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, so committed to her own rationalizations, so outraged and possessed that the very extremity of her view forces on the reader some consciousness of his own self-deceptions. All of us do invest more in our sons that we can ever hope to receive in return, and as they leave us turn with somewhat deadened lives to a less lustrous future. We put a decent face on it however and mask our disappointment even from ourselves as we patiently wait for the first grandchild. This is a compromise Jenny refused to make, indeed could never have made, and the stream of abuse she heaps on her son Ross evokes in the reader some recognition of her sense of betrayal. It is tempting to read these letters and write Jenny off as a caricature, and she is, but it is more interesting to read them and recognize that to a degree so are we. To come to terms with our own banality, our own lack of style, our own loneliness and sense of isolation, our own rage and eternal discomfort, our own dishonesty and fake formulas—indeed to come to terms with the harpy in us—is to recognize that life is indeed not tragic but melodramatic, and that is in itself tragic. It is unfortunate that melodrama and self-dramatization provide us with a way of coping with life. But without them we would be forced to invent a style through which to express our feelings.

Speaking of her dead son Jenny writes,

If he knows anything now—anything of the days gone by—anything of our heartbreaks and disappointments, he must know he made a number of grave mistakes and is sorry for them…and he was sorry, that many times, all summer he had rushed into excesses trying to persuade himself that he was happy, but he knew all the time he was wrong. Maybe he knows now—I must believe that in his soul he loved me.

The sentimental delusion that her dead son repents in his grave for any sorrow he caused her, the sanctimonious “but he knew all the time he was wrong,” the almost embarrassing yet moving “I must believe that in his soul he loved me,” the cliché “the days gone by” are, however embarrassing, reminiscent of the manner in which we all from time to time console ourselves. I think it is the style in which every one of us has at one time thought, but given any sophistication at all would not dare to write or speak. What is remarkable about these letters is that Jenny says it. She insists upon it.

Dr. Allport claims that Jenny’s “world is always heady, never drab. We know it to be so, not only by what she says, but also how she says it.” I am inclined to disagree with Dr. Allport’s judgment. It is possible to write a heady letter precisely because one’s life is drab. A letter can become a repository for all the feelings for which there is no room in direct personal contact. Jenny’s headiness has no joy. It is bitter. She writes to Isabel:

Suppose that Ross knew that I am on my last $50, don’t you believe he would send money? I do. Well why? Would it be because he loves me? Oh no. If Ross loved me, or even had a sentimental regard for me because of my relation to him, he would never have given his money, his time, and thoughts to a common sporting woman while I worked twelve hours a day, and was so ill—so dreadfully ill—no fire in my room—no window—no blanket on my bed—no winter coat. No, my dear, that’s not love, or if it is I don’t want it. Yet Ross would send me money for his own conscience—to keep me quiet—to cover an obligation. That’s all.

The writing is heady, but the state of mind that produced these sentiments is bleak. She harks back to earlier days when she still had Ross.

…we were in Chicago, Ross about 14, one night about midnight I awakened with a start to find the child in his pajamas standing at my bed. I was up in a moment, was he ill? He said, Mother, it’s raining—yes; was it coming in on his bed? Oh no, he said but—Will you come down and see Michigan Ave. in the rain—a lovely mist, London rain. We had been gloating over Hopkinson Smith’s etchings of London in the rain. Well, we went. About 8 M’ls. down. And it was lovely—and lo! around the corner jogged a hansom cab and horse one of those where the driver sits up high at the back, and Ross and I just cried for joy. We were wet, of course, but it was great. Ross will not forget that night—he will think of it many times. Just as I do, and that will be his punishment. His food and clothes are bought at a high price.

This last is in a reference to Ross’s desire to live with his wife.

Every woman Jenny meets, with the exception of her correspondent, is at first attractive to her and then described as having “clay feet” or being a “chip” or a “prostitute.” She feels betrayed when her son marries or shows any interest in women. But who has not been disappointed in his friends and what mother is not betrayed by her son? The fact of the matter is that sons generally do not make love to their mothers (the stuff of tragedy); they leave them and marry other women. This is heartbreaking, but it is a heartbreak too vulgar to admit to consciousness, let alone express. Jenny not only admits it; she builds a case for it.

