- Shine, Perishing Republic of Letters
Pity the humble letter. No province of literary culture has been as deeply affected by the advent of new media. More formal literary genres may be undergoing an evolution, but they will probably adapt. The letter, however, has been almost obliterated in the blink of an historical eye. I have a few correspondents who doggedly send the occasional print epistle, but they arrive in the mailbox looking like little lost dinosaurs desperately seeking withered forage beneath a cloud of meteoric dust. Within a matter of decades (years? months?) teachers will no doubt have to explain to bemused and astonished students what letters were, not what they are, comparing them to rotary-dial telephones, typewriters, the telegraph, moveable type, and the work of the scribes at Lindisfarne. The letter had its day, and it was interesting while it lasted, but the technology and social circumstances that produced it have about as much chance as a pterodactyl.
The demise of the letter, in particular the literary letter, is a great loss. I try to console myself by imagining scholars and critics of the future surfing the searchable, emoticon-studded e-mails and Tweets of poets, philosophers, and diplomats with the greatest of ease; but I wonder if that experience will ever rise to the astonishment of encountering a manuscript that one knows was inscribed by a living hand holding a pen (or even pressing a key) to leave unique ink on real paper that then made its deliberate way across the physical rather than merely digital creation. Good examples would be the long fierce letters of July 9 and 11, 1912, that Una Call Kuster, later Una Jeffers, penned to her husband at the time, the wealthy and successful Los Angeles attorney Edward (Teddie) Kuster, whom she had married in 1902, when she was seventeen and he was twenty-four. In those letters, written when she was traveling in the British Isles, she finally tells Kuster exactly how she feels about their troubled marriage and how those problems led to her affair with the young poet and sometime wastrel Robinson Jeffers, whom she married on August 2, 1913, the day after her divorce from Kuster was finalized (and the same day that Kuster married his second wife, Edith). These letters are astonishing, revealing as powerfully as any documents of the time, the gulf that opened between not only the poetries but also the sensibilities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in America. [End Page 162]
Jeffers lived a long and prolific life, yet his readers had to wait more than three decades after his death in 1963 before his collected work began to appear in comprehensive order. Then, during the 1990s, Stanford University Press published the five-volume Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, edited by Tim Hunt, a careful edition including a volume of scholarly manuscript annotation. Stanford is now in the process of doing the same for Jeffers's substantial correspondence, wisely including many letters from Una as well. The project includes approximately 3,000 letters over 70 years, which are held in 79 public repositories along with more than 30 private collections and 15 previous publications. While some of the letters have appeared in print, these resources are widely scattered, variously edited, and many in the final collection have never been published. The entire undertaking—meticulously transcribed, annotated, and indexed by the editor, James Karman, and handsomely printed—is one of the major archival projects under way in American poetry, especially when considered of a piece with Jeffers's Collected Poetry. The first volume of the Collected Letters, which takes Jeffers from childhood into the initial phase of the tremendous fame he achieved beginning in the mid-1920s, appeared in the summer of 2009; the second and third volumes are due in 2011.
None of this would matter if Jeffers did not matter, but he does, and the Collected Letters has the potential to help us revise not only how we think of him...