Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones.
Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones
Duke University Press, 2016
Love, H, the correspondence of writer Hettie Jones (1934-) and sculptor Helene Dorn (1918-2004), has much in common with the epistolary novel. In fact, the vast majority of collected letters bears that resemblance since they are almost always a selection from a greater oeuvre (a transparent tease leaving us to wonder what has been omitted), constructed to present the narrative of a life and a portrait of the protagonist in the contexts of friends, family, colleagues, enemies, and others. Jones herself, who edited the volume and added commentary throughout, forthrightly acknowledges this editorial process, explaining that the letters were selected from "many exchanges... over 40 years," although she never calls the end product fiction (2). But the construct is a fiction culled from primary documents that more often than not speak to a life that was in reality messy, unplanned, and always in the process of becoming--anything but a coherent narrative.
Yet these very texts defy their own Active construction. Most of us do not render letters solely to leave materials for an editor to affirm the importance of our presence on earth. Most often, they serve as tools to facilitate other actions and projects as part of someone's being in the world. We write letters to conduct business, to maintain or end relationships, to create new relationships, to express gratitude and sympathy, to remember the past and to imagine the future, to record our dreams, and so much more. Sometimes we write them to ourselves, sometimes to people we've never met, sometimes to our most intimate of confidants. The process of such writing requires that we shape and reshape the self that we wish to present to the Other(s), not undermining authenticity but acknowledging that at any given moment we can craft the self that we desire to be--and the self of the one to whom we communicate. It is against, and with, and through these artifacts that we reflect on our lives and check our memories alongside the greater documentation of fact. As such letters when collected for publication simultaneously reify the epistolary novel and the memoir-auto/biography, the latter itself both fiction and fact.
This is what Ann Charters intended with her editing of Jack Kerouac's voluminous correspondence--to create a biography of the man himself--and this is what we find in collections such as Joyce Johnson's correspondence with Kerouac, Gary Snyder's correspondence with Wendell Berry, and perhaps even more so in William S. Burroughs's Yage Letters, based on his journals and correspondence with Ginsberg. It is also the kind of text readers immerse themselves in when they read Love, H, which weaves Jones's personal reflections on her friendship with Dorn throughout the letters themselves. It is, as Jones states in her introduction, documentation of how her friendship with Dorn "kept [her] from sinking" during the difficult years chronicled in How I Became Hettie Jones (1990), while also telling the story of two women evolving in separate but similar ways, the twining narratives fashioned upon Jones's concern with "literature and art and our attempts to locate our own efforts within these disciplines." Trying, that is, "to be an artist in a woman's life" (3). In this respect, the collection fits comfortably in the long line of epistolary texts emerging in the 17th century as a feminized form in which self-expression, the affective, and everyday life dominate. But the book is so much more--which is not to trivialize self-expression, emotions, and daily occurrences, or Jones's magnanimous goals for the collection, but rather to emphasize the dynamism of the book as a whole.
With respect to Jones's focus on the female artist, their correspondence, which begins in 1963 and concludes in 2004 (the two first met in 1960), dwells on the often-brutal story of the intersection of race, class, sex, and gender as manifested in female friendship. As such, it differs markedly from the correspondence of many of the male Beat writers, in which they often celebrate their genius and engage in extended lectures on aesthetic philosophies. Throughout much of Love, H, both Jones and Dorn are divorced: Jones from the poet and playwright LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), and Dorn from the poet Edward Dorn. Both women have children and both find themselves struggling to maintain their lives and identities as artists in tandem with their commitment to their families. Jones in this narrative develops as the more political and extroverted, dealing daily with both covert and unabashed racism; Dorn the more reserved and introverted. But together, as what Dorn called "discarded wives," they persistently affirm, decade after decade, the other's inherent self-worth and talents, encouraging and problem-solving along the way, while humbly and joyfully extolling the academic and professional successes of their children--and themselves.
What makes this particular story especially brutal, however, is the poverty that stalks them like a shadow self. It's always there. Jones is forever shopping at thrift stores, relying on freelance copyediting work and adjunct teaching jobs, and risking life and limb by driving across country in cars that belong in the scrap yard. Dorn repeatedly seeks decent housing in Gloucester, Massachusetts, her story the all-too-common one of a life descending from suitable living conditions to meager public housing. As in Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man, we see cherished items from one of the homes she rented tossed unceremoniously onto the front lawn for garbage collection. Illness, alcoholism, and poor health care services plague her, and she mourns the loss of her hair as her health deteriorates. A photograph of her bundled up with head bowed down and pulling a cart of groceries through a January 1985 snowstorm symbolizes not only the resilience of both women--e.g., Dorn's long strides as she follows a car track down the middle of a snow-clogged Gloucester street (64)--but also the cruelty of lives forged in loneliness, on the precipice of extinction. Neither woman is homeless and without friends and family, but neither woman as she strives to be independent is without worries about her next meal, the possibility of eviction, and the fragility of her body.
