- Reading Published Letter Collections as Literary Texts:Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, 1941-1949 as a Case Study
"I had to tell you."1 "I must tell you" (454). The sense of urgency, the desire for a witness—and a recipient—of intense feeling, permeates the letters between Maria Chabot and Georgia O'Keeffe that are now collected in a single, edited volume, published by University of New Mexico Press in 2003. When Chabot and O'Keeffe met in New Mexico in 1940, O'Keeffe was a fifty-three-year old established artist and Chabot was a rootless, talented young woman of twenty-six, yearning to actualize her literary ambitions. The relationship between the two women began as a mutual system of exchange: Chabot would provide domestic and daily living services; O'Keeffe would provide housing and a salary. But this original arrangement developed into a much more complicated and murky relation, the nature of which we—scholars, readers, retrospective vicarious participants—will most likely never be able to reconstruct or fully understand.
How, then, and for what purpose, are we to read these letters? Here they are, 678 of them, a remarkably rich two-way exchange, bounded by the covers of a book, spanning an eight-year period. How do we make meaning of what we are reading? In this essay, I begin to answer these questions by proposing two ideas: First, published letter collections, as well as the letters within them, should be considered as literary texts that comprise a discrete literary form; second, we need to devise and apply reading strategies appropriate to that form. I will explore these two ideas using the Maria Chabot-Georgia O'Keeffe volume as a reference point.2
The story of how Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence became a book illustrates precisely why published letter collections should be regarded [End Page 239] as literary texts. This volume, like many edited letter collections, is an artful creation brought into being by the efforts, choices, and decisions of several people and institutions: the letter writers, editors, and publishers, and the texts' legal custodians. The book is thus a collaborative work of art forged through language, image, selection, and arrangement.
The editors, however, play a central role in the collaboration. It is they who decide which documents the book will contain, they who determine the placement of those documents, and, finally, they who devise the book's plotting and narrative trajectory. In Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, editors Barbara Buhler Lynes and Ann Paden include maps; an introductory essay; reproductions of letters and O'Keeffe's 1940s paintings; many previously unpublished photographs; ancillary documentation in the form of chapter introductions, explanations, and footnotes; and an appendix that provides biographical information about the people mentioned in the letters. The editors' narrative commentary and explanatory footnotes frame the letters, link them together, and embed them in larger contexts. The visual sources speak through the language of color, shape, and photographic representation, instructing, illustrating, and concretizing people, time, and place. Making meaning of this artful assortment engages the reader in literary interpretation.
Designing the configuration of a letter collection is one kind of literary endeavor; in Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, literally reassembling the correspondence is another. Because some of Chabot's letters had been wholly or partly destroyed by moisture and bugs, rectifying the problem of the damaged letters required the editors to use literary skills and imagination. From drafts of letters Chabot had saved for forty years, Lynes and Paden filled in missing sections. "[I]n some cases," Lynes explains, "Chabot's drafts made it possible to reconstruct the essential content, if not the precise wording, of letters she sent O'Keeffe that otherwise would have been lost" (xxiv). Reconstruction is a creative act: Comparing, integrating, translating, and interpreting, the editors transform fragments into a cohesive whole, thereby retrospectively participating in the letter writing process.
Like a novel, an edited letter collection contains setting, characters, and plot. In Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, the maps, images, commentary, and historical information function in all three capacities. They set the scene, populate the text with personalities, and keep the...