Coming to America

The third letter written in Letters from an American Farmer explains what it is to be an American. Going into the letter I formed an opinion about what I expected to be reading about. I had all the modern day views of what it means to be an American. When I think America I think freedom, democracy, huge cities, Wall Street, fast food and human rights. In this letter I was brought back to the basics and it really made me think about what people had to go through to get us to where we are today. The letter described America as it was when we first got here. There was no government, no kings to answer to. There were no industries to provide us with work. There were no buildings to live in. Letter 49 says,
“The difficulty consists in the manner of viewing so extensive a scene. He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered”
That passage describes America at the beginning, a whole new world; it describes the challenges and excitement people face when they moved to America.
The letter goes on to talk about the mixture of people who were now known as Americans. I think that is something that was very different from what people were used to. The author talks about how the poor and the rich do not seem so set apart now that they are not in Europe. I can’t imagine living in a world that didn’t have any kind of separation of classes. I am sure that there was some distinction between classes when people first settled in America, but really everyone was on the same playing field. It was a chance to start over and a way of making a new and better life for themselves. Letters from an American Farmer explains what it means to be an American; to live equally in a world where everyone has a voice.


Empson: Telling it like it is

On 24 August 1945 Empson writes to George Orwell about Animal Farm. I really like this letter because it gives us some insight into the editing process of Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution. I personally like to read letters like this because it reminds me that even the best writers need criticism and need to edit. I think it would be really interesting to see the draft Orwell gave to Empson and then see the changes he made based on Empson’s feedback. While reading Empson’s letters I came to appreciate his straight talk, no matter whom he is writing to.  In his letter to Orwell his feedback was direct and to the point. Later in a letter to T.S. Eliot (17 May 1948) Empson is writing to explain a letter he previously wrote which Eliot considered to be “the most insulting letter which I have ever received” (pg. 159)


I am myself a very incompetent man at this kind of thing, and people are always telling me that I am making a muddle, and that my efforts are doing more harm than good. It never crosses my mind to that this is a mortal insult, and that all relations must be broken off for it. I do hope most earnestly that you are not taking this kind of attitude; I never though you were that kind of man at all; it would be a most painful discovery […] it is very bad for a great writer to refuse to be treated like other people […] I am only trying to point out that there are two very clear-cut alternatives. Either I was accusing you of an underhand trick or I was simply complaining that you had let things get into a muddle (pg. 161).


I like that even though he is writing to T.S. Eliot, he is still going to call him out on his temper tantrum and self-righteousness, but he does leave T.S. Eliot a chance to show some humility.


On 05 May 1962 again shows his “tell it like it is” attitude in a letter to Christopher Ricks, “It is extremely kind of you to send me this horrible book [David Holbrook, LLareggub Revisted: Dylan Thomas and the state of modern poetry (1962)] after I had forgotten to ask you for it; I have tried to finish it quickly.


While I was reading these letters I really appreciated Empson’s honesty and straightforwardness because it doesn’t pander to inflated egos. Empson doesn’t take up the whole of his letters trying to figure out the most delicate way to deliver criticism. That being said, through a semester’s worth of reading letters by famous authors I have learned that who you know can be really important, which is unfortunate for Empson, because I can imagine his style didn’t always win him friends.


Source-Empson, William, and John Haffenden. Selected Letters of William Empson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.


Imagination as Truth

John Keats: Letters as Criticism

My initial thought when I read the introductory paragraph before the selections of letters was how surprised I was that Keats was an apprentice to an apothecary-surgeon at the age of 15 It is very impressive that at such a young age Keats was able to understand medical terminology and assist in medical procedures. I was also surprised that Keats left the medical field to become a writer. Keats left the medical field demonstrates how much he loved poetry and writing..
Keats’s letter to Benjamin Bailey on November 22, 1817 starts off by testifying that he cannot write about a subject because he has not had the proper number of years to study it. I am still unsure of about the subject he was asked to write about, but refusing to complete the assignment shows Keat’s commitement to present information as thourughly and acturatily as possible. Keat’. Keats goes on to say that he is certain of nothing but the truth in imagination. This proclamation may be controversial because it seems as though he is suggesting that imagination and love registers more truth than the dictates of religion.
In a letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats describes imagination as truth proclaiming that he has yet to find truth in logic. “The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning—and yet it must be—Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections—However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!”
. This reminds me a lot of the saying that you can do whatever you set your mind to. Keats describes dreams as things that can actually occur in real life, but people need to use their imagination and follow their hearts to achieve their goals. He also makes a valid point that nothing would be accomplished if everyone followed the rules and did everything they way everyone else thought it was suppose to be. If everyone was in agreement that building houses with lights that turned on and off with the flick of a switch, and if nobody ever ventured to try and make electricity a reality, we would still be living by candlelight.

Creating a Relationship with Saul Bellow’s Fictional Herzog Character

In 1964, Saul Bellow published his novel Herzog, which is composed of letters written by the main character, Moses Herzog.  This fictional character goes through some life changing events that the average reader can relate to, whether the reader has experienced the same events, or knows of someone who has.  To cope with reality of his personal mockery, Herzog uses a technique of letter writing to reflect on his own life.


