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Persons of Letters

Aaand we're back!The cause of my absence from dotCommonweal for the past few months and the subject of this post are one and the same.I know this sounds kinda weird but from the age of 17 I've never wanted to be anything else than a "man of letters." Samuel Johnson was my hero.I suspect few of us even know how to define that term nowadays much less spot bona fide members of the species.But persons of letters were important citizens in what was once also (quaintly) called "the republic of letters."Over at The American Scholar William Zinnser has a column about persons of letters as a vanishing breed.

Men and women of letters were the willing workhorses of the literary enterprise; they saw that the caravan kept moving. They formed committees and juries and gave awards and held readings and signings and receptions and wrote critical essays for obscure quarterlies.

(My impression is that there was a subset you could call Catholic persons of letters--clustering around a few small journals and magazines, now largely defunct. Wasn't there one called The Month?)Are today's bloggers the inheritors of this mantle? It's hard to say.All I can say is that changes in the economy and in the culture have made it nearly impossible for men and women of letters to exist in their pure state anymore. For my part I've found that instead of writing and editing I need to spend a huge proportion of my time as a fundraiser/marketer just to keep my own literary enterprise alive. I don't mean to play the Stradivarius of self-pity here, but that's honestly why I've been absent -- raising money and creating programs that people will pay for so that this little corner of the republic of letters can ride out the recession.I think we've made it through the worst, and now that a couple programs are up and running...well, Deo volente, I'll be a more regular presence here.

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Greg, it's nice to see you back posting again, and I wish your enterprise nothing but the best. I wish I had the leisure to read more.

Greg --Pray tell us, what are your new programs?

Thanks for asking, Ann. I guess that absolves me of the "don't self-promote via the blog" rule, eh?Like a lot of non-profits we're focused on generating programs that...generate revenue and still serve our mission.So the first program we launched was a series of online writing classes, linked to our popular summer workshop program -- hence the name "The Glen Online" (based on our Glen Workshops).http://imagejournal.org/page/resources/the-glen-online/And the second program was to offer a brand new Glen Workshop. We've done them in Santa Fe, NM for years. We'll continue to hold them there in the first week of August.But our first-ever Glen "East" will be held at Mount Holyoke College, June 12-19, 2011.http://imagejournal.org/page/events/the-glen-workshop/Again, thanks for asking!

Seems to me that what Zinnser is bemoaning is the lack of gatekeepers--people who had a critical eye and herded the good stuff through the gate to get it in front of people. I don't think bloggers are the future men and women of letters. No gatekeeping there. If you know how to push some buttons and can get to Blogger.com, you can start ranting in about five minutes.The real gatekeepers will be those who operate largely in e-media to promote print and e-books, and who know how to keep conversations going about the arts and letters.Zinnser mentions the lovely and talented Dave Eggers (every English teacher's dreamboat, even those of us of a certain age). Slate.com has never existed in print, but its founder, Michael Kinsley, certainly has some claim as a man of letters. More modest enterprises like Belletrista.com (shameless promotion for friend and founder Lois Ava-Matthew who lets me review there sometimes if a book is so depressing no one else will read it. And, of course, Greg!Instead of sitting around in cramped little bookstores where the help are largely unemployed English majors who work there b/c they want to read the books, not help the customers, online "letterists" will do as C'weal does--set up a forum where we can drink our coffee in front of screens and chit chat with pleasant and intelligent people when they have a free afternoon off. Like I'm doing now. The only difference is that I don't have to change into my good shoes, and I can bring my cat!

Well said, Jean. Very thoughtful post.I do have some concerns about the issues you raise.The first is economic/existential: I really fear that one of the most important things about the old men and women of letters may be lost -- their independence -- somehow they could earn a living without being beholden to large institutions like the academy...or Microsoft.Second, I wonder how the role of gatekeeper is going to change in an era where everything can be given the imprimatur of a Wordpress page instantly -- no gates involved.Of course, sites like this and others still perform the gatekeeper role. Quality assurance mechanisms survive.But the final point is that the pieces those persons of letters wrote for the obscure quarterlies were four or five thousand words long and contained nuanced chains of thought that even Slate.com can't quite convey.Oh, and I'm a fan of human presence -- give me a bookshop over a laptop any day.Anyway, I said I'm concerned, not necessarily apocalyptic....

