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Lilly Library

Journey to the Center of the Mertz (Part 2 of 3)

A continuation from Part 1, in which we began the journey through each series within the Barbara Mertz collection.

Correspondence I’m starting off this section with another shout-out to Kristen Whitbread, Mertz, and whoever else was gracious enough to sort and label Mertz’s prolific body of correspondence. I began by sorting the 42.5 linear feet of materials into the categories by which they were already labeled: Literary, Personal (though this technically combined two separate labels, Friends and Family, into one subseries), Fanmail and Fandom (the second half was my addition), and Business. The Fanmail and Fandom subseries was by far my favorite; I was deeply moved by how many women of all ages wrote to Mertz to thank her for creating heroines who actually reflected them, both physically and in their personalities. This section also had a wealth of fantastic stationery and a number of gifts from fans, including a homemade set of Amelia Peabody dolls and a painted clay faux-Egyptian piece.

Cream-colored envelope addressed to “Ms. Barbara Michaels” with “Fan mail” annotated in a different hand in the top left corner and the following text in Mertz’s handwriting below: “Via the guy who sells me my gin. Such is fame-“
Through this letter, which included a nice note from the supplier’s daughter requesting that Mertz autograph her book, I learned that Mertz had a dedicated Tangueray supplier, which is both impressive and admirable.

Though there were some negative letters from fans who were angry or disappointed by plot choices or Mertz’s use of swear words, most of the irate correspondence came from Egyptologists who either disagreed with Mertz’s hypotheses or simply didn’t support a woman in the field, especially one with dissenting opinions and theories. One particularly unhinged correspondent, a self-proclaimed “anti-Egyptologist” who insisted on referring to Mertz as “Mrs. Richard R. Mertz,” was so outraged by Mertz’s discussion of the epic poem and drama in Red Land, Black Land that he began sending her thick packets of letters, clippings, poems, diagrams, screenplays, and suggested edits to her works. The increasingly hostile tone of these letters, which Mertz comments on in one of her only replies, highlight the difficulties and dangers of being an outspoken woman in Egyptology in the 1960’s, as well as the drawbacks of fame and the wide reach of her works.

Letter from Jan Cutler to Barbara Michaels dated February 14, 1972 with the following text as stationery header: “Voices From Beyond the Grave” // Copyright by Jan Cutler 1972”. The body of the letter contains the following typed text: “Dear Gal Who Wrote That Wonderful Book! Seeing that you are Libra, my ascendant sign, I feel almost that I know you. As a professional psychic, I try to keep up with what is written in my field and when I find some accurate fiction, I do a critique which has some influence on the money allotted to such subjects by our public library. I read tons of junk, mostly labelled non-fiction, by authors who don’t know beans about the occult. Most of them merely compile the same tired ghost storied with new titles. In your novel, “Ammie, Come Home”, you have presented a correct account of typical psychic phenomena, combined with a pleasant fiction style, which actually teaches, in a subtle way, more about the esoteric than is found in most non-fiction. I was so pleased that I did a book review that is on display in our three Kalamazoo City Libraries, also the Western Michigan University Library, the Kalamazoo College Library, the Comstock Library, the Milwood Highschool Library, and will soon be posted in several area and Grand Rapids Libraries. In my professional position as psychic and teacher of nicer occult skills at Milwood, I contact many people, and comment on many books. I have recommended “Ammie” to my class in the Adult Education Program, Project Lighted Schoolhouse at Milwood, where about twenty teachers and psychologists comprise a class each week, where I teach all classes in full light, even the trances. I have been so pleased to have something nice to say about “Ammie Come Home” because it is both entertaining and accurate. Best wishes for your next one! Sincerely, Jan Cutler”.
The fact that a professional psychic approved of and endorsed the description of psychic phenomena in Ammie, Come Home speaks to the extensive research Mertz did for each of her novels, as well as the immense breadth of readers her books drew in.
Enclosure of letter from Jan Cutler to Barbara Michaels with the following text: “Psychic Jan Cutler reviews the book: Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels // Meredith Press 1968, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 68-9528 // A “Gothic” mystery with definite importance to the serious student of the occult. Here is fascinating fiction based on true examples of psychic phenomena. The plot moves swiftly, with a remarkable understanding of the many extra-sensory perceptions which many living people experience. Ammie Come Home is peopled with likeable characters; the ‘sensitive’ who experiences the phenomena, the ‘skeptic’ who discounts the whole thing as a figment of an over-active imagination, and a couple of cool people willing to investigate with logic as well as compassion. The strange sensations that the disembodied manifest upon the living are portrayed properly, along with a rare insight into the emotions of disembodied entities who survive the death of the physical body. In this book, we learn something about the different personalities of ghosts, and their motives for ‘haunting’ a house. Perhaps most important, the idea is conveyed that the living can and should, use discrimination in regard to the disembodied. Preserving the intrigue of the mystery story while depicting a realistic situation without undue emphasis on ghoulish fear, this charming book is, in my opinion, worth reading for entertainment and for knowledge. Jan Cutler”.

