The great letter writers may be dead. Though the hurry-scurry of email has reinvented, with a vengeance, the mail deliveries six times a day in Regency London, the surge of ephemera allows no more than pinched and hasty replies. After a dozen exchanges on some trivial matter within the hour, you want to slash your wrists. However much we long for the day when a letter from a good friend was an occasion, to be read at leisure and set aside a month before replying, that day is never coming back.
Not everyone required letters to put personality on stage. Diaries served natural graphomaniacs like Pepys and Boswell, a locked closet in which all secrets could be concealed. Letters nonetheless became a confessional for the literate, if they were moved to confess at all. Some writers never needed any correspondent in particular, taking opportunities as they came and making of accident all that was wanted. Shaw, for instance, always had something to say (or something he couldn’t bear not to say); and it didn’t matter whether the correspondent was a brow-beaten actress who at the fortieth performance had wrecked the rhythm of her lines or a widow who didn’t mind the playwright rabbiting on in condolence, as he often enclosed a rather generous check. Byron opened his heart to almost everyone; but his most brutal secrets were probably lost with his memoirs, burned all too eagerly by his friends. Only his letters remain to give us the personality lost to the flames.
Only his letters remain to give us the personality lost to the flames.
Most letter writers, though, prefer a confidant or two. To the mass of their friends they may be almost mute, with a tongue never indiscreet. The more such writers keep buttoned up, the more they require a familiar—now and again they simply must run to hounds. I’m not speaking of writers who force advice upon the young—Lord Chesterfield, for instance, or Rilke. No, for a letter writer to exhaust the darkest resources of the medium, there must be a secret sharer, a doppelgänger, the sort who appears no more than two or three times in a life.
For later readers who don’t mind rummaging through private correspondence, every writer demands, at the least, a shadow who does not reject his letters. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound found in each other a co-conspirator; and perhaps for that reason in their letters they engaged more in peacockery than private revelation, often in stage whisper and whimsical voice. They were so busy dressing for show that the private was left behind. The reader learns from their letters little explicit, but overhears far more than he hears. (Eliot was so private even his own roommate, a close friend, was shocked when Old Possum failed to return from church one morning, having in secret married his Faber and Faber secretary.) Only in fairy tales do sweethearts who court by letter live happily ever after; but, once the wedding sheets are stained, lovers rarely need to send each other anything but a note from upstairs to down.
Anthony Hecht met William L. MacDonald in 1954 at the American Academy in Rome. Hecht was a young American poet who had just published his first book, A Summoning of Stones. He’d won the first Rome Fellowship in Literature three years before, and with his new wife had returned to the Academy with Guggenheim Fellowship in hand. MacDonald, an architectural historian a year or so older than the poet, arrived at the Academy on his own Rome Fellowship, accompanied by his own new wife. The men gradually became close friends, entering into a correspondence that gave them license for jokes bad and bawdy, obscene limericks, an occasional sexy postcard or cheesecake photo, cartloads of male jesting and tomfoolery, as well as the sustained acts of provocation from which memorable letters are made.
The correspondence was slow to catch fire—indeed, the postcards and truncated letters from the first ten years of their friendship fill only seven pages. Once the exchange began in earnest, however, the envelopes, despite lapses and silences, shot back and forth robustly for a quarter of a century. Not all the letters and postcards survive, but of the 440 discovered almost all have been collected in A Bountiful Harvest, edited with passion and determined labor by Philip Hoy, who was also responsible for Anthony Hecht in Conversation (1999; third edition, 2004), an interview by mail that rambled on intelligently for more than a hundred pages.
The lives of Hecht and MacDonald had been disrupted by the war. Like most returning GIs, they started their careers belatedly. Hecht had received his BA in absentia from Bard while fighting in Europe. Though in 1946 he entered Kenyon College as a special student to study with John Crowe Ransom, the young poet soon had a nervous breakdown. He had been present at the discovery of the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria and suffered nightmares years afterward. Hecht taught a little at Kenyon, Iowa, and nyu before entering Columbia for an MA in English. MacDonald had dropped out of college before the war (he served stateside as a bombardier instructor), but afterward matriculated at Harvard for his BA, eventually working for the MA and Ph.D. His first dissertation was rejected while he was still in Rome, and he didn’t receive his doctorate until he was thirty-five.
