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My First Book at Boydell: Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life

Boydell & Brewer was my first job out of college, and it was supposed to be temporary. Fourteen years later, here I still am, toiling away in the marketing department! One of the earliest books I worked on was Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life, by Alec Wilder. It remains one of the most delightful.

Alec Wilder (1907-1980) wrote pop tunes during the American songbook era as well as classical pieces. Here’s a small sampling:

I’ll Be Around
Jack, This is My Husband

Letters I Never Mailed was an obvious fit for the Eastman Studies in Music series, since Wilder is a Rochester native and his archive is housed in the Eastman School of Music’s Sibley Library. The book is exactly what it says: letters Wilder wrote with no intention of mailing. The addressees range from the famous to the unknown, from his good friend Frank Sinatra to the dry cleaner who kept the $300 he’d left in his pocket. Though professionally a composer, Wilder’s letters are artfully written and show slices of a very human life. A few examples . . .

To Mr. Copland: You were very kind to take the time to look at my string quartet. I’m not surprised or hurt that you said I was more intresting than my music except that I do believe you could have said the same thing slightly more politely.

To Marian: Do you know that you inadvertently depressed the hell out of me by conning me to do that television show? For Christ’s sake! When I looked at the playback of that videotape I damn near threw up and fainted, in that order. I look as if I were on loan from Mount Hope Cemetery! If that’s what people look at when they meet me, how can they possibly tell me I’m looking well? I look as if I were in the last stages of Bangheart’s disease or jungle rot!

To John: I’m in the midst of the goblins. Songwriters, in general, and publishers, totally, are a frightening, agate-eyed lot.

To Mrs. Rutledge: You were extraordinarily beautiful as well as utterly understanding. My mind darts and leaps about and most people justifiably find it alarming. But you didn’t. . . . Age is only an embarrassment I find, but changes none of the dreams and romantic concepts of the mind and heart. So, late as the hour is, I tell you now that I love you profoundly.

This latest edition of Wilder’s book is more reader-friendly than the first, thanks to annotations by David Demsey, Professor of Music at William Paterson University. Demsey confirms that the letters above were written to composer Aaron Copland; Marian McPartland, jazz pianist and Wilder’s close friend; Wilder’s fellow Eastman student John Barrows; and (some mysteries remain) one Mrs. Rutledge, an otherwise unidentified friend of Wilder’s aunt. Mrs. Rutledge, Wilder guesses, would have been in her seventies at the time of their single encounter, and in her nineties when he wrote the letter.

Unfortunately, we will never know much about the “Sir” that Wilder saw on an airplane and to whom he devoted an entire letter full of concern:

Did you have a dream once long ago and have you found that there is no more room for dreams in this poetry-less society? I, for some reason least understood to myself, don’t believe the source of your woes is physical illness . . . I believe that you have ceased to search.

Wilder had a way of being heartbreakingly earnest while laughing at something – usually himself. He engages with topics you might not expect from someone known mainly for American songbook composition: not just music and creativity, but race, sexuality, labor, and environmentalism. At times, he expresses familiarity with depression and a sense of separateness, but also a great deal of joy, humor, gratitude. His uncompromising individuality and sheer humanity have stayed with this agate-eyed publishing employee since this book came out, and I’m grateful to have learned about him through my job. One of the best things about working at Boydell & Brewer and its partner, the University of Rochester Press, is being exposed to so many things I might never have run into otherwise. While Boydell & Brewer turns fifty this year, the University of Rochester Press turns thirty – many happy returns to both!

Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life
by Alec Wilder, David Demsey
Hardback / 9781580462082 / £14.99 or $22.46

Do you have your very own “first book at Boydell”? Do you remember the first Boydell & Brewer book that you read, bought, borrowed, referenced or even wrote? We’d love to hear your thoughts and your stories on the Boydell & Brewer books that have impacted you or stir up strong memories. You can email them to Sean at marketing@boydell.co.uk

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