Thursday, December 25, 2008

December in Open Letters!

The winter snows, the year's close, the accumulated prose ... all things focus the attention on Open Letters - ah, but which? A hundred years ago, 'Open Letters' was a semi-autonomous little duchy of that grand old gal, The Century magazine. That 'Open Letters' had its own separate staff - a small fraternity of editors who had the good fortune also to be friends who generally respected each other's abilities - its own deadlines, and its own procedures. Technically, the department was supposed to deal with the mail - sorting, answering (that was done, back then), and occasionally publishing. Even, very occasionally, responding in print.

But that was only 'technically' - in reality, 'Open Letters' often found itself -and often prided itself on - dealing with all sorts of disjecta membra from the rest of the magazine. The editors knew that their little fiefdom was the last thing in every issue before the joke-material traditionally put in the very last pages - they strove to be the best thing in every issue as well. They strove for variety, for liveliness, even for a modicum of timeliness.

As, for instance, when one particular issue of 'Open Letters' from a century ago dealt with that most pressing issue, higher education for women. A freelancer had recently published a wind-baggy piece asserting that the more schooling women got, the more obnoxious they became, and he was roundly taken to task in a letter by Christine Ladd Franklin:

The moral of my argument is very plain. Let women have the best education that can be given them. Permit them to make the most of their intellectual powers, however humble those powers may be. Because women excel men in virtue, they have not laid down the rule that men shall not be encouraged to practice the few small virtues that they are capable of. Preachers do not urge men to shun gentle manners, lest they should unsex themselves. Why not let each half of the human race cultivate whatever qualities it has, instead of crushing some of them altogether, because it is possible that they are too small already?

The receipt of this letter prompted one of the editors to comment, "I'll wager it's not only her argument that's very plain," but he was shouted down by the rest, who were taken by Miss Franklin's spirited common sense.

The Century's American Artists series prompted W. Lewis Fraser (1897 was still very much the era of three names, now sadly departed) to supply additional biographical material about the great Boston-born painter Walter Gay, also commenting "The chief distinction of his paintings lies in the diffused light and vibration of atmosphere. Their color, somewhat sad and cold, is admirably wedded to the subjects, which lean to the pathetic."

And a letter from Charles Moreau Harger of Abilene, Kansas, went on at some proud length about the writer's possession of a lock of Napoleon's hair, fully authenticated, black-brown in color with just a tinge of gray. Harger wrote:

There is no doubt of the authenticity of the lock of hair, and of the other interesting though less valuable relics. The hair is particularly notable, as it is probably the only bit of that which was mortal of the great emperor now on this continent.

This drew a comparatively rare public riposte from the oldest of the 'Open Letters' editors:

Not the only. The writer in his youth was present when was opened probably one of the lockets containing Napoleon's hair which were distributed, by the Emperor's direction, at his death. A single hair was given to the writer; he tied a bit of silk thread about it and placed it for safe keeping in his watch; the watch was left with a watchmaker for repair. The next day he went back to the shop and asked if a small piece of thread had been found inside the watch. "Yes, I blew it out." "Then you blew out a piece of Napoleon Bonaparte," said the writer.

(Note the ostentatious use of three semi-colons in one sentence; the editor in question was always a bit of a show-off)

Readers coming upon all this stuff now, at the tail-end of 2008, will no doubt find it fustian and faintly absurd, and such readers are duly warned: with the possible exception of certain two-term presidents, nothing looks as absurd while it's happening as it will in a hundred years. We are all surrounded by subjects we take very seriously that will look very silly a century from now. The threat of looking silly is the price of caring about things - and it's a threat everyone with a brain and a heart must brave.

Still, the repartee of that long- ago 'Open Letters' doesn't quite embarrass, even after all this time, and if you were to find an old, tattered issue of The Century and sit down (in a window seat, preferably) to read it, I bet you'd find things in it to interest and even please you, no less than if it were the latest New Yorker.

That's all any publication can do, and that's all it can hope for: work your hardest, put your best material forth, keep your ethics and your sense of humor about you, and hope to be at least in the game in a hundred years time. Try always to be new and fascinating, yes, but keep one part of your mind also fixed on that window seat so far removed from so many of the concerns you have now. Strive to find the truth at the heart of everything you write. Strive to be anthologizable.

The present-day Open Letters (staffed entirely by two-namers, alas) is still very much in the game, and its new issue is published in mere days. January is its special Poetry Issue, celebrating both that most exalted of all the arts and also the return to active duty of Poetry Editor John Cotter, who has assembled a great lineup of pieces on a stunning variety of poets and poetic topics, from ancient times to the present day. He's also managed to find quite a few actual poems worthy of your time, which is no mean feat (The Century routinely failed to do so, for instance, and that earlier 'Open Letters' never even tried). And for those of you not feeling quite up to poetry so soon after your New Year's celebrations, there's a smattering of fascinating articles on more secular subjects, all crafted with the greatest care and presented to you free of charge. So mark the first of January on your calendars for something other than the resumption of all your bad habits - save room for a good habit, and read the latest Open Letters Monthly!

1 comment:

A Humble Editor said...

Beautifully said, sir, and gratefully seconded.

May 2009 be another year of true belief, good work, strong debate, and great fun.