By the age of 47, Moses Herzog had been divorced twice, this second one leaving him angrier and emotionally traumatized than the first one. Not only was his wife conniving, forcing him to move to Chicago and convincing Herzog he was becoming mentally ill, she also committed adultery on her husband.  Now experiencing for the second time, a separation of a woman he was devoted to, it is obvious Herzog is experiencing grief.  To overcome, or to cope, with the travesty in his life, Herzog begins writing letters to what appears to be addressed to the reader of the novel.  The letters may be what helped the man not lose his complete sense of reality: “[h]e was busy, busy in pursuit of objects he was only now, and dimly, beginning to understand,” (128).  The writing of the letters allow him to reflect on his previous marriage, and think back on his life in general. “I am not writing with the purpose of exposing Madeleine, or attacking you.  I simply believe you may be interested to find out what may happen, or actually does happen, when people want to save themselves from…I suppose the word is nihilism,” (129).  These letters may be addressed to an individual, a friend or family member of Herzog, but most of them he writes he never sends out.  They are more of journal-writing exercise.  As we have learned in “Lives and Letters,” letter writing can be addressed to anyone or anything, whether or not it actually is sent; it is still the creative style of letter writing.


Divorce can’t be an easy experience for anyone to go through, let alone experiencing the event for a second time in one’s life.  Love is a hard emotion to break free.  Despite the fictional life of Herzog that Bellow created, this character’s reality is genuine.  Bellow himself was married more than once, therefore, he has a personal connection with Herzog, just as many readers of the novel may.  Herzog’s use of rhetorical letter writing assists with his grieving process, but because of the realism of the plot, the reader of Bellow’s work can make a more personal connection with the text, as if the reader is the one Herzog addressed the letters to.


Saul BellowHerzog

Compatibility of Love Between John and Abigail Adams

The relationship between John and Abigail Adams was nothing but a marriage of true love.  Before they got married, the two had a remarkable exchange of feelings for one another, and John, being of lower class than Abigail, loved her despite her family wealth.  For the first five years of their relationship, the two lovers’ compatibility grew stronger; creating a bond that formed the foundation of their marriage, a marriage that was bonded together by love.  The writing that is compiled in The Letters of John and Abigail Adams is not only correspondence between a man and his wife, but love letters between two devoted individuals committed to their marriage. John and Abigail did not only exemplify the love they shared – as a married couple should have – but the strength of a true friendship, shown by the address of “my dearest friend” and signature of “ever yours” in nearly every letter.

As a lawyer and politician, John Adams was kept from home for quite a long period during the Revolutionary War while Abigail remained domesticated and took care of their four growing children.  The distance was a challenge for John and his wife, especially when the letter writing was interrupted by business disruptions, as well family concerns.  In 1774, John was elected as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, from which he chose to resign in 1783.  Between this time period, he saw his wife and family irregularly.  In 1782 he wrote “My Dearest Friend – I have lived to see the close of the third year of our separation.  This is a melancholy anniversary to me, and many tender scenes arise in my mind upon the recollection” (Letter to John from Abigail, 13 November 1782).  To conclude the collection of letters, in John’s 18 February 1783 letter to Abigail, “I shall certainly return home in the spring.  With or without leave, resignation accepted or not, home I will come, so you have nothing to do but wait to receive your old friend.”

During the separation of John and his wife Abigail, disrupted by Johns career, the two remained true to their marriage.  Although they were unable to correspond as frequently as they would have hoped, they continued to write letters back and forth throughout their entire detachment, until John was to return home to his wife and children.  The continuation of letter writing between John and Abigail Adams exemplifies their devotion to their marriage and their deeply intellectual infatuation.

The Letters of John and Abigail Adams (Penguin).

Henry David Thoreau and Henry James: Dwelling on Nothing

Henry David Thoreau and Henry James: Dwelling on Nothing


            In class we spent some time talking about Thoreau’s idea of practicing yoga, being a yogin, and his response to Blake about being lonely; “No, I am nothing”. While reading through James’s letters letter 47 to his brother William James reminded me of Thoreau’s ideas about wisdom and breaking yourself from conventional life and the cycle of suffering. In this letter James tells his brother William James and is talking about the fast pace of London life.


When it comes to the point, in giving any account of London days & London doings, one hardly knows where to begin, I suppose this is a proof that such days are full, such doings numerous, & that if one could, by a strong effort detach one’s self from them & look at them as objectively, as a person living quite out of it & far away from it like yourself would do – there would be many more things worth dwelling upon than one falls here into the way of seeing (James pg 107).


It seems that he is saying that when he tries to describe life in London, he doesn’t know where to begin, and that’s proof that the days are full, but if you could remove yourself from the city you could think of much better things to do.

            “To dwell on nothing, indeed, comes to be here one’s desire as well as one’s habit – & half the facts of London life are tolerable only because they exist to you just for the moment of your personal contact with them” (James pg 1070). James seems to be saying that to dwell on nothing is ideal, and that the reason why some of the inconveniences of city life are tolerable is because we only think about it in the moment we encounter the inconvenience. James’s idea of nothing does not seem to match up with Thoreau’s and sounds more self-centered. Thoreau seemed to believe that to “be nothing” you had to remove yourself from everything that was unnecessary and surround yourself in more eternal things like the nature.

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.