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Nowadays letter-writing appeals to our more romantic sensibilities. It is quaint, old-fashioned, and decidedly slower than sending off a winking emoji with barely half a thought. But it wasn't even that long ago that letter-writing dominated and served as a practical means of communication.
Theatergoers have been dazzled by the new Broadway hit Hamilton, and not just by its titular lead: the Schuyler women often steal the show. While Alexander Hamilton’s wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton provides heart and pathos, her sister Angelica Schuyler Church is sassy, witty, and flirtatious.
This year, on 21st October, marks the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. This naval battle was between the British Royal Navy, led by Admiral Lord Nelson, and the combined French and Spanish fleets led by French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. The most decisive victory of the Napoleonic Wars, this battle ensured Nelson’s place as one of Britain’s greatest war heroes.
Something that made me sad, then happy, then sad after my friend Nelson died was finding our email exchange about how he wanted to start writing again.
And thank you for thinking me a writer, or at least having the seed — I know that having the chops requires craft. And craft requires time, sweat and not a little bit of Jameson’s. I thought about what you said, though. Maybe essays would be a start; the idea of writing the great American novel is outside both my ability and my reality. I am starting to think that reading email for a living has reduced my attention span a bit too much for that level of dedication. Sad, that. But words will always fascinate and entertain me, so if they find a way to come out in a way that someone else would enjoy — that would be something. Thankfully, some of them entertained you enough that summer to call me in the first place.
He sent this soon after the last time we saw each other in New York, in November 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy. I remember being so glad he was thinking this way. The letters he wrote to me while he was in the army — I’ve written about that era a fewtimes — were a joy. I hoped he’d find his way back to the page.
Nelson and I first got to know each other in a high school writing class — the one I took my senior year that also led me to my friend Lili, who died ten years ago of pancreatic cancer, and to our teacher, Mrs. Kjos, who died of ovarian cancer in 2008. I guess this is what being in your forties is like.
Last night I dreamed that I was reading a collection of short stories Nelson had written, a book he self-published knowing he would die soon. In the dream he was still alive. Waking up this morning was the most bittersweet thing.
The late David Markson did not have a computer. In March 2004, Laura Sims told him that there were things written about him on blogs. He replied:
NO, I've no idea what a Blog is. BLOG?
Sims sent him print-outs:
Hey, thank you for all that blog stuff but forgive me if after a nine-minute glance I have torn it all up. I bless your furry little heart, but please don't send any more. In spite of the lost conveniences, I am all the more glad I don't have a computer.
HOW CAN PEOPLE LIVE IN THAT FIRST-DRAFT WORLD?
They make a statement about my background, there's an error in it. They quote from a book, and they leave out a key line. They repudiate a statement of fact I've made, without checking, ergo announcing I'm a fake when the statement is 100% correct. Etc., etc., etc. Gawd.
I have just taken the sheets out of the trash basket & torn them into even smaller pieces.
The First World War has survived as part of our national memory in a way no previous war has ever done. Below is an extract from Full of Hope and Fear: The Great War Letters of an Oxford Family, a collection of letters which lay untouched for almost ninety years. They allow a unique glimpse into the war as experienced by one family at the time, transporting us back to an era which is now slipping tantalizingly out of living memory. The Slaters – the family at the heart of these letters – lived in Oxford, and afford a first-hand account of the war on the Home Front, on the Western Front, and in British India. Violet and Gilbert’s eldest son Owen, a schoolboy in 1914, was fighting in France by war’s end.
Violet to Gilbert, [mid-October 1917]
I am sorry to only write a few miserable words. Yesterday I had a truly dreadful headache which lasted longer than usual but today I am much better . . . I heard from Katie Barnes that their Leonard has been very dangerously wounded they are terribly anxious. But are not allowed to go to him. Poor things it is ghastly and cruel, and then you read of the ‘Peace Offensive’ articles in the New Statesman by men who seem to have no heart or imagination. I cannot understand it . . . You yourself said in a letter to Owen last time that [the Germans] had been driven back across the Aisne ‘We hope with great loss.’ Think what it means in agony and pain to the poor soldiers and agony and pain to the poor Mothers or Wives. It is useless to pretend it could not be prevented! We have never tried any other way . . . No other way but cruel war is left untried. I suppose that there will be a time when a more advanced human being will be evolved and we have learnt not to behave in this spirit individually towards each other. If we kept knives & pistols & clubs perhaps we should still use them. Yesterday Pat & I went blackberrying and then I went alone to Yarnton . . . the only ripe ones were up high so I valiantly mounted the hedges regardless of scratching as if I were 12 & I got nice ones. Then I went to the Food Control counter & at last got 5 lbs. of sugar . . . It was quite a victory we have to contend with this sort of sport & victory consists in contending with obstacles.
