Life’s Worth: The Question of Deserved Biography

               In Christopher Ricks’ “Tennyson’s Tennyson,” Tennyson claims that “The worth of a biography depends on whether it is done by one who wholly loves the man whose life he writes, yet loves him with a discriminating love” (qtd. in Ricks 172). The “discriminating love” helps to answer the question raised by Samuel Johnson: what makes a good biography.  Ricks’ piece extends the question to: who deserves to read a good biography. Tennyson’s idea adds another layer to the questions posed in the study of lives and letters: in addition to asking why read biographies and letters and what makes a good biography, the question of who deserves to read the letters and biographies of a person.

           Tennyson, in reference to Byron, attacks the notion that all secrets are eventually known by saying that what is known is only the public figure, not the actual person (Ricks 172). The people who care only for the gossip of a notable person without knowing beforehand that person’s oeuvre is the type of person that Tennyson finds “profane” and what Ricks would call a “trifling truffle-snuffler” (172). So what purity test can be administered to both readers and writers when it comes to life writing? Must the reader and the writer alike be the type that Tennyson calls for in his quote on biography? Considering Tennyson’s desire to keep his work private (187), I think that perhaps the poet would have preferred Charles Olson’s supposed statements about the closing of Black Mountain College: “Why shouldn’t things stop when they’re over?”

          However, the public will do what they can to learn of the lives of those they admire. It’s possible that Tennyson’s distrust for the undeserving reader (and writer) relates to his son’s inference through Milton that it is impossible to become familiar with a man through a collection of his memories (191). Maybe it is better to consider, as Ricks does, the lives and letters of a man as his offspring: not an exact replica of the person but “formers as well as formees” (191, 204). If the lives and letters of a person are offspring then there is no barrier on who can read about their life, because, as children carry forward the DNA of parents, lives and letters will carry forward a legacy.


Ricks, Christopher. “Tennyson’s Tennyson.” Essays in Appreciation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. 172-205. Print.


Letter Writing as a Method of Discovery: On Herzog’s Epistolary Power

Blog Post #4, Revised

Kate Spies

Letter Writing as a Method of Discovery: On Herzog’s Epistolary Power

What does the letter do for an epistolary novel? What is an example of a letter’s role in this form of literature?

In the third selection of Herzog by Saul Bellow, the protagonist Moses Herzog—middle-aged college professor—is writing to an old tutor, Harris Pulver, about “the inspired condition.” Herzog elucidates this as a state of heightened human self-awareness and artistic freedom; he ties it to the ideals of Romanticism—of obtaining beauty, integrity and a oneness with nature by pushing one’s self to question and to create, and to appreciate the natural world and the artistic self. At this point in the text, ruminating on his current relationships and the state of his society, Herzog has been considering the notion of freedom and the advancement of the modern American man—“The goal, however, is freedom”—and how this relates to an increased sense of self-awareness, and self-expression (Herzog, 203). In gathering his thoughts about the contemporary American man, he explores the idea of “the inspired condition” as a nearly ultimate version of this modern liberty: he writes, “Finally, Pulver, to live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness … is no longer a rarefied project” (Bellow, 205). To that end, Herzog argues that the Romantic goals of knowing one’s self, of searching actively for truth through expression and creation, of building relationships on love (all ideals that I extract from this quote to Pulver) are no longer reserved for poets and spiritual figures—as they may have been outlined in earlier times, when self-exploration was restricted to those who had money and time to create, and indulge in expression (“The gods, kings, poets” as Herzog writes). Rather, in obtaining “the ultimate goal” of modern freedom, Herzog argues that the path to “the inspired condition” ought to be followed by the common man.