After Rome, both returned to academic careers, Hecht at Smith (then Bard and Rochester) and MacDonald at Yale (then Smith). As was usual then, they were hired as instructors, the rank below assistant professor, though each had spent time as an instructor elsewhere, Hecht for three years. Academics at research universities now no longer suffer the crippling course loads of sixty years ago. Young professors often taught four courses a semester, sometimes with a different preparation for each. (Sylvia Plath, teaching at Smith the year after Hecht arrived, railed against the huge stack of papers she was forced to grade, one week 120 of them, half for a senior academic still giving the same lectures she’d heard as a student years before.) Soon each man had children. Lectures, torpid committees, soul-killing student essays, and, of course, families may have left little time for their own work, much less correspondence.
Finding a sympathetic intelligence is difficult, but it’s far easier to lose one than find another. (Think of Melville’s devastation after losing the friendship of Hawthorne, to whom he had dedicated Moby-Dick.) Hecht and MacDonald stayed fast friends through marriages, divorces, the birth of children and the death of a child, remarriages, new children, illnesses, triumphs, disasters, all in the middle realm of middle-class university life. Such a friend provides that most difficult thing, much less common than the services of a muse (who apparently can be found at any streetcorner or café table). It is for such an intelligence that the writer writes, not in the expectation of perfect understanding, but in the expectation of expectation. We write at first because we must, but later we write because one or two people know us deeply and nevertheless want to read us.
Though the correspondence didn’t gather speed until the late sixties, there were early signs of the tenor and temperament the pair would adopt, those of eyebrow-lifting, cock-hatted gentlemen with a world-weary smirk. So, Hecht in 1961 about bringing his boys for a visit:
How are you fixed for entertaining a wizened old man and two appealing young boys? These are part of a small troupe of itinerant actors who have toured Paraguay in “The Wild Duck” and have turned to me for help. Their tastes are modest, but they snore in Norwegian.
Hecht was thirty-eight, so not quite wizened. Or this, a decade later:
You must be as distressed as I am about what the church has done to St. Ursula. They have de-canonized her; scratched her from the calendar, broken her halo, plucked off her wings, and tossed her harp into the discard. And all this simply because some recent investigation suggests (merely suggests, mind you) that those eleven thousand virgins were not precisely virgins. In fact, it now appears that Ursula was making a pretty penny in the white slave racket, and headed an organization that might easily rival the playboy empire.
A few years earlier, MacDonald sent a mocked-up program for the lecture series the two had cooked up. The four lectures, delivered alternately starting with Hecht, were to be titled “Famous Streetcar Accidents,” “little Women,” “Great Literary Non-Swimmers,” and “Different-shaped Crates.”
Finding a sympathetic intelligence is difficult, but it’s far easier to lose one than find another.
These dry humors were made that much drier by various competitions the men set themselves, beginning with a long-running skirmish over their closing signatures. Eventually the cast of characters from some dissipated franchise of Madame Tussaud’s included, among other worthies, Timon of Brooklyn; Uriah, all in a Heap; Publius Invidious Nasal; Timon of Buzzard’s Gulch; Richard the Chicken-Livered; St. Pincas the Bland; Timon of Akron; William the Inextinguishable; Milton of Saudi Arabia; Charles the Overweight; Ethelred, the Moderately Well-Prepared; and Sarah, Duchess of Marlboro Lights, as well as a file that can only be marked “Get it?”—Eddie Puss, Galley-Layo, E. Llipsis, Aunt Tizzy Payshun, Ivan Idea, and, best of all, Patty O’Furniture.
Similar Olympiads were held for salutations (Dear Imperator, Dear Dr Dynamo) and both return and mailing addresses (one of the best of the latter is directed to “Señor William MacDonald, Procurator of Sheboygan”). The drolleries of two academics became, through relentless ingenuity, the long record of an extraordinary fondness. The silliest and hardest fought of their contests came over who could procure stationery from the most arcane hotel, business, or government office. They even began to squabble, in their nickering way, over whether embossed stationery was superior to flat, and whether letter paper from hotels where the writer had never stayed was illegitimate. (Hecht apparently employed compliant friends abroad for his cache.) Some heights were reached when the poet flaunted letterheads from “Saunier, ‘Enterprise de Déménagements pour La France à L’Étranger’ ” and “Rogier & Cie, ‘Dentelles & Guipures Noires & Blanches,’ ” and MacDonald “Tom Sawyer Motor Inns” and “The Byzantine Institute Inc.” To that stranger, the reader, the jousting is as annoying as it is amusing, “The Battle of the Frogs and Mice” carried out by typewriter.
