sturgeonslawyer (sturgeonslawyer) wrote,

Letters from Amherst, by Samuel R. Delany (2019-47)

In an early _Peanuts_ cartoon, Linus pesters his sister Lucy to read him a book. Finally, she takes the book and says: "A man was born. He lived and he died. The end." "What a fascinating account," Linus says. "It almost makes you wish you had known the fellow."


Generous is the word I tend to use when describing Delany's letters and essays about his own life (_1984_, _The Motion of Light in Water_, _Heavenly Breakfast_...). I can't explain too well what I _mean_ by that, but reading this collection of five long letters, the word came to mind again - along with the word amiable. Together these two characteristics make for very pleasant reading, even when describing something bloody awful.

(Okay, I'll try a little bit on "generous." Delany's world seems to contain no villains, no secondary characters.Everyone he meets, from his dearest friends to a brief chance meeting on a bus, is spoken of with respect and honesty, and clearly lives in his or her own world as real as Delany's, mine, or yours. Objects to which he attends are filled with thing-ness and have weight and color. And he is always _specific_: in the very first paragraph of the first letter he mentions, in passing, that he has just paid several bills. "I just paid several bills" would be a satisfactory way of saying so, but no, Delany "Spent the morning at home, making out checks for $316.89 worth of bills." So he is generous to his subjects, and at the same time to the reader.

"Amiable" I hope speaks for itself!)

The letters range from early '89 to late '91, during which time Delany was teaching in the Comparative Literature department (and twice its Acting Head) at the University of Massachusetts at, yes, Amherst. During this time he had an apartment in Amherst while maintaining his fifth-story walk-up in New York, and incidents and adventures in both places fill its pages. So we see Delany, an utter New Yorker, as a fish both in and out of his native water.

The temptation with a writer like Delany who publishes so richly and so intimately about his own life (_Times Square Red, Times Square Blue_, "Shadows", "Ash Wednesday"...), is for a reader to assume that they "know" the writer because they have read "all" of his books. Even worse, some readers will assume that the writer somehow knows _them_. (The late Harlan Ellison encountered this all the time, and summed it up in his speech at Iguanacon in 1978: "I don't know you, and you don't know me.")

Then there's the Appendix: Ten letters written over five years to Delany's daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany, at her summer camp in Vermont. The textures are similar, but the contents are slightly simpler and the letters shorter (they average about four printed pages, while the "main" letters average about twenty-five).

The letters' contents range from the quotidian (the paying of bills, a description of his Amherst apartment's seemingly-random furnishings...) to the intense (the self-immolation of a neighbor, the funeral of an uncle...) Perhaps the most charming anecdotes concern Delany's partner Dennis Rickett; their first meeting and getting-together is described in Letter #2 (occasionally in words similar to those in _Bread and Wine_...), and he appears regularly thereafter.

When talking about a new Delany, the subject of the book's sexual content inevitably comes up. It is here, and intimate, but never excessively detailed, will not raise any but the bluest of noses. In fact, except for his initial encounter with Dennis, things rarely go beyond "I went to bed with him."

I was unsatisfied by this book, but only because it's so short (171 pages); I wanted more.
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