The conclusion itself is fascinating—I don’t often tie my definition of freedom to the idea of artistic expression—but beyond its intrigue, this moment in Herzog illuminates a powerful instance of the role of letter writing in self-expression and discovery. Within these few pages, composed intermittently of Herzog’s fictional letters (in italics) and the third-person narration, Herzog sits in his room and ruminates on his relationship with Ramona, then transitions into reflecting on modern society and the ideal of freedom, segues into the notion of “the inspired condition” and the importance of creativity, and then concludes by unfastening this ideal from its historic parameters (as a condition reserved for poets, gods, kings) and allocating it to the modern citizen. It is Herzog’s letter writing that allows for this cascade of thoughts and expressive writing: in composing for Pulver, and establishing a fixed, receptive reader to direct his thoughts (Herzog describes Pulver’s “whole-souled blue eyes,” and how he loves him in “his own immoderate, heart-flooded way”), Herzog immediately becomes engaged in the subject he has been considering, intensely processing. Writing for a subject he knows will listen, he takes time to introduce and explore the idea of the “inspired condition,” and to ask Pulver questions, and to circle back with his own answers, and to provide his own evidence for the conclusions that he draws. Even if these letters are never sent, the process that Herzog engages in to construct them delineates an intricate path to understanding, elucidating his thoughts from initial musings on current society, to the notion of freedom, to conclusions about how freedom can be obtained and who can obtain it. This instance solidifies the consequential presence that letters can have in novels; in Herzog’s case, letter writing allows readers to engage with the protagonist’s intimate thoughts and an inner path to discovery.

Between Two Listeners: A Question of Addresser-Addressee Relationship in Epistolary Poetry

Epistolary poetry reconsiders the addresser-addressee dynamic. When the poet dedicates a poem to a specific person, does that constitute a breach of privacy? The poem is meant for public consumption, so a transgression of personal space could not possibly take place in poetic format. I think privacy can be breached in poetic correspondence, just as it is breached in reading private letters; however, like the letters of the early modern English court, epistolary poems, and other poems, are meant to be seen beyond the recipient.

Frank O’Hara’s manifesto “Personism” relates to the epistolary quality of poetry that Bishop and Lowell write.  O’Hara refers to the poem (in a cheeky fashion) as a “Lucky Pierre” situated between the writer and the reader. The poem, especially the epistolary kind, is then an entrance into the privacy of others. O’Hara points out the simplicity of writing a poem in this style: “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears)” (633).When he first realized the concept, he also realized that “if [he] wanted to [he] could use the telephone instead of writing a poem” (634). The poem, like the letter, has a gap between writing and reading––and responding–– that allows the poem to be its own entity, existing between the writer and reader. The epistolary poems of Bishop and Lowell function in a similar fashion to O’Hara’s personism.

While “The Armadillo” and “Skunk Hour” show a direct intercourse between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop (because both are addressed in the beginning), the two poems also allow for interpretation of the connections between the two poets or poems. Each poem has reached a level of poetry, like Lucky Pierre, where they exist on their own between two readers. Two of those readers are of course, Lowell and Bishop, but they are also the reader and the poet abstract. The poem, or letter, becomes a space on which ideas exist between times, standing alone without added context.

The epistolary poem is the re-envisioned court letter. It exists as a form of correspondence to the individual but also functions as an address to the crowd. It allows for the private understanding of a few, and broader interpretations of others. From Horace’s epistolary revolution to O’Hara’s personism the question of addresser-addressee reaches a level of synergy where the letter-poem has now become the poem-letter.


O’Hara, Frank. “Personism: A Manifesto.” Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994. 633-4. Print.

A Journey Away from Youth

“The Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje is a story about an 11-year-old boy who boards a ship to England and encounters many adventures along the way. In the beginning of the book the narrator, Michael, seems to be describing a disconnection between who we were as children and who we have become. In the opening paragraphs he says, “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was,” suggesting that he is perpetually traveling further away from his childhood.
By attempting to remember this younger person, Michael may be reflecting on choices he has made throughout his life. Looking back would he like the person he became? Would he recognize the person he was as a child and would they still have anything in common?
A passage later in the novel suggests that falling in love is dangerous and it is something you should be saved from. This comes from a letter from Perinetta to Emily years after their time on the Oronsay.

