Ted Berrigan, then a twenty-seven year old Masters candidate at Tulane University, met Sandy Alper of Miami, FL, nineteen, a student at Sophie Newcombe College, in New Orleans, February, 1962. They married about six days later on February 13, the day before Valentine’s Day. Before the month was out Ted and Sandy had visited the latter’s parental home, where the Alpers surprised the newlyweds by obtaining a court order to commit their daughter to the mental ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital. Berrigan was run out of town by the Sheriff’s office.
Ted went to New York to stay with friends and began to write to Sandy daily, sometimes more than once a day, from February 27th to late April, 1962. The two fled Florida together in early May, but her parents didn’t give up on trying to separate the couple until July. By November, living with Sandy in New York, Berrigan began what became his best-known work, The Sonnets. The Berrigans had two children together and their marriage lasted until the end of the ’60s.
Reading Dear Sandy, Hello, a new collection of Berrigan’s letters to his Sandy, we can see what an appropriate terminus date that was, because the stresses and influences that are so prevalent in these letters seem so readily a part of that turbulent decade. Time again, Berrigan inveighs against the forces that are keeping the couple apart: not only is it due to her parents’ dissatisfaction with the prospect of an unemployed poet as a son-in-law; it is also due to the repressive forces that the young of the period fought to overcome, as well as to a blindness toward truth: “This country is rotten from top to bottom, the system of government, the economic structure, the whole thing is rotten.”
Befitting a ’60s scene, Berrigan admits to his drug use (uppers primarily, but some hallucinogens as well), rightly pointing out that he’s not even a habitual user, much less an addict (as Sandy’s parents want to believe, and try to prove via detectives). He also defends the kinds of unorthodox attitudes toward success and status that, perhaps a bit ahead of the curve in 1962, would become endemic in the mid-’60s and de rigueur by the decade’s end (including the tendency of each side to call the other “sick”). “I don’t want to be a ‘success,’ make a lot of money, fulfill the fake American dream. So, I’m sick. I want to write, it doesn’t pay, but I know better than to believe that you can work some of the time, write some of the time. So, I don’t work. I’m sick.” It’s hard to say which came first: did Berrigan’s admiration for the likes of Rimbaud, Ginsberg, Miller, Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and Erich Neumann’s Jungian theories of the unconscious develop out of his desire to go against the mainstream, or is his reading of such authors the source of his convictions? In either case, the views he professes are in keeping with much of what we associate with the Beat ethos of his elders and the “turn-on, drop-out” ethos of his juniors, but they also echo Rimbaud’s cri de coeur: “I will never work!” (Several interesting letters talk of Berrigan working on an “imitation” of “Le bateau ivre”).
While the constant professions of his undying love for Sandy are understandable, they might also become cloying at this distance, yet it’s a testament to Berrigan’s clear-eyed sense of himself and of his mission (as poet, lover, husband, and student of life and literature) that, no matter how much he repeats the same position, he never sounds overwrought or insincere. He knows that his wife and he cannot win if they try to beat the Alpers in court. He knows also that Sandy’s parents love her and are doing what they’re doing out of their conviction about what is best for her. He has no illusions about their opinion of him, often stating their viewpoint with an appealing candor. Given what the Alpers have done, he doesn’t overdramatize too much.
In fact, the letters are so level-headed that they amount to a historical lesson, a return to a time when parents could, with a clear conscience, commit a child to professional care because of their certainty that what she has done, in marrying such a disreputable young man, could only be the act of a deranged person. (And the fact that the doctor assigned to Sandy shares their view is also not surprising.) Through Berrigan’s analysis of the situation, we get glimpses of an aggressive treatment of Sandy as mentally unwell from childhood, one that makes her marriage only the latest, most flagrant instance of her debility. Against this, Berrigan’s repeated professions of his wife’s goodness, of her special, endearing qualities and his enduring love serve to demonstrate a theme only implied: true love might well look like madness to anyone on the outside looking in. What Berrigan trusts in Sandy is a forthrightness and warmth that are the very qualities her parents now must distrust because she has bestowed herself on such an unworthy person.
I believe marriages are made in heaven. I think that all the choirs of heaven and all the saints rejoiced when we made our marriage vows in the park in New Orleans when you first looked at me seriously, and I first touched your arm. Your father and mother have forgotten that kind of truth. All the people around you have forgotten it. The clouds of glory clustered around them at birth have all been wiped away by the outside world. You aren’t that way Sandy, you remember in your heart how it was when the world was new and good and Cain hadn’t yet been provoked into unnaturalness by his mealy-mouthed father and brother.
