About: “The Eleanor Roosevelt Letters”

In 2007, I began writing a series of dramatic monologues in the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt. I had read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, an autobiography of E.R. by Blanche Wiesen Cook, several scholarly biographies and studies, and watched repeatedly PBS’s American Experience episode on E.R. This lead me to read Eleanor’s own four autobiographies (that disguise and cover as much as they reveal). I read many of the daily syndicated columns E.R. wrote for nearly thirty years (“My Day”), several of her speeches, essays and articles (often published in the popular women’s magazines of the era). When I began reading the extant letters her voice got into my head, for it is in her letters she is most herself.

On a personal level, Eleanor called to me so completely because she is an exact contemporary of my mother’s mother, Margaret Lucille Jones Wilson, a major influence on my life and the family storyteller. Like E.R., my grandmother was an orphan raised by her Southern grandmother, and so was a Late Victorian in sense and sensibility. Although from different social classes, my grandmother had taken part in the same ethos and worldview as E.R. Each possessed what I call “the steel genteel” of a certain kind of woman who will not take no for an answer, who rages at injustice all the while knowing that if she hopes to do any good, she must wear white gloves and talk out of both sides of her mouth. In terms of a social imperative, the dictate Eleanor and my grandmother shared can be summed up roughly in Jeremy Bentham’s Enlightenment value of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” While an inheritor of her social classes’ sense of noblesse oblige, E.R. had worked in a settlement house as a young woman and saw firsthand the degradations and sufferings of the poor. There was nothing “white glove” about how she took to politics or what issues she would or would not champion. Throughout her life Eleanor Roosevelt remained committed to the idea that government has an obligation to advance not only the health, safety and material well-being of its citizens, but to ensure equal justice and human dignity. Of course she craved world peace and worked tirelessly toward its realization.

An outline for a series of twenty-five monologues came to me in an hour’s time and I wrote down the subject of each, focusing primarily on what I considered to be the chief turning points, or crisis points, of Eleanor’s life. I have written about half of the monologues thus far.

My goal is to represent her subjective experience, although, of course, since her life was so deeply embedded in the political and historical realities of the first half of the twentieth century, and because she was truly a participant as well as a witness to American and world history, a good many narrative facts burden my telling. Part of my struggle is the struggle all narrative poetry presents to its author: how to find those authentic lyric moments that will prop up the weight of facticity. Moral issues abound. Eleanor Roosevelt felt very strongly about the right of public persons to live private lives. She guarded her inner life, and, like all of us, was no doubt self-deceived at times. I have taken liberties while clinging, as much as possible, to what historians tells us and to the words Eleanor left behind.

I hope I am not misappropriating Eleanor’s sensibility too much, nor doing unbridled violence to the truth, which of course, we will never know. Not far from where I live, in Westbrook, CT., two of her dearest friends burned hundreds, if not thousands, of E.R.’s letters and diaries on the eve of her death. I have stood on the site of that bonfire and wept for what was lost.

The poems that follow are three of the central poems from this work-in-progress. I welcome comments (gray@grayjacobik.com) and appreciate any time you may give to reading the three presented here. I am grateful to Drunken Boat for publishing them, and to Leslie McGrath in particular for seeking them and bringing them to first light.

Gray Jacobik
Deep River, CT
February 2010