The Poet and the Historian

By Mary Jo Salter

I begin with a confession of bias. I am lucky enough to have been acquainted with both of the hilarious letter writers whose fruits are gathered in A Bountiful Harvest: The Correspondence of Anthony Hecht and William L. MacDonald, edited by Philip Hoy. I knew the first of these men very well, and on the second I made less of an impression, apparently, given that he reports in these pages having run into “Mary Lou” at the supermarket.

Fair enough. I ought to be confessing, though, that back in the 1980s, when the venerable poet Hecht and his second wife, Helen, a brilliant chef and writer of cookbooks, would invite my then-husband and me, young writers under their wing, to a dinner party, and their architectural historian friend MacDonald happened to be in attendance, I would relish the general air of mischief and laughter—but was too lazy, when I got home, to write down a single one of their jokes.

What I do remember is that Hecht—whose eminence is founded on poems that are almost forbiddingly formal both in their technique and in their high diction, poems that dare to showcase humankind at our worst and most cruel—was a very funny guy with a belly laugh. It sounded remarkably close to yuck, yuck, yuck.

And I remember one cause of the laughter when MacDonald, distinguished in his own right, was present: the competitive boasting between the two men—both born in the early 1920s, and frequent correspondents from the late 1950s onward—as to who had procured the best stationery. As explained by this volume’s editor, Philip Hoy, the two correspondents had locked horns in a decades-long skirmish. Their goal was to deploy the most recherché letterhead paper possible. Open this book on a random page (356, if you’re checking) and you’ll find MacDonald, who usually wrote from his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, typing his missive on Tom Sawyer Motor Inns stationery, although tucked into an envelope marked Ohio Stater Inn. Not to be outdone, Hecht, who in earlier years usually wrote from Rochester, New York, and later from Washington, D.C., responds to MacDonald on letterheads such as “Dépôt des Principales Verreries & Cristaux, Quai des Luisettes, Angers, France.” Hecht was always more committed than his friend to the purloining of letterheads in foreign languages and from foreign locales, while MacDonald betrayed an enduring taste for bedside notepads from provincial American motels. The latter man maintained, however, a lofty preference for thick paper stock. One ought to get extra points, MacDonald felt, if the letterhead words were embossed and indentations could be felt on the verso, but Hecht made clear that he found such distinctions pitiful. Each man liked to impersonate others by means of stationery he had stolen. One wonders what Leo Sternberg, Benjamin Franklin Professor of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania, thought about MacDonald’s using his.

You are surely waiting, with diminishing patience, to hear about the content of the friends’ letters, but let me pause first to applaud the light-heartedness they’d convey before writing even their first paragraph. Envelopes typically offer a dubious claim about the identities of both correspondents. Again, at random (page 235): MacDonald’s envelope proposes the sender to be “The Grand Master of the Knights of Cabiria,” and the recipient “Anthony Hecht, Seer.” The letter itself opens with the salutation “O Titan!” and closes with “Yours in the undergraduate sense, Admiral Dewey.”

Undergraduate sense indeed: The humor can be sophomoric. I could do without the Polish jokes, which seemed funny once, but times have changed. (Anyone who has read Hecht’s poems concerning the Holocaust, particularly “More Light! More Light!” and “The Book of Yolek,” knows that his actual empathy with Poles ran deep.) You can’t resist all the jolliness, though, once letters have been set up with greetings like “My dear son,” “Hey there Bud,” “God’s Feet,” “Ole Hoss,” “Fellow Deliquescent,” “Now see here, Fenwick,” and “Peasant!”. The signatories to these letters include, but are hardly limited to, “Rutyard Coupling,” “Irving of Arimathaea,” “Sarah, Duchess of Marlboro Lights,” and “Walter Ego.” Sometimes it is the conjunction of opening and closing salvos that demands attention: A letter beginning “Dear Pearl Buck” is signed “Marcel Proust.” (It goes without saying that neither Buck nor Proust is even tangentially relevant to the letter in question.) Both Hecht and MacDonald wielded from time to time a rubber stamp with an interpretive message. More than one of Hecht’s letters is stamped, by himself, WEIGHED AND FOUND WANTING.

Solemnity does creep in, however, once we read the letters themselves. When unfunny things happened to either man—divorce, health problems, the death of near ones—they addressed each other soberly by their actual first names. (And as they grew older and less prone to giddiness, they would sometimes descend to “Dear Bill” and “Dear Tony” for no good reason.) The reader feels disappointment whenever the two comedians rip off their masks, but takes comfort in how eloquently they rose to unwelcome occasions. I don’t think I’ve ever read a nobler condolence than the one Hecht writes on being informed that MacDonald’s ex-wife, and the mother of his two young sons, is dying of cancer: “There is nothing to say except to acknowledge the terrible facts, and it would be a heartless impertinence to cast about for cheap consolations or edifying maxims. I send, in their place, my love.” Many years later the Hechts, on learning of a degenerative disease MacDonald had contracted, immediately invited him to move from Massachusetts to Washington and live with them for the rest of his life. He declined, but there is no doubt that both the offer and the gratitude were genuine.