To read Jenny’s outspoken condemnations, frank admissions of loneliness and purposelessness, and bitter invectives is to recognize our own. Dr. Allport enters into considerable speculation in his discussion of Jenny in an effort to determine whether she is normal or abnormal. He even includes a diagram which attempts to locate and estimate her degree of normality. He finally confesses that he is hard pressed to determine this. But whether she is normal or abnormal, Jenny is not uncommon.

She is an enlarged portrait of every son’s mother, every woman’s mother-in-law. Her point of view has been expressed a thousand times on daytime television and in family jokes. But she is not a joke. She is isolated, she tries desperately to maintain intimate relationships with people, but finds this virtually impossible. She takes pleasure in literature and lonely walks on the Brighton boardwalk, works very hard, and writhes in a world she cannot begin to control or fathom. She is trapped by her incapacities and rationalizations, yet could not live without either. She is a deaf mute talking sign language. But she will be heard. She writes letters, and through them tries to dramatize and vitalize her life. In her last years in the home—“prison” she calls it—Jenny became convinced that people were reading her mail. But paranoia is only a response to reality. It is a response to rejection. Jenny is not a lovable woman and it is more than likely that she encountered hostility. She certainly encountered rejection, and she most certainly provided cause for it. She even went so far as to attack Isabel (her devoted friend) for having sent her a present of tomato juice, saltine crackers, and sardines. The tomato juice was too thick, the crackers too salty, and the can of sardines too large. It is unlikely that she ever met anybody beside Isabel and Glenn who was ready to put up with this. She lived in a world of hatred and resentment, and her life was vacuous. But it is of this vacuousness that so much of our lives are compounded. We keep busy, so did Jenny; but reading her letters brings us up short.

Dr. Allport concludes the book with a three-pronged analysis of Jenny’s personality. He describes in simple lay language the “existential,” the “depth,” and the “structural-dynamic” approaches in psychology and attempts to understand her within the framework of these theoretical assumptions. According to Dr. Allport, an existential psychologist would describe her social relationships (mitvelt) as alienated autonomous, and pessimistic. Her view of herself (eigenvelt) “Is deficient in self-insight, insensitive to her own proclivities and shortcomings. Her outlook is acidulous, abrasive, anti-intraceptive…and so self-centered that she cannot recognize that this is so,” despite occasional signs of self-insight and some recognition of her own culpability.

According to the depth analyst, she is lacking in basic trust and was probably deprived of affection early in life. The Jungian would claim that the masculine element in her nature was sharply pronounced and encouraged by the role she was forced to play as a result of both her father’s and husband’s death. She is a thinking type who looks at herself as rational or logical regardless of circumstances. Dr. Allport speculates that Freud would class her as anal since her orderliness, concern over money, fastidiousness, and obstinacy is consistent with Freud’s understanding of the anal personality.

As a structural psychologist Dr. Adler provides a long list of Jenny’s character traits under the following headings: quarrelsome-suspicious, self-centered, indifferent-autonomous, dramatic-intense, aesthetic-artistic, aggressive, cynical-morbid, sentimental and unclassified. He also offers a diagram composed by Alfred Baldwin which attempts to structure the flow of her ideas as they are revealed in the letters, and includes the results of a study of the letters utilizing the IBM 1401-7094 to itemize her traits and their mode of expression.

But alas, I fail to see the relevance of all these codifications, itemizations, and designations. Though Dr. Allport confesses that literature has been dealing rather successfully with the problems of understanding personality for some time, he makes a fairly eloquent plea in favor of the psychologist. But after we have all been identified and classified, won’t we still be as wretched and lonely as we were before?

Dr. Allport’s lists and categories reminded me of God’s injunction to Adam that he name every living thing. I suppose we are impelled to follow in Adam’s footsteps and otherwise we enjoy the illusion that in naming we are controlling too. Perhaps there is even some truth in this. Feeding character traits into an IBM machine may bring some sense of order to the psychologist and his students, whether or not it can do anything to alter the life of a Jenny. In any case, Dr. Allport is an experienced psychologist who can communicate his discipline in plain English. Jenny’s powerful letters speak for themselves.