Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
The letter below was written by Stendhal to his sister Pauline on Oct. 29, 1808:
The arts promise more than they perform. This idea — or, rather, this charming sentiment — has just been given to me by a German street-organ which played, as it passed through the street next to mine, a tune of which two passages are new to me — and, what is more, are charming, in my opinion. The tears almost came into my eyes.
The first time I ever took pleasure in music was at Novara, a few days before the battle of Marengo. I went to the theatre, where they were playing Il Matrimonio Segreto. The music delighted me like an expression of love. I think no woman I have had ever gave me so sweet a moment, or at so light a price, as the moment I owe to a newly heard musical phrase. This pleasure came to me without my in any way expecting it: it filled my whole soul. I have told you of a similar sensation that I once had at Frascati when Adele leant against me while we were watching fireworks: I think this was the happiest moment of my life. The pleasure must have been truly sublime, for I still remember it although the passion that caused it is entirely extinguished.
Wednesday, October 12th, 2011
This week, the blog is featuring writers’ correspondence. The letter below was written by Eudora Welty to William Maxwell and his wife Emily in May 1963. It’s featured in What There Is to Say We Have Said:
Dearest Emmy and Bill,
The train ride here, down the hypotenuse to Texas, is utter peace. When you leave the city goes away immediately and it’s mountains, or valleys with beautifully ploughed fields and yellow barns till dark. There was the biggest thunderstorm I ever rode a train through, you could even hear the thunder through the roof & windows, but we were all enclosed and it was quite like added scenery, the wild heavens. After you leave St. Louis, you ride another good train, following the Mississippi from 4:30 till dark, as close to the water as the train used to go along the Riviera (it may still!). There’s no very frequent sign of human habitation at all, and it’s the way the river must’ve looked in the days of the Indians, or of Audubon anyway, so you imagine. Then that night, the whole world was lit up with fireflies. The train must have been going through wild country, hardly any electric lights, all darkness, and flashing, flashing from the ground to way up in dark trees, mile after mile. Then of course woke up eventually to oil wells — but not too many, because it’s fairly green and full of trees, hilly, in East Texas. Austin is green, with huge live oaks, and oleanders, magnolias, gardenias etc. in bloom. The wildflowers along the tracks were so thick — gaillardias, cosmos, phlox, thistle, calliopsis, & of course bluebonnets. There is a wild clematis called the leather flower — dark ruby red — (continues after the jump)
Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
Each day this week, the blog will feature two letters. The one below was written by Harold Ross, the founder and editor of The New Yorker, to Orson Welles on Jan. 31, 1945. A selection of Ross’ correspondence was published as Letters from the Editor: The New Yorker’s Harold Ross:
I was astonished at your column in yesterday’s Post, in which you say The New Yorker sneers at you. You were brimful of prunes when you wrote that. Our piece was straightforward and sympathetic, and there wasn’t a sneer in it, and it contained not one unfriendly or unkindly word. I read it carefully before it was published and I have just read it again. Several other people of sound judgment have read it, too, and they concur in my opinion.
Every once in a while such a thing as this comes up: someone misses the point of what we say about him and assumes that he is being spoofed. Almost invariably, this happens to people whose powers of discernment are blunted, either temporarily or permanently, by hypersensitivity or a sense of insecurity, or both. I don’t know which of these states afflicted you the day before yesterday, but one or the other did, and as an old acquaintance and admirer, and one who earnestly has your welfare at heart, I advise you to beware of columning if it is going to continue to throw you off balance to this extent. Columning is a deadly occupation, leading frequently and successively to overzealousness, super-seriousmindedness, monomania, hysteria, and sometimes madness. When a columnist begins to take himself too seriously he is in grave danger. Look around. Look at what happened to Broun, Pegler, Winchell, and several others. Look at the states they got themselves in. But it took them years, whereas you got the heebee-jeebees in eight or ten days. If this condition continues, or recurs frequently, I urge that you wage your attack upon fascism, in which I sincerely wish you well, with some other weapon than the syndicated column. . . .
