Does this work for you:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou are more lovely and more temperate
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
How about this:
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
Finally, how about this:
I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of the night’s light – but hey, that would be going into sexual details …
Ouch. It starts out pretty good, but soon turns awkward, and, well, nerdy. Since we know that unlike Shakespeare and Browning’s words, which were written for the world to see, we don’t get uncomfortable reading them as we do with Mark Sanford’s love letters to Maria, his Argentinean paramour. And if it weren’t for his holier than thou past, we might feel some sympathy for his predicament. In this private email, the Governor, ran into a common problem that writers face when they attempt to capture romantic love in its physical incarnation: language. It’s hard to find the right words that evoke the emotion and sensation without being either crude or giggle-inducing. “Breasts,” Governor. You can say that word and not burn in hell for eternity. “Breasts” works because it’s neither too pornographic nor to clinical. If you still want to maintain your biblical piousness, I suppose you could use “Bosom,” but I can’t promise I won’t giggle. The intended recipient of your email may giggle at bosom, but she would still be touched by your sensitivity and vulnerability in expressing yourself. In love letters written by pious amateurs, surely it’s the thought that counts.
For the past several years I have been working sporadically on a novel. Ironically, while I have never been a fan of metafiction, Winslow falls into that self-conscious category. Even more ironically, a major portion of it is in the form of an historical novel, a genre I have never highly regarded. Finally, this historical novel-within-a-novel is written in epistolary form. The layers of artifice seem never ending.
How did this come about? As near as I can tell, it was a kind of psychosis brought on by interrupted circadian rhythms, sleep deprivation, and oxygen-poor airliner air. I had been working in Seattle for about six months on a consulting contract, each week flying out on early Monday morning and returning home to Baltimore on Thursday night/Friday morning red-eyes. Over time, this schedule took its toll on me. The three hour difference in time zones doesn’t seem like that much, but after a while, switching twice a week left me settled into my own time zone. My home was Eastern Time, my job was Pacific Time, and I existed in an alternate dimension called “Fred Time.” My client, who shall remain nameless, would probably agree that I was in an alternate dimension.
While working in Seattle, I tried as much as possible to keep myself on eastern time. This meant getting up before dawn and going to sleep early. Over time, however, that was difficult to maintain, so while I continued to get up early, I was going to sleep on Seattle time. I did manage to get quite a bit of writing done during that time. I wrote in the mornings and evenings in my hotel room and during thirteen hours I spent each week on airplanes. My story “Indian Summer” was written while watching the golden sunlight fade away on the face of Mount Rainier.
I also began working on what I thought might be a long short story or a novella. I had been haunted for many years by a short story I had written that I could never get right. Finally, I realized that my whole approach to it had be wrong and decided to start over, this time writing in first person rather than third. The story was about a beleaguered young teacher at a fictional private school in a fictional upstate New York town named Winslow. The writing was going well and I decided to enlarge the story even more with a bit of the history of this school and town that I had invented. Trying to imagine what the town might have been like a hundred years ago got me within range of the civil war. It was then that “Fred Time” and that alternate universe took over. One morning, I got up as the sun was rising and wrote:
The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day in American combat history. The events of that day are documented and the numbers of the dead and wounded have been counted and re-counted. Those numbers include the twenty-seven sons of the town of Winslow, New York. The numbers of the spiritually wounded include eight widows and nineteen children. The sorrow that enveloped Winslow lasted generations and is still recalled by the statue that stands in the square in front of the post office.
Time has forgotten, however, the wounded that are never counted. They were not widows; they were not orphans. They were the young women of the town of Winslow, who had tearfully posted their perfumed letters at that very same post office. Some of those letters were later found, muddy and blood-soaked on the battlefield. Their sorrow was private and they carried it for the remainder of their days. Their betrothed had left the earth, leaving no tangible sign that they had ever existed. These women would never see their lovers smile in a child’s face.
Instead, they were left to mourn their whole lives, driven from joy to sorrow and then back again by memories of lives they had only imagined.
I had no idea where it came from. I didn’t even know what it had to do with the story I had been working on the night before. I had no idea where Antietam was, whether it was a Union or Confederate Victory and why I even cared.
As it turns out, The Battle of Antietam was fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland, about fifty miles from where I live. My excuse for not knowing that is that I grew up in New York and only moved here in 2000, so my knowledge of the state’s history is limited.
Since the story that I was working on was a contemporary one, I realized that I was now working on something much larger than a short story or a novella, and considerably more complex. I wasn’t sure how to proceed. I set it aside for a few weeks, occasionally rereading what I had decided would be the epilogue of my unexpected epic. Those “perfumed letters” kept coming back to me. And that is how we return to the original topic of this post: love letters.
