Friday, January 31, 2014

Newly discovered letter discussing Wyeth's sonnets

Just today I received in the mail a copy of the rare 1928 Harold Vinal edition of Wyeth's This Man's Army.  The copy was inscribed to a "Mr. White" by one Craig Wylie who, at the time, was a student at Harvard and who, in the 1950s, would serve as editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin.

Laid into the book is a hand-written letter from Mr Wylie to a Mr White, discussing Wyeth's sonnets.  In the letter, dated March 6, 1929, Wylie recommends the sonnets and refers to a conversation he had with Wyeth about the sonnets' unusual rhyme-scheme, as well as their unorthodox subject matter.  Wylie writes:

"Here is the long-promised copy of John's book.  They really should be read through, though the more conventional ones, I think, form very lovely single sonnets.  I wish you'd let me know what you really think of the book.  ... 

I particularly like the sonnets on pages 1, 3, 4, 6, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 27 (which, John says, happened word for word), 37, 45, 46, 47 (?), 54.

What do you think of the less orthodox ones and of the rhyme-scheme?  The latter, John said, he used instead of a regular one because they were supposed to be read through and the closely-recurring rhyme would become monotonous.  I don't know whether I think he's justified in calling them sonnets-- do you?  And he admits that many of these are not sonnet subjects, but he thought, on the whole, that a modified sonnet form was the best for the sequence.

On reading these again, I really get a great kick out of many of them-- he surely has talent, don't you think? .. "


The sonnets singled out by Wylie and designated by page number are as follows:

1: Camp Upton: Sailing Orders
3: The Transport, I
4: The Transport, II
6: The Waterfront (twice underlined)
12: Huppy
16: The Seashore (thrice underlined)
18: Molliens-au-Bois
21: Molliens-au-Bois: Air Raid
23: Molliens-au-Bois: The Village Road  (once underlined)
27: Molliens-au-Bois: Home Mail (which Wyeth said happened word for word)
37: Chipilly Ridge: Through the Valley
45: Tronville-en-Barrois: Night Watch  (twice underlined)
47: Fromereville: War in Heaven (followed by a parenthetical question mark)
54: Souilly: Hospital

On the whole, Wylie's favorite sonnets are the more conventional, less experimental ones.  He tends to favor the more lyrical sonnets tinged with pensiveness, but he also singles out several in which the war is starkly displayed.

As to the identiy  of the book's owner, the mysterious "Mr. White"--- without an address or Christian name, or any other clue, his identity must remain unknown for now.  If anyone knows more about the friendship of John Wyeth and Craig Wylie, or about Craig Wylie's circle of literary friends at Harvard in 1929, please leave your comments here.

Craig Wylie died in 1977.  His obituary, published in the Harvard Alumni Horae, (Volume 57, Issue 1, Spring 1977, page 42), reads as follows:

1926-Craig Wylie, retired managing and executive editor of Houghton, Mifflin Co., book publishers, died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 6, 1976. He was sixty-eight years old. He was born in Washington, D. C., and came to St. Paul's in the Third Form in 1922. A self-assured and convincing speaker, he became a member of the Cadmean debating team and was treasurer of the Missionary Society. He was also on the Isthmian track team and football squad in his Sixth Form year. After graduating from St. Paul's and Harvard, he joined the School faculty in 1930 as a teacher of French. He stayed on the faculty for twelve years, but from 1935 to 1939 was given leave of absence from teaching to serve in the New Hampshire State Legislature. From 1942 to 1945, he served in Naval Intelligence in Washington, in antisubmarine warfare duty in the North Atlantic, and as executive officer at the antisubmarine warfare training center at Pearl Harbor. He was detached from active duty after the war with the rank of lieutenant commander. His first position in civilian life after the war was field secretary of the Massachusetts Commission for World Federation. In 1946 he joined Houghton, Mifflin, and for the next twenty-seven years served successively as a general editor, managing editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and vice-president and director of the trade book division. He retired in 1973. He was a member of the Tavern Club and the Club of Odd Volumes, both of Boston; the Century Club of New York City, and the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Historical Societies. In addition, he was a trustee of the Boston Atheneum and was a member of the corporation and vestry of the Church of the Advent in Boston. He was a loyal alumnus of St. Paul's, a man of high personal standards and generous spirit who had many friends among his schoolmates, students and co-workers.

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