When words mattered: Academy of Music celebrates the handwritten letter

  • Comedian and writer Tim Lovett will read a letter by Frederick Douglass at the Valley Letters Project March 10. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

  • Artist Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut will read a letter from her father, Kurt Vonnegut, at the Valley Letters Project. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

  • A 1932 letter from Ameila Earhart to Orville Wright that’s part of the Valley Letters Project. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

  • Artist Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut will read a letter from her father, the novelist Kurt, at the Valley Letters Project March 10. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

  • Actor Susan Daniels will channel another Susan, Susan B. Anthony, at the Valley Letters Project March 10. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

  • Poet and children’s author Richard Michelson will read a letter from his late friend, actor and photographer Leonard Nimoy, at the Valley Letters Project March 10. Image courtesy of Academy of Music

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Before texts and Twitter, before email, Facebook, the telephone and even the telegraph, there was just one way for people far apart to stay in touch.

It was called a letter — usually a handwritten one, at least before the invention of the typewriter. 

And as Debra J’Anthony sees it, there was something personal in those handwritten letters — something that showcased the thinking and mood of the writer and the events in the person’s life — that in many cases is missing from the digital communications that are here today and deleted tomorrow.

That’s why the director of Northampton’s Academy of Music has planned an event for March 10 at the Academy that’s designed to celebrate personal letters from a host of notable people who touched down in the Valley at some point. 

“The Valley Letters Project: Live on Stage,” a fundraiser to benefit the Academy, will showcase the reading of 24 letters from writers as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Leonard Nimoy, Elizabeth Taylor and Kurt Vonnegut. The readers will include some notable Valley personalities and literary figures such as Joan Holliday, Daniel Jones, Richard Michelson and Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz.

It’s the first event of what the Academy hopes to make a regular series devoted to the written word, said J’Anthony.

The advent of digital communications, she noted, “is just a recent phenomenon, over maybe the last 20 years of so. For all that time before — for centuries, really — we wrote letters to each other. Yet that’s become a thing of the past very quickly.”

Or maybe not. In the last several years, two projects devoted to celebrating the written letter have gained international notoriety. In 2009, British blogger and writer Shaun Usher started a website (lettersofnote.com) that featured an eclectic mix of personal correspondence from various people; the blog eventually inspired a book of the same name.

The book and blog in turn inspired a British stage show, “Letters Live,” which just recently opened in the U.S. and features notable literary and artistic figures reading a wide range of letters — from one Mohandas Gandhi wrote to Adolph Hitler in 1939 urging him not to start a war, to one Virginia Woolf wrote to her husband, Leonard Woolf, before she drowned herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

J’Anthony says the Academy has featured a number of other word-based events, such as the Valley Story Slam, in recent years, and that “Letters Live” seemed like a natural follow-up to those. Hosting that program, though, turned out not to be possible — so, she said, “We decided to come up with our own version.

“We’re really hoping to call attention to letter writing,” J’Anthony added. “I think we’re seeing a move to reclaim this as a really important means of expression and of history … what will biographers do in the future if they don’t have access to letters?”

To the archives

For their event, J’Anthony and Emily Curro, the Academy’s development manager, spent a good year and a half developing a list of names of people with an area connection, then attempting to locate correspondence from them. The effort involved, among other things, visits to the special collections of the libraries of the local colleges and online searches at the Library of Congress and other sites, including family estates.

Some of the names, like poets Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and politicians like Calvin Coolidge, were easy enough to come up with. But as J’Anthony and Curro expanded their search, other names, some with a less obvious connection to the Valley, popped up.

For instance, Amelia Earhart, the famous pilot, spent much of 1919 at her sister’s home in Northampton recovering from Spanish influenza. Among the people she corresponded with over the years was another famous name in aviation, Orville Wright, and the March 10 event will include a reading of a 1932 letter she sent to Wright (about a new car Wright had bought).

Likewise, the author and activist Helen Keller was a longtime friend of William Allan Neilson, president of Smith College from 1917 to 1939; Neilson had been one of Keller’s professors at Radcliffe College (the only one who learned the manual sign language she used for communication), and one of Keller’s letters to him is part of the program.

In most cases, J’Anthony and Curro found several letters from each of the 24 people who will be profiled at the March 10 program before selecting one letter to represent each writer.

“We really looked for letters that were personal, that described what someone was feeling or thinking, or that might shed some light on what life was like in those days,” said J’Anthony.

An 1865 letter from Sojourner Truth, for example, to fellow abolitionist Amy Kirby Post describes how the one-time Florence resident was physically abused by streetcar conductors in Washington, D.C. when she tried to desegregate the vehicles.

“This project was really cool,” said Curro, who had to obtain legal permission for some of the letters to be read and sometimes had to photograph letters for later transcription. “There was a lot of legwork involved, but I learned a lot about all these connections to the Valley that I’d never been aware of.”

As much as possible, she and J’Anthony have also paired the readers at the March 10 program with suitable letters. Painter Nanette “Nanny” Vonnegut will read a letter from her father, Kurt (who lived in Northampton in 2000-01); former First Churches pastor Peter Ives will read one from the famous Northampton theologian Jonathan Edwards; and Richard Michelson will read one from his late friend, Leonard Nimoy, the actor, director and photographer.

Michelson, in an email, said Nimoy’s letter, written in the late 1960s when he had first gained fame playing Spock, the Vulcan science officer in “Star Trek,” was to a child who’d written him about feeling he didn’t fit in anywhere because he was biracial. “The letter is all Leonard — I can hear his voice in every line, as he comforts the child … I am honored to be able to share the letter.”

J’Anthony will introduce each speaker and letter, providing context for the letter.

The March 10 program will also include a silent auction for gift packages from Broadside Books, The Clark Art Institute, The Dr. Seuss Museum, Eastside Grill, The Emily Dickinson Museum and numerous other places. But the focus will be on letters, J’Anthony said, and on their importance in the Valley’s history and in people’s lives. 

“Think about how it felt like to get a handwritten letter from someone, instead of the junk mail we mostly get now,” she said. “Didn’t that seem special?”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the Valley Letters Project, visit aomtheatre.com.