“Where are you, dear Emily? Will you send me your address, or
write to me? I wrote this to give-to you during our time on the
Oronsay. Because, as I said, I had become aware that like me
in my youth, you were under someone’s spell. And I thought I
could save you. I’d seen you with Sunil from the Jankla Troupe,
and it seemed you were caught up in something dangerous.
But I never gave it to you. I feared . . . I don’t know. All these
years I have wondered about you. If you got free. I know that I
became for a while dark and bitter to myself, till I escaped that
circular state. “Despair young and never, look back,” an Irishman
said. And this is what I did.
Write to me,
The letter from Perinetta signals a shift in the novel. The letter is written years after their journey on the Oronsay, instead of living the journey as children they are making sense of what they saw on the ship. Falling in love is a sign that you are moving away from childhood and beginning a new chapter in life. In her letter Perinetta says that she wonders it Emily ever “got free,” as if love is something that traps her. When Perinetta quotes an Irishman saying, “Despair young and never, look back,” it is indicating that when you lose youth never look back which would suggest that coming into adulthood is something to look forward to. However, the author has placed punctuation between the words “never” and “look” which create two different thoughts entirely. By separating the two thoughts the reader could come away thinking that the Irishman meant, never lose youth and look back often. If that were indeed what the author meant to do it would tie the reader back to the first paragraphs where the narrator reminisces about the boy who was on the ship.

Who is Charles Dickens?

The New York Review of Books article, “Who is Charles Dickens,” by Robert Gottlieb, reviews several biographies of Charles Dickens. This reading caught my eye immediately because it was easy to relate to a discussion we had in class. In one of the opening paragraphs Gottlieb states:

“There are a few writers whose lives and personalities are so large, so fascinating, that there’s no such thing as a boring biography of them—you can read every new one that comes along, good or bad, and be caught up in the story all over again.”

Gottlieb makes a remarkable statement about Dickens in that paragraph. In class we joked that in order to be a good writer you must live a boring life. Good writers typically spend their time writing which limits their ability to do anything worth writing about in a biography, one would think. Gottlieb’s statement, however, depicts Dickens as being so extraordinary that even a poorly written biography about him is worth reading. Gottlieb quotes Longfellow who wrote after Dickens death that

“I never knew an author’s death to cause such general mourning” […]“It is no exaggeration to say that this whole country is stricken with grief.”

For Longfellow to say an entire country is grief-stricken because of Dicken’s death is a huge compliment, but it nevertheless sounds overblown. The placement of the quote from Longfellow and the paragraph above is phenomenal. Reading about how interesting and well-respected Dickens was engages the reader and makes them question why he was such a fantastic person to write about; it makes you want to read on.

Yet Gottlieb also reveals that Dickens may not be the loveable, joyous man that England portrayed him to be. After his death Dickens own daughter Katey stated in a letter to George Bernard:

“If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me.”
Why would Dickens own daughter make such a request? Some answers to that question may be found in Dickens character David Copperfield. Gottlieb says,

“Forster told the world much that it did not know, most startling the story of the twelve-year-old Charles’s degrading (to him) employment in the blacking warehouse off the Strand to which his family’s near destitution had condemned him. He adapted this experience for David Copperfield, but no one not even his children had known that it was autobiographical.”

The public viewed Dickens as a Robin Hood of his time; he wanted to help the poor and advocated against slavery. In the public eye he was an outstanding citizen and a phenomenal writer. Dickens toured the United States making speeches expressing his opposition to slavery and his support for additional reform. However, the public did not see the person Dickens was behind closed doors. Dicken’s novels, although fictional, reveal a lot about himself. Dickens faced many challenges in his life, and although he was a successful writer, most of his personal relationships were strained and he suffered many loses most notably the death of his daughter. After his daughter’s death Dickens separated from his wife; these events accounted for a shift in his writing. Dickens writing began to reflect a darker world view; perhaps the way he truly viewed the world. A letter to Dicken’s daughter Katey says,

“All I can tell you is that your father was neither a storyteller like Scott, nor a tittle-tattler like Thackeray: he was really a perplexed and amused observer like Shakespear.”

Dickens observed the world and recorded how he perceived things. Dicken’s did not tell stories based on fiction, he wrote from life experiences and his characters reflect who he was; the person he hid from society.

Donald Hall

Epistolary Poems


            I enjoyed reading some epistolary poems in class, particularly Letter in Autumn by Donald Hall and I also listened to the Letter with No Address also by Donald Hall (posted on blackboard). I don’t normally like long poems, especially ones that don’t rhyme but I really enjoyed these two. Both poems deal with the very relatable subject of loss, which keeps me interested, but I most liked that these poems were written in epistolary form. You can feel an immediacy of emotion in these poems because their form gives Hall a lot of freedom, he can speak directly to the person he is writing about instead of an audience, we don’t need to know all the back story because what really care about in these poems in the raw emotion, the relationship between Hall and his wife, and the hollow feeling of loss.