One Sunday afternoon, in the comfort of my home office, I sat down at the computer and challenged myself to write one of those “perfumed letters.” I imagined a seventeen year-old girl, perhaps the minister’s daughter, writing to her eighteen year-old beau, the young prince of the town that bears his family’s name. It was very early in the war, too early for anyone to comprehend the devastation would would occur. Both of my lovers had heretofore lived idyllic, somewhat sheltered lives, and they are idealistic.
Sarah Davison, of Winslow, New York writes:
Once again, I hope this letter finds you safe and in good health.
I can scarcely believe that it has only been a fortnight since you and the others are gone and already I am writing my fourth letter to you. I have no way of knowing where or when this letter may find you, but I am sure that wherever you are, you are smiling and saying, “stop using those fancy English words, Mrs. Shakespeare.” I’m sorry my darling Sweet Boy, but someone must bring some refinement and culture into your life. I have always wanted to use the word “fortnight” and now that I have the opportunity, I am going to write it as often as I can in this letter. I hope that each time you read it, it makes you smile and laugh and that it makes you miss your beloved “Mrs. Shakespeare” as much as she misses you.
Since that day, a fortnight ago, when you and the other young men disappeared down the road to Albany, I have been willing myself to be strong. The other women in town are looking to me, the daughter of their minister, for strength and courage. I hardly know what to say to them. I smile and stand straight, with the posture expected of the young lady I am supposed to be, but in my heart, I feel an emptiness that I know will only be filled when the Good Lord sees fit to return you safely home. I have promised myself that I would not burden you with my girlish lamentations, for you surely have many more pressing things to think about, but my darling, I cannot keep from you what I must hide from everyone else. Even my mother seems to be looking to me for some sort of solace. On the night after you and Daniel left and after the house had fallen silent, I heard my mother in the parlor downstairs, quietly weeping for my brother and praying that he would come home. Please do not tell Daniel of this. Just tell him that we all miss him and pray for his safe return.
Had you not been gone for this past fortnight, I don’t think I would have seen you more than three or four times. There would have been Sundays in church, of course, and then your weekly visits to the parsonage to deliver The Crier. I might have made an excuse to come to your father’s store for some contrived purchase, just so that I could see you. Now that you have left town, however, I don’t know how I could have taken so little care to see you as often as I could. I have no idea where you might be at this moment, but I am certain that you must be marching somewhere. Whether you are fifty miles away or five hundred, it really makes no difference since I cannot see you in either case, but my heart feels every mile farther you march away from me. Is it not strange how the heart can so accurately measure distance?
Your father has begun publishing The Crier twice weekly since the whole town is now anxious for any news of the war. If you were here, of course, that would have given you one more chance each week to see me! He has also hired little Samuel to deliver the paper to the shops and houses closest to town. You should have seen him on his first day! He so looks up to you and he was proud to be huffing and puffing his way up Main Street with your canvas bag slung over his shoulder. The bag is almost as big as he is and, when you see him from behind, there is no little boy, just a canvas bag filled with newspapers waddling up the street on two little feet.
Abby has moved in with us for a time. With Daniel gone, she is by herself, so it is good that she has a family to live with. She has been very quiet lately and seems to be feeling unwell. Yesterday morning at breakfast, she became sick but thankfully, this morning she ate well. Don’t tell Daniel of this as it will only trouble him and there is nothing he can do. Although she has no family of her own, she is now a part of our family and I finally have that sister I’ve always wanted. I will try to keep her spirits up.
I have imagined that on your way south that you have traveled through Manhattan. My father took Daniel and me there once when we were children. I remember seeing the girls in their pretty fashions. Tell me darling sweet boy, did they smile and wave to you in your uniform and did you return their smiles and get an extra spring in your step?
Oh, forgive me. You know I have such a jealous nature when it comes to you. I remember how you teased me at the church dance last fall. You had told me that you don’t like to dance, but you promised you would dance with me when we sat in church the week before. Then at the dance, you went right ahead and danced three times with that Ruth Campbell. I know you did that just to make me jealous. I saw you looking over to me all the time to see if I saw you. I’m sure you remember the pain of my boot heal on your toe when you finally did allow yourself to dance with me. My temper is now well known to all. My father tells me that there must be some Irish blood in the family stock, but I’ll have none of that. You deserved it, Joshua Winslow! In educating you, didn’t your father teach you not to trifle with a girl’s affections?
Now that you are gone and I miss you so, I forgive you for all your ill manners and I apologize for my very wicked behavior. All I pray for now is for your safe return.