A correspondence so much in love with pissing, moaning, and growling, with small bouts of pride in achievement or recognition inserted, might seem rigidly impersonal; but between the initial and final ruffling of feathers the letters became progressively more revealing. Year after year their mailboxes filled with pugnacious teasing on purloined stationery, each man reporting on the absurdities of the world or of his colleagues, with MacDonald goodhearted, forgiving, ready to make friends, never more delighted than when he took early retirement from Smith and found his lectures so much in demand he could indulge himself in scholarly work without worrying about a regular income. Hecht was Nature’s sufferer, prickly, grinding along at teaching, irritated by the abysmal quality of his students, puffing his chest a little as each prize landed on his doorstep.
The poet was not above using poetic arms in the clash of wit. The man who co-invented the double-dactyl preferred the limerick in such engagements.
Said Mary to Gabriel, “Oi!
Well, at least I am glad it’s a boy.
But what should I say
When my waistline gives way?
That I’m filled with elation and goy?”
Such coups de poésie must be classed, as limericks usually are, as groaners.
That naughty old Sappho of Greece
Said, “What I prefer to a piece
Is to have my pudenda
Rubbed hard by the enda
The little pink nose of my niece.”
Hecht’s sins should no doubt be visited upon the reader, as Eliot’s King Bolo poems recently were, in a Complete Poems.
Even MacDonald occasionally tried his hand, making these opera minora distant cousins to the results of Leigh Hunt’s sonnet competitions.
There was a Young Man, name of Rex
With extremely small organs of sex,
When accused of exposure
He replied with composure:
“De minimis non curat lex.”
“The law does not concern itself with trifles,” reads the editor’s helpful gloss.
It was just a hardened old fossil—
As a find, nothing colossal—
But the Vatican thought,
From the wonders it wrought,
’Twas the peter of Paul, the Apostle.
(I’ve corrected MacDonald’s lineation and added indentations to the B-rhymes.)
One can forgive the Boy’s Own humor, the Polish jokes, the endless badinage and repartee, and the painfully extended improv on the grounds that men will be boys. Eliot and Pound certainly japed and jiggered like schoolboys, but Hecht and MacDonald perhaps more like graduate students. It’s easier to forgive the schoolboys. The humor often falls flat, especially when nasty—MacDonald three times over a decade mentions his “heroine,” a “Miss Modene Gunch of Lubbock, TX, who was as you probably know Miss Vacant Lot of 1976.” (Her first name was really Modine, as the editor scrupulously notes, and she was crowned not Miss Vacant Lot but Miss Vacant Lot of the World.) The humor of the day grows a little tiresome when extended to half a thousand pages. Things get no better when MacDonald writes Hecht in ridiculous pidgin on stationery from an Aleppo hotel, inviting him to consider “advertsing your splendids book, millions tiny shades, here in great Muslim world. Oil shieks prefer billions; next volume could you oblige your Muslim followers?” The book had been titled Millions of Strange Shadows.
Hecht’s dyspepsia often leaks out when he speaks of his unhappiness with his students:
I detest poetry-writing courses; my students at Rochester have never been any good at all. I taught for one semester at Harvard in 1973, and for one semester at Yale in 1977. In those two brief periods I had excellent students in poetry-writing courses.
He names the young Harvard and Yale poets, crowing over their achievements—a MacArthur Fellowship, two Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarships, and books from Knopf and Viking, neglecting to mention that his no doubt fulsome letters of recommendation might have helped a little. (He may have been a judge for the Amy Lowell.) Still, at Rochester, he declares, “I have never had any student who could write worth a damn, much less get published.” He calls Washington University students, when he visits as Fannie Hurst Lecturer, “no dumber than usual.” The Georgetown students prove “very poor” and some of their papers “dreadful.” Hecht gives as an example, in that way of English Department professors, “One student of mine wrote on a term paper that John Donne’s mother was the sister of Thomas Aquinas. . . . [W]hat the student meant was that Donne’s mother was descended from the sister of Thomas More.”
