Mary Sinton Leitch & Two-Degrees of Sherwood Anderson

Last time I wrote a post, it was on Sherwood Anderson and our newly-acquired copy of The Cornfields, one of Anderson’s poems which was separately printed. In that post, I mentioned a collection relating to Mary Sinton Leitch, which I had recently processed and was indirectly connected to Anderson. This time around, I thought I would talk about Mrs. Leitch and her letters to J. J. Lankes.

Mary Sinton Lewis was born in New York City, New York, in 1876 to Carlton Thomas and Nancy Dunlap McKeen Lewis. After attending Smith College and Columbia University, as well as schools in Europe, she worked in New York City, first as a women’s prison inspector, and later as a contributing editor to several magazines and newspapers. In 1907, after taking some time to travel, she married John David Leitch and the couple settled in eastern Virginia. She helped to found the Poetry Society of Virginia, serving as both its president (1933) and co-president (1944-1945). She contined to service in editorial capacities, editing the Lyric Virginia Today (vol. 1), though writing became her larger focus. Between 1922 and 1952, she authored seven collections of poetry and short fiction: The Wagon and the Star (1922), The Unrisen Morrow (1926), The Black Moon (1929), Spider Architect (1937), From Invisible Mountains (1943), Himself and I (1950), and Nightingales on the Moon (1952). Leitch died in August 1954 and is buried in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

In 1932, she was introduced to J. J. Lankes, a draftsman turned draftsman/artist and illustrator for much of his life. Lankes would collaborate for many years with Sherwood Anderson. Lankes, it seems, was brought to visit Leitch in the company of writer Louis Jaffe. Our collection consists of letters written by Leitch to Jankes between 1932 and 1950, during which they maintained a more than 18-year correspondence that contained conversations of personal news & friends, the Virginia literary and art scene, and their own writing and artistic efforts (including Lankes collaborations with poet Robert Frost). Leitch seemed to a center for social activity for writers and artists, hosting Lankes, Frost, Louis Jaffe, and others, and many of her letters include plans for events relating to the Poetry Society of Virginia. The majority of the letters were written at “Wycherley,” Jack (who she often refers to in her letters as “Himself”) and Mary Leitch’s home in Lynnhaven, Virginia.

There’s a nice collection of Mary Sinton Leitch’s papers at VCU, including some of her original works and more of her correspondence with other friends, poets, and artists, which you can read about online here.  The finding aid for our collection is available online. I only digitized a couple of letters for this post, but we do have transcripts of the letters currently under review and I hope to have the whole collection scanned in the near future.

A few of the letters in this collection are currently on display in our reading room for Women’s History Month, but I scanned three others to share today. The first is among the early letters between the two, written on Easter Sunday, 1940. Leitch was involved not only in the Poetry Society of Virginia, but also an art league. This letter details Leitch’s efforts to have Lankes’ work displayed somewhere in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk area. (Mrs. Leitch’s handwriting seems a bit daunting at first, but if you give it a few minutes, it starts to become mostly readable–that being said, I’ve posted a transcript below, too.)

Easter Sunday

1940

Dear Mr. Lankes:

Stera Bosa (Mrs. Frank Walton, 636 Redgate Ave, Norfolk) Pres of our art league is ? us & we have talked ? with various members of her board the matter of your woodcuts. They are very eager to exhibit them in the fall. At present & on into May, the space in the museum is filled. Anyway, even were it available then, Mrs Walter says, would be a most unsuitable home to show the pictures. Very few persons visit the exhibits after this date & to put your pictures on display so late would not be to your advantage.

To show in our library is, is seems, not possible. There are no exhibits held there: theres no space, as far as we know. But in the museum you will find your work will be seen not only by the art group but by the general public. All the intellegensia of  Norfolk flock there.

We’ll just let Mrs Walton know what’s what about the autumn; also whether you could let her have enough of your woodcuts—or paintings also–to make up say forty pictures.

This would complete the number needed for a one-man show. With fewer pictures, how about exhibiting someone else’s work with yours, though I think the other way (all Lankes) would be very preferable.

I must run. This is a servantless day & I hear Himself setting the table.

It was delightful having you with us together with Mr. Frost. Come again!

Cordially,

Mary Leitch

I am really very keen to see the Country Churchyard woodcuts. I shall have the Frost farm house framed this week.