In spite that brave mask I am forced to wear for others, my father knows of my anxiety. He scolds me less for the gossip I like to talk about at the dinner table and for my strange interpretations of his sermons. He knows of my love of the written word and has asked me to compose a new benediction for him that mentions the brave twenty-seven of Winslow:
“May the Good Lord and his son, Jesus, bless each and every one of you with courage, wisdom and charity, and may he watch over our beloved sons, every day and every night until they are delivered safely home again.”
My darling Joshua, be well and be safe and know that I am praying for you and dreaming of you. My letters will continue to flow over the fortnights to come.
All my love,
PS – We have acquired a new peacock and I have decided to name him Jefferson Davis, since he loves to puff himself up and strut his way around the pen all with the pomp and arrogance that I imagine a Southern Gentleman to have. He is no match for me and my broomstick as I am sure that rebel scoundrel is no match for the brave twenty-seven of Winslow.
By the time I was done, needless to say, I was hopelessly in love. I was enraptured. I was overcome with that blissful sense that everything on earth and in heaven is in harmony. I sat at my desk and sighed.
Then I came to my senses and realized I needed a second opinion. As proud and as touched by what I had written, I realized that it may just be a case of literary…self gratification. I printed it out and then nervously gave the letter to my wife. “Tell me,” I asked, “is this a letter that a seventeen year-old girl would write or is it just a letter I would like to receive from a seventeen year-old girl?”
“That’s good,” was the verdict.
I needed more. “Is it believable, or is it a creepy middle-aged man’s fantasy?”
“No,” she said. “It’s good. Write more.”
“Write more” is a ringing endorsement to me, especially from my wife.
That was a couple of years ago. Since then I have occasionally worked on the various parts of the novel: a present time narrative line, a narrative line from the early 1980’s and the epistolary novel set in 1861 and 1862. I haven’t decided whether the letters are “true” or are just imagined by one of the characters in the other two story lines. Making them imaginary frees me from having to be historically accurate and helps justify the idealized relationship between Sarah and Joshua. I’ve written Sarah letters and Joshua letters sporadically since then. Each of them tries to explore some aspect of love, be it emotional, psychological, physical, or spiritual. Collectively they also tell two stories: life in Winslow during the Civil War as told by Sarah, and the life of a Union soldier as told by Joshua.
When all is said and done, however, they are, quite simply love letters. One of the things I discovered as I was writing these letters, is that to a large extent, I’m able to throw away all the rules that I normally live by when dealing with emotion in writing fiction. In general, the more intense the emotion, the more controlled your language needs to be. To make emotions real for your reader you need to show, not tell. Emotion isn’t verbal, so it cannot be directly described. Instead you need to record the effects of emotions. Physical sensations, descriptions of body language and movement, tone of voice, and dramatic structure evoke the emotion in your reader. Emoting uncontrollably on the page doesn’t work.
Except in love letters. Writers of love letters, whether they be literary writers creating fiction, or confused Governors writing emails never meant for anyone other than his lover to read, can throw caution to the wind, have no fear of appearing silly or foolish and simply let go.
Whether or not I ever finish this novel, let alone publish it, writing these letters has been a learning experience for me as a writer. The fate of my characters is known from the beginning. Sarah never sees Joshua again because five days after writing his last letter he is killed in the Battle of Antietam. As the narrative content – the stories Sarah and Joshua tell each other – evolved, so did the characters. During the course of the year and a half that this correspondence takes place, both Sarah and Joshua are changed by both the words they write to each other and their separate experiences.
Along with the, well, mushy parts of each letter, I also have each character write about their current circumstances and experiences, much in the same way Governor Sanford tells his beloved Maria little tidbits from his political life. The experiences that I describe are not planned, they are complete improvisations created in the moment. The historical accuracy of these improvisations is extremely questionable, so I’m leaning toward the view that they are figments of another character’s imagination. It also helps me continue to tell myself that I am not writing an historical novel.
Governor Sanford’s love letters show great potential. The emotions seem genuine but he still seems self conscious expressing himself. He also seems to be unsure of his lover’s devotion to him and tries to impress her with his political credentials. Relax, Governor. You had her at “hola.” It’s private, just between you and her, light the fuse and let loose your passion.
While Sarah and Joshua’s letters never come close to the eroticism that Governor Sanford attempts, here’s one of Joshua’s letters that the Governor might use as a guide to how to lay it on the line. It’s not erotic, but it’s about as sensuous as two teenagers from religious families can be in a nineteenth century small town. In place of Sarah and Joshua, I have substituted the names of Governor Sanford and his beloved:
My Dearest Maria,
Your father may understand the ways of the Lord and the hearts of men, but he has no understanding of the ways of the Union Army. We have not reached the Blue Mountains of Virginia. We have not reached Virginia. It appears that we’ll not see Virginia or even Maryland this year. We’ve marched some, we trained some more, but mostly what we do is wait.
