Guest Review: B.J. Merholz on ‘The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan’

After we wrote our post on “The Selected Letters of Elia Kaza,” we passed it on to longtime reader B.J. Merholz (try doing that with an e-book).

He writes:

Howdy, Jim!

Just a line to let you know I’m dipping into “The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan” and they are well worth the binding; though for the life of me I can’t figure out why he copied and kept them all. Here we have over 600 small-print pages of almost that many letters and all written before email with automatic Send and Save. Kazan was a word processor before his time. What was he thinking? Whatever, this epistolary journal has got to be considered more pertinent and accurate than Kazan’s later-in-life biographies, interviews and even his own invaluable “Kazan: A Life.”

As a would’ve been, could’ve been, should’ve been film director I have to acknowledge that I’ve read so many books about Kazan and by Kazan that I thought I had a pretty good fix on his life, career, work processes and politics. I don’t think you would be surprised to learn that I was essentially wrong in all respects.

Kazan was an active, involved and keen observer of American life and the world of drama he immersed into. He was also highly opinionated, critical and impatient with those he deemed beneath his standards of artistic or social commitment. And who is to say his standards were too narrow or solipsistic? Not Elia. Not me.

Personally, I am attracted to passion. I am attracted to the young Broadway artist who traveled around America in the 1930s and who was as charmed by the warmth and hospitality he received in the South and West as he was angered by the cruelty and bigotry of virulent racism he encountered.

Kazan was a self-conscious artist. The art of drama was his raison d’etre. It is reasonable to say that he lived for his art; as he states often in his letters, art can only come out of extensive and varied personal experience, and Kazan never seemed to shrink from challenging, even dangerous encounters.

Reading his letters, Jim, reminds me of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, in that both of them wrote very well of their artistic objectives and their clearly defined work processes. We are able to share their methods and goals through their letters and come to know more about the finished works than just the enjoyment of viewing the finished product.

Following each letter, the editors have provided editorial annotations that serve to provide some reasonable context for their content and sometimes, but not as often as I’d like, providing the full name and position of someone only referred to by first name or nickname.

Despite its size, one nice thing about “Selected Letters” is that the selections are letters, not chapters that have to be read at length. Each letter has its points to be made, like any letter, and then it’s done. You can read the next letter, or skip around the pages, or watch TV. The next letter has its own tale to tell. This is catnip for a discursive attention span like mine.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood, Stage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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