Gilbert to Owen, [9 February 1918]
I have been so glad to get your two letters of Dec. 7th & 18th and to hear of your success in passing the chemistry; and also that you got the extension of time & to know where you are . . . I am looking forward to your letters which I hope will make me realise how you are living. Well, my dear boy, I am thinking of you continually, and hoping for your happiness and welfare. I have some hope that your course may be longer than the 4 months. I fear now there is small chance of peace before there has been bitter fighting on the west front, and little chance of peace before you are on active service. I wonder what your feelings are. I don’t think I ever funked death for its own sake, though I do on other accounts, the missing a finish of my work, and the possible pain, and, very much more than these, the results to my wife & bairns. I don’t know whether at your age I should have felt that I was losing much in the enjoyment of life, not as much as I hope you do. I fear you will have to go into peril of wounds, disease and death, yet perhaps the greater chance is that you will escape all three actually; and, I hope, when you have come through, you will feel that you are not sorry to have played your part.
Second Lieutenant Owen Slater ready for service in France. Photo courtesy of Margaret Bonfiglioli. Do not reproduce without permission.
Owen to Mrs Grafflin, [3 November 1918]
This is just a very short note to thank you for the knitted helmet that Mother sent me from you some time ago. It is very comfortable & most useful as I wear it under my tin hat, a shrapnel helmet which is very large for me & it makes it a beautiful fit.
We are now out at rest & have been out of the line for several days & have been having quite a good time though we have not had any football matches & the whole company is feeling rather cut up because our O.C. [Officer Commanding] has died of wounds. He was an excellent [word indecipherable] father to his men & officers.
Margaret Bonfiglioli was born in Oxford, where she also read English. Tutoring literature at many levels led to her involvement in innovative access courses, all while raising five children. In 2008 she began to re-discover the hoard of family letters that form the basis of Full of Hope and Fear. Her father, Owen Slater, is one of the central correspondents. After eleven years tutoring history in the University of Oxford, James Munson began researching and writing full-time. In 1985 he edited Echoes of the Great War, the diary of the First World War kept by the Revd. Andrew Clark. He also wrote some 50 historical documentaries for the BBC.
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I am a huge Oliver Jeffers fan but have to admit his last few picture books haven’t hit the mark. That of course excludes the absolutely brilliant The Day The Crayons Quit he did with Drew Daywalt last year which was simply outstanding. Oliver Jeffers illustrations have always been outstanding but it was his stories that seemed […]
And every once in a while, I get a special letter....
...one that reminds me that what I do is important and appreciated and might make a difference to someone.
Recently, I received one of those letters.
With the permission of the sender, I'm printing it here in its entirety.
I love my job.
Dear Barbara O’Connor,
Growing up I noticed that I had trouble reading. I was born dyslexic and so I had trouble understanding how to comprehend the words that I was reading, so not long after the second grade I decided I was not going to read unless I really needed to.
It didn’t take long after I made the decision to not read unless I found a good enough reason that of course I found one. My older brother had a dog named Roscoe. He was my brother’s best friend they did everything together, but one night Roscoe went outside without my brother and he got hit by a car passing down our street very fast. My brother stayed up for days so sad and he refused to go to school. Soon after, my mother asked me if I knew anything that could help him cheer up, and after thinking about it for a while I couldn’t really think of anything until I went on a class trip to the library and my librarian asked me what kind of books I was interested in and I immediately thought of my brother and I told my librarian that I wanted to LOOK at books about dogs so maybe I could show him cool pictures of dogs that looked like Roscoe to cheer him up.
My librarian looked up the key word Dog and the only book that she found in what was supposed to be my reading level was your book How to steal a dog. Without even opening it I came up with the perfect idea to cheer up my brother.
I figured that your book would teach me how to get or steal a dog for my brother so he would not be sad anymore (I want to remind you that I was only nine years old and didn’t fully think through what I was planning on doing.) So I found the perfect reason to read my very first big girl book as I called them (with chapters). I figured that if I skimmed through it I could figure out fairly quickly what I wanted to know.
So I started flipping through the pages and I couldn’t find a list of ways to get a dog, so I figured I would sort of start reading the book to find out where in the book it gave me the steps that I was looking for. Of course I could not find them so then I thought I should just try to actually read it and maybe I could figure out what I wanted to know.
After I started reading the book I became fascinated with Georgina and her family. I guess I could say that I sort of felt connected to Georgina and I became interested in her and her family. So I started reading the book because I was interested in it instead of my original meaning.
After I finished the book I was so proud of myself for actually reading a book that didn’t have just pictures in it. I bragged to my family and friends and even teachers. I was so interested in your book that I wanted to read more of it, I was sad that the book was over and that I would never get to know what had happened to Georgina and her family after the book ended. I tried to Google books that had similarities with your book and I couldn’t find anything that seemed fascinating to me. So I never really read another chapter book again after your book.
I enjoyed your book very much. When I was in my English class at school I was telling a story to my friend about how I would like to become an author when I got older but I thought that I would be a hypocrite if I wrote books but did not read them because of my difficulties with words.
