On selecting a letter for The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht

Guest post by Jonathan F.S. Post

The recent generous review by David Yezzi of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht in The Wall Street Journal happily calls attention to a number of high points in the book, including the funny anecdote Hecht tells of events surrounding his time as a juror on the Bollingen Prize committee in 1973. What a reviewer probably wouldn’t know is that the anecdote exists in two slightly different versions: one told to James Merrill, the recipient of the Bollingen Prize for that year, as it turned out; the other, written some 10 days earlier, to Richard Wilbur. Which, the editor asks, is the one to include?

As often happened in cases such as these, I consulted with Helen Hecht, the poet’s widow, and we both agreed that the letter to Merrill was the preferred version. It contained the memorable phrase “redolent with the scents and gaudy with the embellishments of her trade” (picked up, in fact, by Yezzi in his review), to describe the hooker in the limousine carrying Hecht and his family to New Haven. The Wilbur version was a little more stripped down, as it were, even giving a sense of who sat where at the dinner table when the joke was told.

There is a small Darwinian lesson here. The tricky adjective “Selected” in a book’s title usually means something different to readers than editors, more often taken by readers in the concessional sense (as in “not complete”), whereas editors are more alert to the problem of plenitude and the competition it instills. The existence of these two “rival” versions points to what is almost always going on behind the scenes in a book of “Selected” letters. Choices have to be made in order to create, out of some 4000 letters and post cards, space enough for approximately 350 pages worth of letters. Some letters make it, some don’t. There are some general principals observed. A few letters are deliberately excluded for reasons of privacy, usually, and—typical of the genre—because a recipient or person mentioned is still living. But in most cases, as with the above examples, editorial pragmatism prevails. What and how does the letter contribute to the reader’s understanding of Hecht? Or Hecate, as Hecht once referred to himself.

And what is the reward for this lesson? The letter to Merrill as it appears in the book, in hopes that readers of this blog will be tempted to read more Hecht letters.

January 19, 1973 Rochester NY

Dear Jimmy,

I was delighted to get your note, but more delighted still to have had a part (one third) in the decision. Our deliberations were remarkable for their cordiality and friendliness, upon which we were all commended by the two Yale librarians who sat through our meeting, silent, like proctors at an exam. [. . .]

Helen and Evan and I flew from Rochester to Hartford, and then took a limousine to New Haven for the event. In the limousine with us was an indisputable hooker, redolent with the scents and gaudy with the embellishments of her trade. It appeared she was destined for the same hotel as we were. I made mention of this fact at the rather literary dinner party (Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, Thornton Wilder, Pound’s daughter, Stevens’ daughter) and said that it occurred to me that she was very likely in the employ of one of the candidates for the [Bollingen] prize, and had been sent to New Haven to sway the jury. Thornton Wilder appeared doubtful, Norman Holmes Pearson seemed prepared to entertain the idea, the wife of the Yale librarian, Mrs. Rogers, was genuinely shocked. Only Eleanor Clark smiled.

We wish you all good things. We’ve not been in touch with Mona since the prize was announced, but we’re sure that she must be as delighted as we are.

Yours,

Tony

hechtJonathan F.S. Post is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. His The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht is available at a 25% discount ($26.25) during the 2013 meeting of the Modern Language Association. Stop by our booth (313 & 315) for more information and to pick up your copy.

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Filed under For Everyone, Literature, Poetry

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