Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History Part I: Thomas Mann-Herman HessePosted: March 12, 2014
Books with collections of letters written by prominent artists, writers, thinkers, politicians, psychotherapists etc. are rich sources of knowledge which help us to understand different aspects of human nature such as love and friendship and others.
This literary genre allows readers to explore various facets of the personality and temperament of especially those who disguised they true nature or were distorted in their biographies which are sometimes full of lies and self flatteries.
Most of the published letters contain personal exchanges between people that dedicated time and passion to correspond with their lovers, families, friends and so forth. Such material reveals the personality, mood, taste, and personal challenges of the letter-writers. It also gives us the opportunity to get to know the atmosphere of their times and in some cases what was happening when the letters were written, including the spirit of their times, i.e. Zeitgeist.
In general, published correspondences were kept and organized by the writers and/or the addressees, and after their death, these writings passed on to their families or friends, which sometimes resulted in their ending up in museums or foundations or private collections. These institutions or individuals that are in possession of the collections sometimes license the rights to publish books with selections made by experts or authors’ close relatives, who sometimes provide the context of the letters.
Letters also serve as an important source of information for biographers who can quote the writers directly expressing their own voices and intimate feelings that are always relevant for the readers to understand a writer’s character. For example, the controversial Russian author Lou Andreas-Salome used letters to support the biographies on the life and works of Frederick Nietzsche and passionate poet Rainer Maria Rilke respectively, both were romantically linked to her in their lifetime.
There are also many examples of fictional letters that are regularly used in novels as part of a plot, including Ian McEwan’s recent novel “Sweet Tooth” in which letters form an essential part of the story. Fictional letters are also used in The Flash and Outbreak of a Fiery Mind by Dale M. Moyer Ph.D. who published the imaginary correspondences that “Martha Bernays wrote to her fiancé, Sigmund Freud during the four years of their engagement.” Irving Yalom in his novel When Nietzsche Wept used letters from this famous philosopher to build up a fictional story based on real life events.
We find multiple examples of films in which letters play a central role in the story. A good example is The Go Between (1970) by Joseph Losey where in the summer of 1900, a 13-year-old boy helped to carried letters between two secret lovers. The film is based on a novel by L.P. Hartley with the same tile.
Likewise, the form of letters is used in plays such as Vita and Virginia by Eileen Atkins, which is heavily based on the intelligent and passionated letters between the two British writers Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf who exchanged letters for some 20 years until Woolf’s suicide in 1941. Actresses Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins payed the two writers when the play was premiered in New York in 1994.
I would like to mention a few collections of letters, mainly from some letter-writers who lived between the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, a turbulent era with two devastating World Wars but at the same time full of creativity and romanticism.
I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, the two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and the arrival of Hitler’s arrival to power.
(To be continued)