Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History. Part II. Rilke, Kafka, Van Gogh, Freud, Churchill, Lennon

Screenshot 2014-03-18 11.19.41Part II

…. I will provide some of the historic contexts and literary backgrounds, starting with the correspondences between Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse, two renowned literature Nobel Prize winners, including texts that showed their fears during the rise of Nazism in Germany and Hitler’s arrival to power. They wrote about the impact of this dark regime in their literary works as well as their feelings on witnessing the tragedy their own country was going through during those years. Even in the early days of Hitler both authors sensed that something very wrong was happening to their country. As  Thomas Mann mentioned in his letter dated July 1933 to Hesse, “Day by day news from Germany, the deceit, the violence, the ridiculous show of ‘historical grandeur’, the sheer cruelty, fill me with horror, contempt and revulsion”. In 1934 Mann wrote, “I am so plagued by the happenings in Germany, they are such a torment to my moral and critical conscience, that I seem to be unable to carry on with my current literary work.” Hesse, on the other hand, expressed his fear for the safety of his family and close friends, “At the moment any wrath aroused by my name is likely to bring physical mistreatment and other troubles on my friends”, he wrote in February 1937. By contrast, in most of their letters, there are direct references to the books which they were reading and what they were writing at that time. With great eloquence, Pete Hamill wrote an introduction to the latest English re-print edition by Jorge Pinto Books, describing his experience reading the letters, “…I feel like some privileged guest in a special room, sitting off to the side somewhere, listening while these men talk.

To complement the views of these two exceptional writers regarding the horrors which followed Hitler’s destructive path from the early 1930s, there are also some relevant passages in the letter that Winston Churchill wrote to his wife Clementine before the UK’s involvement in World War II, giving his account of the events that had led to the war. These personal letters provide a spontaneous personal description of the challenges that his country and Europe were facing at the time.

In a less somber theme, I find Rainer Maria Rilke’s letters to Lou Andreas-Salome refreshing, under the title “Rilke and Andreas-Salome: a love story in letters” and his own “Letters to a Young Poet”, which include references to poetry and love. The content of these letters show his frankness and desire for intellectual conversations and are full of wisdom, showing at the same time the unique passionate sensibility of this great artist and his immense capacity to express and discuss love.

The same characteristic can also be found in the letters of Franz Kafka to his two lovers, Milena and Felice, to whom he almost wrote daily. From the two collections, we realize that Kafka is not only a great novelist but also a fertile and passionate correspondent.

The collections of avant-garde artist Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, his brother, are full of references to what art and painting meant to him as well as to other famous artists such as Monet and Gauguin.

The extensive correspondence of Sigmund Freud to his fiancé, colleagues, patients, friends and family members show how the Father of Psychoanalysis used letters to share his knowledge and insight of the human condition way beyond his professional realm.

Sending letters in the past required time and patience. Correspondence has its own protocol: once a letter is completed, it is usually sent folded in an envelope and, in some cases, sealed with wax to avoid tampering. Some rich individuals and government officials have their own trusted messengers; others might ask friends or relatives to deliver their letters just to feel more secure. Postal services have existed since ancient times in a relay fashion similar to ours, with one messenger passing letters on to another at a certain post or tavern along defined routes linking different cities and even countries. With the introduction of a more affordable national postal service together with a growing educated and well-traveled middle class in the mid-18th century, letter writing began to flourish with messages exchanged almost globally. That form of communication requires people to wait patiently for weeks before the postmen bring replies to their messages. To illustrate what expecting a letter meant I would like to quote from the final paragraph of one of Mrs. Churchill’s letters to her husband Winston in 1915: “The post will be here in a few minutes & eagerly await a letter from you”.  Sigmund Freud seemed to be frustrated with the slow postal system and complained to Carl Jung in 1911, “I am writing you again this year, because I can’t always wait for you to answer and prefer to write when I have time and am in the mood… “.

An interesting phenomenon of letter communication is the fact that active writers, in general, are highly disciplined and tend to keep organized collections of their letters to make it easy for people to publish them after they die. In some cases, a close family member becomes the editor, as is the case with “The Personal Letters of the Churchills”, of whose selection and editing their daughter Mary Soames was in charge. Likewise, it was Freud’s son Ernest L. who compiled and edited a selection of his father’s letters addressed to Einstein, Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Maria Montessori, Carl Jung, Romain Rolland and many others, under the title The Letters of Sigmund Freud. Most of the editions of the collections of letters in the form of a book are made by scholars who are given access to the archives of the original copies.

