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Friday, March 26, 2004

Preserving the back story

Every so often I panic about computer meltdowns, not because of the down time, but because I have some wonderful correspondence from people that I would be sorry to lose. It has no value in terms of work, it's simply e-mails that are close to my heart—from friends and family sharing good news, congratulations on my new business and "nice job" from someone who appreciated what I've done.

I'm not a famous author and doubt I ever will be, but I'd like to preserve this correspondence since it represents special moments in my life. Maybe when I'm gone, my children and grandchildren will look back and say, "We're so glad to have this memory of her."

After I conducted my weekly backup this morning, I started thinking about how, or if, today's literary greats are preserving their correspondence. Is it more difficult in our electronic age? Certainly, people don't send handwritten correspondence as they once did.

I am enthralled with the back story of people's lives. That is the source of the most interesting details. What were the relationships that fed their minds/souls? Did those closest to them suffer as a result of their work? Where did they draw their inspiration? Was the work easy/hard, fulfilling/exhausting? Were they aware of what they were creating at the time?

The answers to these and many other questions are often found in their letters, diaries and journals. I have a book with copies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's letters to his daughter, Scottie, his beloved (but mad) wife, Zelda, and his lover, Sheilah Graham. Scott had so many problems, with drinking, poor health, his wife's spiral into madness. But he was also capable of great love and all of this is found in his letters.

"It is very quiet out here now. I went in your room this afternoon and lay on your bed awhile, trying to see if you had left any inkling of yourself," Scott wrote to Sheilah in January 1940.

One week before he died in December 1940, Scott wrote to his daughter, Scottie after sending her a fur coat that once belonged to Sheilah. He urged her to write thank yous promptly. "A giver gets no pleasure in a letter acknowledging a gift three weeks late even though it crawls with apologies…."

I have an entire book of unpublished autobiographical writings of Virginia Woolf. Known as "The Monks House Papers," they were kept safely in the possession of her husband, Leonard, but when published revealed her sensitivity, her self-consciousness and her vulnerability in ways that her novels and other writings rarely did.

In his book, "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson," historian Joseph J. Ellis wrote, " (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) sustained a fifty-year friendship that culminated in the exchange of letters in their twilight years that most historians regard as the intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation." Ellis suffered his own character attacks about his own experiences. But his book is a great read. Will George W. Bush and Bill Clinton engage in e-mail correspondence? What the heck would those two have to say to one another?

Perhaps my favorite of all literary exchanges was that of Henry James and Edith Wharton. I have a book of their letters from 1900-1915. It so intimately chronicles one of the great friendships, James often writing from Lamb House, Wharton from rue de Varenne or The Mount, and their support of each other's careers and lives.

"But the great thing is that we always tumble together—more and more never apart; & that for that happy exercise & sweet coincidence of agility we may trust ourselves & each other to the end of time." — Henry James to Edith Wharton, 8 February 1910.

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