Monday, December 15, 2008

A letter from the Great Depression

Sometimes what you find tucked inside an old book is more interesting than the old book. And when the two work in concert to reveal clues about a life or lives touched by both, an imaginative mind has at its disposal the necessary tools to flesh out the characters and situations that spring to life from old ink and paper. That was the case with this book: How to Criticize Books, by Llewellyn Jones, W.W. Norton & Co., 1928.

I like to do a little time travel when I find something like this. I find it interesting to create an historical context for analyzing the artifact I’ve found and see if there is a story there worth exploring. Here, I think there is, with relevance to the tough economic times many find themselves in today.

Inside the front cover of this book was a letter written about 70 years ago from Horace to Bess in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I don't know where Horace was, but he was very unhappy. I'm guessing Bess is Horace's sister back home and he is thrilled to get a letter from her. I thought she might be a romantic interest until he signed off with "love to you and Floyd."

Two possible assumptions about the letter and the book:
Assumption #1: The book belonged to Bess and she saved her brother’s letter in this book. If so, she was interested in reading writing and possibly had a desire on some level to write book reviews.

Assumption #2: The book belonged to Horace. He was an aspiring book reviewer. He wrote this letter, but never sent it. Maybe because it was too depressing. He stashed it inside one of his books (he evidently read a lot) and forgot about it.
Both assumptions have some common ground, but each veers off into dramatically different stories. I’d love to write a story for each, but for now I’ll just give a general overview of what I found and why it’s interesting to me.

This brief one-page letter reveals many pages about a man struggling psychologically as well as financially. This is a life not being lived well. From Horace's lines, we learn that Bess seemed concerned about his mental state and urged him to focus on the things he has that he can enjoy and don't require money. Evidently, Horace is feeling quite a financial pinch and generally hating his life at the moment.

I also learn in the first paragraph that the things he enjoys are books and music and studying because he states that his present job is so demanding that it keeps him from indulging in them. Except for reading metaphysics. This subject must be important enough to him that whatever free time he can muster will be devoted to reading and studying that subject. From that piece of information, I think I can safely assume that Horace has a nice little stack of books and old 78s for his intellectual stimulation and pleasurable diversions.

The date of the book and the tough times Horace seems to be going through indicate that the Great Depression has a grip on the country and on Horace. The book predates the stock market crash by a year, but the letter could easily have been tucked into an older, used book.

Further down in the letter, Horace critiques a book Bess gave him for Christmas:
It was so sparkling and refreshing that it was sipping a long cold drink. That Margaret Halsey has a flow of language and the most marvelous gift of pertinent synonym.
He goes on to say that although he hasn't had time to read, that doesn't include metaphysics, which he still indulges in, if in an unorthodox way.

So is he the wannabe book reviewer or is it Bess? Sounds here more like Assumption #2 is the likely scenario. This mention of Margaret Halsey is the clue I need to pin down the approximate year this letter was written. Halsey’s first book, With Malice Toward Some, was published in 1938. The Great Depression was in the process of bottoming out after nearly a decade of ravaging the economy and lives of millions.

He pines away for an opportunity to return home to Louisiana or Mississippi (they must have lived in both places growing up) and just have a normal life where he could work for enough to be comfortable and have time to enjoy leisurely pursuits. One of the most poignant lines in the letter reveal his resignation and frustration:
I realize we are always in our rightful places, but it is difficult sometimes to understand it.
His present employer is having trouble, much like his previous employer, whom he names as Saenger Co., which appears to started business as a chain of theaters for both vaudeville and movies in the early twentieth century.

This sad letter finishes with advice for Bess to make a change in her life by leaving Hattiesburg. He believes the change would be good for her. This opinion injects a new idea about just how well Bess is doing. Likely, she is not too happy with where she finds herself at this point in time, else why would Horace suggest a leaving Hattiesburg? I wonder if that change of address would include Floyd?

Also in the closing paragraphs, Horace laments a busted relationship between Bess and her girlfriends, and then Horace lapses into memories of a happier time when he and Bess would visit and play among friends, travel to the Gulf coast, etc. Horace seems to be retreating into the past to escape the present. A sad commentary on circumstances of the day, soothed somewhat by fragmented escapes into the pleasure of a book and memories of a happier time.

I'll never know whether Horace or Bess saved the letter. Whether it was sent or not. Times may have gotten worse before they got better. Did Horace's prospects ever get better? Did he eventually prosper and build a respectable library of books (emphasis on metaphysics, of course!) and music? Did Bess stay in Hattiesburg? Did either sibling ever find happiness?

Parallels to our present economy and its southward sprint of late makes me wonder what current-day ephemera of an unsatisfied or unhappy life will offer a future reader a time-capsule glimpse into that life and today's times. Maybe 70 years from now, sometime around 2075 to 2080, something laid in an "old" book from 2008 will give that reader pause to stop and consider it. And, hopefully, the chain of relevance will be broken, with respect to the economy.

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