The starving artist model, then, while a romantic possibility for the young, especially if one is white, male, and unattached, emerges in Love, H as potentially catastrophic. It's a common story, one that's been told over and over in fiction and nonfiction Virginia Woolf resurrected it in A Room of One's Own as did James Joyce in Dub liners, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses; Bonnie Bremser Fraser told it in Troia: Mexican Memoirs, as did both Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed and Zora Neale Hurston in letters to artists such as Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten published as Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. But it is also a story that many seem all too willing to forget, or to ignore. So it is not surprising that both Jones and Dorn find a myriad of ways to express to each other the troubling question, "What is to happen to me/you/us?" as they face the blankness of their future at the end of each letter.
But face it they do, heroically, using humor, often self-deprecating, to bolster each other, sending one another book recommendations (Dorn spends much of her time in feminist self-education.) and, as the years pass, confronting head-on the invidious realities of aging in America. Holidays and birthdays mark the passage of time, the former--Christmas, as an example--being a celebration in reality more taxing than magical, something they wish they could "step over": Jones in a note dated December 12, 2003, comforts Dorn with the subtle irony of "[b]e of good cheer, my dear. Xmas will be over before we know it" (348-49). Their greetings are often accompanied by clippings of articles relevant to their temporal status. On March 27,1996, approximately two months after Dorn's birthday, Jones sent Dorn a letter with an article from Time magazine about the word old. In her commentary on the article, Jones remembers that on the margins of the clipping she had written, "Got any thoughts?"--a prompt to Dorn to respond to the article's report that Americans are '"fearful of aging... thus giving rise to such euphemisms as 'senior citizen' and 'silver fox,' as well as more weighted words like 'elderly,'" biased terms that Jones notes are now frowned upon by most journalistic style manuals (151-52). Dorn replied the following day: "... it's all nonsense, of course. I call myself Helene Dorn. And respond to, and use, 'senior citizen' when it means a discount.... 'Mature American'--what bullshit!" (151-52).
Their back-and-forth reads as charming, sad, exciting, feisty, evasive, confusing, bittersweet, gutsy, and a mix of other qualities, all the while establishing love as the center of their world. In fact, their correspondence builds as a romance, hence the eponymous valediction, "Love, H," which signifies not only their unique identities but also the possible dissolving of those selves into a single spirit or the mirroring of one's self in the Other. Interestingly, Jones resists this trope in her commentary, stating that to correspond "isn't to duplicate but to harmonize" (3). In effect, she perceives that the one who emerges from the two is a creative illusion, art itself. But whatever one chooses to believe about the "I/You/We" nature of the linguistic chimera "Love, H," what remains stable throughout their correspondence is the fact that the writing of each letter functions as a metaphor for the one who is absent, the one upon whom love is projected. Jones and Dorn speak in secret at times; confide their dreams, hopes, and fears; remain silent on certain topics; and quickly build themselves into the other's confidante, comforter, and confessor, as they focus on what scholar Janet Gurkin Airman identifies as the "psychological nuance and the details of everyday life" (19), amidst which as partners in the romance they rely upon memory and expectation to keep the other alive and present (122).
Love, H, then, owes its dynamism not only to its honest exposition of poverty and its nimble elucidation of the heroism that can emerge from the romance of female friendship, but also to the fact that the book goes a fair distance toward sketching a theory of correspondence as genre. Jones never states this directly, but she does declare that "[l]etters stop time," that they "offer voices," that they "offer arrivals" (1-4). Her attentive introduction coupled with the letters themselves and her contemporary commentary direct readers to that which in everyday life remains invisible: the epistemological complexities of writing overtime to the Other.
It is not my purpose in this short text to create that theory or comment on others' efforts to create their own such theories, so instead I will conclude by foregrounding a few components of Jones's hidden theory that drive Love, H to become what Ann Charters calls a Beat masterpiece, one which " Validat[ed] [her] own feelings about how difficult it must have been to survive and raise children as what Hettie calls the 'discarded wife' of a Beat author" (34). What Jones directly speaks about in her introduction but never fleshes out is the reader/writer relationship in a correspondence. Love, H, however, repeatedly reminds one that unlike conventional fiction and nonfiction texts, the epistolary text starkly dramatizes the reader/writer relationship--not simply as a one-way transaction, but as a complex dialectic amongst a potentially infinite number of participants in equally complex dimensions of time and space.
