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MythBlast | The Lively Art of Letter Writing

BY Dennis Patrick Slattery April 7, 2019

Correspondence by Joseph Campbell - coverI have on a wall in my study at home in New Braunfels, Texas, a professionally framed letter from James Hillman to me dated 20 November 2000. It is one of several precious letters I received from him over the years. Nothing lengthy or elaborate, but all of them are thoughtful and carry a warm hue. By the way, they are all hand-written, not typed. Two of them are on The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture letterhead.

 In it James is wondering what part of a review of mine of one of his books that was published in a psychology journal that the review editor could not understand. He also asked me if I could send him what the editor either removed or altered of my typed original and the later published version. He was curious about what they felt needed to be changed from the original and how the two renderings differed.

 But that is not why I took the time and care to preserve this letter “in his own hand,” as we say, framed and hung in a prominent place in my work space. No, it was what he wrote at the end: “Meanwhile, my thanks to you for your many kind and intelligent reviews, as well as your own continued valuable writings. Best, James.”

 I begin this short reflection on letter writing with James Hillman’s kind and extremely valued note to me about my own writing, as a warm expression of appreciation, exhibited in his own cursive hand. It is my lead in to a volume titled, Correspondence: 1927-1987 which Evans Lansing Smith and I worked on for years as co-editors before finally bringing to fruition this year the letters of Joseph Campbell to others as well as letters to him, and about him, spanning the years mentioned in the title. It is a handsome volume by New World Library that joins an expanding list of excellent publications of Campbell’s studies in mythology as well as edited volumes on a variety of  themes from his life-long work.

Joseph Campbell at his home office in Honolulu c. 1987
Joseph Campbell at his home office in Honolulu c. 1987
I may have been thinking of James’ letter above when I wrote the Foreword entitled “Letter Writing: The Imagination’s Personal Genre” (Correspondence, xiii-xvi). There I mused on the personal, informal and more humanly-inflected rhetoric of a letter. Some of the observations I included in the Foreword I want to emphasize in the rest of this short essay.
Letter from Joseph Campbell to critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (and his wife, author Shirley Jackson), 1951
Letter from Joseph Campbell to critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (and his wife, author Shirley Jackson), 1951

First of all, letters most frequently carry affect—feeling and emotion on a different register. A personal letter, directed not at a wide audience but to a specific individual, carries its own vocabulary, its own brand of sentiment as well as its own personal acknowledgement of the recipient. And yes, it can convey sentimentality as well. Letters have as their subject matter the writer’s own feelings, how their own emotional life steps forward to be recognized. Letters seem to convey above other forms of writing a conjunction of both thinking and feeling, such that their affective reality is prominent and carried often in the form of affection.

 Letters, as is certainly true with the varied forms of expression from and to and about Campbell, reveal the qualities of a person, over and above the data imbedded in their vitae. Moreover, a hand-written letter is embodied, unlike other forms of communication. I remember working in the archives at Pacifica Graduate Institute where the letters were arranged in boxes. I wore a pair of white gloves in order to handle the sheets of paper that Campbell himself handled, or that other individuals, whether famous or not, held as they wrote on the paper. I remember, for instance, so many of the letters to Campbell from his mother thanking him for gifts sent to her and his father and how proud she was of him. Precious artifacts touched by both affection and gratitude.

Author Thomas Mann, circa 1937 (Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of Library of Congress.)
Author Thomas Mann, circa 1937 (Photo by Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.)

I remember as well one letter in particular, dated February 29, 1940, that the famous novelist and political activist Thomas Mann, whom Campbell admired so, wrote to thank Campbell for his kind words about Mann’s book, Lotte in Weimar. Mann mentions that he was also delighted to learn that Campbell had read the publication in the original German. The letter, though typed, carries Mann’s hand-written signature, splitting the difference between the mechanical and the hand-made.

 As I read the original document, I felt connected to Mann and Campbell in a new way, knowing I was handling the very sheet of paper that Mann had signed and that Campbell held while reading it. My own history entered the conversation at this moment, for Mann’s fiction was a central part of my student life decades ago as an English Major at Kent State University, and I had been teaching Campbell’s work for over a decade to graduate students. In his short missive, I learned something of Mann’s own temperament, his warmth and generosity, affectionately shown to the mythologist and extended out to include his wife, Jean Erdman.

 I end with the observation that hand-written or typed, signed letters revitalize history in a different way than, say, the publication of a book, even the publication of a book of letters that is the topic of this reflection. It is as if touching, handling and reading letters that are “hand-written” and hand-held, stretch the hand of the writer and the hand of the reader out to one another, across the expanse of time, culture and circumstances. In this reach there arises a numinous connectedness between the living and the living as well as, more poignantly, the living and the dead. The dead live once more in the hand-written and/or signed letter, a literal reliving of the dead in the present.

Joseph Campbell at his home office in Honolulu c. 1987

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