Letters of famous people can be valuable tangible assets and kept in museums for safe storage and exhibition. For example, in the renowned Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the letters of Albert Barnes, its founder and collector, to various artists, intellectuals, gallery owners, etc. are displayed with detailed context and background to show how and why some of the art works of the Museum were acquired.

The material value of letters can be confirmed by the regular auctions where many important letters can fetch a big sum of money depending on who the writers are. To give an idea: the price of a hand-written letter from John Lennon to Eric Clapton reached a pre-sale estimate of US$20,000 to $30,000 in an auction by Profiles in History, a leading dealer in original historical autographs, letters and manuscripts. Two days ago the Financial Times published an article about a new sale of another manuscript by Lennon this time at at Sotheby’s for the same estimated price.

Reading these collections gives a glimpse of the richness of the form of the written communication that is being lost little by little with the arrival of modern technology, including personal computers, internet and portable electronic devices such as iPhones and iPads together with many social platforms which have changed the way we read, interact and communicate with others.

The new media to communicate show a striking contrast through a simpler and instantaneous process: messages can be sent soon after finished with a click of a button. Particularly with improved eMail applications in smartphones, correspondences tend to be fast, made even on the road. Computers, smartphones and tablets have replaced ink, paper and typewriters, whereas internet and wireless communications have greatly diminished the role of the much slower traditional postal services.

Today, almost everybody is connected, receiving and sending dozens of emails a day and probably posting notes and photos on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms or messaging services. The new communication styles are tremendously different from those of traditional letter-writing, reserved for private moments.

We can easily imagine that in the near future we will see books with selections of private relevant e-mails by famous people. Some of their e-mails could become valuable items for various reasons. Private disk drives and other storage devices could be worth a fortune. Just imagine the value of a selection of Steve Jobs personal e-mail archive!

The abandoning of physical letter-writing as a communication method replaced by electronic mailing is so unprecedented that Malcolm Jones, the well-known author of book reviews, considers that the “decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not

Bibliography Part I & II:

1. Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann. Introduction by Pete Hamill. The Hesse-Mann letters,1910-1955. Jorge Pinto Books, 2006. http://www.pintobooks.com/rediscoveredbooks2.html


2. Rainer Maria Rilke, Lou Andreas-Salome, Edward Snow (Translator) “Rilke and Andreas-Salome; a love story in letters” W.W. Norton, 1988     https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rilke-andreas-salome-love/id831234644?mt=11

3. Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet. Dover Publications, 2012. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-a-young-poet/id504543167?mt=11

4. Franz Kafka, Letters to Felice, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1988. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-felice/id655193304?mt=11

5. Franz Kafka, Letters to Milena, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 1990. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/letters-to-milena/id655172328?mt=11

6. Vincent van Gogh, The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition, edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten, and Nienke Bakker, Thames & Hudson, London, 2009. http://www.frick.org/exhibitions/van_gogh/theo#sthash.qtsHZYmd.dpuf

7. Mary Soames, Winston Churchill, Clementine Churchill. The Personal Letters of the Churchills.Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.

8. Sigmund Freud. Letters of Sigmund Freud. Edited by Ernest L. Freud. Dover, 1992

9. Peter Aspden John Lennon as writer and artist. Financial Times, March 15, 2014  http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/70227724-a934-11e3-bf0c-00144feab7de.html#slide0

10. Malcolm Jones. The Good Word. Newsweek, January 17, 2009. Link: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/01/17/the-good-word.html


One Comment on “Letters as an Art Form and a Source of History. Part II. Rilke, Kafka, Van Gogh, Freud, Churchill, Lennon”

  1. A most enlightening article on the role of letters to get to know a number of things writers thought would be protected from the public eye. Do we have a right to pry into their correspondence? Well, as long as they didn’t destroy it -some did, by the way- it became part of their legacy and, in all cases, it sheds light on aspects of their work and of their personality, beliefs, and concerns, all of which contribute to our understanding of what and how they wrote. Thank you for sharing this!


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