As a variant of first-person narration, the epistolary text at the most basic level features at least two first-person narrators (often more), each writing directly to the other, who is also the reader. The result is a text foregrounding as virtually equal the act of writing and the act of reading, a text in which one can see both actors struggling in their correspondence to make sense of their own actions and needs as well as those of the Other. For instance, toward the end of their relationship, Dorn writes to Jones that she's hobbled with a faulty printer, pouring rain, and an injured foot, but concludes, "Meanwhile bless you for writing! And I'll try [to write] later today, tho I ain't got much to say." Writing the following day, Jones reassures her, "Don't worry whether you have much to say, the point is just to get better so you can at least get out into the fresh air before it turns into hot air" (328). In this simple exchange, one that all good friends know extremely well, Dorn has not asked for reassurance--perhaps she can't admit in writing that she needs it?--but Jones as reader writes back explicitly to the what-was-not-said, a reading into the text based on long years of knowing her friend and thus accordingly adjusting her own writerly self.
Similarly, but from a different point in time, Jones splices their correspondence with a short, two-sentence comment on the significance of the phrase "years left" in their exchange: "That tossed off 'years left' stops me now. It didn't then; I simply refused to believe her"--a reference to Dorn who had written that she no longer wanted new books since "I've no place to put them, and don't have that many years left to get them read" (318, emphasis mine). As the reader of those words in 2003, Jones struggled with the reality of endings, realizing only years later in the act of editing that she as reader chose a particular response out of her own psychological needs, as we all do. The full effect is, again to quote Altman,
very much like reading over the shoulder of another character whose own readings--and misreadings--must enter into our experience of the work. In fact, the epistolary [text's] tendency to narrativize reading, integrating the act of reading... at all levels (from a correspondent's proofreading of his own letters to publication and public reading of the entire letter collection), constitutes an internalizing action that blurs the very distinctions that we make between the internal and external reader. (88)
Simply put, the reader and writer share identities. By extension, no text ever emerges from anything other than a writer/reader union, since once published for a wider readership, a text is read by an unknown number of unknown readers who in the act of reading the correspondence become themselves agents and respondents in that very relationship. Jones alludes to this in her introduction, stating that the letter, be it a fax or email or postcard (all of which she and Dorn used), constitutes a message read not only by the addressee but also by others who may profit from the reading: specifically, Jones wonders what her readers can learn from the Hettie/Helene correspondence.
As the "years left" passage illustrates, the writer/reader construct in an epistolary text also highlights the temporality of epistolary statements, situating the writer and reader in a particular space as well. Those readers, for instance, who may learn from the Hettie/Helene letters exist in a world unplotted, while Jones and Dorn as the primary protagonists are resurrected by readers who move through the book in the imagined present moment in New York City and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorn and Jones's physical and metaphysical coordinates are complicated by the presentation of their physical and emotional conditions. Space and time fluctuate depending on when the letter was written, the date of composition (itself a somewhat unstable signifier), the date of arrival and of reading(s), and the condition of the letter (Did the ink smear? Is there a clipping of a Time magazine article enclosed?). In essence, the correspondence directs one to the present of someone's real life as it is repeatedly birthed--Jones and Dorn become a present reality for the Other each time they write a letter and each time they read the letter, while situating the reader/writer at the edge of the future. What will happen next?
Letters by their very nature are episodic, a complete whole that is a part of a larger whole signified by the blank separating each letter in the collection: physically on the page of the collection in book form, metaphysically in the present moment between the reading of one letter and the reading of a subsequent letter. Each letter-as-episode is akin to a snowflake, unique in its physical form, even when typed on the same typewriter or computer (e.g., Hettie and Helene's later correspondence). The space/time gap between them portends the unknown that faces their very physicality, that of both the letter and of its creator.
At some point, every correspondence must cease. Sometimes one writer/reader elects to end it, to the chagrin of the other; sometimes the nature of the correspondence dictates its cessation (e.g., the project was completed). Sometimes death itself forces closure, which is the case with Love, H. In a letter dated "Gloucester, 1/9/04," Dorn wrote excitedly about getting a small heater for her apartment, signing off with "That's all for now. Love, H," implying the continuation of life via another letter. In what may be one of the most powerful of literary endings, Jones from her position some ten years into the future remarks, "And that was all. For now and forever" (349). Helene never wrote again and passed away in May 2004.
Love, H testifies to the resilience of epistolary relationships. Even after they cease to exist, one can resurrect them through the very act of reading and rereading those letters, and by passing them along through publication for others to read. The collection's theoretical foundation upholds not only a narrative of letter writing itself, but also the narrative(s) of two extra/ordinary lives. These lives are most obviously those of Hettie Jones and Helene Dorn. But they are also the lives of any two individuals who have chosen to sustain their relationship, that hard journey home, through written discourse, to see themselves in Hettie and Helene, to write if only in their most private thoughts, "Such a story, our letters" (350).
--Nancy M. Grace, The College of Wooster
Altaian, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. The Ohio State UP. 1982.
Charters Ann. "The Beat Interview." Journal of Beat Studies, vol. 5, 2017, pp. 29-40.