Are We Killing Intimate Expressions?

When was the last time you witnessed a handwritten intimate expression? For most, it is actually really hard to remember a precise date. Today I checked out a book I have been waiting for. This book is My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and Stieglitz (1864-1946) were both artists. They were also lovers, friends, and maybe at times enemies who corresponded over many years. Yale University Press in association with the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library put this work out. The contents were selected, annotated, and edited by Sarah Greenough, and the book is copyright by both the press and Greenough. I only wished there had been images of the actual letters instead of transcriptions.

Last year I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Research Center on a field trip with my son. The O’Keeffe name should be familiar to most New Mexicans, as she made such an intricate mark on this state as a woman, and as a creative force. Still, I never really cared to know more about her until I experienced her artwork up close as a mature adult. On the trip, I remember that the voices of school children gently disappeared as I gazed at O’Keeffe’s sensual symbolic expressions in vivid color. I walked from painting to painting and became absorbed by canvas laced with emotions, flowing petals, and skulls. On that trip I also learned of O’Keeffe’s deep fascination with the man who inspired and infuriated her all at once. Later that year I learned of the plans for this new book, and I was of course intrigued. When I went into the library to get the new release, I was taken back by the sheer size of the book. I almost needed a book cart to take it to my vehicle! My Faraway One is Volume I, which denotes that there will be a Volume II, and possibly a Volume III. I couldn’t believe that I was looking at a 3 inch book of a mass amount of intimate, profound, creative, and purposeful letters.

There are many reasons I find this book amazing. The main reason is the one I will write about tonight. Hand written letters… They are almost completely extinct. This year there was even a funeral planned for letters. I am really serious! I couldn’t believe this when I found it online tonight. The event was planned and executed by Five Funerals, a cultural organization. The “creative professionals” running this event tout the funerals as “a series of solemn celebrations that will memorialize five cultural ideas and give them the fanfare they deserve.” The event was held in May of 2011 and was titled PostScript: The Passing of the Letter. Information about the event stated that the “treasured and obsolete form of communication” would “be honored through a collective act of written correspondence while sipping custom cocktails by Death’s Door Spirits.” The “ceremony” was “Victorian-style” and “mourners” assisted “in the preparation of the body by creating a letter and joining in the procession to the long forgotten ‘mailbox’.” For real!!!

This brings me back to the intimate O’Keeffe/Stieglitz correspondence. What if you never get another letter? Ever?? Are you ok with that? I am not sure that I am. Did people really hand write that many letters back then? Who had time? There was no spell check then! I kind of wanted to cry just thinking about it. Tonight I opened three Christmas cards. After contemplating this idea all day, I realized that with each rip of an envelope, I kind of hoped that one person had enclosed a handwritten note. I opened each to no avail. After researching more tonight, I discovered that there are many people concerned about cursive, handwriting, and yes- the death of the letter. I have said many times that I am a lover of technology, but as an archivist, I also have an intense love of paper. When you read the correspondence between these two people, you can almost taste their passion for one another and for the creative process. The descriptive quality of the letters is unsurpassed, and words bring the book to life. Maybe some people do not want to know every detail, but I am one who finds the most character in those details which others would shun. Stieglitz believed in numerology, and enclosed pressed flowers and petals in some letters to O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe enclosed feathers in some of her letters to Stieglitz . They were fascinated by Freud and Jung, and psychology. They also both embraced a unique intimacy.

Following are some things I selected to feature from the book. At the time of these letters, I believe O’Keeffe was in her 30s and Stieglitz was in his 50s.

Chapter 2- The Kiss That is My Life 1919-1928

(page 313)  As soon as O’Keeffe moved to New York in 1918, she and Stieglitz forged a relationship that was centered on their all-consuming love, their art, and their deep respect for each other. In the last three years, they had come to know each other’s emotional terrain through the letters they had exchanged, but they soon discovered that they shared many traits: both voraciously imbibed the world around them, responding immediately, even viscerally, to the people, places, art, and especially the nature they encountered; both were articulate and opinionated Stieglitz, verbose, O’Keeffe, dry and pointed; and both sought perfection in everything they did. Just as quickly, too, they realized they had a powerful erotic attraction to each other…”

(page 313) “They made enormous strides in their art during this decade, thanks in large part to their study of each other’s work and the inspiration they drew from their love.”

(page 313)  “If Stieglitz and photography grounded O’Keeffe in the natural world, making her art more representational, she liberated him, inspiring him with a creative freedom and energy he had never known before.”

