Letters of introduction

Whatever happened to letters of introduction? Charlotte Brontë’s poorly connected heroines travel over England (Jane Eyre) and France (Lucy Snowe) with them, if memory serves, or somebody in some old book does, clutching them as lifelines and depending on them to establish their character to their readers.

Today’s letter of recommendation is nothing like an old-fashioned letter of introduction. Colleges and summer programs direct students to solicit recommendations. As a teacher, I am asked to be candid; I complete a form and write a letter that could, if not make my student’s application, perhaps break it, not because of any reputation I have but because of my position with respect to, and my presumed knowledge of, my student. My letter becomes part of a packet of material my student must generate, and the packet itself is only one of hundreds or thousands generated for tens or hundreds of positions to be filled not by the nameless or faceless, necessarily, not in this day and age, but by the colorless or at least the fleshless. My letter is not read, as it would be in Brontë’s novels, with the heroine sitting across the salon.

Similarly, a good book introduction feels more personal than the best book review. In a book’s introduction, I take in the impressions of an established personage who is also the book’s intimate. As I do, the book’s principal work waits for me across the table holding her contents, hat in hand.

(Strictly speaking, introductions may be written by the principal work’s author or by someone else. I focus here on the latter situation. (Forewords are supposed to be written by others and prefaces by the principal work’s author, but publishers – even big ones – don’t always adhere to these distinctions in labeling their front matter, I find.))

A book review, though, feels less intimate or insightful than a book’s introduction, perhaps because it is less loyal. It befits a more boisterous and democratic and a less stratified society. It clamors for attention from the Sunday paper’s book section or from among the material I ask myself to examine online before I buy a book. The review feels no compunction for establishing its own bona fides by being “evenhanded” or even critical of its object. It’s also a rare review that explores what it’s like to read the book in question. Why? Perhaps because the review is often about the review and the reviewer and not about the book, really, which itself is nowhere in sight of my morning paper and tea.

Not so the object of an introduction! There is no disloyalty; an introduction is bone of a book’s bone and flesh of its flesh. Like David with the Lord his God, an introduction is “bound in the bundle of life” with the work it introduces.

I read a critical review of Madison and Jefferson, the new joint biography, last week in the Post that had its desired effect: I removed the book from my Amazon wish list where I collect titles to buy later, pending funding.

But this week I’m reading a fine introduction that seems to be as enthusiastic and insightful about me as a reader as it is about the book’s principal work. Andrew Motion’s preface to the Vintage Spiritual Classics edition of Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (a volume John Donne wrote during a long and about his experiences and reflections during a life-threatening, three-month illness) and Death’s Duel (his final sermon) starts this way:

John Donne’s genius thrived on contradiction; Devotions upon Emergent Occasions is one of his most paradoxical works. It concentrates on death while celebrating life; it is somber but not sad; it is egotistical but alarmed by isolation. Death’s Duel, its independent pendant, is similarly crosshatched. It finds its energy in exhaustion and its spiritual hope in bodily defeat.

[Devotions book cover]Yes! Motion puts in words what I suddenly like to think I’ve always thought about Donne’s poetry. So Donne’s devotionals and sermons walk the same paths as his poems – the intellectual tightrope of paradox masking the soul’s walk through the valley of the shadow of egotism! Donne feels unapproachable to me for such a fragile being, but I have wondered if four intervening centuries or my own unfamiliarity with Donne’s syntax accounts for the distance I feel. But I am reassured:

We feel, as we often feel reading Donne’s poems, that the emotional weight matters less than the intellectual fireworks. Critics who believe there is something inherently disparaging about this separation often seek to heal it by saying, with T. S. Eliot, that thought was an experience for Donne. His brain waves were in their way as charged and self-defining as the heartbeat of the Romantics. But this argument, while properly characterizing much of what is vital in his work, risks misrepresenting our experience as readers. The Devotions, like all his greatest writing, is a performance, and because they are a performance, we feel at arm’s length. To put it another way, Donne’s sickbed is a stage, and we admire the patient as if we were looking at him across footlights. [Emphasis added.]

New Criticism’s emphasis on Donne’s paradox always left me a bit cold. Motion here gives me a new way of understanding my experience. Donne theologically fights through his isolation (“No man is an island” and “for whom the bell tolls” are from Devotions), but stylistically he still prefers the lonely limelight. It’s not principally Donne’s high church intellectualism or the four intervening centuries standing between him and me, after all.

Motion points out that Donne works out such theology linearly “while at the same time creating the impression of a mind rattling around in a wheel”:

A point in his illness begets a certain idea, this certain idea begets other ideas; these are differently examined in the three approaches [meditations, expostulations, and prayers] that constitute each section; then the process starts all over again.

Motion here inadvertently helps me understand another work I begin to suspect Donne had his eyes on while convalescing in bed two months writing Devotions – The Book of JobJob’s protagonist also works out an issue or two related to suffering in a linear manner through an intense, circular rhetorical structure. (Job, for instance, in occasional references to life after death over the course of his trial, moves from questioning any notion of it to avowing it.)

In spite of, or because of, how good the introduction is, I don’t wait until it ends to have intercourse with the book’s principal work. I dip into a section or two to discover if I experience what the introduction’s writer experiences, I return with my impressions to that writer again, and soon we are all conversing, two writers and two readers, a trinity of four.