I waffled on where to place the fandom-related material in the collection for quite a while before deciding to include it with the fanmail. While I’d considered making a dedicated “Fandom” subseries or series, it seemed more logical to keep it with the other fan materials, especially since there was a great deal of crossover between correspondence and fan-related content. For example, I noticed a substantial portion of the fanmail was from fans writing to subscribe to Mertz’s newsletter, MPM, so I decided to sort out these subscription/address change letters as they had a different research value than the rest of the fan letters. Some of the fanmail was also printed in the MPM newsletter, blurring the line even further as to where the material belonged.

Letter from David Mintskovsky to Elizabeth Peters dated March 6, 1986, with a large portion torn out and the following text written in blue ink: “Dear Mrs. Peters: Hello, my na- read Silhoette in Sca- Part of our assignment- comments. From your description of- she is very pretty with long blonde ha- tall. She is very pretty and trustful like – believed John had nothing up his sleeve when he sent her the ticket. She seems like a good author like yourself. There were several parts in the story I liked. Like when John tricked Max into believing he dug up a real artifact or at the end where just”.
Readers of all ages wrote fan letters to Mertz; while David Mintskovsky does not give his age in this letter, the handwriting and the reference to a school assignment seem those of a teen. The large section of letter missing is explained in Mertz’s reply as the doings of a puppy.
Second page of letter from David Mintskovsky to Elizabeth Peters with a large portion torn out and the following text written in blue ink: “as I thought all was allright, Leif springs-up and almost drowns everyone. I was very surprised to find out that all this time there were people watching them as Leif was madly thrashing everything. I liked the story very much. I enjoyed the humor you included in the story and fou- laughing several times What I di- story was sometimes just as- to the climax you would – comments and it would- I have on question- Was Dr. Bliss act- Since I liked- looking forward to re- they are as good as this- the time to write me back- letter. Sincerely yours, David Mintskovsky”.
Unsigned letter from Mertz to David Mintskovsky dated March 25, 1986 with the following typed text: “Dear David, It was very nice of you to write me about Silhouette in Scarlet. I’ll see what I can do to correct the problem you mentioned; I’m glad that on the whole you liked the book. I’m sorry to say that my puppy (who now weights over 50 pounds) got hold of your letter and before I could stop him he had eaten a hole in the middle. I know you asked me a question, but I can only read the first few words; the rest of it is in the dog’s stomach! If it was an important question, please feel free to write again. I’m very sorry; the puppy is eating everything in the house! My new publisher is Atheneum, so if you write again please address me in care of that house. Thanks again for writing—I hope this completes your assignment! Best Wishes,”.

The Personal subseries was another exciting and illuminating subseries to work through; it was fascinating to read how Mertz talked about her writing to fans versus how she discussed it with her fellow authors, though her sardonic humor remained a through line in both categories. A significant subset of the Personal correspondence was between Mertz and her friends in Egypt or in the Egyptology field, once again underlining the continued presence of Egypt in both her personal life and in her writings. I quickly realized that the sheer volume of correspondence between Mertz and Joan Hess, as well as between Mertz and Phyllis Whitney, warranted its separation from the rest of the chronologically sorted Personal correspondence. The cryptic messages between Joan Hess and Mertz, many of which were in the form of faxes, really highlighted how close and significant their friendship was, and the many doodles that accompanied the messages were consistently delightful. This also led me to the discovery of something called Sheep Wars, which (though I’m still fuzzy on the details, and Mertz herself said that she couldn’t remember how it started) was a sort of escalating prank war between the two friends that revolved around sheep. This included one signing the other up for a correspondence course on caring for sheep and the purchase of sheep lawn ornaments; “Shepherdess” was used as a term of endearment for one another.