The air of persecution can become at times a bit fatuous—Berrigan aligns the forces against them with those who crucified Christ, failed to recognize the Buddha, gave Socrates the hemlock, and caused Cain to become murderous—but who are we to judge? Let whoever has not been made grandiose by youth, passion, talent, and limited prospects for success throw the first stone. Nonetheless, it is hard not to be extremely sympathetic to Berrigan’s plight. Everywhere in these letters is the poet’s resolute faith in his love, in his beloved, in his program of living by his wits and writing and reading as much as he can.
Apart from what the letters make clear about what would later be called “the generation gap,” they are primarily of interest for what they show of the growth of the poet’s mind. Hearing of Berrigan’s enthusiasms—speaking of Frank O’Hara (who agrees to meet him for a drink), of Wallace Stevens (“there are times when Stevens is my favorite poet in the whole world”), of Rilke, of William Styron, of artists such as Raoul Dufy and Hans Hoffmann, identifying himself (in a wonderful analysis of one of his own poems) with Nijinsky, or explaining his thesis paper on G.B. Shaw (“when I finished it seemed to me that if it was really good the people in high places shouldn’t approve of it”)—we see a man keeping the company he wants to keep.
The nature of the few, the artists, whether they write or paint or play or not, is to live, to fight comfort in order to be more alive. To keep their senses sharp and their minds expanding. The many are against expansion of the mind, because it is painful, and they would rather give up the reward of enlarged vision and understanding rather than undergo the pain of growth.
One of the values of Berrigan’s position is that it need not be self-conscious or ironic toward its romanticism. It’s still early enough in the day that one could believe in an elite of passion rather than simply the elite of institution or affiliation. Berrigan writes as an outsider content to be so, at a time when everyone who mattered was also on the outside.
In terms of sexual politics, one might say that we have here the typical story: young male genius becoming convinced of his talent and his calling because he has won the heart of his lady fair, who plays mostly silent muse to his outpourings—no matter if it is his explanations of his readings and writings, his recommendations for reading, or his advice on how to cope with the Alpers and the doctors (“Wake up! Get tough, Sandy. This isn’t ‘Mary Worth.’”), his exhortations to become less trusting, even devious, in order to best their opponents. Some of Sandy’s letters appear here as well, though after Ted’s, with no attempt to collate hers with his in sequence. In them we find little response to much of what he goes on about; they tend to be short and informative about her state of mind. Particularly painful is the letter where she seems to question his motives, seemingly forced to think twice about their marriage due to the barrage of objections she has received from her guardians: “Ted, even though I believe in you and your love for me, they have created doubts.” But at least we do get to hear her voice and to perceive her attachment to her husband: “Who else understands tears of love and sadness and longing and yes laughter? My parents only understand fear and anxiety and hate.” Even so, for some readers, Berrigan might seem overbearing, hectoring even, in his insistence upon Sandy as, first and foremost, his wife, but if so, this insistence is matched by his typical close: “your husband forever.” It is this identity, as a married man with a wife to write to, that dictates the existence of these letters, showing that the prerequisite for any great correspondence is having a correspondent: in this case, a literally captive audience.
As is often the case with published collections of letters, the reader must sometimes wonder why we want to be made privy to such private stuff, particularly on such a day-to-day basis. And how much do we learn from letters always addressed to the same recipient? An author’s letters to and from the same correspondent are usually only published when both are figures of historical interest. And, in terms of biography, love letters are generally published for the sake of tracing an enduring passion over time. The time period here is condensed—a few months—and Sandy Berrigan, in her intro, makes no claims about her letters having literary merit. As literary letters, Berrigan’s provide the usual requisites: name-dropping of influences and of a few acquaintances who will become names (such as the volume’s co-editor Ron Padgett), raging against fortune and/or enemies, making jokey claims for importance, expressing fond regards for a circle of friends and supporters, discussing plans and projects and employment, but the real interest here is less literary per se, and more in the nature of a chronicle. This period in the lives of the Berrigans, we would imagine, marked them both, and publishing the letters makes imagining this period more definite. Berrigan’s journals can be viewed at Columbia, but letters, because they are contained and directed, are more telling in what they reveal about the intellectual and emotional resources needed to get through difficulties, as well as, here, providing the immediacy of an involving human story.
Berrigan may not be a great letter writer in these letters, but he is a determined one, coming back several times to his mantra: “all those who are going to make it will, all those who aren’t, won’t.” It’s always fascinating to see such conviction in writing before an author has made anything of himself and addressed to someone who cares, when everything—including whether he will ever see his wife again much less live with her—is still uncertain. These letters from the past matter as epistles toward the future, giving voice to the precariousness of demanding recognition in a struggle on two fronts, for art and for love. In this period, both struggles made Berrigan stronger and more convinced he had something to say and someone to say it to. Fraught with insecurity as his situation was, it reads from our vantage as an enviably strong position.
Donald Brown reviews poetry, fiction, and theater for The New Haven Review and The New Haven Advocate.
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