Hello! Apparently, acccording to many people whom I trust, it's already Christmas in the year 2014. Unbelievable. It's been an incredibly busy 12 months in these parts, but mainly offline: the Letters of Note book continues to blow my mind and is now being published all over the world; the Lists of Note book, just recently published, is also doing beautifully (special editions of both of those books, by the way, are available as a bundle at Unbound—additionally, use the code XMAS14 at checkout to get an extra £10 off); also, the Letters Live events have drawn performers and audiences from afar and never fail to knock me, and many others, for six.
The drawback to all of this unrelenting amazingness, and due to my having just two hands and one lazy brain, is that the website has been a little neglected. Well, in 2015, this will change. I promise. There are also some very exciting announcements to be made in the new year, so keep an eye open for those—they will pop up on this website and on Twitter. In the meantime, enormous thanks to all of you, for visiting the blog, buying the books, and attending the events. It's been a blast. Thanks, also, to all of the good, professional people at Unbound, Canongate, and TinyLetter.
Have a lovely Christmas, and make sure you write some letters.
It wasn't until her death, in 1886, that the true scale of Emily Dickinson's profound poetry was both discovered and appreciated by family and friends, many of whom had only glimpsed her talents in the numerous poem-filled letters that she wrote. She found an even wider audience in 1890 with the posthumous publication of a volume of her work; a collection of her letters followed in 1894. Her most frequent correspondent, and a person now thought to have been the inspiration for much of her passionate material, was close friend (and, from 1856 onwards, sister-in-law) Susan Huntington Gilbert, a lady who provoked some undeniably intimate and romantic letters from the poet, the intensity of which to this day generate speculation about their relationship.
(Image: Death and Taxes.)
11 June 1852
I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. That you and I in hand as we e'en do in heart, might ramble away as children, among the woods and fields, and forget these many years, and these sorrowing cares, and each become a child again — I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home.
I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie — Friends are too dear to sunder, Oh they are far too few, and how soon they will go away where you and I cannot find them, dont let us forget these things, for their remembrance now will save us many an anguish when it is too late to love them! Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you, none other than you in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me. If you were here — and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language — I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes. Three weeks — they cant last always, for surely they must go with their little brothers and sisters to their long home in the west!
I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for till now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.
Dear Susie, I have tried hard to think what you would love, of something I might send you — I at last saw my little Violets, they begged me to let them go, so here they are — and with them as Instructor, a bit of knightly grass, who also begged the favor to accompany them — they are but small, Susie, and I fear not fragrant now, but they will speak to you of warm hearts at home, and of the something faithful which “never slumbers nor sleeps” — Keep them 'neath your pillow, Susie, they will make you dream of blue-skies, and home, and the “blessed contrie”! You and I will have an hour with “Edward” and “Ellen Middleton”, sometime when you get home — we must find out if some things contained therein are true, and if they are, what you and me are coming to!
Now, farewell, Susie, and Vinnie sends her love, and mother her's, and I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Dont let them see, will you Susie?
Why cant I be the delegate to the great Whig Convention? — dont I know all about Daniel Webster, and the Tariff, and the Law? Then, Susie I could see you, during a pause in the session — but I dont like this country at all, and I shant stay here any longer! “Delenda est” America, Massachusetts and all!
open me carefully
It's difficult to overstate my love for this wonderful letter of thanks, written in 1982 by the late Jack Lemmon. It was sent to friend and fellow actor, Burt Reynolds, in response to a donation made to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center—one can only hope that Lemmon thanked all donors in a similarly amusing manner.
This precious letter is currently being sold at auction.
(Source: Julien's Auctions. Images above via Alan Light and Wikipedia.)
June 7, 1982
It has come to my attention that you sent a contribution of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center in the Children's Hospital of Buffalo.
I just wanted to say that I'm sorry that you couldn't come up with a sizable contribution, but God knows after all these years I, as much as anyone, understand the ups and downs of this crazy business. Some years are good, some years are bad, and even though you're obviously on the shit list, I certainly appreciate the fact that you made some kind of effort no matter how meager.
I do think it is important for me to clarify an area of possible confusion on your part. Burn Centre has nothing to do with critical reaction to your work. However, it's too fucking late so we're going to keep the money and help a hell of a lot of kids.
One of these days I'm going to work with you even if it kills me (and it probably will).
Many thanks, and love,
cc: Lee B. Winkler
On November 11th of 1918, the First World War effectively came to an end with the signing of the armistice—an agreement between Allied and German forces to end, with immediate effect, all hostilies and withdraw troops from the battlefield. Peace, at last, after four years of fighting and more than 16 million deaths. Shortly after the armistice was signed, 26-year-old Lewis Plush—a lieutenant with the American Expeditionary Forces—wrote home to his parents and spoke with great eloquence of his experience. He returned home in February of 1919.
(Source: War Letters, edited by Andrew Carroll; Image: Soldiers celebrating the armsitice on Nov 11th, 1918, via Wikipedia.)
Aboard the S.S. Regina
Dear Mother and Father,
Now that it is all over, what is there to look back upon? The fifteen months in France have been like a book with strange chapters, a book that one reads and casts aside as impossible, but a book that leaves a lasting grip upon the imagination.
I used to watch the small planes as they manoeuvered in the air and felt that I presumed too much when I hoped to fly one myself. Flying became a reality when I learned to fly a clumsy and safe Caudron. After that came the Nieuport school with its three types of training planes, the 23-meter double control, the 18-meter solo, and finally the 16-meter scout plane. And then the work in acrobatics, formation flying, combat practice, and a month's course in aerial gunnery.