Tuesday, October 11th, 2011
Each day this week, the blog will feature two letters. The one below was written by Anton Chekhov to publishing magnate Alexei Suvorin, his close friend, on Sept. 8, 1891:
I have already moved to Moscow and am staying indoors. . . .
“The Lie,” the title you recommended for my long story, won’t do. It would be appropriate only in cases where the lie is a conscious one. An unconscious lie really isn’t a lie, but an error. Having money and eating meat Tolstoy calls a lie — which is going too far.
Yesterday I was informed that Kurepin is hopelessly ill with cancer of the neck. Before he dies the cancer will have eaten up half his head and torment him with neuralgic pains. I was told his wife has written you.
Little by little death takes its toll. It knows its job. Try writing a play along these lines: an old chemist has concocted an elixir of immortality — a dose of fifteen drops and one lives eternally; but the chemist breaks the vial with the elixir out of fear that such carrion as he and his wife will continue to live forever. Tolstoy denies immortality to mankind, but good God, how much there is that’s personal in his denial! The day before yesterday I read his “Epilogue.”* Strike me dead, but this is stupider and stuffier than “Letters to a Governor’s Wife,”** which I despise. The hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All eminent sages are as despotic as generals, as discourteous and lacking in delicacy as generals, because they know they are safe from punishment. Diogenes spat into peoples’ beards, sure that nothing would happen to him; Tolstoy abuses doctors as scoundrels and shows his ignorance in regard to weighty questions because he is another Diogenes, whom you can’t take to the police station or call down in the newspapers. And so, the hell with the philosophy of the great of this world! All of it, with all its beggarly epilogues and letters to governors’ ladies isn’t worth a single filly in his “Story of a Horse.” . . .
Keep well and don’t forget this miserable sinner. I miss you very much.
* The “Epilogue” to Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata.
** Gogol’s Letters to a Governor’s Wife.
Monday, December 14th, 2009
“A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn’t nearly be enough.” (The Blog)
Letters of Note is a great, relatively new web site that collects all kinds of correspondence, including office memos. It features plenty of traditional letters, a bunch of them from prominent authors. In 1957, for instance, J. D. Salinger wrote to a Mr. Herbert, who had inquired about the film rights for The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger was set against selling them:
I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade “scenes”—only a fool would deny that—but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts.
Not a bad summary of why so many film adaptations don’t do justice to the books. Salinger was also suspicious of actors:
Not to mention, God help us all, the immeasurably risky business of using actors. Have you ever seen a child actress sitting crosslegged on a bed and looking right? I’m sure not. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biassed opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn’t nearly be enough. [. . .] I’ll stop there. I’m afraid I can only tell you, to end with, that I feel very firm about all this, if you haven’t already guessed. Thank you, though, for your friendly and highly readable letter. My mail from producers has mostly been hell.
Other highlights include: A letter from Kurt Vonnegut to his family from a repatriation camp in 1945; a heartwarming exchange between Dr. Seuss and an aspiring young writer; and a brilliant form letter that Robert Heinlein would send to fans (and critics). You can also read a worthwhile interview with the site’s founder here.
