Literary Sleuthing

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In 1941, a 29-year-old aspiring poet named Hyam Plutzik sent a soul-baring 72-page letter to his old college mentor about his struggles to find his voice. The letter must have been cathartic, and Plutzik went on to a distinguished career as a poet and academician at the University of Rochester. He would be a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three times before his untimely death at 50, in 1962.

For many years, though, the letter was lost. Thanks to the tenacity of Tanya, Plutzik’s widow (now 96); his son Jonathan’s googling; and some solid gumshoe efforts by librarians and scholars, the letter has been found and is about to be published. It’s a letter that resonates today for young artists struggling with the creative process.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the phrase “long-lost manuscript” usually conjures up images from the remote past, as when some literary sleuth discovers a Shakespeare folio hidden for centuries under the floorboards. But sometimes the discovery is more recent, as in the case with Plutzik’s letter to his Trinity College mentor, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Odell Shepard.

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Like the papers of many other academics, the letter might have been lost to oblivion were it not for two decades of efforts to bring it to a new audience. In the years that followed Plutzik’s death, Tanya nurtured fond memories of his life and writings, regaling Jonathan with stories about that legendary 72-page letter. Though neither Tanya nor any of the four Plutzik children had seen it, they knew it was something special if only because it had become part of the family lore.

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About 20 years ago, after hearing the story for the umpteenth time, Jonathan happened to be sitting at a computer and typed “Trinity, Odell Shepard, Plutzik” into one of the then-newfangled search engines. To his surprise, up popped a hit indicating that the Shepard papers were housed at the Watkinson Library at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. After searching further, Jonathan located the box in which the letter was stored and requested a photocopy, which was promptly sent him by the late Peter Knapp, Trinity’s archivist. As a postscript, Knapp added a bonus of his own: a two-page response to Plutzik’s letter, which Shepard wrote but never mailed during Christmas week of 1941.

The story does not end here. In 2006, the University of Rochester put out an RFP for someone to digitize audiovisual materials in the Plutzik archive, including the family’s home movies and old magnetic-tape recordings of Plutzik reading his poetry. I had recently completed a six-year stint as associate editor of H.W. Wilson’s World Authors reference series, which included brief biographies of thousands of writers. I had also edited the autobiography of Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christine Choy.

I got involved in the Plutzik quest when Choy phoned me after seeing the RFP and asked, in her usual brusque style, “Who the hell is Hyam Plutzik?” When I told her, she suggested we approach the family about doing a full-length documentary of his life and work. Released in 2007, it included interviews with several poets who admired Plutzik’s work, such as 99-year-old Stanley Kunitz, in his last filmed appearance. Jonathan made a cameo appearance, reading an excerpt from his father’s newfound letter.

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Finally, in 2013, Richard Ring, curator of the Watkinson Library, invited me to curate a postcentenary exhibit titled Hyam Plutzik ’32: Connecticut and Beyond. A centerpiece of the exhibit was the original letter, retrieved again by Knapp from the Trinity archives. For the first time, Tanya was able to hold in her hands the legendary letter her husband had written some 70 years earlier, before their marriage.

This May 2 marked the 75th anniversary of the day that Plutzik began writing the letter, which took him seven months to finish, just after Pearl Harbor. Though it was written by typewriter and sent by snail mail, the issues he writes about—self-disclosure, the struggles of an artistic calling, keen observations of people and events—are as fresh as today’s Facebook postings. Thanks to that motley crew of sleuths—family members, archivists, librarians, filmmakers, literary historians, and the publishing arm of the Watkinson Library—this remarkable letter is now available to a new generation of readers.

Edward Moran is a literary historian who wrote the afterword to Letter from a Young Poet (Books & Books). He was literary adviser to the 2007 documentary Hyam Plutzik: American Poet.

A version of this article appeared in the 05/09/2016 issue of Publishers Weekly under the headline: Literary Sleuthing

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