While I was telling my story my instructor, Ms. White overheard me and asked what I was talking about. After I explained everything that I was saying before, I told her that I have only read one real book my whole life and that I loved it. When I told her that the book was How to steal a dog she immediately knew what book I was talking about and remembered that her mentor was your best friend and told me she was going to try to get a hold of her mentor through Facebook and tell her about my story and she was hoping to get in contact with you.
Despite my challenges with reading I am actually very good with writing and grammar. I just have trouble while reading words because the letters mix match and change up and the words seem to look different.
I’m not really sure why I let it defy me so much. I guess it could be because it seems like a good excuse to not try hard enough or to be lazy. I don’t know, but I’m guessing that since I thought of those assumptions that maybe they could be true, maybe.
I am so enthusiastic about writing you this letter. I really hope you find my liking of your book interesting. I hope you can find time to write me back with everything you have going on.
This is the first of a three-part series from Dominic McHugh on the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner. The next installment will appear on Tuesday, 16 December 2014.
One of the joys of editing the correspondence of Alan Jay Lerner has been discovering his letters to and from the major stars with whom he worked. As the lyricist, librettist, and screenwriter of Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, and many more, he worked with the finest performers of his time. In this post, I’ll explore focus on his relationship with two of his stars: Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.
Rex Harrison’s iconic performance as Henry Higgins was one of the keys to making My Fair Lady the most successful musical of the 1950s. He played the role for over a year in New York, opened the show in London, and went on to appear in the 1964 movie version (currently celebrating its 50th anniversary). But Fair Lady was Harrison’s first foray into musical theatre, and he found the process terrifying. The following letter was the first I found for my book, and it’s a wonderful insight into the writer-performer relationship. This excerpt shows how Lerner tried to lay Harrison’s fears about some of the initial songs they had written for him to rest:
[…] I was very interested in your comments about “Why Can’t The English,” and want you to know that I feel your reservations, as far as you are concerned, are completely justifiable. As I said in my cable, don’t let it tinge one hair with gray—we are rewriting it completely in a way that will be not only simpatico with you, but with the character of Higgins. I can do no other but agree with you when you are right, but I would fight you like a wounded tiger if I thought you were wrong.
I might add, before closing the matter, that there are certain lyric liberties one can take when they are framed by certain kinds of melodies. There are “song songs” and “character songs.” A “character song,” which is basically free and is accompanied by an emotion or emotions, as is the case in “I’m An Ordinary Man,” must pretty much stay within the bounds of reason. In a “song song,” certain extravagances are not only permissible, but desirable. “Why Can’t The English,” written as it was, was definitely a “song song” and therefore contained a certain amount of satiric extravagance. The minute the same idea is written in a freer way, so that it almost seems like normal conversation set to music, those extravagances would seem definitely out of place. When one reads the lyric of a “song song” over and compares it to the character who is singing it, very often there will seem to be a discrepancy. For example, what business does a young Navy lieutenant have singing a poetic song like “Younger Than Springtime”?
The second paragraph is a particularly wonderful insight into the lyric writer’s mind, explaining how he viewed different kinds of songs. Another wonderful letter related to My Fair Lady shows how Lerner tried to persuade Julie Andrews – future star of the movies Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music – to arrive a little early for rehearsals. She had decided to spend New Year at home with her family in London because she knew she was about to start a long run away from them, but Lerner wanted her to come to New York early in order to rest and take part in publicity opportunities:
[…] I don’t know whether or not you have been aware of the explosive conversations that have been going on lately between Herman Levin and Lou Wilson. I might add that Herman has been doing the conversing and Lou the exploding. What it’s all been about is the matter of your being here on December 27th. I, of course, realize how much you would want to be with your family over New Year’s, but there are a few things involved that I beg you to consider. I am sure you know in advance that our desire to have you here on that date is no capricious whim on our part.
Both Rex and Stanley Holloway are arriving at that time. It is not at all uncommon for the stars of a play to make it their business to be in town a week before rehearsals for the express purpose of using that time for the good of themselves and the play. You are a star now, Julie, and I do think that as a well-meaning observer, as well as an active participant in these proceedings, it would be most impolitic to have them, who are two great and established artists, follow the usual pattern and you not do so. Even though we will not, of course, be working around the clock during that time, much can be accomplished in those few days. We can go over your new songs with you and get the keys set. If you feel it is necessary, you could freshen up your Cockney with Dixon. We could go over a couple of the scenes, which we would all like to hear, mainly for length, before the first reading on stage January 3rd. Besides that, there is that old devil Publicity, which, annoying as it is, is more annoying when it isn’t. It will also give you a chance to make yourself comfortable in your flat, and you will be rested and ready for the official first day of rehearsals January 3rd.
In spite of Lerner’s power of persuasion, Andrews chose to stay in England: as she explained more recently in her memoir Home, she found it a huge wrench to spend time away from her family, and her family life had been difficult. It’s well-known that she then struggled with early rehearsals for Fair Lady, which the director (Moss Hart) had to close down for a weekend while he spent time training for her the role of Eliza, line by line. But she quickly went on to be a star when the show opened in March 1956, and the rest is history.