Eliot and Pound certainly japed and jiggered like schoolboys, but Hecht and MacDonald perhaps more like graduate students.
Hecht did not have a grudge against the world, just a broad streak of rancor and choler, a private rage though he had won important prizes (the Pulitzer, the Bollingen) and in 1982 was named Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the position soon renamed Poet Laureate. Despite these laurels, he had missed other honors (The Venetian Vespers, though a finalist, failed to win the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry) and was thwarted in his wish to be appointed to the Boylston Chair at Harvard, which eventually went to Seamus Heaney. Like many poets, Hecht felt he hadn’t quite been given his due.
There’s no worse example of forced drollery than Hecht’s final report as Poetry Consultant. The first had apparently been formal as mourning clothes. The second:
During my own period as Consultant poets were limited to writing sestinas, rondeaux and rhyme royal on the Persian Gulf Crisis, post-coital sadness, and the National Geographic Society. Deviations either in materials or forms were dealt with instantly and mercilessly, and it is with a genuine sense of regret that I turn in the boot, the rack and the official thumb-screws of office. . . . I can do no less than point out to my successor that anyone who takes upon himself the role of Caesar must expect the attendant risks. There were the usual assassination attempts.
This excruciating and miscalculated display of buried pique and cocksnootery could not be more embarrassing. Seven hundreds words in this vein prove only that the poet had no future as a stand-up comedian.
Hecht was Jewish, born in New York City in 1923, where he grew up in comfortable circumstances that during the Depression became uncomfortable. His father’s small manufacturing firm, The New England Enamel Company, made household utensils; but he loathed the business and, according to Hecht, was ruined three times. Hecht’s mother, whose family supported the firm (her parents were apparently wealthy), insisted that he resign from management.
Eventually the elder Hecht stepped down, accepting a salary. Mrs. Hecht confided to her son that it was secretly subsidized by her family, and that she planned to file for divorce and leave him destitute. She was lying, the poet discovered. The business might once have had, before Hecht’s birth, more extensive interests. In 1928 the U.S. Court Board of Tax Appeals was asked to determine whether the company had cheated on its taxes in a complicated transaction toward the end of World War I involving the sale of steel ship-plates and open-hearth bars.
The use of personae is perhaps not surprising in a poet from a family full of secrets. (Think of the rogues’ gallery his closing signature inhabited.) Sometime after the war, he began dressing in dapper suit and tie, often bowtie, and speaking with the tinge of an English accent, as if he’d purchased everything including the accent on Savile Row. Hecht’s friends ignored these affectations, or even liked him the more for being the self-made man few self-made men are. Like most personae, it was a rejection more than an embrace.
In poems like “A Hill,” some shipworm of fury has bored deep into the oak. On a warm afternoon at the market outside the Farnese Palace, a man has a vision of
a hill, mole-colored and bare. It was very cold,
Close to freezing, with a promise of snow.
The trees were like old ironwork gathered for scrap
Outside a factory wall. There was no wind,
And the only sound for a while was the little click
Of ice as it broke in the mud under my feet.
I saw a piece of ribbon snagged on a hedge,
But no other sign of life. And then I heard
What seemed the crack of a rifle.
The vision dissipates, and the speaker is returned to the piazza. “I was scared,” he remarks, “by the plain bitterness of what I had seen.” Ten years later, he realized that he’d looked upon that hill before.
at last, today,
I remembered that hill; it lies just to the left
Of the road north of Poughkeepsie; and as a boy
I stood before it for hours in wintertime.
Considering Hecht’s long misery and depression, the speaker’s reflection after the vision is telling. The unalloyed ressentiment that steals into the letters is soul-rending in poems, especially those more autobiographical. Letters, unlike fiction or poetry, hew more or less to the facts.
Considering Hecht’s long misery and depression, the speaker’s reflection after the vision is telling.