(Via Very Short List)
Friday, December 4th, 2009
To wrap up Letters Week, I draw your attention to an incredible project: the online, searchable archive of all of Vincent van Gogh’s letters. The complete correspondence was recently published in a deluxe edition with a neat list price of $600. (At six volumes illustrated with 2,000 works of art, it seems fair, especially at the discounted price of $480; there’s another complete, less lavish version available for just $63.) The letter excerpted below, written to his brother Theo on October 2, 1884, came to my attention in Julian Bell’s review of the new set, and Bell explains the context for it: “[Vincent] has been carrying on with a vulnerable young village woman, to the disgust of his parents, and now she’s tried—not quite successfully, thank God—to poison herself. Theo has written from Paris, upbraiding him. Vincent’s rejoinder to his brother—vehement, outrageous and magnificent—ends up with nine postscripts, and this is from the seventh”:
Now there are people who say to me, ‘what were you doing getting involved with her?’—that’s one fact. Now there are people who say to her, ‘what were you doing getting involved with him?’—that’s a second fact. Apart from that, both she and I have sorrow enough and trouble enough—but regret—neither of us. [ . . . ]
Oh—I’m no friend of present-day Christianity, even though the founder was sublime—I’ve seen through present-day Christianity only too well. It mesmerized me, that icy coldness in my youth—but I’ve had my revenge since then. How? By worshipping the love that they—the theologians—call sin, by respecting a whore etc., and not many would-be respectable, religious ladies. [ . . . ] (continues)
Friday, December 4th, 2009
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. Flannery O’Connor wrote the one below to Betty Hester on March 10, 1956. (The excerpt below picks up about a third of the way through the letter.) It’s taken from The Habit of Being edited by Sally Fitzgerald. In the book, Hester, O’Connor’s closest friend and the recipient of many of her letters, was given the pseudonym “A.”
I think of novenas the same way I think of the hideous Catholic churches you all too frequently find yourself in, that is, after a time I cease to see them even though I’m in them. The virtue of novenas is that they keep you at it for nine consecutive days and the human attention being what it is, this is a long time. I hate to say most of these prayers written by saints-in-an-emotional-state. You feel you are wearing somebody else’s finery and I can never describe my heart as “burning” to the Lord (who knows better) without snickering. (continues)
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. If there is a Mount Olympus of letter-writers, Flannery O’Connor stands at or near the top of it. So this is the first of two letters of hers that I’ll share, the second appearing tomorrow morning. O’Connor wrote the letter below to Robert Lowell on December 25, 1958. It’s taken from The Habit of Being edited by Sally Fitzgerald, a must-have for anyone’s library.
It is mighty unseemly of you to enshrine me in your memory falling up the steps with a bottle of gin. I recollect the incident. It was not gin but rum (unopened) and the steps were slick . . . In our house the liquor is kept in the bathroom closet between the Draino and the plunger, and you don’t get any unless you are about dead. The last time I had any was when I dropped the side of the chicken brooder on my foot and broke my toe.
This spring we spent four days with the Fitzgeralds in Levanto and then Sally went with us to Paris and Lourdes and then to Rome. Europe didn’t affect me none, but since coming back my bone has begun to recalcify, an improvement that was not expected.
I would like to think I will finish my book this year but this may be just what I would like to think. I will hope to read yours.
My love to you and Elizabeth and Harriet. That Harriet is going to take over if you don’t watch out. You ought to raise her in the South and then she wouldn’t have to go to school. I am really looking forward to the next generation being uneducated.
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
“I come of a savage & contradictious race…” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was written by Sylvia Townsend Warner to William Maxwell on January 11, 1968. It’s taken from The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman. Thanks to Lisa Peet at Like Fire for passing it along.
I am very glad you were not burnt up in your car. I really am. I should be poorly off without you and as well as that I love you without the spur of self-interested motives. But some of the story is just as I would expect. Have you noticed that it is always harmless people like you & me, people who can’t bear to inconvenience others or disturb or disquiet them who burst into flames in the midst of gas tanks and so forth?
Yes, it is very sad for us both that Mr. Shawn doesn’t like the Edom stories. He comes of a sombre race. For myself, I come of a savage & contradictious race and my only reaction to his statement that my other stories “are wonderful” was to resolve that I will never write another. But I doubt if I can substantiate this noble resolution since I am in the middle of one at this moment. It is very short and black as pitch and he will reject it.
But don’t be distressed that you have had any part in encouraging me to write about the A. A. Galleries. All you have done has been to incite me to enjoying myself—the act of a friend.