Greg, frankly, I think people of letters have MORE independence than ever before. I don't see that they're beholden to anyone (maybe you can explain how you see Microsoft in this picture). The problem is the revenue stream--who's going to pay for the enterprise and the people the letterists support? Second, I think the amount of information on the Internet is reaching critical mass, and search engines like Google are having more trouble wading through the junk. I see users eventually going to trusted portal sites to help them avoid wading through the garbage. Public libraries have done interesting things with portals that function a little like Utne Readers only with links. LibraryThing.com allows readers to link up with thoe who have similar interests (though that site is user driven and has become so big it's approaching uselessness as a gate). Perhaps people of letters will begin to use these types of sites to establish credibility as good gatekeepers, hold online "events" and and provide recognition for "the good stuff."Third, yes, it's true everybody wants short pieces. A "long" story is now about 1,200 words; the going length for most reviews is about 500 words. Does this herald the demise of sustained thought? Good question. I guess if longer is better, maybe so.As for human presence, that's all well and good if you like that type of thing. Which I don't. But even if I were a "people person," the Internet allows me to participate in things I could not afford to attend "live."

Greg --By accident I happened upon an archived article in the New Republic (1951) about the reaction of French intellectuals of the day to the death of Andre Gide. It was aboute a conversation of the French men of letters of the time. Strange.First it quotes Mauriac's "passionate"f reference to Gide as an "evil pilot of souls". This is as politically incorrect a remark as one will ever find -- these days even James Carville wouldn't say such a thing at the death of Karl Rove. Or was it just Mauriac who would dare to say such a thing upon someone's death? Even if it was just pure Mauriac, it didn't hurt *his* reputation. Was honesty valued more then? The artical then discusses at length the comments of the "generous" and :captivating" Sartre not so much about Gide as about Communism. (The only person I can think of who might -- just might be called "captivating" these days is the surprisingly serious Lady Gaga.) The article is really about Sartre's relationship to Communism and his insistence that all people are responsibility for all other people. Can you imagine any politician of the left saying anything so extreme today? The Tea Partiers would have their heads. It seems that today's left has become part of the right. It ends with a paragraph about a novel by an author whom I've never heard of. The novel is about some hard-working French peasants, which seems to help qualify the work as a great novel, according to the article writer. No self-respecting reviewer today would ever use such a criterion to judge quality. Whatever the main values of men of letters, this in effect nostalgic article certainly *shows* some huge differences between then and now. Maybe that's the function of people of letters -- to show, not say, the differences between what people thought in the past, thus illumining what we are thinking now. It's not always flattering.The article is at http://www.tnr.com/book/review/letter-paris-gide-sartre-and-caf-communism ,

Here's another piece retrieved from TNRs archive. It's is a speech by Dean Acheson, Secretary of State under Truman. It reveals him as a man of letters (he quotes Francis Bacon!), and I think it shows the motivation of American foreign policy of the time, which, contrary to the thinking of some people today, wasn't any sort of will-to-world-domination.It's at: http://www.tnr.com/book/review/the-high-price-world-leadership

Greg, the term "person of letters" is perhaps a lot more complicated than the description you render. The nobility embraced the term which they felt was theirs simply by birth. Many dreamers wanted persons of letters to lead countries so that the enjoyment of the spiriitual good life would seep down to the masses. Then disillusioned they reverted back to the military as the cure for order rather than proposing the good life. Many of those persons of letters ave done a lot of harm when their disappointments turned them toward destructive paths. Some of them have been popes, presidents or emperors. Ratzinger fits in here somewhere as he was a liberal turned persecutor since he eventually concluded that censure was more important than nlightenment. As I say it is complicated.