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.)
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!
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
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.
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.