These two excerpts show how the use of primary sources shed new light on the study of Broadway musicals. They provide a snapshot of the collaborations that are so important to the genre’s success. And in the case of Lerner, they show both his witty and charming personality and his incredible prose facility, something I feel is often overlooked.
In the next blog post, I’ll look at the letters from Lerner to Frederick Loewe, his most beloved composer collaborator, focusing on two letters from the 1950s and two from the 1980s.
Title: A Letter for Leo Written and illustrated by: Sergio Ruzzier Published By: Clarion Books, New York, 2014 Themes/Topics: postmen, friendship, letters, birds, weasels Suitable for ages: 3-5 Fiction, 32 pages Opening: Leo is the mailman of a little old town Synopsis: Postman Leo … Continue reading →
I am sharing -- with permission -- the letter that my niece wrote that resulted in her getting a ferret for Christmas. Names have been changed.
Friday is almost here, the second best day of my life.* I am beyond excited to get my second ferret. I know you're a little hesitant to allow me to buy and take care of a second ferret. I am begging you to let me get a second angel, and i’ll tell you why. Many people on instagram, and youtube support the idea of getting a second ferret, I hope you can too.
When I get my second ferret I will not ignore or neglect Oliver**, I will continue to care for both of them with the same love and affection. Maybe even additional affection. The second ferret is not replacing Oliver in any shape or form. Its just an additional ferret, the reasons are to improve Oliver’s health and to improve my joy levels as well. I have showed you that I am responsible for my ferret. I clean his cage every week, I scoop his litter each day. I change his food and water, and give him lots of toys and playtime. I can handle a second ferret. Its really no more daily effort to care for a second ferret. Additional costs and care do not show through until you have at least 6 ferrets.
I know what you're thinking, “This one can just get sick too.”*** You are absolutely correct, it can get sick just like Oliver. Although, the chances of that happening so early are slim. Adrenal Disease normally does not affect ferrets until they are at least 4 years old. If Oliver does indeed have this awful disease its a rare case. Whatever is going on with Oliver is an issue with his hormones and immune system. Its genetic and is not contagious. While the new ferret can become sick, he cannot catch any illnesses from Oliver.
Let me go ahead and answer some questions for you. “Will I have to take care of it?” No, it will be the same for when I am at dads, and the same when I return. “Do we need a second cage?” No, Ferrets are social animals who love to be together, Its recommended to house 2+ ferrets together. “What if its not trained?” Ferrets will actually do the training for you. Once you have one litter trained ferret, it will train everyone else. Same for tricks and obedience.
Just think for a second, how often do you see Oliver? Not often, he’s in my room unless I bring him to see you. If I didn't bring him out to see you might not even know I had a ferret. This second ferret will be the same. Please understand its not a huge deal to have multiple ferrets. Imagine Oliver was a hermit crab, if I added a few hermit crabs**** to my tank would there be any difference in cost or care? No not really, once you have a system you keep that system with no added fees. When I got Oliver it was costly because I was still getting on that program. Now, I am that program. Getting a second, or even a third ferret would not affect you in a negative way. They eat so little food it doesn't even have a dent in the bills. Each week I take a drinking glass and take one scoop of cat food and that lasts a week, he eats very little. I think that since i’m the caregiver I should decide how many ferrets I can handle.
To continue, I think the high cost of a ferret deters you from allowing me to get more. While yes they are exotic pets they are easy to care for pets. Some hermit crabs and fish cost well over $100. The high cost of ferrets is because they are difficult to breed and have a high demand so pet stores can charge more. Don’t let the cost steer you away. Ferret’s aren’t like cats. Getting an additional cat costs a lot more monthly, an additional cat is a big deal*****. But an additional ferret is like getting another frog******, fish,******* or hermit crab. I already have the supplies its really not that big of a deal,
The ferret won’t just be fun for me, it will be fun for Sam******** and oliver. 2 ferrets is twice the fun, me and sam will have so much fun with them. Sam loves Oliver, he is always playing with him. Imagine the joy on his face when hes playing with 2 carpet sharks. And Oliver will have so much fun with a friend of his own. I am even planning to bring oliver to Petco so he can pick out the friend he wants.
So please mom let me get this Christmas present, I understand it would be my only present from Nana and Lizzy. Please mom, It would mean a lot, the Magic 8 ball said yes, can you too?
*The best day -- in anticipation that the second ferret will be joining the family on Friday. **The niece already has a ferret. Whose name is Oliver. Oliver Dixon, actually: I chose the Dixon. For Daryl. This plea is for a second ferret.
***Oliver may or may not be sick. Diagnosis so far has been by Internet.
****She also has hermit crabs. I've lost track how many. *****Current cat count: three. ******Frog count: two. *******Well, there are the fish in the pond that used to be a hot tub. And the multiple tanks in the house. Mainly beta fish. Count? A lot. ********Sam is my nephew. His name isn't Sam. Names were changed, remember? Did the letter work? Well yes, it did!