In February 1945, she typed a letter to Lankes talking about activities of the poetry society, a desire to host Lankes again, correspondence with a mutual friend (another writer), and a discussion on the nature of writing and art. The envelope in which was sent also includes a sketch, probably made by Lankes after he received it.

The final letter I picked is from March 1947. It’s a bit more of the same: news about common friends and poetry society activities, but it had a few lines and ideas that struck me. Leitch, clearly in reply to a letter we don’t have, talks about the challenges of receiving praise for one’s work. Then, despite that she was on her second round of leadership in the Poetry Society of Virginia, she writes that “Poets are such d— d— critters to deal with”–yet she seems to have suffered her efforts for good reason. Lastly, the very end of the letter has a small post script: “Your letter has been destructively destroyed.” I love reading and deciphering correspondence–it’s one of the things that drew me to this profession–and notes like this can haunt someone like me. Because we only have a piece of the record in this collection, which doesn’t include Lankes letters to Leitch, all I can do is wonder about what his last letter said that she would destroy it (likely at his request?)!

Mar 5 1947

Dear J.J.:

Bob Coffin writes that he will visit “Wycherly” & read at Williamsburg the 2nd Sat in May. So he lived up to attend that meeting!

Tut tut! I can’t believe Mrs Mahler is sneaky unless she were caught in flagrante delicto! She seems so open & aboveboard I just can’t believe she snoops among private documents. I wonder why you suspect her of such a naughty habit.

Yes, one can be damned with much praise as easily—more so perhaps—than when the praise is faint. However much you may deserve such ? I know exactly how you feel. I often wish one friend would cease telling people that I am a rival of Shakespeare & Milton. He only makes a fool of me & sets people against me.

There’s no doubt that his admiration of your work is deeply sincere. That is something anyway!

I wired something on Friday asking when he arrives & when he leaves. I can’t make any plans till I know & friends are clamouring to entertain him. The answer came on Mon & was from Mrs Carl “lecturing in the west & left no forwarding address” His agent made all the arrangements & clinched the ? So I suppose the lion will turn up. But I’m powerful jittery. There will be a big crowd to hear him & if he doesn’t turn up?? We got to get out of this co-presidency. It will be the death of me. Poets are such D— D— critters to deal with. But not Sir Frestrain. He’s all right. The reason I asked him again is that the Soc. has grown—has doubled in since since he read here. Also I’m wishing he will be heard by heaps of folk who couldn’t come to Norfolk, from Richmond, Hampton, Newports News et al.

Yours

Mary L

Your letter has been destructively destroyed

Until we acquired these letters, I had never heard of Mary Sinton Leitch. But, one thing I’ve discovered as I’ve been processing these Anderson and Anderson-adjacent collections in the last few months, is that I’m learning quite a bit about the literary and artistic circle of Southwest (and now eastern) Virginia. Mrs. Leitch brought the work of well-known writers and artists of the time to her community, recognize the important role poems, woodcuts, short stories, novels, or paintings can have on anyone in any place or time. And, even more so, she contributed to the literary conversation taking place, publishing extensively herself. So, on the last day of Women’s History Month, I thought she needed some time in the spotlight. She might just inspire us all to be creative in our own ways.

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The Cornfields of Sherwood Anderson

Sherwood Anderson’s “The Cornfields” first appeared in print his first collection of poems, Mid-American Chants, in 1918. It’s the first poem in the book, too. So, a lot of “firsts” here. It would be dangerous for me (a two-time English major and avid poetry consumer) and a long read for you, if I were to launch into an interpretation of “The Cornfields.” Besides, one of the great joys of poetry is finding your own message alongside an author’s, tucked away inside their words. Editions of Mid-American Chants were issued and reissued over many years (we have three in Special Collections), but one of the things that makes “The Cornfields” stand out is that in 1939, it was published on its own:

In this form, it is a four-page booklet, produced by the House of Russell publishers in New York. It consists of the pages above, plus a short author biography at the end. Our recently-acquired copy also includes another small folded sheet of paper called “Trends of the Times: Poets Now Publishing in Brochure Form.” It’s basically an argument by the publisher for authors to publish individual poems, rather than entire volumes–ultimately because it’s a cheaper and more profitable format. It suggests that Anderson’s poem could have easily been a test case or advertisement for other authors. Anderson was a prolific and well-known author at the end of the 1930s, after all, and if he did it, perhaps others would follow suit. Our copy of the 1939, single version of the poem will be one of only 4 known copies in academic libraries, so we are quite pleased to add it to our holdings.