For years and years, though, the two men’s letters were rarely wholly serious. They engaged often in forms of cultural satire, as when MacDonald tries to commission an article from Hecht for The Distinctive Howard Johnson’s Review: “Our honorarium will consist of free postage for all your business letters to Madagascar for twenty days. Please, do not write on more than two sides of the paper.” Hecht writes an entire letter in the person of “Astrophel, Acting Chairman, Department of English” to deny MacDonald a job: “We are obliged to confess, with some embarrassment, that we already have too many Capricorns on the department staff. . . . [W]e do not see our way to offering you an appointment in the near future. What we really need at present is a nice Gemini and a couple of Scorpios.” Academic politics are a constant theme: The friends had met in 1957 as fellows at The American Academy in Rome, and they knew firsthand all the pleasures of dedicated study, though on the home front it was conducted under less than ideal conditions. Explicitly deplored here are the drudgeries of committee work, the piles of appallingly written student papers, the mysterious ways of deans and provosts.

Both men came to hold endowed professorships, and felt flattered to be wooed by other academic institutions, even for positions of little interest. Neither man was successful, however, at disguising a wounded pride if those institutions retracted, or failed to renew, a casual or soft offer. Both men were invited all over the world to lecture at the most rarified gatherings, wrote books to be published by the most respected houses; yet both often felt underappreciated, or at least in need of reaffirmation. Sometimes they could shrug off their seeming irrelevance, as when Hecht writes to MacDonald: “My book is out, in a manner of speaking. Like all books of poetry, it emerges undetectably, like a silent fart.” More often, their correspondence consists of heartfelt bids for praise and glory—from each other. That gambit set them up for a few deflationary replies. No sooner has Hecht crowed to MacDonald, for instance, that he has been summoned by the Guggenheim Foundation to receive a prize in person, on the stage of La Scala opera house in Milan, than MacDonald reveals his own travel plans as a guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania: “That’s grand news about the Guggenheim prize, and particularly about the first class flight. I find first class very, very enjoyable. This winter, when I go to Penn. six times or whatever, I intend to ride the Metroliner chair car, my idea of grand luxe; anyway, they said they’d pay.” If the friends jockeyed for position, it’s hard not to feel a protective affection toward them both: after all, the mightiest among us are vulnerable, too.

And the mutual loyalty of these men made them a partnership, however jestingly they spoke of it. Off and on over the years, they renewed their plans to go on the road and offer a joint “Course of Lectures, Illustrated by Deed and By Magic Lantern.” Titles they considered included “Famous Streetcar Accidents,” “Different Sized Crates,” “Great Hats I Have Worn,” and “Little-Known Facts in the Sex Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe.” (In a further comic twist, Hecht finally did deliver a real-life, solo lecture under the last-mentioned title.) The two men voiced their admiration often, in direct ways (writing long letters in appreciation of the other’s new work) or more oblique ones, as when Hecht, not an architectural historian, gave a public lecture on country houses in poetry, or MacDonald, an elegant writer but not a poet, wrote some well-turned limericks. Both writers had, and knew they had, insight to offer in the other’s field.  MacDonald, self-deprecating about his appreciation of serious poetry, nonetheless writes that he “purposely overlook[s] the current works by Successful Novelists; I can say happily I’ve been in that frame of mind for decades. . . . When I look into a White Hotel or a Garp I find little I don’t know, which I can say without false modesty . . .” Hecht writes MacDonald astutely about a book of architectural photographs without people in them: “After all, architecture is meant to be inhabited, and when we see it vacant our first impulse is to think of calamity.”

Scholarship is most often an unheralded, indeed unnoticed, business. All the more reason to declare that no editor could have performed a more thorough, judicious, and good-humored job with this admittedly obscure material than Philip Hoy has done. As the publisher of Waywiser Press, he has also made sure that the book itself is an aesthetic pleasure: hardcover, nicely bound, lots of photographs, reproductions of some of the most notable letterheads, a readable font for the 403 letters and postcards here. Hoy came to the project well situated, having published in 2005 an essential book-length interview with Hecht about his life and work. Here, Hoy’s inviting foreword is followed by further chapter introductions and supplemented by authoritative footnotes that spare the reader any temptation to go wrong with Wikipedia. At the back, chronologies for each man’s life are partnered with a glossary identifying every name mentioned. Hoy’s annotations, never excessive, do dare to be interpretive in sound ways. For instance, he supplies the surprising observation that the dialogue between the two learned friends never once referred to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon papers, The Watergate scandal, the Camp David accords, the Three Mile Island accident, or the Iran hostage crisis. And he’s right, unless you count MacDonald’s oblique allusion to that hostage crisis in a letter of 1980: “Dear Ol’ Fred, Bet you didn’t know that the Iranians have established a university abroad in Italy. They have a pretty good football team, and their cheer for it begins, ‘Ayatollah U. Once, Ayatollah U. Twice . . .”