A line-drawn illustration of a sheep surrounds the following typed header text: “OVINE Delights ‘where ewe’s not just another pretty face’”. The body of the letter contains the following typed text: “Dear Miss [circled in pen] Jane Shepherdess [handwritten in pen], Ovine Delights is pleased to send our special “Gala Garden Flock” for your approval. As you know, Ovine Delights has served faux-sheep-lovers for more than a century, and we take special pride in providing the highest standards in quality and esthetic considerations. Here are some helpful hints to help you maintain your “Gala Garden Flock”: 1) Never leave your sheep out in the rain, snow, sleet, hail, or hurricane. Although they are not bio-degradable, Ovine Delights cannot guarantee their longevity should they be exposed to harsh elements. And remember, canines and ovines don’t mix! 2) Move them periodically to ensure even grazing. Very few of our customers actually have seen their sheep in the act of eating, but rest assured that the “Gala Garden Flock” will keep your lawn well-cropped and fertilized. 3) Monitor sexual activity. While some of our customers are thrilled to hear the pitter-patter of little hooves, others feel that limiting the size of the flock will ensure proper individual attention. 4) Spend time with your sheep. The “Gala Garden Flock” has been carefully selected to give you our brightest, most responsive sheep. With loving patience and dedicated perseverance, you can train your sheep to respond to such complex commands as “tilt,” “fall over,” and “freeze.” We at Ovine Delights wish you the best of luck in this exciting new adventure. [signature] Beau Peep, Customer Relations”.
This letter between Joan Hess and Mertz (I’m not sure who was Beau Peep and who was Jane Shepherdess) illustrates the pair’s dedication to Sheep Wars, a fictional back-and-forth of escalating sheep-related gifts, letters, and subscription services that I still do not fully understand.
Form letter on MPM Manor stationery to Chicken of the Sea Intl. Consumer Affairs dated August 3, 2001, with the following text: “Dear Sir or Madam: How the hell am I supposed to open those cans of smoked oysters you sell? I am passionate about smoked oysters. I eat them all the time. But it is becoming too great an effort, not to say danger. The last time I tackled one of those cans I had to go round the canopener six times, getting oil all over it and my hands, and then take a knife and a pair of pliers to the lid in order to pry it back far enough to extract the contents of the can onto a plate. This is ridiculous. What happened to the key that used to be attached to such tins? I am not going to sue you, since so far I have not sliced my fingers open; I am just going to stop buying the damned things. I am curious, however, as to the rationale, if any, behind this attempt to stop people from buying your product. And if there is an easy way of accomplishing this feat, you might have explained on the carton. Sincerely, Dr. Barbara G. Mertz”.
I greatly admire Mertz’s willingness to stand up for herself and call out issues, whether it was sexism in the mystery writing community or potentially dangerous packaging. I’m also impressed that Chicken of the Sea has their own stationery.
Form letter on Chicken of the Sea International – Consumer Affairs stationery dated August 7, 2001 with the following text: “Dear Dr. Mertz: Thank you for telling us about your experience with our Chicken of the Sea product. We are sorry you have had a problem with our packaging. Your comments have been noted and reported to the appropriate management personnel in our company. Careful consideration will be given to your observations regarding our packaging. We would like to restore your confidence in our products. In appreciation of the time you took to contact us, please accept the enclosed, redeemable for complimentary Chicken of the Sea product. Sincerely, Kathleen Bates, Consumer Affairs”.
Monograph bound in green leather with gold filigree detail in a rectangle around the edges of the cover and a diamond pattern in black tooled within, with a gold dot in each diamond
Later correspondence in the collection reveals that Egyptologists still reference Mertz’s dissertation, “Certain Titles of the Egyptian Queens and their Bearing of the Hereditary Right to the Throne,” more than fifty years after its completion.

Other Writings This series, which gathers all of Mertz’s writings that weren’t published novels, demonstrates the breadth of her skills and knowledge, from encyclopedia entries to book reviews. In a letter to the History Editor of the World Book Encyclopedia, for which she was reviewing entries on “Ancient Civilization” and  “Pyramids,” she apologizes for the tardiness of her submissions due to the fact that she “felt she had to rewrite the two articles completely” because they were of less-than-satisfactory quality, both tonally and factually. This is both charming and demonstrative of her immense knowledge of the subject; the printed and bound copy of her dissertation also shows that she took well-deserved pride in both her writing and her Egyptology expertise. Her tributes to Joan Hess and Charlotte MacLeod illustrate how deeply she loved her friends and respected their craft.