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Notice Owen on top of the motorhome saying, "Swear swear." This one came with a letter that said, "My favorite part was when Popeye and Elvis were spitting and swearing into the ditch because when Mrs. M read that part, I burst out into laughter because I did not expect it to happen."
This one was signed by Hudson, Jack and Luke and included, "P.S. Hudson is one of seven rowdy kids."
And of course I love this one because she says, "It is the best book in the world!"
This is one of those books that always shows up on 1000 Books to Read Before You Die lists. It's been on my radar in that capacity for a long time, but at the same time, it's a series of letters between a writer and New York and a used bookstore in London. And it's not fiction. Really, 1000 Great Books?
But, I finally picked it up and read it.
Oh my God you guys... GO READ THIS BOOK.
First off, it's short. I mean, it's 112 pages long and the letters are short, so there's lots of white space. I read it in under two hours, and that was with a crazy 4-year-old running around me.
Second off, it's HILARIOUS. I mean, check out of how the letter from November 18, 1949 starts. There is no salutation, just the date and:
WHAT KIND OF A BLACK PROTESTANT BIBLE IS THIS?
Kindly inform the Church of England they have loused up the most beautiful prose ever written, whoever told them to tinker with the Vulgate Latin? They'll bur for it, you mark my workds.
It's nothing to me, I'm Jewish myself....
I enclose $4 to cover the #3.88 due you, buy yourself a cup of coffee with the $.12
Eventually through her book orders and resulting criticism, she becomes friends with everyone in the shop and starts sending regular holiday care packages with eggs and meat and other things that are still scarce due to post-war rationing.
I love the October 15, 1951 letter
WHAT KIND OF A PEPYS' DIARY TO YOU CALL THIS?
this is not pepys' diary, this is some busybody editor's miserable collection of EXCERPTS from pepys' diary may he rot.
PS. Fresh eggs or powdered for Xmas?
The letters keep original capitalization and punctuation. It's a great love letter to bookstores and books and a wonderful friendship and story that evolves. It's funny and heart-warming and utterly charming in a non-twee way.
GO READ IT.
Book Provided by... my local library
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My mom was something like a mommy-blogger, in 1973. From the time I was two to two-and-a-half, she wrote these astoundingly detailed letters about our lives and me and Miami, typed them up in quintuplicate, and mailed them to the whole family. I have multiple copies of some of them.
They’re an amazing resource for my book, and they prove, as she’s always claimed and I’ve doubted, that I was talking in complete sentences when I turned two. Apparently I was also always concerned with remembering everything that happened.
On the one hand the letters make me happy, because I can verrrry hazily remember some of what she describes, and because they’re so full of pride and love, but they also make me sad, because I can see how lonely she was.
I awoke around 8:45am and your other mother was just returning from a walk with her sweet dog. The two of them sauntered up the stairs, stopping every few steps to trade smiles and tail wags. There was a package in tow. The mail had arrived early for Saturday.
I rolled over in bed and perched myself on one elbow. I placed a pair of eyeglasses on my nose and accepted the slim box. It was addressed to “The Tiny Redhead’s Parents” with no return label. I peeled back the brown paper and inside were a letter and photo. I began reading.
I feel so canned these days.
I stopped reading and moved my eyes quickly to the signature.
I love you,
Back to the top, I observed the date: 2005.
I looked at the photo. It was an 8” by 10” color print of your other mother, me and your grandmother. We were at the beach. We were standing apart, each of us filling a separate corner of the frame.
I looked back at the words, but I failed to achieve focus. Somehow Mum has written a coherent letter eight years ago and then crafted a way to delay delivery until nine months after her death.
A river of tears came up from the center of my heart.
I awoke again. It was 8:45am and your other mother was just returning from a walk with her sweet dog. The two of them sauntered up the stairs, stopping every few steps to trade smiles and tail wags. The bedroom door cracked open and they peeked in to say good morning. There was no package in tow.
“I had such a vivid dream just now,” I said. The river of tears quickly changed places from my heart to my eyes to my cheeks to my pillow case. I could only compose short, incomplete sentences. Certain grief tilted my voice toward a higher octave.
“Maybe this is just your mom’s way of saying she’s got her eye on you,” she gently replied. I nodded and closed my eyes. I longed to be asleep. I longer to see my letter again.
Instead I wrapped myself into your other mother’s arms and pressed my face against her neck. I stayed awake. And I dreamt of you.
My apologies for the mistakes, and thanks to those who found them. With regard to the word painter “rope,” I was misled by some dictionary, and while writing about gobble-de-gook, I was thinking of galumph. Whatever harm has been done, it has now been undone and even erased. All things considered, I am not broken-hearted, for over the years I have written almost 400 posts and made considerably fewer mistakes. And now to business.
The letters of the alphabet.
One of the questions related to this topic was answered in the comments. Although alphabetical writing attempts to render pronunciation and is therefore from a historical point of view secondary, we hardly know more about its origin than about the origin of language. Every ancient alphabet appears to have been borrowed, but the source of the initial idea remains hidden. According to a credible surmise, A is a natural beginning because it renders or represents the most elementary sound (an open mouth and a yell), but what are we supposed to do with the rest of the sequence?
