'Writers and Their Love Letters': Love's labors collected, not lost

January 10, 1993|By Nancy Pate | Nancy Pate,Orlando Sentinel



Edited by Cathy N. Davidson.

Pocket Books.

285 pages. $22.

We don't write letters much anymore, even to those we love. We reach out and touch someone by phone. Or we say it with flowers, or a greeting card. If Miles Standish had had Hallmark, he wouldn't have needed John Alden to do his wooing for him and, who knows, may have ended up winning Priscilla Mullins' affections for himself.

The latest wrinkle in courtship communication is via computer networks. At least those lovers linked by modem are writing their messages, but it's kind of difficult to tie up electronic missives with a ribbon and save them for the memories, or posterity. Chances are they won't ever be collected into something like "A Book of Love: Writers and Their Love Letters."

Selected and introduced by Duke University scholar Dr. Cathy N. Davidson, the letters form a literary genre all their own, "a logical extension of the craft of writing. . . . Love letters fulfill a need to confide, to testify, and to testify what is ordinarily left unspoken. The same need underlies the craft of writing."

So it's not surprising that writers who wrote about love in their works, such as poets John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, also expressed similar sentiments in their love letters. Fanny Brawne, who inspired some of Keats' most beautiful poems, was also the recipient of lovely letters.

"I never knew before, what such a love as you have made me feel, was," Keats wrote to her in July of 1819. "I did not believe in it; my Fancy was afraid of it, lest it should burn me up."

What does surprise is the passionate prose that flows from the pen of writers one doesn't normally associate with romance: Jack London, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Gustave Flaubert may have taken a cynical view of love both in life and in "Madame Bovary," but he let himself go when writing to poet Louise Colet in 1846:

"Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms! Do you remember? How long ago it seems! Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my head I see the moon reflected in the river. Your little slippers are in front of me as I write; I keep looking at them."

Dr. Davidson has arranged the letters -- each of which is accompanied by biographical comments that set the scene -- so that they follow the course of a great romance, from "Falling in Love" to "Absence" to "The End of Love." The letters also are grouped in sub-categories such as "Unrequited Love," "Betrayed and Abandoned" and "Remembrance of Love Past." There's Agnes von Kurowsky's "Dear John" letter to Ernest Hemingway, a moving missive by John Cheever to an anonymous male lover, Zelda Sayre's avowal to F. Scott Fitzgerald that "Without you, dearest dearest I couldn't see or hear or feel or think -- or live . . . "

If you find yourself blushing at reading these private and personal letters, don't worry. Dr. Davidson reassures us that while every reader of a love letter is a voyeur to some extent, we read them "hoping that in reading of the joys and pains of others we might learn something about ourselves and possibly even find a validation for our own feelings."

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