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.


Letter-writing and its Rawness: on Ricks’ Review of Brontë

Kate Spies

Blog Post #1 – On Christopher Rick’s “Gaskell’s Brontë”, Revised

English 402 – Lives and Letters


I am coming to picture letters like they are cupped pairs of gentle hands; a strange simile, maybe, but I am seeing more and more how these texts hold small, trivial, and fleeting things in their details, even more so than other texts we grapple with in our undergraduate English classes. The minutiae and immediacy of everyday life is preserved in the ink of John Adam’s scrawlings to Abigail, for example or in Charlotte Brontë’s letters to Elizabeth Gaskell. Adams writes about his questions regarding the growth of the army in 1776 in letter #119 (“Will your brother enlist?”), and he urges that Abigail write to him, at least a few lines, every week –“It gives me many spirits” (198). To that end, an individual’s raw and present being — how exactly they are feeling at that time, what worry is gnawing at them, any trepidations pulsing in their heart about the future, or about what’s just happened — can be kept in place through letters. So as readers, we are given a chance to sit down next to these writers and peer a bit around the space of their life, for a moment at least; or, to tie back to this simile that has been swirling around in my head, we’re given the opportunity to spend time and learn from the handfuls of rare moments that letters extend to us.


I explored this theme in reading Christopher Rick’s passage on Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Life of Charlotte Brontë.” Consistently, it seems, Ricks finds Gaskell’s work compelling and meaningful because the author is able to express Brontë herself. I write “Brontë herself” because Gaskell seems to continuously include Brontë’s voice — raw quotes from her writings and letters — and thus her emotions, her worries, and her hopes; we can begin to understand how this young woman viewed the world and what her very soul consisted of, firsthand. And this sort of direct knowledge and sharing of Charlotte-essence is made possible because of the stuff of a mailbox; Gaskell had access to Brontë’s letters, and is able to include them in her text. As with the Adams correspondence, Brontë’s letters bring us immediacy, worry, struggle … the direct and palpable emotion of the sister. For instance, Ricks discusses Gaskell’s inclusion of a few lines from Charlotte’s 1849 letter on the dying of her sister, Emily; “Affliction came in that shape which to anticipate is to dread; to look back on grief” (Ricks, 129). It’s a short line pulled from a greater piece, but it’s all that’s needed here I think to depict the intense ache that was triggered in Charlotte, and allow us to even begin to feel that on some level as detached readers. Emily wasn’t dead yet, but Charlotte seemed to operate with a deep ability to know, to predict, and we see that expressed here in her letter, for Emily did die after this, and Charlotte’s ache was valid. Lines like these that help to solidify the theme that seems to be illustrated in most of the letters that we have been engaging with in the epistolary tradition; there is beauty and power in the everyday, and letters help us to gain this presence — even with a character from 164 years ago.

Elizabeth Barrett and the “Perjured Eye”

Kate Spies

Blog Post #2 – On Browning and Barrett, Revised

English 402 – Lives and Letters

I think Elizabeth Barrett grapples with a key conflict that addles the writer, a conflict that we discussed in the first weeks of Lives and Letters: the “perjured eye.” Barrett’s personal struggle may not be with this particular challenge at all — it’s not as if she says it outright, even — but on some level, she expresses to Browning a struggle with her identity as a writer and her place as a being weighed by a powerful, stirred and creative soul. Through her poetry she outlines her difficulty in honestly and naturally depicting both of these selves. How do writers accurately reflect all that they’re feeling to their readers — without being overwhelming or inaccessible? How does one write in a way that is “clear and not commonplace”? as Aristotle writes in Ars Poetica? I link this phrase from the Greek philosopher to the idea of maintaining one’s uniqueness and power in writing, but keeping diction comprehensible and distilled as well. Barrett seems to be rolling these questions around in her head as she composes her poetry, and throws them out to Browning to ponder, too. I am thinking particularly of her comments in one of the first letters in this section, where she references her Italian master and his repetition of the word testa lunga to describe her. It seems he admonished her frequently for “precipitously rushing forward through all manners of nettles and briars instead of keeping the path; guessing at the meaning of words instead of looking into the dictionary and (my favorite), “expecting everything to be done in a minute, and the thunder to be as quick as the lightning.” Young Elizabeth was a brash and impatient little thing. She writes to Browning though, that she feels she still struggles with the force of testa lunga as a writer. She knows the sharp contrast between “the thing desired and the thing attained.” In my understanding, she’s referencing the struggle a writer faces in expressing what she feels and need to share (“the quick’ning of the breath and beating of the heat in pursuit…”) and how this doesn’t always end up on the page.