It’s hazardous to draw a straight line from Hecht’s poems to his life, when the work sometimes has such a teasing relation to experience. (The Robert Frost of the poems remains at odds with the Robert Frost who breathed and spat.) As a boy, Hecht had been sent to three private schools, including Dalton and Horace Mann. He remembered at the latter having “no good friends.” If he spent part of the winter upstate then, it has escaped his critics. During the early years of the war, however, he attended Bard, located in Annandale-on-Hudson on the “road north of Poughkeepsie.” College boys, even unfledged ones, rarely consider themselves boys. The contrast between the sunlit, ancient culture of Rome and the barren, frozen world surrounding that naked hill exaggerates a psychology while giving it excuse to appear. Hecht inherited Rome by hard graft; but perhaps he felt his grasp upon it fragile, that he was always in danger of being dragged back to the cringing, grimy, go-ahead America of his childhood. “A Hill” opens the poet’s bleakest and most private book, The Hard Hours (1967), for which he won the Pulitzer; the excess of suffering it records is moving because the effect often outstrips the cause. It’s tempting to suggest that Hecht found the art to conceal the life.
The poet was widely known to be thin-skinned, especially about reviews. His unexamined rage appears only twice in these letters to MacDonald, and when the wrath of Achilles comes the trigger seems trivial. (Where he does examine it, he sounds, as Plath does, like someone who has spent too long on the psychiatrist’s couch.) Hecht’s younger brother, Roger, was a crippled epileptic who had inherited the family’s apartment, though the brothers owned the library and furnishings in common. When lack of space forced his brother to contemplate selling some of the books, Hecht listed those he wanted and gave him permission to sell anything else. Roger was apparently cheated in the sale, offered pennies on the dollar for rare books; worse, one of those sold was the opening volume of a first-edition set of Tom Jones that Hecht had reserved for himself. He wrote MacDonald,
Roger . . . could not remember the name of the person who had taken the books, had idly thrown away the receipt, and could not even remember who had recommended this factor to him. My reaction to this has been abnormally strong, and I recognize the feelings as those with which I have not been afflicted for many years. . . . They are generated by that kind of remarkable, seeming unwittingness which, even if it were pure, would betoken a lack of concern with the feelings of others; but which is more likely to be mixed with an incalculable portion of either conscious or unconscious malice. Roger’s feelings about me could not fail to be painfully complicated with admiration and envy. . . . Since there has been nothing else whatever in the way of family heirlooms that has come my way or that I cared to have, this is a matter that I am struggling to cope with.
Though he thought his brother’s reaction blithe and uncaring, Hecht was slightly embarrassed about what he called this “vastly overdetermined reaction.” He wrote again ten days later:
I knew at once that the loss was almost entirely symbolic, though the knowledge did not in the least diminish my Gordian knot of rage, guilt, and other violent emotions that I had thought pretty well buried for good. In fact, the chief shock was to find myself experiencing feelings that had blissfully been banished for so long, but which had once festered in ulcerous silence for years.
Part of his outburst, perhaps, came because Roger had never bowed low enough before his older brother’s achievements.
Only in poetry could Hecht find release from that gnawing anger, a deforming affliction that also appears in Selected Letters (2013). Though Roger was almost certainly guilty of simple carelessness, not malice, the incident may provide a key to Hecht’s permanent state of grievance. He manages never to mention here or in the selected letters, except twice briefly when Roger was a teenager, that his “crippled and retiring” younger brother was also a poet—not as gifted as Hecht but not meanly talented, either. Hecht’s silence reads as another attempt to escape his childhood. Roger eventually published four books of poetry; but in the letters to MacDonald, apart from those about the missing volume of Tom Jones, he doesn’t exist.
Three years later, when Hecht was retiring from Rochester to take up a position at Georgetown, he wrote MacDonald that the previous year a colleague, a Dickens and D. H. Lawrence scholar at the end of his career, had been given a “huge fandango” involving lines by Lawrence set to music, an evening concert, and a series of lectures another evening in the man’s honor. The next retiring scholar received similar attention, including a concert and dinner for two hundred and fifty. Arrangements for the latter had taken most of an academic year, but the semester was almost over before the chair suggested that the poet give a reading and invite some fellow poets to read, with cocktails and dinner to follow. Mortally offended by the slight, Hecht replied that on short notice such a reading by friends would be impossible. No notice was taken of his departure. It makes a reader wonder whether his colleagues later missed Hecht at all. (Sylvia Plath in 1958 mentioned his “pale monkey-sneer.”) The breastplate of self-regard was something the poet could never shed.
