Volume I 1916-1942
Published by: Mouritz (Austria)
245 x 160 mm.
ISBN 978-3950490718
First published: 27 May 2020
Mouritz Description
The private letters (685 letters) by F. Matthias Alexander 1916-1955 in two volumes, with notes.
Publisher's description
These two volumes contain almost all known existing letters by F. M. Alexander. They collect, in complete and unabridged form, all the letters which have been made available to the editors, in total 685 letters.

Alexander was a prolific letter writer throughout his long life. His letters, written with frankness and candour, are revealing of his private life and character and show his confidence and determination. They cast a new light on this extraordinary pioneer of an entirely new approach to human health and well-being. The collection is comprised primarily of letters to Alexander's friends, teachers and pupils of the Technique, but it also contains a few letters to his family and some formal business letters.

Endnotes provide information on people and events referred to in the letters. Volume I contains a foreword by Missy Vineyard, introductory notes by Jean M. O. Fischer, letters by Alexander for the period 1916-1942, and notes for these letters. Volume II contains letters by Alexander for the period 1943-1955, and notes for these letters. In total 576 notes. The letters consists of approx. 211,000 words.

Review by Ruth Rootberg.

[This is a review of both volumes of F. M. Alexander’s letters.]

Within the 685 letters included in these two volumes, F. M. Alexander wrote, ‘So often adverse or silly criticism does more good than what may be labelled “favourable” ’ (#629, p. 555). I think he meant, in part, that the buzz created from negative attention could stimulate sales. I cannot use that tactic to persuade readers to purchase and read these two volumes: I have nothing but praise to offer for the extraordinary efforts made by Missy Vineyard and Jean Fischer in bringing these letters to the public.

The content is structured in a very helpful manner. The page, note, and reference numbering are continuous across the two volumes. Each volume displays a family tree and list of significant events in the front matter and has a complete index at the back. Volume I includes Missy Vineyard’s foreword and Jean Fischer’s introductory notes. Volume II has an extensive bibliography. Jean Fischer’s end notes and the related references are incredible resources. We have all this, plus the richness of the letters themselves.

In the foreword, Missy relates how she set out to conduct research with an eye towards writing a biography of F. M. Alexander. We learn that she discovered many of the letters while visiting and interviewing students and relatives of FMA. Later, she painstakingly copied the letters and transcribed the words that appeared in fading ink on fragile, decaying, blue onion skin paper. In time, Missy let go of writing a biography and instead collaborated with Jean Fischer, which ultimately resulted in these two fine volumes. The rest of the foreword provides a preview of the content of the letters.

Jean Fischer’s introductory notes include biographical information, set context regarding some of FM’s questionable linguistic choices, and offer useful guidance to understand editorial decisions regarding spelling, style, illegible wording, common abbreviations, and dating of the letters. It was helpful to refer to those notes more than once, so I kept Volume I close by when I advanced to Volume II.

The letters are printed in chronological order. Volume I starts in 1916 with most of the early entries written when Alexander was living in New York during World War I. This volume finishes in 1942 in the middle of World War II, when FMA was again in New York. Volume II continues with Alexander still in New York in 1943 and continues through his later life until a few weeks before his death in 1955.

So often teachers complain how difficult it is to read and comprehend Alexander’s books. Alexander himself commented, ‘You will not find the subject matter easy reading but if a book conveys anything worth while then it never is easy’ (#259, p. 324). He put it another way later: ‘The subject matter in the books calls for study, not merely reading, for full understanding’ (#528, p. 502). These letters are much more readable than the books, and so worthwhile! One gets to know of the man in the context of major historical events, of his growing confidence in his skills, his affection, humor, tastes, and much more.

The early letters to his wife are full of love and tenderness, and I was touched as he reminded her to do her ‘Ahs and exercises’ (#4, 6, 8, 10 on pages 7, 11, 13, 16, respectively). One wonders what ‘exercises’ he means, as the Alexander lore tells us FMA did not favor doing ‘exercises’, per se.

There is a youthful exuberance, even as he writes in his late 40s, when he describes to his wife Edith his belief in his growing powers: ‘I am doing work such as I have never done before. I have come into powers of which I could hardly have dreamed a year ago. I wanted to tell you this before but didn’t want you to think I am overstating’ (#4, p. 7). What ‘powers’ did he mean? My guess is he was referring to the growing skill of using his hands with inhibition, something Frank Pierce Jones mentioned developed around 1914 (Jones, p. 31). I am inspired to keep my own work going, sticking to principle, from reading, ‘It’s the ripened work of years of constant thought and proper procedures’ (#6, p. 10).

