“Dear No. One Maven” : The wild constructions of Stephen Berg’s letters to Seth Fagen

“O Maddest of Poodles,” “O mighty brain,” “Master of Mania,” and “Dr. Poo” – only a few examples of the various terms of endearment used by poet, translator, and professor Stephen Berg during his ongoing correspondence with fellow academic Seth Fagen. During the late 1980s into the early 1990s, we are privy to a glimpse of the personal letters Berg sent to Fagen in this collection (Ms. Coll. 1211, Stephen Berg letters to Seth Fagen, 1983-2002) as they both wrestled with professional triumphs and defeats and personal issues.

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, February 21, 1990

Berg’s poetic nature shines through his often wild constructions with brutally honest musings to his friend and colleague who he offers advice as he would a son more than twenty years his junior. Despite the age difference, it is clear that the two writers had a natural connection which allowed their relationship to grow although Berg was based in Philadelphia and Fagen lived in Massachusetts and New York City during the length of their correspondence.

Although Stephen Berg was best known for his editorial role at American Poetry Review and his long tenure as Professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, these elements play only a minor role in the letters to Fagen. Instead, we quickly learn about Berg’s penchant for Japanese Toshiko bowls, a good martini, his love for cycling (in one letter he boasts of his trek from Manayunk to Conshohocken with aplomb), and the endless search for reasonably priced stylish glasses.

Addressed to "No. One Maven" - Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

Addressed to “No. One Maven” – Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, July 5, 1988

References to his current writing projects pepper the scrawled pages of the letters as well, sometimes with self-proclaimed praise below the body of the message: “PS … This one is probably good enough to qualify as a sketch for a masterpiece” [12.07.1990]. Praise is also doled out to Fagen with writerly glee: “About your letter: the syntax is brilliant, too, like fresh pond ice” [11.18.1990]. It is clear the author didn’t have an ego problem.

One of the funniest letters of the collection centers around advice Berg shares with Fagen as he enters middle age:

“Items to stock up on now that you have entered middle age … Neutrogena Norwegian Hand Cream … Ella Freeman Sharpe’s book Dream Analysis … suspenders … Cashmere mufflers only … carry silver flask of cognac at all times just in case … stop buying in Filene’s basement and switch back to Brooks regular store … give up wearing loafers in public … begin having power lunches under the guise of friendly desire … make home movies of yourself cooking and watch on your Sony … LL Bean comfortor [sic] for bed … watch major golf tournaments on TV … enclosed please find perfect metaphor for the above condition” [12.16.1989]

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Letter from Stephen Berg to Seth Fagen, December 16, 1989

Readers won’t be disappointed as they comb through these letters which provide a unique viewpoint of the publishing world, the joys and annoyances of academic life, and an intimate view into the friendship of two men with strong opinions on just about everything.

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