Typed text of an encyclopedia entry on “Ancient Civilization” pasted on blue paper with a stamp in the top right corner with the following text: “Contributor please sign this space // OK for publication with alterations // Your name at the end of this article in The World Book indicates you either wrote the article as original matter or became responsible for its accuracy as critical reviser of the work of another.”
This proof of the “Ancient Civilization” entry of the World Book Encyclopedia illustrates the simplistic tone that Mertz criticizes in her letter to History Editor Charles Block, later calling it “simple to the point of idiocy.”
Typed, unsigned letter from Mertz to Mr. Charles Block, History Editor at the World Book Encyclopedia, dated September 14, 1966 with the following text: “Dear Mr. Block: Here are your articles. Are you impressed with my efficiency? Seriously, I hope the delay has not emperilled your schedule beyond repair. I’m sorry, but I felt I had to rewrite the two articles completely. The one on pyramids was factually correct, but I thought it could be better expressed (maybe I was wrong in that assumption, or in the assumption that it could be better expressed by me.) Anyhow, I rewrote the first part; the second part, on non-Egyptian pyramids, seems fine to me, as a non-expert. The article on ancient civilization hit me the wrong way (I believe “grabbed me” is the modern way of putting it.) It seemed to me to have entirely the wrong emphasis, and some of the statements were very questionable. If you find my version totally impossible, be candid; but I really could not sign my name to the thing as it stood. Now do let me know if anything strikes you as no good. I certainly enjoyed doing this; I hope to do a book for young people one day, and it is a real challenge to express oneself accurately, simply, and without too many broad generalizations. Thanks again for your forbearance. Sincerely,”.

Publicity and Appearances This was a tricky series to pin down; it was born when I found some general publicity that couldn’t be slotted into any of the published novel sub-subseries in the Mertz/Peters/Michaels series, such as ads for the entire Amelia Peabody series, as well as interviews and an abundance of folders labeled “accepted/denied/ignored”. These latter files consisted of invitations from various book clubs, institutions, libraries, and a myriad of other organizations and individuals for Mertz to speak, give an interview, or sign materials. It was difficult to untangle these invitations, which often included brochures and travel information if they were accepted, from the materials that I eventually labeled as “Travel” in the Financial and Legal series. The main division was how Mertz, Whitbread, and others had already sorted them; in addition, the materials that I put into the Travel folders were mostly receipts and itineraries, which aligned more with Financial and Legal materials, while the materials in the “Accepted” subseries of Publicity and Appearances were more conceptual and general information on the event itself. However, this series especially illustrates the artificiality of series/subseries divisions, as it’s impossible to neatly divide a human life into distinct categories without any overlap, as well as the subjectivity of archival decisions and the millions of minute choices that go into processing a collection. Some of my favorite items from this series could have also fit into the Fanmail and Fandom subseries in Correspondence, while the “marketing plan for new Elizabeth Peters book” obviously has a great deal of overlap with the Elizabeth Peters series, further underlining the nebulous boundaries of series divisions.

Small yellow stub with the following text in black: “Ocean County Library Author Luncheon featuring author Elizabeth Peters Tuesday, April 1, 2003 12 noon Circle Landmark Lakehurst”
These audience-submitted questions at an Elizabeth Peters author luncheon reflect many of the common themes found in her fan mail: a clamoring for more Vicky Bliss and Jacqueline Kirby books and an interest in the possibility of an Amelia Peabody movie and its potential cast.
Small yellow stub with the following text handwritten in cursive: “I love Jaquelin Kirby; will you write more books with her character? Please”
Small yellow stub with the following text handwritten: “1) Will you continue the Vicky Bliss serie? 2) Who do you envision as Amelia and Emerson in a movie?”

Financial and Legal This was the series where I fully came to appreciate how thoroughly Mertz retained records, both of her personal and professional endeavors. Between the boxes of receipts from 1976 through 2009 and the meticulously kept financial details in her daybooks, Mertz kept note of everything. While this can be read as a reflection of her personality or her awareness of the significance of her papers, it was also a reminder to me that writing was her profession as well as her craft; no matter how prolific and beloved she and her writings were (and they certainly were, as seen in the Fanmail and Fandom materials), she still had to make a living. The number of contracts and royalties with foreign publishers illustrates the widespread popularity of her work, as translation is not a small undertaking financially or labor-wise from the publisher’s point of view. I spent at least a full week alphabetizing the many boxes of royalty statements only to realize that the name on the statement was sometimes the agent through which the royalties were processed and not the publisher themselves (a problem exacerbated by the fact that many of the statements were in languages I do not speak), which led to a frustrating amount of re-alphabetizing and shuffling of papers. The “Vet” folder, which mostly contained receipts and prescriptions for Mertz’s many pets, helped me to establish a chronology of her pets as well as determine several of their names while also being a very humanizing and grounding set of materials amidst the royalties’ representations of her worldwide popularity and fame.

Stacks of papers in piles of varying sizes spread out on a large table
The many stacks of royalties in this photo illustrate the “piling method,” in which I cover every space available with materials in order to group and sort them.

Continued with Journey to the Center of the Mertz Part 3.

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