Amidst his letters to Waldo Frank, husband of Alma, he once crowed over his achievements; another time confessed to his limits: ‘Much water has passed under the bridge since you had lessons. …The experience one has gained during the training of teachers and in the little school at Penhill has been invaluable….’ (#46, p. 39). Concerning Alma, he later wrote: ‘…even my experienced hands could not be used on her head and neck without causing her acute pain’ (#107, p. 85). (We know that eventually Alma advanced sufficiently to complete her training, return to New York, and hold an important historical place as the work developed in the United States.)

There is a certain amount of repetition among groups of letters. During the war years, some letters were lost or severely delayed, and so Alexander repeated himself. He also recounted the same events to several people, as we often do. He wrote about the preparation, publication, reviews, sales, and reprinting of his books. Over several letters we learn that before he settled on the title The Universal Constant in Living, he considered others including, ‘The Human Constant in Living’, ‘Thinking in Activity’, ‘Changing Man by Thinking in Activity’, ‘A Technique for Changing Man to Meet a Changing World’, ‘Reasoning from the Known to the Unknown: A technique for changing man to meet new demands in a changing world’, and one with an extensive subtitle, ‘Changing Unemancipated Man: By a new Technique in Living, calling for Thinking in Action and Reasoning from the Known to the Unknown in Changing the Manner of Use of the Self’.

He wrote about some topics repeatedly: the politics before and during the wars, his optimism that World War II would soon be over (as it continued to drag on), the relief to not have to face any more bombing once the war was over, the conditions of scarcity – special approval was sought and gained to award the paper needed to reprint Alexander’s books (#312, p. 363). Most letters begin thanking his correspondent, and a description of the weather is included in almost every one. Good wishes for Christmas and the New Year are sent annually, and sometimes there is mention of cash tokens of appreciation.

We learn over a series of letters that Stow, Massachusetts, was not the first location to be considered for the continuation of the Little School when Alexander, assistants, and the children evacuated to North America. And after FM returned to England, it took quite a while to recover tea and books that were left when they packed hastily, receiving last-minute transport back to England.

He wrote of events already familiar to me, including Walter Carrington’s injury during the war and of Patrick Macdonald taking over the practice in Cardiff. There is humor and love when writing about Frank Pierce Jones’s children. After World War II, he was very appreciative towards the people from America who sent food to supplement the rations that continued for several years. Later on, FMA would sometimes request certain teas and such and have the publishers in the US reimburse the shippers through the book sales.

After his brother A. R. suffered a stroke, we read of FM’s concerns that A. R. is doing too much, and later of his low opinion of the people running a school and training course in Media, Pennsylvania. When I researched the Alexander Foundation School (Rootberg, 2012, 2017), I learned that Alexander did not approve of the undertaking, especially because inexperienced teachers were taking over training others in A. R.’s absence. Also, they said they were not exactly teaching the Alexander Technique and yet used ‘Alexander’ in the name of the school for children. The letters in these volumes, unavailable to me at the time of research and publication, reiterate those sentiments. The controversy over the training course and school brings up questions that I have sat with and hear from many other teachers, which I phrase today this way: Was Alexander over-protective of his work? Is it better to offer the public some semblance of the Alexander Technique, even though it will never be exactly as the originator taught it?

Might there have been a fifth book in the making? He mentioned an idea in 1942 when writing to Irene Tasker from Stow: ‘I have decided to do another book…I believe I can solve the age long problem of the coming together of science, religion and the rest by means of concrete evidence’ (#215, p. 205). Much later, in 1949, he accuses one of the D’s from Media, Pennsylvania (either Dolly Dailey or Esther Duke) of wrongly holding his manuscript (#439, p. 452).

There are humanizing moments, such as when Alexander writes he suffered from poison ivy while in America or later when he had several teeth removed in one day. In an undated letter he wrote he was in much pain. He broke his ankle but made a speedy recovery. He didn’t spend much time describing his limitations after his strokes, but rather wrote optimistically, or of how the training course should proceed in his absence (#396, p. 425–6). Then many of the late letters to Mungo and Sydney Douglas report on his racing activities – bets, recommendations, and wins.

It was reassuring to read the robust and endearing words he wrote to Irene Tasker over some 115 letters. Even though she resigned from her place at the Little School, whatever hurt feelings there may have been when Alexander excluded her name from the new prospectus, it did not seem to damage their ongoing relationship. Their correspondence spans from 1917 to 1952.

And I felt something put to rights regarding Lulie Westfeldt and her criticism of having been omitted from FM’s list of teachers available in America (Westfeldt, p. 95). Although there is one letter in which he fails to recommend her (#623, p. 553), later, she is listed (#392, p. 422).