When people decide that they need more letters, they traditionally add them to the end of the alphabet. This is what the Greeks and the modern Scandinavians did (but it is amusing that Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish letters follow in a different order—so much for the Pan-Scandinavian unity). Some letters drop out, as evidenced by the history of English and Russian, among others. However, examples of an order different from the one familiar to us are not far to seek. One is Sanskrit, another is the Old Scandinavian runic alphabet (futhark). Its strange order (why begin with an f?) has been the object of endless speculation, but a convincing answer has not been found. Each hypothesis explains some oddity rather than the overall system.
Letters often have names. For instance, aleph means “ox,” the runic f was associated with the word for “property” (of which Engl. fee is a distant echo), and so forth. Such names are usually added in retrospect, to facilitate the process of memorization; they can be called mnemonic rules for learners. Our “names” (B = bee, F = ef, etc.) are instances of vocalization. Its history is also partly obscure. I dealt with the name aitch for H in a recent blog. Professor Weinstock cited alphabets in which H and K follow immediately upon each other. See the picture in his article “The Rise of the Letter-Name ‘Aitch’” (EnglishStudies 76, 1995, p. 356).
Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper, India, early 19th c., 4 vols., 795 ff. (complete), 10×20 cm, single column, (7×17 cm), 10 lines in Devanagari script with deletions in yellow, Vedic accents, corrections etc in red. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Definition of literacy.
In my file I discovered a question asked long ago. I doubt that I ever answered it and don’t know whether our correspondent still needs an answer. In any case, I am sorry that I mislaid the letter. Can the American Sign Language (ASL) be viewed as having literacy? “ASL has never been considered as purely oral. It does not have a written system but some of us consider ASL as having literacy.” Judging by the usage familiar to most of us, literacy deals with writing. The person who cannot read and write is “illiterate.” The communities of the past that had no writing systems are sometimes referred to as preliterate (an unfortunate term, for it implies that literacy is a natural state in the development of culture). To the extent that ASL addresses itself to the eye it probably cannot be called a form of literacy. Our correspondent added the following statement: “As you may be aware, literacy is much more than reading/writing. I am trying to argue that ASL with no written system of its own can truly be considered as literate or having literacy. This is not a major concern because approximately 67% of the spoken languages in the world have no written forms.” It seems that, unless we broaden the definitions and make too much of such phrases as computer literacy, in which literacy means “expertise,” and literate as synonymous with “educated, learned; well-read” (he is very literate), ASL cannot be called a literate language. Like several other sign languages, it is a means of communication that bypasses writing.
“Week” and its cognates.
Why does Engl. week have a so-called long vowel, while German has Woche, Swedish has vecka, and so forth, all of them with a short vowel in the root? The oldest form of the word must have been wika. Initial w tended to change the vowel that followed it; hence the labial vowels u and o (as in German Woche). In the Scandinavian languages, w was lost before u and o, which explains Norwegian uke and Danish uge. In the languages in which the vowel did not become u or o, it often became e (o in Woche goes back to e). In Old English, the form was wice ~ wicu, but in Middle English, as in the other Germanic languages, a vowel standing before a single consonant tended to get length. That is why German Name and its English cognate name have long vowels. However, in English, short i and short u tended to resist lengthening, and, if they succumbed to the change, they became long e and long o (long in its etymological sense, that is protracted, with an increase in duration, not as they are understood in Modern English!). Engl. wice became weke (with long e), and this long e changed to ee by the Great Vowel Shift. Similar processes occurred in many Scandinavian dialects. Elsewhere we have only a more open vowel (short e), without lengthening; hence Swedish vecka. The Norwegian and Swedish forms have long vowels, even though it is u rather than i or e. Sorry for an overabundance of technicalities, but here the answer depended entirely on details of this nature.
I should have quoted the letter of our correspondent rather than retelling it. This would have made some comments unnecessary.
“The particular name I am interested in is meleda from Pieter van Delft & Jack Botermans’ 1978 Creative Puzzles of the World: ‘Meleda first appeared in Europe in the mid-16th century and was described by the Italian mathematician Geronimo Cardano.’ Some folk appear to have taken this to mean that Cardano himself used the word but I do not see it in the relevant DeSubtilitate paragraphs which describe the ‘instrument’ in Latin. In fact, at present I have no reference to meleda prior to 1978. Google’s Ngram Viewer suggests major usage only after 1900 but this appears to be an island name and (perhaps) a disease related to it.”
So the puzzle (I mean the earliest recorded use of the word) remains.
If you will and related matters.
Here is an elegant example of will after if. “‘If he [Snowden] wants to go somewhere and somebody will host him—no problem,’ Putin said.” Unfortunately, this is a translation. The Associated Press did not quote the Russian original, and I wonder what Putin meant. I suspect something like …“and if somebody is willing to host him.” Compare another sentence: “If a girl younger than sixteen gives birth and won’t name the father, a new Mississippi law… says…” (also from the Associated Press). Is the sequence justified? And finally, an extract from a letter to the editor: “…if someone—anyone—reading this will think of their family before getting behind the wheel, it wouldbring me some sense of peace.” Does if someone will think mean “please think”? And does would after will sound like today’s standard American usage? It is not my intention to police anyone’s speech habits (let her rip): as a linguist I am just wondering what has happened to auxiliary verbs in conditional clauses.
