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A woman of letters

June 05, 2005|Merrill Joan Gerber | Merrill Joan Gerber's most recent books are "This Is a Voice From Your Past: New and Selected Stories" and "Glimmering Girls: A Novel of the Fifties."

I have them all, every letter I wrote to my mother from Girl Scout camp, every letter she wrote to me, in camp, in college, when I was a young mother at Stanford, and for the years after. What's more, she kept every letter she had written to her mother. We each saved everything, and when my mother died in 1997 at the age of 90, I became keeper of all our written words. In 1961, the year after I was married and living in Boston, she wrote from Florida: "Merrill, we have a few cartons or trunks or tons (sez Daddy) with the Merrill Joan Gerber writings from yesteryear. What shall we do with the stuff? If we only had an attic, a basement, or Madison Square Garden. Dad says if we buy a Greyhound bus we will take them for you to peruse. We love you dearly, but what shall we do with the stuff, moving around as we do???"

Whatever I may have replied, my mother kept every piece of paper, hers, mine and ours, and now they're all here in my house in the foothills of the San Gabriels -- in my office, on tables in my living room, my dining room and all over the empty bedrooms of my children. The boxes include my piano lesson notebook, the first poems I wrote at 7 and my high school diary. Every letter I wrote to my husband (whom I met when I was 15), and his to me, are there. Many of the boxes contain letters from my writer friends, some now famous, some now dead, some still plying their trade as I am, writing their books, still exchanging news with me of their disappointments, their struggles and their passion to write.

Cynthia Ozick and I met at a reading she did at one of the Claremont Colleges in 1983, and we have corresponded ever since. On April 22 of that year she wrote: "Well, I can see that you & I can talk for a lifetime. So let's do that." I've had decades-long correspondences with my two great teachers -- Andrew Lytle and Wallace Stegner (both now dead) -- as well as with writers Norma Klein, Maxine Kumin, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Helen Norris, Susan Koppelman, Joan Givner, Robert Stone, Charlotte Zoe Walker, Arturo Vivante and many others who loved to write letters as much as I. Alice Adams, Joyce Carol Oates, Sue Miller and I exchanged occasional notes, and there are letters from Philip Roth and James Dickey, from Joan Didion, Margaret Drabble, Anne Sexton and Anne Tyler. I have boxes of letters from my various agents and from many editors, the first in 1959 from Harold Strauss, editor in chief of Knopf, inviting me to send my first (as yet unwritten) novel to him.

Several libraries have approached me about acquiring my archive. The curator of British and American literature at Stanford recently visited here and called the mountain of my papers "an archive of perfect integrity." Nothing thrown away, nothing lost. The promise of having them preserved and protected is a comfort to my mind but also a worry -- there is so much that is embarrassing in them: romantic and sentimental juvenilia, reams of banal chatter, journal entries that are nothing but bitter complaints, and much that is desperately personal and private. I love these papers. They are part of me. There are times I imagine my own ashes being put in a white manuscript box and simply stored in a pile with all the rest of the boxes.

What do I feel when I imagine strangers poring over my letters and diaries (or pawing through them, which is the word that occurs to me when I'm gripped with fear about giving these papers over to public viewing)? Unless I'm able to stand at the side of a future reader and explicate every single letter, every reference, every person and event, it will be so easy to misconstrue the truth, to view some things out of context, to make false judgments.

And then, on the other hand, why would anyone be interested at all in these thousands of pounds of paper? Why not simply burn them? Or instruct my children to do so? An archivist from the Huntington Library, who visited me, assured me that researchers come to such work with a historical perspective, with a wide view of what it all might mean, that such a compilation is precious to scholars. She said that I must never destroy my collection or even consider it. When I first began saving my papers, I had no plan to have them revealed to posterity. I just knew, in some way, that they were very important to me, that not a page should ever be thrown away.

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