Plato or Shakespeare?
Howard Nemerov at a signing tea to celebrate his novel The Melodramatists (1949)
It's August, 1951 and Howard Nemerov is feeling guilty. Charlotte Bowman, the assistant to Bennington's President, is probably slaving away with rosters and paperwork in the sweltering red barn. Howard is on holiday in Cape Cod with his wife Margaret, in a summer house in North Truro, and his biggest inconvenience is taking time out of his vacation to write her a boring letter about a change in courses.
Nemerov was a member of Bennington's Literature faculty on his way to becoming one of the most acclaimed poets of the 20th century. Today he may be better recognized as the older brother of photographer Diane Arbus. (She was already Diane Arbus at this point, working with her husband Allan Arbus in commercial photography.) Bowman had been working at the college for four years at this point, after various stints in the federal government as a typist--she’d actually studied law and completed the bar exam, but ended up never practicing.
Unlike Nemerov, or any of the other giants in their fields that she interacted with on a day-to-day basis, Bowman was a private individual. She was still, nonetheless, the first face many faculty members saw every day, and a well-known presence on campus. (Her obituary writes that she “never lost her love of Vermont,” and after her retirement, she moved back to live in the schoolhouse on Murphy Road.) And she knew Nemerov well enough that he takes time out of his day to write a thoughtful, beautifully crafted letter to her.
You could read into this in lots of different ways: was it a romantic gesture, which wouldn’t be unheard of at Bennington, long-rumored in its vogue for its Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style bed-hopping? But this seems unlikely--Bowman was never married, and Nemerov never left his wife Peggy. (His lifelong torment, as identified in Diane Arbus’ biography Portrait of a Photographer, was an ongoing rivalry-quasi-incestuous relationship with his sister.)
But knowing the work of Nemerov is helpful to understand why he would take such a tone for such an informal letter. He’s known as a formalist poet who took rhythm and meter seriously in his writing. His tone is wordy, clever, and restrained--especially in one of his shorter and more well-known poems, "Because You Asked About the Difference Between Poetry and Prose":
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
“I hope that all runs smoothly,” Nemerov tells her, beginning to sign off, “that the college for example continues to exist, that your summer is not altogether taken up by administrative junkeria of the sort with which this letter presents you. We are having a good time, very quiet -- mostly just sitting here, or on the beach, looking at the sea.”
Best regards, he scrawls at the bottom of the letter, Howard.
Bowman’s reply never made it into the archives, but the fondness between the two is obvious with just this side of the correspondence. So is the thought and the sense of prosody that leaks into Howard’s most mundane sentences, from the self-aware vagueness of “It seems to have happened” to the impressive vocabulary-bending of “administrative junkeria.” The critic and biographer Irving Howe called Nemerov a “man of letters”; beyond the literal sense of the term, it’s obvious he lived and breathed language.
This was at a time when letters were by and far the most common method of long-distance communication--people wrote them to keep their loved ones updated, to talk about their lives since the last time they saw each other. Looking out at the sea, wondering about the future of a girls’ college barely twenty years old and his burgeoning career as a poet, Nemerov felt obligated to wish the both of them good luck. Both went on to have long careers, with varying degrees of success and happiness--this correspondence stands as testament to a time where their lives were intertwined, just for a moment.