Much of Hecht’s Selected Letters is filled with collegial replies to poets he knew well and poets he’d taught (many obviously currying favor); but even as he lathered praise over one of their new poems Hecht retained a chilly touch of formality, as if he wore his three-piece suit even to bed. The letters, apart from the few there to MacDonald, are often tepid, businesslike, slightly stale, the work of a man who had filled his world with acquaintances kept at a slight distance. Perhaps Hecht could not offer even those he called friends much of himself—perhaps, to take a darker view, he didn’t have enough of a self to give. The little he chose not to conceal was deeply embedded in the poems. That rather dull selection of letters lies a long distance from the exhausting display of puckish show-offishness and buffoonery in A Bountiful Harvest, with a good deal exposed of the man beneath the carapace.
The end of the friendship was as brutal as it was swift. During a dinner party at the Hechts in 1990, conversation turned to Trajan’s column, completed in 113 A.D. to commemorate the end of the Dacian Wars. The column stands at the center of one of Hecht’s finest poems, “The Cost.” A boy and girl on a Vespa go wheeling around the monument, mimicking the “raw recruits/ And scarred veterans” who spiral up its face, the couple probably ignorant, in their heedless way, of the battles fought or the price in blood. The last lines read:
And why should they take thought
Of all that ancient pain,
The Danube winters, the nameless young who fought,
The blood’s uncertain lease?
Or remember that that fifteen-year campaign
Won seven years of peace?
MacDonald happened to mention that the wars had lasted no longer than two or three years (101–102 A.D. and 105–106 A.D.). Hecht was taken aback. His good friend had seen the poem in Encounter when first published two decades before and written Hecht to express his admiration. The poet, who preened a bit over his research, among other things, was deeply hurt that MacDonald had not even mentioned this silly mistake. The poem depended entirely on the long war having won but a short peace—indeed, the haunting error made nonsense of the moral. The Vietnam War, as the editor notes, was still raging in the background as Hecht wrote.
The poet apparently said nothing at the time, but after the guests had departed spent all night searching out his source. The reference, it turned out, had been entirely mistaken. The men spoke the next day, and words were exchanged. The breach was total. They never reconciled, and the only correspondence thereafter amounted to a note from Hecht now lost and three clipped postcards of a sentence or two from MacDonald, the last written twelve years before Hecht died in 2004. No more amusing signatures, no more stationery filched from obscure hotels. There’s not a breath of humor in them. Hecht never corrected the terrible error.
This dispiriting end to a long, intimate correspondence, and a friendship of heartfelt importance to both men, is inexplicable except in terms of Hecht’s easily wounded pride. MacDonald told the poet, according to the editor, that he had remained silent because he thought the error of little importance. If so, he underestimated Hecht’s steaming vanity and corroded self-esteem. He had a Caesar’s arrogance about his poetry, as most poets do; but “The Cost” remains the only important poem to come out of that lost war in Southeast Asia. The history may be faulty, but the truth is lasting.
The history may be faulty, but the truth is lasting.
Though many of his late poems were gorgeously, absurdly, pointlessly baroque, at this distance Hecht looks increasingly like the major poet of that talented generation born between Lowell and Plath. Stronger in moral seriousness than Wilbur, less clever and flighty than Merrill, Hecht was far darker than any of the others. Despite his occasional archness and terrible puns, he said things that must be said. Perhaps that nonpareil John Ashbery rivals him in reputation, though not in depth; and a poet of depth must be seen through a glass darkly.
This meticulous edition reveals the Hecht long shielded from others—jovial, boastful, even generous. That the letters also show a defensive and often unhappy man, and that in the end he ruined a friendship so sustained, make little difference. Perhaps it was always inevitable.
1A Bountiful Harvest: The Correspondence of Anthony Hecht and William L. MacDonald, edited by Philip Hoy; Waywiser Press, 544 pages, $49.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 8, on page 4
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