"Training completed and ready for active duty at the front" sounded like a voice in a dream. A few days later I was at the front.
I fly again my first flight over the lines when everything was new, mysterious, and awful. The imprint of that picture will never fade, and I will always see a picture, not of war and destruction but of beauty and peace. There below, far below, is picture after picture slowly passing by, set in thick frames of clouds, colors, and shadows, and white dazzling light. There on my right is Metz, and off to the left lays Nancy, like a jewel set in dark green. One is a German city, the other French. Can it be that the men who inhabit each are bitter enemies and fight to kill?
I was soon to discover that this peace was only the calm before the storm. And when the storm did break in sudden fury on the morning of Sept. 12, I saw my picture of peace shattered and torn.
I live again that eventful day. It is before dawn and the guns pound and hammer the enemy. The whole skyline of the north is luminated by continuous flashes. Now it is dawn and we leave the ground to play our small part in a mighty struggle. Low clouds and a light rain forces low flying, so from our altitude we see a great army in action.
I see again great tanks waddling and lumbering their way toward Montsec with khaki-clad troops hanging thick on their backs and following in the rear. The roads are jammed with troops, pursuer and pursued. Scattered troops run into woods and out as the whole region is spotted with bursting shells. A tank is on its side here, a shattered truck there, horses running madly in their blind flight. The enemy are in absolute confusion by the rapid advance of our own troops. The fury of the storm did not last long but the story of the St. Mihiel offensive will never be erased.
I see and live again the long weeks of struggle in the Argonne region, where dodging "archies" became a routine duty, bombing raids a daily occurrence, and strafing enemy troops a dangerous but ordinary work.
I can hear the machine guns rattling down from the ground as they desperately try to rake us from the air as we swoop down and pour deadly streams of lead into masses of troops. A single bullet in the motor, a pierced gas tank and a burst of flame, a broken wire or a broken feed line and the game is over—lost.
I can hear the archies as they burst uncomfortably close. I can feel the plane as a bursting shell upsets it and starts it spinning, but a quick movement of the controls rights it and on I fly. A burst of black smoke on my right, flying splinters, crumpled wings. The archies have scored another victory—another dear friend gone west.
Over and over I live a terrible moment. Glancing quickly behind I see the sinister silhouette of two Hun planes diving directly at me from above. I am alone and escape seems impossible. One is now almost on top of me and as I make a quick turn he fires at close range. I see again the streaks of fire. Phosphorus fumes of the incendiary bullets fill the cockpit full of that sickening odor and with a damaged motor I fight the fight over and again for my life.
I fly again with great formations of bombers in their daylight raids and take my place above with the other scout planes as we sweep the sky for the enemy. The enemy appears and puts up a stubborn fight. One, two, perhaps more, flaming planes crash to the ground, friend and foe, and the bombers return, their mission accomplished.
"One of our planes did not return," says the official report of the day and we each wonder but dare not ask aloud, "Who will be next?"
Oh, fateful vision that now appears of three comrades, three friends that shared the same billet in the home of a French family near the flying field where we worked and played together. I am one of the three. The other two are dead.
How can I ever forget that evening as we sat before the open fireplace. I was writing a letter with a single candle as light. Roth, you were reading aloud from a book of poems, and your sudden burst of enthusiasm would make the flames leap. Kinney, you were making and remaking the fire, playing with the embers with the fire tongs and returning the jumping sparks to their bed.
How little we knew what the morrow would bring. The next evening, Kinney, you and I sat by the fire alone. And a few evenings later, I alone sat by the fire and wondered. The story is always the same: a combat with the enemy and one of our planes did not return.
I walk again over a battle field fresh with its dead and ruin; shattered villages standing as monuments of destruction. Tangled and torn wire litter the barren fields and slopes, barren of life but littered with the waste of war—broken guns, bits of clothing, shells, and the sad remains of life.
There was a war, a great war, and now it is over. Men fought to kill, to maim, to destroy. Some return home, others remain behind forever on the fields of their greatest sacrifice. The rewards of the dead are the lasting honors of martyrs for humanity; the reward of the living is the peaceful conscience of one who plays the game of life and plays it square.
Lt. Lewis C. Plush
Last week in the US, NPR aired a really lovely Letters of Note series that was recorded a short while ago, in which a few people related to various letters in the book were interviewed by Audie Cornish--a couple even read their letters aloud. Those people were: Amy Corcoran, a lady who, as a young girl, received a letter from Roald Dahl; Bill Baxley, who, as attorney general of Alabama in 1976, wrote a succinct letter to the KKK; and Frank Ciulla, whose father was killed in the Lockerbie bombing and whose family received a beautiful letter from Scotland a few years later. I also read out a favourite letter of mine, written by Robert Pirosh. To listen to the series--and you really should--go here. I only wish it covered every letter in the book.
I hope you enjoy it. Enormous thanks to all who participated.
The Lists of Note book is out today and can now be found in shops across the UK. I'm VERY excited. A few things:
1. The special edition can still be purchased via Unbound.
2. Waterstones have chosen it as their 'Non-Fiction Book of the Month' across the land. Hooray!
3. An extract of the book was published by the Telegraph the other day.
4. A lovely piece was written in the Independent, inspired by the book and our fascination with lists in general.
5. More info about the book and its stockists can be found here.
6. Photos of the book can be found here. Feel free to use them as you see fit.
That's all. I really hope you enjoy it.