Alexander encouraged his people – to Walter Carrington he wrote, ‘Don’t be depressed by your experience – your early experience in teaching – ours is a hard, hard way’ (#154, p. 134); to Wilfred (Bill) Barlow, ‘I am quite certain that you will get through your examination with flying colours as I am more than certain that you will keep your head going forward and up by thinking of it when giving your answers’ (#167 p. 150); and to Frank Pierce Jones, ‘I hope…that you are profiting by the experience which comes from working continuously teaching the technique. It is remarkable that by these means one’s teaching ability can be so much improved’ (#510, p. 492).

He also offered constructive notes to people writing about his technique, as to Mungo Douglas, ‘ “with the neck relaxed” would prefer “with the neck muscles so employed that the head can go forward and up” ’ (#216, p. 208); and to Frank Pierce Jones, ‘Don’t use the word posture in any of your matter. That word has such a bad meaning nowadays’ (#345, p. 388). When teachers today avoid using relax and posture, are they doing so out of an ongoing respect for Alexander’s advice, or does his opinion remain valid?

Sometimes he accused, we see in this opening letter to Frank Pierce Jones in 1948:

I am much distressed to learn of the procedures you have adopted with pupils in the understanding that you are teaching my technique. I am hoping, however, that you possess sufficient ordinary common sense to have prevented you from doing what is reported to me (#402, p. 430).

I am curious whether Jones replied, and how. This letter did not appear to dissolve relations; the correspondence continued for several years.

Although it is rich to learn about the man in all these aspects, I was especially interested when Alexander wrote about his work. There in a note and a letter that have especially clear descriptions of the Primary Control. One is a suggested correction to something Frank Pierce Jones wrote:

The primary control of the use of ourselves in the activity of living may be most accurately defined as that relativity of the head to the neck and the head and neck to the body at a given time which makes for the integrated use of the mechanism of the self as an indivisible whole (Note 392, p. 601).

Another was written to Louise Morgan:

It is really the result of the relativity of the head to the neck and the head and neck to the body, and if the neck muscles are not unduly tensed or the head pulled back in activity the best possible motivation in the direction of the use of the self follows. That leads to a beneficial influence upon general functioning. In simple words, the “right” obeys natural laws if we prevent interference with the motiving processes. But we all interfere and then do what we feel and thing is right in order to correct our wrong thinking and doing. We all admit that prevention is better the “cure” but we do not keep to the principle involved, unfortunately, in practice (#649, p. 565).

There is also ample material for a new set of aphorisms, e.g.,

The inhibition and the associated thinking gradually become a natural and inseparable element in “wholeness” (# 458, p. 463).

Personally, I always enjoy finding out when I have been wrong as the admission is so often a valuable experience, for it is the means-whereby to a lasting impression that tends to prevent repetition of the faulty thinking that led one into error. (#505, p. 490).

Being tired is, in my opinion, one of the worst diseases (#536, p. 507).

We impede the natural (right) motivation and working of the manner of use of ourselves, and then rely upon what we feel and think is right in our attempts to do what we believe is right, instead of preventing the impeding activities in doing as first principle (#646, p. 564).

Although Missy uncovered letters written to Alexander, the volumes contain only letters written by him, with the small exception of a couple of letters placed in the appendices. There are times when I wished to read what Alexander had received so I could better understand what spurred him to write what he did. But for the most part, Alexander’s replies often contain enough information that one can follow the conversation fairly well.

I end at the beginning. In her foreword, Missy Vineyard offers this advice on how to approach the letters:

Read them slowly. Pause occasionally to imagine Alexander sitting and writing at his desk, stopping a moment to look out the window perhaps, as he searches for the right word to express hope, frustration, worry, affection, encouragement, or occasional admonishment. As you take time, I hope that an inner door opens, leading you toward a fuller empathy and understanding for the mind, heart, and life of this remarkable man (p. vii).

First published in STATNews vol. 11, no. 3 (STAT, September 2021), pp. 42–44.
Jones, Frank Pierce. ([1976], 1997). Freedom to Change. London: Mouritz.
Rootberg, Ruth. (Spring 2012, Spring 2017). ‘The Alexander Foundation School: An Experiment in Education’ in AmSAT Journal, No. 1; and in The Alexander Journal No. 26.
Vineyard, Missy and Jean M. O. Fischer. (2020). Letters of F. Matthias Alexander. Graz: Mouritz.
Westfeldt, Lulie. ([1964], 1998). F. Matthias Alexander: The Man and His Work London: Mouritz.


Ruth Rootberg. Reproduced with permission.
This edition © Mouritz 2005-2014. All rights reserved.