September 2006

Akshay Ahuja

nonfiction

The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O'Hara edited by William Corbett

Unless we find a way to preserve or recover old e-mails, we are likely to see, within our lifetimes, the death of a genre almost as old as the novel: the book of letters. E-mail did not accomplish this alone; letters have been slowly sapped of their vitality by telephones, cars, the airplane, and anything else that has made it easier for people to reach each other without sitting down in front of a piece of paper.

There are some recent, distinguished exceptions to this trend, but strange circumstances were required: continuous travel for Elizabeth Bishop, a debilitating illness for Flannery O’Connor. James Schuyler, for his part, also traveled a great deal (mostly in Italy) and had several convalescent periods after battles with mental illness, so maybe his Selected Letters participates in the final flowering of this genre. His letters to Frank O’Hara, however, gathered in this book, certainly do not, and only serve to demonstrate that letters from one great poet to another will not, as a consequence, also be great.

Schuyler and O’Hara met in 1951, and were close friends until about 1957. For most of this period, it appears, they saw each other often in New York; for a time they actually lived together, and so had no need to write letters. The correspondence began in 1954, but Schuyler’s contributions are usually months apart; the bulk of the longest letters are from when he was traveling in Europe. The book ends with a few years of desultory letters from Maine and New York, after O’Hara had moved to another part of town. Here is a thoroughly representative sample:

Bill Weaver and I riotously agreed that it was utter tragedy that we weren’t there to scour your puss in Rome until you said, “I love it, uncle.” I saw Bill at a Welcome Weaver, Farewell [Grace] Hartigan shindig night before last that was quite a little something. Are you aware, chérie, that not only are Jane and Bobby Isaacson pfft, but so are Arthur Weinstein and Bobby F. [Fitzdale], and that Bobby I. and Arthur W. are living together?

Et cetera. The majority of the book consists of cleverly written anecdotes about a huge number of people -- identified, one after another, in footnotes -- who I at least found impossible to keep straight. Otherwise, we get gossip, a catalogue of books read, movies seen, meetings arranged, and updates on the progress of work and travel -- very similar, I suspect, to what a random sampling of our e-mails would look like, and just as interesting to an outsider.

Despite the bubbly tone of the letters, it’s clear that Schuyler and O’Hara shared, for these few years at least, a deep bond. Towards the end of the book, Schuyler writes, “and have you noticed that when my life is troubled it’s to you I turn, invariably? I hope you like it and I don’t make you feel like an old pillow.” But this deeper part of their relationship was obviously not explored in letters; it was presumably done in person or over the phone. With the exception of a single passage -- quoted, rather misleadingly, on the back of the book -- Schuyler never even discusses his writing or O’Hara’s in any detail, which for me was the main reason to read this book.

It is also difficult to get a real sense of their relationship, because none of O’Hara’s letters are here. Schuyler refers constantly to them (“your greatest of letters”) but we never even get a summary of what O’Hara wrote. His letters to Schuyler are, perhaps, lost. Since the actual conversation between these two poets is not documented, there strikes me as being very little reason to pluck this set of letters out of Schuyler’s correspondence and publish it separately. There are a few lovely lyrical sentences here, some hilarious nicknames, and a window into the friendships between gay men, which are certainly of a singular variety; but while a couple of the letters in this book probably belong in Schuyler’s Selected Letters, the rest are for his biographer. Anyone who wants to understand and appreciate the relationship between these two men would do better reading the wonderful poems they dedicated to each other.

No one expects an artist’s letters to be of the same eminence as his art. What we do expect to find is a whole person, one who seems capable of creating his or her work, even if this person is different from the one we might have imagined. Nearly every great artist in the 19th and early 20th centuries left behind such a legacy in letters. It is disappointing, then, to find in these pages a writer who seems so much smaller and sillier than what he created. This is not to insult Schuyler, just to indicate that these letters only let him show a tiny portion of himself. He was living through a period when written communication was losing its centrality, and it is unfair to expect much of a portrait from what are essentially a bunch of dashed-off postcards. When posterity comes looking for us -- even assuming that they succeed in retrieving our e-mails -- we are unlikely to come off much better.
 
The Letters of James Schuyler to Frank O’Hara edited by William Corbett
Turtle Point Press
ISBN: 1885586485
83 Pages