Thursday, December 3rd, 2009
Distress and Elegance (The Blog)
Pertinent to the week’s doings around here, Michael Wood reviews a new volume of T. S. Eliot’s letters:
Eliot’s description of himself as “within measurable distance of the end of my tether” combines distress with elegance. Writing to Herbert Read he says: “I have been of late exceptionally busy and exceptionally worried, even for me.” And writing again to his brother he says his life is such a mess that it would make him laugh, “if any Eliot could ever laugh.” He likes this one so much he repeats it to Harold Monro a day later with a minor variation: “if any Eliot ever could laugh.”
But there is a sort of morality to all this that shifts it beyond complaint, kink and joke, and helps us to understand the poetry and the criticism. Eliot not only thought life was hard, he thought it ought to be hard, and with this verdict he joined all those other modern writers and thinkers who adopted or at least were tempted by what J.P. Stern in another context calls the “dear purchase,” the notion that sacrifice is worth nothing if it doesn’t cost too much.
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was written by Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenská in November 1920. It’s taken from the thoroughly enjoyable Letters to Milena translated by Philip Boehm.
You say, Milena, you don’t understand it. Try to understand it by calling it a disease. It’s one of the many manifestations of disease which psychoanalysis claims to have discovered. I do not call it a disease and consider the therapeutic part of psychoanalysis is a helpless mistake. All these alleged diseases, sad as they may seem, are matters of faith, anchorages in some maternal ground for souls in distress. Consequently, psychoanalysis also maintains that religions have the same origin as “diseases” of the individual. Of course, today most of us don’t feel any sense of religious community; the sects are countless and limited to individuals, but perhaps it only seems that way from our present perspective.
On the other hand, those anchorages which are firmly fixed in real ground aren’t merely isolated, interchangeable possessions—they are performed in man’s being, and they continue to form and re-form his being (as well as his body) along the same lines. And this they hope to heal?
In my case one can imagine 3 circles: an innermost circle A, then B, then C. The center A explains to B why this man is bound to torment and mistrust himself, why he has to give up (it isn’t giving up, that would be very difficult—it’s merely a having-to-give-up), why he may not live. [. . .] Nothing more is explained to C, the active human being; he simply takes orders from B. C acts under the greatest pressure, in a fearful sweat (is there any other sweat that breaks out on the forehead, cheeks, temples, scalp—in short, around the entire skull? That’s what happens with C). Thus C acts more out of fear than understanding; he trusts, he believes that A has explained everything to B and that B has understood everything and passed it on correctly.
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009
“He is a second son.” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was written by E. B. White to Ursula Nordstrom, his editor at Harper & Row, on November 14, 1945. It’s taken from the thoroughly enjoyable Letters of E. B. White revised and updated by Martha White. (Speaking of Nordstrom, Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is also a terrific book.)
Dear Miss Nordstrom:
On or two of the Harper ads referred to Stuart as a “mouse.” This is inaccurate and probably better be abandoned. Nowhere in the book (I think I am right about this) is Stuart described as a mouse. He is a small guy who looks very much like a mouse, but he obviously is not a mouse. He is a second son.
There are a great many words that your advertising department can summon for this strange emergency: being, creature, party, customer, fellow, person.
(I am wrong, Stuart is called a mouse on Page 36—I just found it. He should not have been.)
Anyway, you see what I mean.
E. B. White
Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
“Ye gods—I wish I were a millionaire—” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was written by Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell on May 29, 1973. She sent it from Seattle. It’s taken from Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. The book notes that the “little book” she mentions is “[p]ossibly a letter-press printing of ‘Poem’ for the Phoenix Book Shop, New York (1973).”