(page 323)  Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe while in York Beach Maine to Alfred Stieglitz on May 5, 1922*****
Morning- I haven’t known the time since I waked at 6:30- old time- It is a quarter to eleven now- I am in my room with my left side back to the open fire and my right side front to the ocean- It is pouring rain- a wonderful sound with the little sizzle and crackle of the fire-Yesterday it was only missing and we went out and walked a little on the beach- I with an umbrella to protect my head from the wind more than the mist- Today it is just pouring- it poured all night- I love it- every time I turned over in bed I thought of you and enjoyed the sound of the rain- The bed is indecently large and soft- The cover- she calls it “down puffs”- very light and very warm- I couldn’t help feeling how nicely you would cuddle up in the warm softness with the sound of the sea and the rain outside- and how you would like it- I think you would never get up till the sun came out- I wanted to get up because I had to look at it- even a wonderfully soft warm bed isn’t so interesting when you are not in it- I got up and looked out twice and got back into my warmness- I don’t know what time it was when I dressed-The rain is wonderful- I feel so peaceful and so excited all at the same time- The house is so still and even though it is low tide the beach is perfectly shiny and smooth and clean looking and there is a wonderful sea rolling in- It’s raining so hard that it all seems like a gray sea- with just a little green- great long white waves breaking through- big ones and little ones and thin ones and thick ones.— Little Duck- I am so glad I came- if only you are all right without me.

I will close with a few questions for you to ponder, and further resources in the event you care to explore this topic further. What will social scientists, historians, scholars, authors, and genealogists have to work with 100 years from now? Will we ever get a look at this type of intimate exchange again? How many of you save your electronic letters? How much can we learn about a person from a typed letter? Will they really stop teaching cursive in school, or will they make it mandatory? Will you take the time to write some letters, and re-infuse the intimate portrait of our collective character? I think you should…

May 2011
Five Funerals- PostScript: The Passing of the Letter

October 2011
Death of the Letter

October 2011
Death of the Handwritten Letter

December 2011
Indiana lawmakers want cursive mandatory in schools

December 2011
Cursed: Pretty handwriting and the education issue of our lifetime

December 2011
Why Cursive Handwriting is Still Important-Part 2

Explore posts in the same categories: Archives, Art, Artists, Authors, Body and Mind, Books, Connection, Creativity, Digital Issues, Edification, Fire Symbol, Friends, History, New Mexico, Numerology, Psychology, Symbols and Imagery, Worthy Reads, Writers

3 Comments on “Are We Killing Intimate Expressions?”

  1. This is one of the most insightful and thought provoking posts that I have read in a long time. It fills me with longing and mourning for the loss of one of the most beautiful and personal forms of communication.

    I would have loved to have seen the Funeral for letters. What a fabulous and gorgeous idea!

    This really exploded my heart, because I have such an affinity for letters that I actually collect vintage and antique ephemera (photos, cards, letters). They are like ghosts from a time when people seemed to live more passionately. I cannot tell you how many boxes of old paper I have sitting around here. They are like little memory-orphans that I feel I have rescued! 🙂

    There is something about letters…the process, the physical act of putting pen to paper, the tactile sensations, the folding, smoothing, the ink as it runs across. Sadly, this art is dead. Our attention spans have grown so short that meaning has become inconvenient.

    Thank you for this wonderful and thought provoking post! There is so much to think about here I could go off on 50 tangents.

    • Felicia Says:

      Thanks K–

      It means so much to me to have someone like yourself appreciate that piece- given you are one of the deeper individuals I have come across in cyber space.

      You can still have a funeral for letters. That would be a great idea for a new self portrait series for you. Maybe writing (script) on your skin or something– symbolic of how authentic communication makes us feel more connected in this disconnected world. Or maybe a series with you reading letters that are torn, burning or somehow being destroyed? Death of the letter!! That would be awesome!

      Interesting that you collect vintage letters and ephemeral material. I am actually an archivist by profession, so my job is actually to care about the preservation of history. I would care about it anyhow. I am the bureau chief of the State Archives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

      Letters from the past do capture a passion that is missing from the communication we see today. It is also sad to think that 100 years from now, there will be little correspondence remaining from today, as most people do not keep electronic correspondence.

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment- I am not surprised! 🙂


  2. […] December 13, 2011, I wrote Are We Killing Intimate Expressions? I was so taken by a new book titled My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and […]

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