'Morris Graves - Selected Letters'
Vicki Halper and Lawrence Fong, eds.
A new book from the University of Washington Press gives a glimpse into a world that we have lost, and not so very long ago - the epistolary world of typewriters, handwritten letters and stamps that had to be licked.
"Morris Graves - Selected Letters" draws on voluminous correspondence maintained by Northwest School artist Morris Graves from his teenage years to the end of his life in 2001 at age 90.
Graves' estate included over 40 boxes of letters - exchanges with his family, friends and colleagues (not always the same thing), business associates, patrons and fans. These included not only letters to Graves, but also drafts of missives he wrote to friends. Ever an aesthete, Graves was punctilious about checking and correcting spelling before sending out a clean final copy.
The collection was co-edited by Lawrence Fong, curator at Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, where both the letters and a sizable collection of Graves' sketches are archived, and by former Seattle Art Museum curator Vicki Halper, who worked with Graves in his later years.
There are chapters devoted to family, friends and intimacy - candid discussions of sibling relationships (Graves was one of eight children), finances (often strained), and lifestyles (Graves was gay, and a pacifist at the height of World War II).
Graves and his mother were regular correspondents - Helen Graves alternately cheered him on and chided him; sometimes he soothed her and other times scolded right back.
But in letters exchanged among Morris and his brothers, they shared a more jaundiced view of their mother's long life. Five years before her death, Morris groused, "God knows (?) how long she'll hang on to this unsavory trip of suffering tenaciously and thick-wittedly." His brothers were equally blunt.
Other sections examine Graves' propensity for building homes that could accommodate and succor his creative life.
He also had a strong contrasting need to abandon the constrictions of domesticity for the challenge of foreign lands.
Yet when he got to where he was going: "Anguish is what I knew most of while in Europe," Graves wrote to his friend and fellow painter Richard Gilkey. "Anguish and homesickness and awful physical and emotional and mental and spiritual exhaustion."
Finally, there are letters in which Graves discusses art - his own and others. He circulated amidst other creative geniuses of the mid-20th century: Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Carolyn Kizer, John Huston, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and many more - but he craved solitude in order to be able to create.
Each chapter focuses on a topic, and within that chapter, letters are arranged chronologically. That plays out well in the first half of the book, but by the final chapters, the chronologies have been replayed so many times as to make the reader dizzy.
Despite that complaint, these letters are gems - conveying verve and passion and trains of thought possibly more complex than we tweeting twits of the 21st century can ever hope to express or even comprehend.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com.