After mustering in Albany, we traveled down to Manhattan Island by boat. We camped there for two weeks while we waited for some more boats to carry us across the very river we came down. Every day we could see ferryboats crossing the river, but we had to wait for the Army’s boats which were being built in Delaware.
After we landed in New Jersey, we marched some, and then we stopped and set up camp on the plains near Trenton. It was a long march and we were glad for the rest, but we have now been here for close to three months. We train on most days and are now very disciplined and sharp, but we have yet to see a rebel flag, see a rebel soldier, or hear a rebel gunshot. There may be a war being fought somewhere, but it’s definitely not in Trenton New Jersey.
We’ve met some boys from other parts of the Union. Having spent all my life in Winslow, I only know farming, farming ways and farming people. I have made friends with a boy named Pete Shotten, from Deer Island, Maine, whose father is a fisherman. There are some other boys as well from his town and they are all sons of fisherman. There’s also a boy named Johnnie Woodbine from Port Jefferson on Long Island. His father is a fisherman. I have to say that after listening to them talk about how much they miss their lives on the water and their homes, I think that I would someday like to live near the sea, at least for a little while. We’ve also got a boy named Boucher who comes from far north in New York, near Canada. His name is pronounced “Boo-shay.” Before he joined the army, he trapped furs with his father and brothers. He speaks English, but we call him “Frenchy” because of his name.
While we have been camped here, there haven’t been too many hardships. The training is hard, but the New Jersey farmland would make all of the farmers in Winslow jealous and the growing season is longer here, so we are well supplied right now. The camp has a still, a laundry, a chapel and a post office. The officers order us to visit the laundry. They don’t have to order us to visit the still or the chapel or the post office.
On the day when that last batch of letters from Winslow arrived at the post office tent, the tent and the whole area around it for at least twenty yards was filled with lavender scent. You and your friends sure mixed up a potent batch of lavender water. The other men have been teasing us about it and they have taken to calling us Winslow boys, the “Perfume Brigade.” They tease us but I think they are also a little jealous that we are all together and come from a home where all the girls would send fragrant letters to their men.
For all of us, those letters remind us all of how much we miss home and to thank the Lord for what we have waiting for us.
For me, that scent brought back a memory of a very special day. It was that day this past June when you and I had our first picnic alone, down by the stream at the edge of Jeb Wilson’s property. I hope you remember it. You had worked so hard to make sure everything was just right, and then everything seemed to go wrong. The ants got into the peach cobbler, you dropped the plate of fried chicken on the ground and I kicked over the jug of cider. All we had left of our picnic were some cherries. You were so upset after all the work you had done, but I didn’t mind it at all. Having that time alone with you in that beautiful place was all that mattered. Finally, you laughed.
That was the day you let me kiss you. We were sitting beneath that old oak tree at the end of Wilson’s rock wall. My ears were filled with the sound of swollen stream and the songs of your laughter. The golden sun was flashing off the pretty yellow dress you wore.
When I hold your scented letter to my nose now, I remember how, after seeing you home and continuing on home myself, I held my hand up to my nose, which had touched your hair, your shoulder and your hip. The scent of lavender reminds me of the taste of cherries and the touch of your lips on mine.
My dear, sweet Maria, please don’t fret because you didn’t say the words to me before I left. You have told them to me now. Paper may get old and crumble, ink may run and fade, but those words are immortal.
You asked me about what I dream and about how will I know that you will love me forever. Let me tell you about a dream that I have. I have it every night. I have had it every night since leaving home. Every time I dream this dream, liking a painting slowly coming into being, it has more form, more detail, and becomes more real. Every morning when I awake now, I believe I am in Winslow and you are beside me. Please tell me if you can imagine this dream:
It is early June. We are in that spot by the stream where we had our picnic. My love for you could never be contained in any church, any structure built by man, and your love for me is a wonderful gift from God, no less then all of his other gifts: the trees and flowers, the birds, his gift of beautiful summer days, the gift of life itself, and so we have asked your father that it be here in this sacred place among all the things that you and I love and cherish. The small roses in your modest bouquet were clipped from your grandmother’s rose garden. Your simple white dress was sewn by your mother who added piece of lace from her own wedding dress. Your beautiful brown hair was braided by your closest girlfriend and decorated with wildflowers gathered by the young girls in your Sunday school class. You are a vision of Nature.
After our vows and our meal, Callie Shaw’s violin plays that old Irish waltz that you love. In that golden afternoon moment, my hand on your hip, your hand on my shoulder, our two hands clasped, we begin our lives together.
If you tell me that you can dream this dream too, then that is all I need to know that you will love me forever.
All my love,
Well, okay, maybe asking his lover to marry him is a little more complicated for a married 21st century governor than it is for Joshua. But again, it’s the thought that counts.
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