On editing Anthony Hecht’s letters

Guest post by Jonathan F. S. Post

As with most beginnings, it is difficult to recall the precise origins of this project, except to say that it began with a telephone call to Helen Hecht. I had been unable to attend the New York City memorial service for her late husband, Anthony Hecht, in early 2005 because of teaching commitments on the west coast, and I called at some point after the event to inquire how it had gone and how she was faring. Like many, I had been surprised by the sudden onset of Tony’s illness and his equally sudden decline. We—Tony, Helen, my wife Susan, and I—had spent a lovely few days together in the mid-spring of 2004, when Tony had been invited to Los Angeles as a finalist for a “lifetime” achievement award given by the LA Times, a prize, like many others, that he received.

At some point, our conversation turned to Tony’s letters, and—here’s where it gets fuzzy—one of us expressed an interest in my editing them. I don’t think I was that bold, but perhaps I was. Although a Renaissance scholar by training, I had kept a toe in modern poetry, teaching and occasionally writing about it. I had also been a student of Tony’s  many years earlier at the University of Rochester, where he, and also Helen, had been remarkably kind to me. A friendship ensued that grew and deepened over the years. The idea of seeing Tony’s letters in print seemed positively and profoundly enthralling to me. What could be more useful, I thought, than seeking to help preserve his legacy through his own words? And what words at that!

As I quickly came to understand, there can be few other scholarly acts that involve so many unsung heroes. And here I am not speaking about the editor. Letters have their value in part as ephemera, and an editor’s greatest gratitude goes most immediately, and in the following order, to those who save letters (bless them!), to those who recover them (bless them, too), and to those whose institutional work it is to collect and organize them (bless them as well). Without the first action, there is nothing; without the second, only something; and without the third, only a vast something. It’s a tale of accidental losses and frustrations, in which whole troves have somehow disappeared. Ubi sunt? Where are the letters to Irma Brandeis, to James Wright, to W. S. Merwin? And it is also a tale of inadvertent villains: those who knowingly discard, or, even worse, those who indifferently remember discarding what you know they once had. Our increasingly mobile lives encourage a lightness of being—now into the airy nothing of email.

For these reasons especially, I will never forget the excitement and sense of gratitude accompanying my first reading through, for instance, the continuous sequence of correspondence covering the three years Hecht was a soldier during World War II. His parents had saved the whole bunch (and many other letters besides—was it only sentiment, or did they know something even then?). I was able to read these letters, and many others, because the individuals who work at the Special Collections Library at Emory University, which houses the Hecht archive, had done such a fine job quickly and accurately cataloging them. And I read them in the company of Helen Hecht, who not only has been responsible for retrieving so many of her husband’s letters, but was also reading these and other letters, many for the first time, enthralled and of course deeply moved by them in ways more complex still. If we give (metaphorically at least) blessings to these keepers and collectors, it’s because holding the originals seems to possess reliquary significance. Yes, too sentimental to say that you’re holding the paper that his pen has touched, the envelope that his lips have sealed; but something like that aura prevails as you go through folder after folder, putting together parts of a life that in many cases had always seem so composed—in the rich sense that word has in relation to Hecht’s art.

hechtJonathan F. S. Post is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles and the editor of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht.