randi Triant
After ten years as a filmmaker, Randi Triant got her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines, including Post Road and Art & Understanding. Her story, The Memorial, appeared in the AIDS anthology, Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Diaspora and The Pecking Order is forthcoming in another anthology published by Black Lawrence Press.
Imagine sipping espresso at some fabulous French cafe with Andre Breton, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. Breton is sketching something on a sheet of paper and then divides the paper into thirds. He hands it to you and challenges you to draw the middle section, extending only a hint of the drawing over the seam, and then hand it off to Duchamp to fill in the bottom. This actually sounds like one of my anxiety dreams but this game, Exquisite Corpse - or cadavre exquis, if you’re not ready to leave the Parisian cafe, was devised by Andre Breton to play with his surrealist friends.
The concept of this game has since taken on many variations, including collaborative writing games and designer mash-ups like Photoshop Tennis. A few RISD graduates had begun a casual drawing game in an art history class, sharing napkins or a piece of notebook paper to co-create visual narratives together. After forming a design firm agency together, an idea germinated from partner Julia Rothman’s blog, Book By Its Cover to take the Exquisite Corpse concept and extend it into a book project.
For The Exquisite Book, the team selected one hundred artists, divided into groups of ten to take on a chapter. The artist with the first chapter drawing was given a specific theme to follow and then the artist passed their piece off to the next artist to interpret the idea. The only instruction was for the initial artist to define a horizon line to be carried over into the following pieces.
The outcome is fascinating. The pages of each chapter fold out so the effect of seeing the individual pieces as a collective visual narrative is not lost. The pages referenced above are from the chapter, The Village, where a literal village moves into a forest with red-eyed wolves who turn into red tongue pugs who turn into red eyed pugs engulfed in a hellish inferno (poor pugs).
The Exquisite Book is one for the bookshelf.
I thought I knew everything there was to know about Dickens. After all, I had read all of his books starting when I was twelve and still now, some forty-three years later, I head straight for him on my bookcase whenever I begin another rash of insomniac nights. Usually A Tale of Two Cities does the trick. Somehow, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” speaks to me on those nights. I also read Dombey and Son out loud to my son after he was born to whittle away the dark hours between bottles. After my divorce I started to read Bleak House and thought to myself, See? You don’t have it that bad. Dickens and all of his books have been my consort and my consolation throughout my major life events.
Okay, so maybe I haven’t read all of his books. I mean, who really has read The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit or The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain, except maybe one of those Dickensians that go every year to the Dickens camp at the University of California at Santa Cruz? Those people, Jill Lepore writes in her very witty and informative essay on the camp and all things Dickens, “must be like the people in the final chapter of ‘Farenheit 451’, hiding out in the hinterland, mumbling lines they committed to memory.” I’m sure I’ll never get an invite now from that camp’s Grand Poobah, given what I have just confessed about my Swiss cheese reading list of Dickens. But now, on top of my less than perfect knowledge of Dickens the author, comes Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller by Catherine Wells-Cole to explicitly show me how little of the man I know, as well as of his literary achievements. Is there no end to what I don’t know about Dickens?
Apparently not. Published by the mysteriously named Templar Books imprint of Candlewick Press, Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller enchants and astounds the reader by providing not just synopses of Dickens’ books, which we may already know, but a visual extravaganza of letters and maps and fold-outs, the likes of which rival my son’s pop-up picture books. There are reproductions of Dickens’ letters (you actually have to take them out of their robin’s egg blue envelopes adding further to the verisimilitude), exquisitely illustrated historical fold-outs that give us you-are-there-facts such as “In Victorian England, toys were a luxury” alongside an illustration of a wooden pull along moon. On another page, sits a photograph of a gnawed nob of a bread heel next to a bowl of gruel (and now I see why that name is so perfect as it rhymes with cruel).
We read how a young Charles was paid a paltry sum to complete a soul deadening litany of tasks concerning bottles in a blacking factory:“…cover the sticky pots of blacking with paper, tie them with string, cut the paper to fit, and paste labels on each…” Most unsettling, though, is the decoupaged-like, actual size photograph of a blacking bottle. I never knew what a blacking bottle looked like and although I had read of Dickens’ dour life in the factory, the visualization of that bottle itself somehow brought it all home to roost for me. To see is to know is to feel. Here, the bottle is placed over the corner of a pen and ink drawing of a young boy, exhausted, his head on a table on which perches his factory tools.
More adventurous, but in its own way, unsettling also, is a cartographer’s dream of a detailed map of London from Dickens’ childhood years; It shows every location his family lived in as his father took the express train from navy civil servant to debtors’ prison. Along with this gripping visualization of biographical details, the book also includes illustrations from several of the many illustrators Dickens worked with over the years. One can see instantly why Hablot Knight Browne (or Phiz as he was delightfully called) was the man for Dickens comedic novels but for his more serious stuff, not so much.
This was all impressive but even more so when I read that this book is meant for tweeners. Of course who knows if they will take to the book as I did. After all, I can still see my seventeen year old niece at twelve turning to me when I suggested she read Dickens one summer after she complained for the hundredth time of boredom. “Really? Him again? That’s all you got for me?” she said, not even trying to hide her derision. But I believe any budding young historian or writer will find Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller as much of a compelling, tactile story as I did. Consider the very first letter the reader can touch and unfold even before page one; it’s on the inside hard cover! Written from Dickens to Mary Winter, “his first love” according to Ms. Wells-Cole, he warns Mary that although he’s sorry, he’s about to disappear on her for some time:
I hold my inventive capacity on the stern condition that it must master my whole life, often have complete possession of me, make its own demands upon me…These are the penalties paid for writing books. Whoever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it.
And whoever is a devoted Dickens reader should get a copy of Charles Dickens: England’s Most Captivating Storyteller and offer herself “wholly up to it.” Maybe I’ll give Chuzzlewit a go tonight too. Really? Him again? Yes, him again.
- Randi Triant
After ten years as a filmmaker, Randi Triant got her MFA in writing and literature from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines, includingPost Road and Art & Understanding. Her story, The Memorial, appeared in the AIDS anthology, Fingernails Across the Chalkboard: Poetry and Prose on HIV/AIDS From the Black Diaspora and The Pecking Order is forthcoming in another anthology published byBlack Lawrence Press.