            I cannot discard

Your jeans or lotions or T-shirts.

I cannot disturb your tumbles

Of scarves and floppy hats.

Lost unfinished things remain

On your desk, in your purse

Or Shaker basket. Under a cushion

I discover your silver thimble.

Today when the telephone rang

I though it was you (Letter in Autumn)


This stanza is a good example hollow feeling of loss that Hall demonstrates using the epistolary form. I don’t think that this effect could be achieved as well with out it because the scarves, hats, thimble, and all the other small details Hall mentions don’t mean anything to the reader, but they mean something to him and his wife and this clearly shows their strong relationship was.


While I was listening to Letter with No Address I found myself having a pretty strong emotional reaction, which is uncommon for me when it comes to poetry.  In this poem Hall doesn’t put as much emphasis on everyday objects, but he does talk about their memories and important people in their lives. Again, this is all back-story that the reader only cares about because it shows the close bond between Hall and his wife.


Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.
Driving home from Tilton,
I remember how you cherished
that vista with its center
the red door of a farmhouse
against green fields.


This stanza shows the empty loss that Hall is feeling and it also shows how he sees his wife everywhere. Every thing he sees is tied into her, or into a memory that they share, and he consistently illustrates this using the epistolary form. Seeing this one sided conversation tells more from Hall to his dead wife shows more about their relationship and they way he felt about her more than any other form could. 

Essay: A Response

John Barth’s use of the epistolary form in Letters: A Novel certainly veers away from the form used by Samuel Richardson and Aphra Behn. Of course, the novel also owes its form to these early writers. Barth does honor Richardson with Lady Amherst’s labeling the author as Mr. B, the aggressor for Pamela’s virtue in Richardson’s novel; however, even this nod to the past has a reversal of roles with the aged woman attempting to circumvent the author’s laurels for her own benefit. The opening chapter is also Barth’s way of mocking the posturing he sees in academia, with its honorary degrees and political battles for power. Regardless of the motives behind his resurrection of epistolary narratives, Barth manages to honor the form’s origins throughout.

Unlike Aphra Behn’s Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, in which the author uses the romanticized love letter, Barth uses the business cover letter to bring forth a story. The plot that Germaine unfolds to the author is full of the intrigue that Love Letters portrayed (and perhaps less dry too) with political power plays for University, and (local) congressional authority. The invitation, however, is perjured. It is an honest perjury since the writer admits her motives, but it is a perjury nonetheless because without the addendum of a postscript it was deceitful to offer the degree.  By openly admitting the deception involved, it harkens back to stories like Behn’s, with Philander’s extramarital practices, the opening letter to Barth’s work admits the lack of felicity in letter writing.

Barth also hides references to Pamela, throughout the opening letter in the form of expectant puns. Aside from the obvious Mr. B moniker, Lady Amherst “must trust not to miscarry” (5) weaves a “tail like the spermatozoon’s far outmeasures its body” (11) and she “conceived [her] vow…to speak its own miscarriage” (4). The number of pregnancy references must relate in some way to Richardson’s Pamela, who frets over the dangers of birth in her own letters. The author then takes Germaine for his own creation, as Lady A, perhaps a 20th century Mr. B?

Barth not only honors and revives the epistolary novel, he also reminds the reader about its shortcomings. Barth makes the reader wait for 50 pages before he shows return correspondence to Germaine’s invitation. He reveals the extra level of perjury in his letter to the reader that epistolary novels will not necessarily have been written when they claim to be. Above all, Barth reminds that “every letter has two times, that of its writing and that of its reading, which may be so separated, even when the post office does its job, that very little of what obtained when the writer wrote will still when the reader reads” (44). Jack Spicer claims that “Time does not finish a poem” (162), so perhaps the question to end on is: Does time finish a letter?


Barth, John. Letters: A Novel. New York: Putnam: 1979. Print.

Spicer, Jack. “Imaginary Elegies I-IV.” The New American Poetry. Ed. Donald M. Allen. New York: Random House, 1960. 144-7. Print.