Yes, of course I am aware of the alternate etymology of vodka, and Chernykh’s two-volume dictionary stands on my shelf next to Vasmer’s and a few others. However, the origin of the word remains unsolved (clearly not “little water”!).
I still have several unanswered questions. Next month!
I've been a very bad blogger this year, mainly because of this, of course. But G's treatments are now done, and we're working toward getting our life back to our "new normal." But first, we're moving apartments this week and packing is exhausting!
As always happens, while packing I've been finding forgotten things, like this letter Grace had sent me back when we were both seniors in high school. I had brought this with me from my parents' house in California a while back because I wanted to quote some of the letter in a talk I was giving, I think.
In it, we talked about boys, of course. I had asked her to send me a boyfriend, so she sent me this guy:
Cute, huh? She named him Roger.
And here are a few snippets from the letter:
"I'm going to illustrate children's books, y'know. That would be so cool. One day when we're all grown up, you'll see in a book store: Illustrated by Grace P. Lin. That would be excellent."
"I wish I could show you my portfolio. Then you could tell me if you think I'm talented. Or then you could lie to me and tell me you think I'm the bestest artist in the world and of course I will make it into RISD."
I wonder if Grace has the letter I wrote back to her. But I'm sure I said something like:
I think you're talented, Grace! You are the bestest artist in the world, you will make it into RISD, and you will become a famous children's book author and illustrator.
There was a review recently on the Publisher’s Weekly blog on a couple of new collections of letters. I love reading collections of letters, there is something thrilling about snooping through other people’s mail. While I am not so very interested in the collections reviewed, the reviewer makes some interesting comments about letters as their very own genre:
Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally ‘to try.’ They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category ‘Letters & Correspondence,’ a subset of ‘Essays & Correspondence.’ Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.
I like the idea of letters as being a literary genre. Perhaps letter writing is the most democratic of all genres, something anyone can do and is guaranteed at least one reader. But while letters can certainly be essayistic, I wouldn’t call them a subset of the personal essay. A letter is its very own thing, encompassing many genres really if you want to get right down to it. Essay, memoir, fiction, creative nonfiction, diary even, they can all be there in letters.
I do love writing letters and reading them too. That might explain why I am excited about a new book by Simon Garfield, To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing. I disagree that letter writing is a lost art, there are still a good many people who do it and do it regularly. Nonetheless, Garfield’s book sounds like great fun, filled with anecdotes, letters and historical interest. The review of the book indicates Garfield takes a bit of an alarmist stance on the demise of the letter but it doesn’t sound so very off-putting that it detracts from the pleasure of the book as a whole. Which I hope is really the case because I requested a copy from the library. They are on order, I am number eight in line and the library system is buying 13 copies so as soon as they are received and cataloged, one will be making its way to me. I think the book will make for pleasant reading in what is already shaping up to be a very cold and snowy month.
No, the image to the left is not a newly discovered picture of Jane Austen. The image was taken from my copy of The Complete Letter Writer, published in 1840, well after Jane Austen’s death in 1817. But letter writing manuals were popular throughout Jane Austen’s lifetime, and the text of my copy is very similar to that of much earlier editions of the book, published from the mid-1750s on. It is possible then that Jane Austen might have had access to one. Letter writing manuals contained “familiar letters on the most common occasions in life”, and showed examples of what a letter might look like to people who needed to learn the art of letter writing. The Complete Letter Writer also contains an English grammar, with rules of spelling, a list of punctuation marks and an account of the eight parts of speech. If Jane Austen had possessed a copy, she might have had access to this feature as well.
But I doubt if she did. Her father owned an extensive library, and Austen was an avid reader. But in genteel families such as hers letter writing skills were usually handed down within the family. “I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper what one would say to the same person by word of mouth,” Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra on 3 January 1801, adding, “I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter.” But I don’t think George Austen’s library contained any English grammars either. He did teach boys at home, to prepare them for further education, but he taught them Latin, not English.
So Jane Austen didn’t learn to write from a book; she learnt to write just by practicing, from a very early age on. Her Juvenilia, a fascinating collection of stories and tales she wrote from around the age of twelve onward, have survived, in her own hand, as evidence of how she developed into an author. Her letters, too, illustrate this. She is believed to have written some 3,000 letters, only about 160 of which have survived, most of them addressed to Cassandra. The first letter that has come down to us reads a little awkwardly: it has no opening formula, contains flat adverbs – “We were so terrible good as to take James in our carriage”, which she would later employ to characterize her so-called “vulgar” characters – and even has an unusual conclusion: “yours ever J.A.”. Could this have been her first letter?