I’ll be going back to Cambridge in 3 or 4 days and I’ll write you from there—I don’t like this kind of little book very much, but I finally gave in & did this one—or they did—& you might as well have a copy, since I believe you like the poem—
I am not feeling TOO friendly at the moment, because my “class” is finding you very difficult & much too EASTERN!—&, save me, they won’t look up words, even the easiest, in the dictionary . . . Ye gods—I wish I were a millionaire—but anyway, never again—
Tuesday, December 1st, 2009
“I fear you have let loose a demon in me…” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was written by William James on April 6, 1896, to his students at Radcliffe College, who had sent him a potted azalea for Easter. It’s taken from The Selected Letters of William James edited by Elizabeth Hardwick.
Dear Young Ladies,—
I am deeply touched by your remembrance. It is the first time anyone ever treated me so kindly, so you may well believe that the impression on the heart of the lonely sufferer will be even more durable than the impression on your minds of all the teachings of Philosophy 2A. I now perceive one immense omission in my Psychology,—the deepest principle of Human Nature is the craving to be appreciated, and I left it out altogether from the book, because I had never had it gratified till now. I fear you have let loose a demon in me, and that all my actions will now be for the sake of such rewards. However, I will try to be faithful to this one unique and beautiful azalea tree, the pride of my life and delight of my existence. Winter and summer will I tend and water it—even with my tears. Mrs. James shall never go near it or touch it. If it dies, I will die too; and if I die, it shall be planted on my grave.
Don’t take all this too jocosely, but believe in the extreme pleasure you have caused me, and in the affectionate feelings with which I am and shall always be faithfully your friend,
Monday, November 30th, 2009
“A day for me; a day for the hootch.” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. This one was sent by John Cheever to William Maxwell, his editor at The New Yorker on March 6, 1969. It’s taken from The Letters of John Cheever edited by Benjamin Cheever.
I can’t write you a story. I can’t write anyone a story. I know that Bullet Park is not that massive but six months later I still feel pole-axed. Twice I seem to have had a donnee but I don’t seem to have any motive for following through. I think I’ll have to start all over again. Also the stuntiness of Barthelme disconcerts me. One can always begin, “Mr. Frobisher, returning from a year in Europe, opened his trunk for the customs officer and found there, instead of his clothing and souvenirs, the mutilated and naked body of an Italian sailor.” Blooey. It’s like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago. There’s the rub. I start on a story and realize that I’ve already written it.
Not working is terribly painful and I’m still having a fight with the booze. I’ve enlisted the help of a doctor but it’s touch and go. A day for me; a day for the hootch. A beautiful, blonde, intelligent and responsive movie actress whom I adore announced to her husband that she had to spend three hours alone with me. He sullenly agreed. I took her skating.
Monday, November 30th, 2009
“The boy is bothered.” (The Blog)
To accompany this week’s review of Thomas Mallon’s book about letters, each day the blog will feature two letters. We start with this, sent by Raymond Chandler to Hamish Hamilton, Chandler’s British publisher, on August 10, 1948. It’s taken from Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler edited by Frank MacShane.
Hardly necessary to tell you that I am typing this myself, no longer have a secretary, just didn’t have a full time job for one unless working in Hollywood. I shall probably be sorry, but can’t help it. Have to retrench a bit anyhow. Things are awful over here as far as price is concerned.
The trouble with the Marlowe character is he has been written and talked about too much. He’s getting self-conscious, trying to live up to his reputation among the quasi-intellectuals. The boy is bothered. He used to be able to spit and throw the ball hard and talk out of the corner of his mouth.
I am trying desperately to finish The Little Sister, and should have a rough draft done almost any day I can get up enough steam. The fact is, however, that there is nothing in it but style and dialogue and characters. The plot creaks like a broken shutter in an October wind.
Am reading [Graham Greene’s] The Heart of the Matter, a chapter at a time. It has everything in it that makes literature except verve, wit, gusto, music and magic; a cool and elegant set-piece, embalmed by Whispering Glades. There is more life in the worst chapter Dickens or Thackeray ever wrote, and they wrote some pretty awful chapters.
All the best,