Life Study

Letters from Jenny

edited by Gordon W. Allport
Harcourt, Brace & World, 223 pp., $1.95 (paper)

I wonder if we are not attracted to tragedy because it is essentially untrue. Perhaps the pleasure it gives us is the illusion that we are actually capable of transcending pain, maintaining our integrity in the face of it, and that we can do this with style. But the fact of the matter is that we squirm through life and that there is more representational truth in a soap opera than in Oedipus Rex. At best we reach the melodramatic pitch of a grade B movie. This perhaps accounts for the extraordinary interest of Letters from Jenny, edited, with a discussion of Jenny’s personality, by Gordon W. Allport.

Jenny was born in Ireland in 1868 of a Protestant family that emigrated to Canada when she was five. Being the eldest, she had to help support her sisters and brother until they were grown. She married when she was twenty-seven, was widowed two years later, and raised a posthumous son, Ross. In him she invested all her capacity for love and lavished on him every luxury, although she had to work long and hard and deprive herself of every comfort to do this.

She was fifty-eight when Ross married. She never forgave him for this betrayal. To ease her loneliness, she sought out a young couple, Glenn and Isabel, and began a correspondence with them. Glenn had been a classmate of her son ten years earlier at Princeton. Her excuse for writing was that she wanted them to dispose of her ashes and effects should she die on a trip she was contemplating. The correspondence lasted from March 1926, until Jenny’s death in October 1937. During that time her entire family, with the exception of a sister she then tried and failed to live with, was killed in an automobile accident. Ross died. As she aged the jobs she could get were less and less satisfactory, and she finally gained entry to a home for indigent females. She died there of a heart attack at the age of seventy-four. The home had been planning to commit her to a mental hospital; she had become intolerable in her old age. But Glenn and Isabel saved the letters, 301 in all, and eventually turned them over to Dr. Allport.

Jenny’s letters are melodramatic yet they are tragic too, not because she writes with consciousness, but because they speak from the common human condition. Jenny tells the truth as she sees it. Her truth is riddled with self-pity and false reconstructions. But she is an aging woman who has been betrayed by her son (he married another woman) and her letters focus on the most exhilarating and painful relationship in life—the relationship of a mother and her son. As Dr. Allport points out in his preface most of us are either sons or mothers. He suspects that this is what gives the letters such interest. But it is more than that, Jenny lives in a world of self-delusion and is so free of doubt,…

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