Cassandra wasn’t the only one she corresponded with. There are letters to her brothers, to friends, to her nieces and nephews as well as to her publishers and some of her literary admirers, with whom she slowly developed a slightly more intimate relationship. There is even a letter to Charles Haden, the handsome apothecary who she is believed to have been in love with. Her unusual ending, “Good bye”, suggests a kind of flirting on paper. The language of the letters shows how she varied her style depending on who she was writing to. She would use the word fun, considered a “low” word at the time, only to the younger generation of Austens. Jane Austen loved linguistic jokes, as shown by the reverse letter to her niece Cassandra Esten: “Ym raed Yssac, I hsiw uoy a yppah wen raey”, and she recorded her little nephew George’s inability to pronounce his own name: “I flatter myself that itty Dordy will not forget me at least under a week”.
It’s easy to see how the letters are a linguistic goldmine. They show us how she loved to talk to relatives and friends and how much she missed her sister when they were apart. They show us how she, like most people in those days, depended on the post for news about friends and family, how a new day wasn’t complete without the arrival of a letter. At a linguistic level, the letters show us a careful speller, even if she had different spelling preferences from what was general practice at the time, and someone who was able to adapt her language, word use and grammar alike, to the addressee.
All her writing, letters as well as her fiction, was done at a writing desk, just like the one on the table on the image from the Complete Letter Writer,and just like my own. A present from her father on her nineteenth birthday, the desk, along with the letters written upon it, is on display as one of the “Treasures of the British Library”. The portable desk traveled with her wherever she went. “It was discovered that my writing and dressing boxes had been by accident put into a chaise which was just packing off as we came in,” she wrote on 24 October 1798. A near disaster, for “in my writing-box was all my worldly wealth, 7l”.
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Image credits: (1) Image of Jane Austen from The Complete Letter Writer, public domain via Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (2) Photo of writing desk, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade.
Ms. O'Connor, I'm a 3rd grade teacher at __ School in Irving, Texas. This past Thursday I finished reading How to Steal a Dog to my class. I loved it and have been inspired to make a list of my own…
“How to Know Your Students Love a Book You’ve Read to Them”
1. When they check it out of the library to read it again. 2. When they beg you to keep reading at the end of each chapter. 3. When they keep making connections to it throughout the year. (“Mrs. E, I saw a homeless man and I thought of Mookie!”…) 4. When you hear students call out, “Yes! How to Steal a Dog!” when they see you pick it up. 5. When you look in their faces and can see their emotions as you read it aloud. 6. When you hear their laughter at the funny parts. 7. When you all feel just a little sad when you read the last words aloud because you didn’t want it to end.
On 31 March 1855 – Easter Sunday – Charlotte Brontë died at Haworth Parsonage. She was 38 years old, and the last surviving Brontë child. In this deeply moving letter to her literary advisor W. S. Williams, written on 4 June 1849, she reflects on the deaths of her sisters Anne and Emily.
My dear Sir
I hardly know what I said when I wrote last—I was then feverish and exhausted—I am now better—and—I believe—quite calm.
Anne Brontë by Charlotte Brontë, 1845
You have been informed of my dear Sister Anne’s death—let me now add that she died without severe struggle—resigned—trusting in God—thankful for release from a suffering life—deeply assured that a better existence lay before her—she believed—she hoped, and declared her belief and hope with her last breath.—Her quiet Christian death did not rend my heart as Emily’s stern, simple, undemonstrative end did—I let Anne go to God and felt He had a right to her.
I could hardly let Emily go—I wanted to hold her back then—and I want her back hourly now—Anne, from her childhood seemed preparing for an early death—Emily’s spirit seemed strong enough to bear her to fullness of years—They are both gone—and so is poor Branwell—and Papa has now me only—the weakest—puniest—least promising of his six children—Consumption has taken the whole five.
For the present Anne’s ashes rest apart from the others—I have buried her here at Scarbro’ to save papa the anguish of return and a third funeral.
I am ordered to remain at the sea-side a while—I cannot rest here but neither can I go home—Possibly I may not write again soon—attribute my silence neither to illness nor negligence. No letters will find me at Scarbro’ after the 7th. I do not know what my next address will be—I shall wander a week or two on the east coast and only stop at quiet lonely places—No one need be anxious about me as far as I know—Friends and acquaintance seem to think this the worst time of suffering—they are sorely mistaken—Anne reposes now—what have the long desolate hours of her patient pain and fast decay been?
Why life is so blank, brief and bitter I do not know—Why younger and far better than I are snatched from it with projects unfulfilled I cannot comprehend—but I believe God is wise—perfect—merciful.
I have heard from Papa—he and the servants knew when they parted from Anne they would see her no more—all try to be resigned—I knew it likewise and I wanted her to die where she would be happiest—She loved Scarbro’—a peaceful sun gilded her evening.
The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Charlotte Brontë’s Selected Letters is edited by Margaret Smith, with an introduction by Janet Gezari.
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Image credit: Anne Brontë – drawing in pencil by Charlotte Brontë, 1845. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.