It would be misleading to give the impression that all of Hecht’s friends received silly letters. Rather, his letters to and from MacDonald comprised in themselves a unique and self-sufficient venue, what today we would call a “safe space,” for high spirits and low relevance. A more comprehensive view of Hecht’s correspondence was provided in 2013 by the critic Jonathan F. S. Post (a favorite student of Hecht’s, long ago, at The University of Rochester), editor of The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht. Affectionate letters to Hecht’s parents, particularly, give us precious insight into his gifts both for self-disclosure and for tactful reserve.  We see Hecht as a boy writing cheerfully from camp; as a young man writing (fairly frankly, given the censors) from wherever the U.S. Army had posted him. (He hated military life immediately, on its own institutional terms—a feeling only intensified by the terrors of battle in Europe and his shocked participation in the liberation of a Nazi death camp, whose survivors he interviewed in French. Later, he was hospitalized for what was not yet labeled PTSD.) In Post’s volume we also catch Hecht, a lucky young poet on a writing fellowship in Italy, despairing that his (first) marriage is in trouble. These and subsequent letters to family and a variety of friends, mostly literary ones, and to the former students and young writers that Hecht gladly mentored, shine a wider light on Hecht’s life. Post’s broad selection, though, necessarily contains just a few of the letters to MacDonald: a fact that leads us to the new discoveries and sad conclusion of this book.

What ended the warm correspondence of two simpatici, as Philip Hoy explains in a fair-minded Afterword, was not the death of either. (Hecht was to die in 2004, MacDonald in 2010.)  One night in September 1990, at a dinner party in Hecht’s home, MacDonald mused aloud that a historical detail in a poem, “The Cost,” which Hecht had written twenty years earlier, and which MacDonald had praised at the time, was incorrect. The poem’s historical claim had to do with the length of the Dacian wars of ancient Rome, and Rome was MacDonald’s field of greatest expertise, as poetry was Hecht’s. With perfect hindsight, you could argue that if the friendship were to end, it would do so on such a crux. But nobody reading the first 455 pages of this book would have seen it coming.

Most readers probably would agree with Hecht that the length of the Dacian wars was central to the poem’s meaning. In its final lines, Hecht had asked the reader to consider the value of a “fifteen-year campaign” that had won only “Seven years of peace.” MacDonald turned out to be right that the wars added up to only three years. If the war wasn’t longer than the peace it brought, what could the poem be saying? It had been written during America’s wasteful war in Vietnam, which made the question even weightier. Ironically, however, the historian MacDonald allowed more blithely for what he thought of as poetic license than did the poet Hecht. In any case, the revelation of the facts hit both men where they lived, so to speak.

\The day after the dinner party, the friendship ended abruptly—when Hecht phoned MacDonald, and “the conversation did not go well. Indeed, it seems to have gone quite badly,” as Hoy reports. The poet seems to have accused the historian of knowingly allowing him to make a fool of himself for decades. MacDonald’s few curt remaining letters show that he held on to his own anger, and apparently refused Hecht’s peace offerings. But Hecht’s last few letters to MacDonald are lost, and we of course can never listen in on their phone calls. Limited as our knowledge is, we can only end up wishing that Hecht’s and MacDonald’s own Dacian wars had resulted sooner in peace.

We do know from Hecht’s own accounts of his relationships that he could be desperately afflicted over seemingly small things. One letter of 1982 about Hecht’s brother, Roger, comes to mind. Hecht wrote to MacDonald that he had said repeatedly to his brother, who was disposing of their late parents’ effects, that he wanted very few books, but that among these was a three-volume first edition of Tom Jones. Roger had at some point unthinkingly sold off one of these volumes, not even keeping a record of the buyer, and Hecht confessed to MacDonald that he was mystified and wounded that Roger could have treated him so shabbily. Hecht went on about these feelings at great length but conceded, with admirable self-knowledge, that “My reaction to this has been abnormally strong. . . . ” In a comment elsewhere, Hoy mentions that Hecht would deliver in 1990 a eulogy at Roger’s funeral in which he said, “Jobs and geographical destiny . . . kept us apart from one another. And yet we were brothers, the children of the same parents, and our closeness was of long standing and of greater intimacy than anyone can guess at.” I suspect that a similar transformation about MacDonald may have taken place in Hecht’s heart: first, a sputtering anger and hurt that his friend had not protected him; then, a feeling of inalienable brotherhood.

\Why do we read other people’s letters? We can’t quite say, but it has something to do with our quest for life lessons: We want to know how to be braver, funnier, more industrious, less foolish. Fortunately, Hecht and MacDonald did give us permission to think about our lives by means of theirs. When the poet died, the historian wrote to Helen Hecht with his deeply saddened condolences, and returned nearly all of her husband’s letters, and even their envelopes, for safekeeping. But that wasn’t wholly unexpected. As far back as August 7, 1969, Anthony Hecht had written to William MacDonald: “Dear Dodge Owner, I hope, for Cry Sakes, that you have kept my entire correspondence on file so that in due course you can make a mint of money by publishing my letters, you lucky bastard.”