Saturday, March 8, 2014

Are we poorer for the death of the letter? (Books - The Leonard Bernstein Letters ed. Nigel Simeone)

I used to write 2, 3, and 4 page letters in complete and descriptive sentences to friends, family, and at least a couple of paragraphs to colleagues.  Now I dash off 40 2-line emails a day, and sometimes just 2- or 3-word text messages to friends.  As I read The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a collection of correspondence to and from the maverick conductor, composer, and music proselytizer from 1932 to 1990 edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press, 2013), I wondered if the world had become a poorer place for the death of the letter, or, and perhaps this is even more import, will it be poorer when we try to reassemble the details of the working life, the creative process, or the origin of relationships of our great creators, thinkers, or leaders?  It's not the platform that I see as impoverished, goodness knows that I am an enthusiastic used of digital media.  The loss I fear stems more from the way we use those platforms for correspondence.  It is a loss of the depth with which the writer engaged in the scene, the effort taken to convey ideas, the level of intimacy expressed and sought, that were part of the tradition of letter writing.  Perhaps it's the art of letter writing that I mourn.  Even the physical acts performed: handwriting or typing, the folding of the paper, the addressing of the envelope - communicated intention.  Digital correspondence is stripped of the collateral communicative contents of those acts.  As I enjoyed the richness of Bernstein's working and personal relationships, I saw my understanding of the man, his process, and his collaborations grew.  Sure email saves time, but in not taking that time something is also lost.

Anyhoo, there are so many levels on which to appreciate Bernstein in this volume - son, parent, sibling, student, mentor, artist, husband, Jew, American, traveler, lover, friend.  He is certain and groping, bitchy and warm, wise and naive, generous and selfish, feverishly industrious, and endlessly seeking rests in warm climates. Maybe it is not the letter form itself.  Maybe it is Bernstein's ferocious need for companionship that makes him such a rich writer, as it is just one more way to connect.  As he writes to his college friend Kenneth Ehrman in 1939:
You may remember my chief weakness - my love for people.  I need them all the time - every moment.  It's something that perhaps you cannot understand: but I cannot spend one day alone without becoming utterly depressed.  Any people will do.  It's a terrible fault.  And in New York, the people who would fill that place with me would inevitably be those wretched people who haunt the Village Vanguard by night, and each other's studios by day, and act positively in only one way - as a destructive and retarding force in their societies.  This, by the way, is not bitter or dramatic in any way.  But it is this great horror of taking my place with these people, and becoming an"artist" that half kills me.   
Methinks the lady protests a bit much, but he was 21 years old at that writing. 

His correspondents include movie stars, First Ladies, lyricists, choreographers, fellow conductors, a veritable Who's Who of American composers.  They are noticeable for a facility with and joy of playing with words. From lyricist Adolph Green from Hollywood, 1943
Hollywood is the weirdest country in he world.  I'm only afraid you would love it here.  One day Aaron [Copland] & I were envisioning the way you might take to it - a mad swirl of parties and gatherings, with you the life of the [party]. Then you awakening in the morning with a hangover - or fluff on your lungs, a fly on your tongue, etc., etc. - and filled with remorse. "My God, I'm not getting any work done - Oh God, what the hell am I doing - it's fantastic, I'm not accomplishing anything.  Oh, my God!"

Of course, I should not talk.  Almost everyone I've ever known is out here and everyone is rich as Croesus, and life for me has been that self-same swirl - not terribly mad but the liquor and the thick steaks flow.  It's a terribly unreal life out here, if you with prosperous people who've decided you're a comer & sort of take you up. At first your conscience bothers you that these swimming pools and groaning boards exist while the whole world is starving and dying &generally tightening its belt.  After a while, you relax & enjoy it...
Some of them, in addition, are prophetic, as this one from Aaron Copland around 1940.
Dear Pupil
What terrifying letters you write: fit for the flames is what they are.  Just imagine how much you would have to pay to retrieve such a letter forty years from now  when you are conductor of the Philharmonic.  Well it all comes from the recklessness of youth, that's what it is. Of course I don't mean that you musn't write such letters (to me, that is), but I musn't forget to burn them...
A flirtatious and mutually admiring exchange between Bernstein and actress Bette Davis is simply delicious.  Those between Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre reveal the depth of love that existed in their devoted but complicated marriage (that Bernstein was gay was no secret).  Jacqueline Kennedy writes touchingly and appreciatively of Bernstein's musical choices for her brother-in-law Robert's funeral.  Bernstein writes a truly loving tribute to his dear friend Aaron Copland on his receipt of the Kennedy Center honor.  Journalist Martha Gellhorn writes a heartfelt critical appreciation of West Side Story, and Stephen Sondheim a lengthy description of the original Broadway cast recording session that are, by themselves, worth the price of admission.

That Bernstein's body of correspondence could fill nearly 600 pages was never burdensome, I was only left wanting more, which, editor Nigel Simeone informs us, is entirely possible.  I am thankful that Bernstein not only lived in an era when one wrote juicily newsy letters, but when one kept them. As lyricist Betty Comden writes to Bernstein in 1950
Dearest Lenny
Knowing, as I now do, that you save every scrap of correspondence you get, from Koussevitzky's pages on life, music, and your career - to Auntie Clara's hot denunciations of meant, I write this letter with the full burden of realizing that it must top my incomparable "Musicraft"...  As if this were not enough, I have the added load of trying to tell you what has been happening these last weeks with you so far away - and successfully bridging the gap of time and miles.  Need I add that when I say "I", I am really referring to a certain dark fellow [Adolph Green] as well as myself - although somehow, through some odd trick of fate, it is I, only myself, who is stuck with actually writing the letter. 
 Thank goodness she did.


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I have so many thoughts about this post. I do think there is something special and nostalgic and romantic about written letters. But I think the thing about letter writing that makes me most wistful is how much slower everything went. Although I love the immediacy of digital communication (or even the old fashioned rotary dial phone), I don't think we need to be as connected as we are to live meaningful lives. In fact I think the immediacy of modern communication only inflames my OCD. I stress and obsess about things today that I never used to when word would come via snail mail.

Ted said...

Thomas - You are so right about the pace of life in general. It's interesting that it isn't waiting that's has to be the stressor so much as expecting everything to be instantaneous.