American Letters

American Letters is an experimental book engaging the epistolary form with the experience of the United States of America through the eyes of its immigrants, travellers, and sideways dwellers. The correspondences address the point of contact between epistles and history. Each letter is comprised of original compositions—or fictional enactments—germinating from extensive archival research. The method is initially forensic before turning over to a new speculative landscape for each epistle. I experiment with wide ranges of style and era-appropriate language, intrigued by the urgency and contingency of an authorial ‘voice’ so present in the subjects’ letters but evasive in their formal writing.

The book conceptually invokes the reverse of the seal of the United States, E pluribus unum (out of many, one) to pose instead, Ex uno, plures: out of one, many. In doing so, American Letters tests the legibility of modern ‘America’ as both the seat of a growing empire and a fragmentary, disintegrating entity. The experiences distilled within the letters remit the real and symbolic power of this America, from Lorca witnessing the stock market crash of 1939 to von Richthofen (and her husband, D.H. Lawrence) being denied a U.S. passport. In letters on/about the United States, these writers were concerned as much with the decomposition of an aborted fetus outside a Detroit hospital (Kahlo) as with the slow decomposition of the state (Conrad).

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To Place the Future Behind You

Frieda von Richthofen met D. H. Lawrence in March 1912. She was six years older, married to his former college professor, and had three children. She was an aristocrat to his working-class roots as the son of a coal miner. Nevertheless, she became Frieda Lawrence, the only woman he ever married and lived with for 30 years. They moved for years and were continually hounded and D. H.’s works suppressed. This is a letter to their mutual friend, Esther Andrews (1880-1962), an American art student and journalist, on the occasion of being rejected for a U.S. passport.

Zennor
St. Ives, Cornwall
 15 Feb. 1917

 Dear Esther,

          We found out three nights ago. Damn it all – I had not anticipated writing again so soon – The stamped envelope with a forwarding address from the Home office was unmistakable – It arrived as frightfully as a cold gust – The bell ringer sent a sharp shiver down my back – We are denied the passports – It is a game after all – War, hate, murder, sunken ships, torpedoes, politics – There is no America without them – My anxieties over the ships and the men struggling in water they mean absolutely nothing now – I still see the misery of their faces in my mind but none of it matters at all now – Is’nt the shift in tension from one day, one week! an advertisement for the mystery of life? But E., I fear that Europe will learn nothing from this vile war – are the old still teachable? It really is a vile situation that one mustnt think about too much, otherwise what point is there to living?

……..Lawr is (between you and me) listless to-day and hasnt written one word since we got the news. He appears nervous and skittish, not at all the passionate and sane man I know – He has always resisted being tamed, resisted becoming the little english writer they want to make of him – But I fear the impossibility of safe passage for us has made him grieve – I shudder to think of L belittled and caged – I hate that my situation worries him the most – since Germany and America have broken relations and I have no other passport – I am filled with anger, disbelieving it could be so awful – That it could all be such a lie? – There have never been heroes anywhere – The very suggestion is sick, sickening!

……..I am encouraging Lawr to write his pensees and to let fiction be, at least for awhile – Is’nt this game enough, I ask myself – I know we will all be happy again, you, me, Lawrence – I have never relied on a bureau or application form for my happiness!

……..Only one saving grace: the beach at Porthminster – it is’nt the mildest winter by any means but the brisk walks help – I marched up and down the mile of sand – A battalion of one, without her troops!

……..L will never compromise, neither will I, and we will drink gin again together and cheer, and be renewed again – Away from the talk of boats and cold water and miserable declarations, we will be made new.

……..If America, always if – I can’t wait to be done with the whole bloody business – You will come and visit L while I’m in London, wont you? We are so warmed by thoughts of you.

Ever yours,

Frieda

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North Paradise Island

Italo Calvino to his friend, the historian and writer Paolo Spriano. Beginning November 1959 Calvino spent six months in the United States on a Ford Fellowship, visiting California, Massachusetts, and New York. He later writes and destroys his book An Optimist in America (Un ottimista in America), comprised of journal entries during the 1959-1960 trip.

 

New York, 28 April 1960

Plaza Hotel
768 Fifth Avenue
New York

Dear Pillo,

In making the necessary preparations for departure I am sizing up all the little things strewn about my room, functional in the short-term, even objects of some beauty, but nonetheless ones bound to bulk up my suitcase and weigh down the voyage home. I take no pride in admitting that even the most resolute spirit against the mindless pursuit of things is bound to fall prey to their mysterious accumulation here, so that over a relatively short period you come to find much of it inevitable, however lamentable. So it is.

……..They have put me up at the Plaza, no less, and a neat little pamphlet at the concierge divulged this as the home of Cary Grant during the making of North by Northwest, which was also shot here. I wish I could tell you that I stay in George Kaplan’s room, number 769 796, which does not exist. That I exist in an inexistent hotel room in an inexistent city in an inexistent continent, on the heels of the publication of my inexistent book about an inexistent knight. Like Basilides’ inexistent God, but for continental travel.

……..I wish now, in the final stage of my trip, to concoct some sort of amalgam of the American organizational system (in which time is accounted for, not pilfered away) with the presence of a breathing soul, one I’ve had little occasion to encounter. At least coastally speaking. What I mean is what if a countenance could be propped up—not unlike that Mount Rushmore scene propping up the faces of their heroes—that was sensitive to both the needs of a productive work schedule and the needs of the spirit, in some sensitive measure?

……..I tire of the cuffing of the soul in the spirit of the schedule. The forced fêtes, the thickly drawn smiles, the confusion of reserve with excessive humility. The intrusion of business protocol in every social gesture squanders vital energy. To direct that energy back into a reservoir of alertness and action would be the greatest “object” I bring with me, though I need to squander far less time to begin with.

……..La génie est l’enfance retrouvé, à volonté.[1] (Baudelaire.) I don’t know if I can afford myself such a title but as far as alertness and action go, I am desperate to grasp onto the paradisiacal dregs of the experience and nothing of its null and empty character. I don’t know if the health of the place is for me to judge and decide, any more than I allowed for myself a judgment of any hardened sort on Communism (some would believe I invented it, and so unfairly, because when biographies are read as preambles ahead of lectures I am bewildered by the chilled looks on the faces of some audience members).

 

Send warm greetings to Carla.

Your

Italocalvino


[1] “Genius is childhood found at will.”