The Written Word: Authors' Thoughts in Their Own Hand
Think back to the last time you wrote something down. Not typed it out but, wrote---with your hands, on a piece of paper, for an extended period of time to complete a thought. Chances are it has been a while.
Technology and literature is something we talk a good deal about at the NEA: how readers consume literature in the digital era; how publishing is evolving during a print-on-demand schedule; how technology and the reader can live in harmony. But what about the physical act of writing? The art of letter-writing and correspondence has transformed alongside technology to a point where pens have become optional.
Letters, however, have something unique to them---tangibility. The American Memory Project from the Library of Congress uses the tangible record created by letters to provide special insight into the thoughts and ideas of our country’s great authors, among other notable Americans.
We did some digging through the project’s manuscript division, and found the raw connection between the power of the written word with the physical hand of the writer. We found some funny, charming, and historically relevant letters from our literary heroes. Here are our top five:
1.) Robert Frost’s edits to "Dedication," the 1961 presidential inaugural poem for John F. Kennedy
On January 20, 1961, poet Robert Frost was scheduled to deliver his poem, “Dedication.” The version below contains Frost’s own edits and is addressed to his friend, Stewart L. Udall, Kennedy's secretary of the interior and reads: “For Stewart from Robert on Day, Jan. 20, 1961.” Udall was not expecting Frost to pen an original poem since the poet traditionally shied away from commemorative work. However, Frost was determined to create a new poem for the event. Sadly, “Dedication” would never be read during the inaugural events. The glare from the sun and snow blinded the poet and he was forced to rely on memory to recite “The Gift Outright” instead.
Robert Frost's notes from his presidential inaugural poem "Dedication" for John F. Kennedy. Page 1. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
Robert Frost's notes from his presidential inaugural poem "Dedication" for John F. Kennedy. Page 2. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
Robert Frost's notes from his presidential inaugural poem "Dedication" for John F. Kennedy. Page 3. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
2.) Helen Keller’s poem, "Autumn," dedicated to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, 1893
Thirteen-year-old Helen Keller drafted and dedicated the below poem, “Autumn,” to her respected teacher, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell in 1893. According to the American Memory project, Keller attributed her use of finger spelling and first association with the naming of things and people to Bell’s guidance, and later described this realization as "the door through which I should pass from darkness into light."
Helen Keller's poem "Autumn" dedicated to Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, 1893. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
3.) A Letter from Ernest Hemingway to Archibald MacLeish regarding the mental health of Ezra Pound, 1943.
Great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway, wrote this letter in reply to poet and friend Archibald MacLeish on August 10, 1943. A few weeks earlier, MacLeish had sent “Pappy” Hemingway radio transcripts of remarks from their mutual friend, Ezra Pound, who publically supported the Axis powers and fascist ideas of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The American Memory Project shares that MacLeish’s original letter suggests to Hemingway that "drivel" better describes Pound’s wartime rants than "treason." Hemingway agrees Pound was "crazy," but should “not be hanged and not be made a martyr of" and notes that as early as 1935, the last time Hemingway saw Pound, that the poet was “moderately whacky.” However, Hemingway’s letter also speaks, in a rather broken prose, to the power of the letter between Hemingway and MacLeish themselves: “Whatever you do if you have time keep on writing to me. Feel as though had an old friend back from the dead where, unfortunately, most of old friends now are.”
4.) The First Draft of Langston Hughes's poem "Ballad of Booker T.," 1941.
Langston Hughes, American poet, social activist, and novelist, takes on the influence of Booker T. Washington and the political liberation of African Americans. In the work, Hughes “stresses the fact that Washington wanted to train the head, the heart, and the hand.” Outside the first draft that is seen below, the American Memory Project has original copies of subsequent drafts and the finalized poem that allows a unique look at the poet’s creative process. See the link below the original draft to view the additional manuscripts.
First draft of poem "The Ballard of Booker T." by Langston Hughes, 1941. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
5.) Letter and corrected reprint of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain," 1888.
Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” from 1865 was famously inspired by the death and assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It quickly became widely distributed, and was reprinted in countless anthologies. In its reproduction however, the work was often misprinted on account of various draft revisions. Below is a letter and edits written directly on a ripped out page of one such anthology, Riverside Literature Series No. 32, by the poet. As the American Memory Project notes, the poet writes: “Thank you for the little books, No. 32 ‘Riverside Literature Series’ --- Somehow you have got a couple of bad perversions in "O Captain," and I send you a corrected sheet." The opposite side of the letter includes Whitman’s edits directly on the misprinted poem leaving no room for miscommunication of the editor’s errors.
Letter and corrected reprint of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain," 1888. Page 1. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.
Letter and corrected reprint of Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain," 1888. Page 2. Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress and the American Memory Project.