Tag Archives: Titanic

The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol











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RMS Titanic 100th Anniversary*

Even though I’m on hold for a copy of series one of the very popular Masterpiece Classic television show Downton Abbey, I downloaded the first episode free via iTunes to see if I would enjoy it.** The credits open on a grand English country house and an army of servants bustling about in preparation for a new spring day with ominous references to a newspaper headline; I knew right away what it was before the date was even displayed. When one character muttered, “impossible!” I knew it could only be the sinking of RMS Titanic.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

This month commemorates the 100th anniversary of that fateful night, April 14, 1912 when the “unsinkable” luxury liner, the largest passenger ship in the world, struck an iceberg and sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic on her maiden voyage with great loss of life. Over the years, I’ve read many books on the disaster, its Atlantic Ocean grave discovery in 1985, watched several movies,*** read about the stories of those lost and survived, visited several museum exhibits, and shared fascinating discussions with a friend who also shares my interest.
When I started working here last year, I was very excited to discover in its collection some reference gems and primary sources (some of these are now on display on the second floor in a display case):
Titanic” Disaster. Report of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, pursuant to S. res. 283, directing the Committee on commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White star liner “Titanic,” together with speeches thereon by Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan, and Senator Isidor Rayner of Maryland. As a government depository library, CLP has the actual testimony of the hearings conducted immediately after the ship docked in New York before the surviving passengers and crew were even permitted to leave the country and return to England.
The Loss of the S.S. Titanic: Its Story and its Lessons by Lawrence Beesley. Second class passenger Beesley was a widower and schoolteacher on holiday on Titanic.
Sinking of the Titanic : World’s Greatest Sea Disaster edited by Thomas H. Russell. A “memorial edition” published in tribute to the memory of the ship in 1912.

The Truth About the Titanic by Archibald Gracie. Gracie was a first class passenger who recorded his experiences immediately after the disaster and also interviewed other passengers; he died in December of that same year from trauma suffered by the tragedy.

So much has been written in the last century about Titanic (with Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember considered the best Titanic book, followed by his The Night Lives On, which was published after Titanic was found) and, in commemoration of the anniversary, there are some new titles I’m looking forward to reading:

Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic’s First Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster

Titanic: The Tragedy That Shook the World: One Century Later

Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From by Richard Davenport-Hines

Titanic Tragedy : a New Look at the Lost Liner by John Maxtone-Graham.


*This post is the seventh in a series of blog posts of recommended historical non-fiction books.

**I did, now I will patiently wait for my library DVD to come in. :)

***There has yet to be the definitive Titanic movie for me though I have seen many excellent documentaries. The 1997 movie’s special effects were good, however, with so many rich, colorful, and true stories of the actual people who sailed on Titanic, I felt that this movie was a wasted effort in its made-up storyline. A sampling of some of the intrigue that was real life drama on Titanic:

John Jacob Astor & his bride, Madeleine (Source: Wikipedia)

American millionaire John Jacob Astor was honeymooning with his pregnant nineteen year old “child bride,” Madeleine Force, whom he had just married after his scandalous society divorce.

The Canadian Allisons (husband, wife, & daughter, Lorraine) refused to leave the ship (and subsequently perished) because they believed their baby son was still on board (when both nurse and baby were already safely away in  a lifeboat).

And the abandoned French orphans of a father who, as the ship was sinking, handed his children to a woman getting in a lifeboat–it turned out he had kidnapped his children from his estranged wife and was traveling to America to start a new life. It wasn’t until their mother in France saw their picture in the paper that she knew where they had gone and traveled to America to bring them home.

Navratil orphans (Source: Wikipedia)


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