Of course, there’s a danger, too, in publishing a poem that was originally part of a collection on its own. The cover of the 1918 edition of Mid-American Chants features a simple image: an ear of corn next to the title and author. As a whole, a number of the poems rely on images and concepts relating to corn and agriculture more broadly, and there are themes of conflict and struggle in throughout, especially the growing industrialization of America and the urban v. rural contrast of the time. “The Cornfields” is only a small piece of Anderson’s voice in the larger volume. We can certainly appreciate it on its own…but also as part of a larger narrative, too. You can read Mid-American Chants online, if you’re curious to see more of Anderson’s poetry (he would published one more collection in 1927, A New Testament).

Before we part ways with Anderson, just a note about some other resources we have here. We’ve previously had a post on Sherwood Anderson and some of the “newer” manuscript materials (acquired in 2015) we had to share. At the time, the collection was being processed–now we can say it’s done (more on that in a moment)! Because of local ties to Anderson, we were also acquiring some other accessions relating to people in Anderson’s extended personal and professional circle during 2015 and 2016–A sort of of literary and artistic group of people in Southwest Virginia, if you will. I’m glad to say that, at long last, ALL of these collections are processed! I think we’ll need to work on some sort of visualization to clarify the relationships between people, but for now, here’s a list, complete with links to the finding aids and, where it isn’t obvious, an explanation of the connections in brackets:

  • Sherwood Anderson Collection, 1912-1938 (Ms1973-002). Correspondence among author Sherwood Anderson and family members, most notably letters written by Anderson to his daughter Marian, as well as some of his professional correspondence. Also includes research material about Anderson.
  • Sherwood Anderson Photograph and Postcard, 1929, 1939 (Ms2011-004). The collection consists of one postcard of Notre-Dame from Sherwood Anderson to Bert and Clara Dickenson and a photograph of Sherwood Anderson and Bert Dickenson in Florida with a line of fish in between the two men.
  • Welford D. Taylor Collection on Sherwood Anderson, 1918-2006, n.d. (Ms2015-020). This collection contains several series of materials: correspondence to and from Sherwood Anderson, correspondence and research files about Sherwood Anderson, and a small group of photographs, audio, video, and graphic art materials. Materials generated by Anderson date from 1918-1940. Other materials date from about 1929-2006. [This was the collection mentioned in our previous post here.]
  • Sherwood Anderson Correspondence with Llewellyn Jones, 1916-1924, n.d. (Ms2015-044). This collection consists of eight letters written by American author Sherwood Anderson to Llewellyn Jones between 1916 and 1924 with three undated (but likely from the same period). Jones was the literary editor for the Chicago Evening Post. The correspondence primarily discusses the reviews of Anderson’s works by Jones and other critics. This collection is also available online.
  • Marvin H. Neel Papers, 1933-1988 (Ms2016-022). This collection includes biographical resources, ephemera, correspondence, and writings and woodcut prints by and related to Marvin H. Neel (1908-1978), created between 1933 and 1988. [Neel corresponded with Lankes and the two were artistic collaborators.]
  • Mary Sinton Leitch Correspondence with J. J. Lankes, 1932-1950 (Ms2017-001). The collection includes 27 letters (some with covers and envelopes) written by Mary Sinton Leitch to J. J. Lankes between 1932 and 1950. Introduced by a mutual friend, Leitch and Lankes maintained a more than 18-year correspondence that contained conversations of personal news & friends, the Virginia literary and art scene, and their own writing and artistic efforts (including Lankes collaborations with poet Robert Frost). [Lankes was a friend and artistic collaborator of Anderson.]
  • James T. Farrell Letters to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson, 1952 (Ms2017-005). This collection contains four letters written by American author James T. Farrell to Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson between February and May of 1952. [Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson was Sherwood Anderson’s third wife.]

Of course, the bulk of Sherwood Anderson’s papers are housed at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Eleanor Copenhaver Anderson donated them in the 1950s. But if you’re in or near Blacksburg, we encourage you to stop by and make a connection. In addition to the manuscript collections, we have more than 260 books and publications by Anderson in Special Collections, too (plus one, when “The Cornfields” is cataloged)!