Reading Other People’s Mail by Kathleen Pfeiffer

Now that my book is published, I shall confess to you the tawdry and selfish origins by which I came to write it.  Yes, it contains all the sheen and distinction that an academic publication provides, with its long, colon-enhanced title title (Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank) and yes, it was published by a distinguished academic press (the University of Illinois), and yes, my name appears beneath the byline “Edited by,” surely emphasizing that this was a illustrious undertaking indeed.  But listen, gentle reader, here’s the sordid truth: this book was initially motivated by two urges and neither of them are particularly noble—I undertook the initial research because I don’t like to sweat, and I wrote the book in large part because I am, at heart, a very, very nosy person.

During the summer of 1993, I was living in New Haven, Connecticut, writing my dissertation, and living in an apartment with unreliable air conditioning.  Because of the heat—far more than any naturally inquisitive scholarly instinct—I decided to spend my summer in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  This place is excellent: bright, quiet, clean, and best of all, hermetically sealed to keep the air brisk and dry, lest the precious archives housed therein should mold or sweat.  In truth, I probably didn’t need to read archival material in order to write my dissertation, but as an adjunct lecturer at Yale, I owned the requisite identification to gain access to that hushed and carpeted sanctuary. 

The Jean Toomer Papers seemed as good a place to start as any—dissertation was on race passing, and Jean Toomer was known to pass for white during his lifetime.  Moreover, Jean Toomer wrote numerous versions of his autobiography, enough pages to keep me coolly occupied for the whole of July.  I filled out the call slips, settled down to read them all and discovered … that they were actually kinda boring.

So I turned instead to the Correspondence file.  Scholarly interest?  Somewhat.  But mostly I just love to read other people’s mail.   I read the Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank exchange with increasing fascination, trying to piece together letters that were out of order, unraveling the story to put the tale of love, support, envy and betrayal into its proper order, trying to understand the final letter between them (“I wish that you would write to me, and tell me why you left New York the way you did, and why you did not answer the letter I wrote to you on my departure….”).  The exchange was riveting. 

It is nearly two decades later; in the end, I spent many sweaty summers rifling through those letters and I came to know the painful facts of their complicated, fascinating relationship.   But at the start, it was nothing more glamorous than my own self-interest, my personal idiosyncrasy that set the whole thing in motion.


Kathleen Pfeiffer is an associate professor of English at Oakland University. She is the editor of Brother Mine: The Correspondence of Jean Toomer and Waldo Frank.

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