In linking back to this idea of perjury, I’m wondering if Barrett’s struggle at all relates to the idea of how a writer sometimes feigns, covers, and embellishes, and affects people through writing. This feigning can especially mark letter-writing; in shaping one’s words knowing that there is a specific person in mind, we aren’t always as truthful or complete as we maybe we ought to be. Is Barrett’s frustration with the gap between what she feels (“the thing desired”) and what she writes (“the thing attained”) reflective of the perjured ‘I’ or ‘eye’ of the writer? Is she recognizing this? Her struggle with testa lunga suggests that she doesn’t always form her thoughts completely or accurately in her writing; she moves too quickly (eschewing the dictionary) and is too impatient to maybe write as artfully as she wants. But after grappling with this 1845 letter and Barrett’s recognition of the gap that can sometimes exist between what’s composed in an artist’s head and what gets placed on paper, I am considering if her frustration at all can be linked to feelings she has of being untruthful or of feigning in her writing, of describing with a perjured eye, of twisting her words to better impress or please her readers. Maybe, on some level, she’s aware of this danger in her letters to Browning, too.

Melville’s Understanding of Hawthorne’s Tragic Beauty

Blog Post #3

Kate Spies

English 402 –

 “The Pittsfield Secret Review” –

Melville’s Understanding of Hawthorne’s Tragic Beauty

In an 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melvile writes about The House of the Seven Gables. His comments are focused, official, and his tone seems slightly stilted and critical; I say official because it’s as if Melville is directing his reflections towards a larger audience, and his criticism is tailored to a group of potential readers rather than solely Hawthorne himself. For example, he writes: “It has delighted us; it has piqued a re-perusal… We think the book, for pleasantness of running interest, surpasses the other works of the author” (Melville, 6).  With this use of “us,” Melville draws in other readers to critically consider Hawthorne’s work. We recognize these comments as a divergence from the rest of the letter — something that extends beyond an impromptu correspondence. Indeed, Melville calls his little critique the “The Pittsfield Secret Review.” I’m delighted to share in the secret and engage with this personal conversation between two artists, and to see yet another instance of the emotion and personality of epistolary texts. Moreover, Melville’s confidential exposition is pedagogical in that it comments on the pieces of Hawthorne that he found the most resonating, like Hawthorne’s vivid descriptions, his attention to detail, and most particularly, his ability to incorporate a dark, honest beauty into his words.

Melville’s comments on Hawthorne’s “tragicalness.” suggest an internal darkness and sadness that permeates his writing. Hawthorne’s character Clifford — the ex-prisoner who returns to the house, broken –- seems to be touched by this darkness, Melville writes. And indeed, Clifford has been muddled by his 30 years spent in the cell, and seems to nearly show the trauma of a wounded animal; he weeps and shakes when the Judge character approaches him. To that end there is a solidified darkness shown with the help of Clifford, a weakness and negativity that leads to the underbelly of tragedy that Melville relates to Hawthorne. But in this little gift that is “The Pittsfield Secret Review,” tucked into the epistolary context of this April letter, we’re able to recognize why Melville finds this darkness so intriguing. It’s outlined — yes, Hawthorne has a skill of relaying the tragic and pain of the human experience, he writes — but Melville delves beyond connecting the dots to explain, “Clifford is full of an awful truth.” It is that word, “truth,” that reverberates so much with me. It indicates that Melville associates Clifford’s tragic qualities with veracity and veritas, and an act of honesty and clarity on Hawthorne’s part. Clifford’s condition, and the way that Hawthorne so strongly and elegantly portrays it, is able to teach a reader something about the world around him. Consequently, in reading this correspondence we’re given insight on Hawthorne’s methods but also how they have affected Melville. He writes that he finds the character of Clifford engaging and interesting, but more particularly Melville recognizes him as a character that reflects the truth of the world around him, by embodying the tragedy of the human condition. This aligns with how Melville focuses his later texts; Moby-Dick explores this darkness through Ahab, and the interplay of fate and human will. Melville recognizes that the darkness that Clifford displays and the underlying weakness apply to the human condition in general: “There is a certain tragic phase of humanity in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne.” According to Melville, Hawthorne can convey this expansive trait — this innate quality that colors so many individuals — in his characters like Clifford, and this skill is what distinguishes him.

Working with “The Pittsfield Secret Review” makes me turn to Melville’s work, then; it’s given me insight on what Melville himself is affected by as a creator, and what he feels an artist ought to focus on and to include, as Hawthorne wields his beautiful, aching darkness in his characters and plots.