Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 APRIL, 2015

Teenage James Joyce’s Beautiful Letter to Ibsen, His Great Hero

By:

“We always keep the dearest things to ourselves.”

One need only look at the canon of quiet champions behind creative icons to be reminded of how deeply and lastingly a young person setting out on a creative path can be touched by a simple word of encouragement from one of his or her heroes — one of the “spiritual and mental ancestors” we choose for ourselves, which are essential to our identity. Would Whitman be Whitman without Emerson’s generous letter? Would Sendak be Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom’s unflinching support? Would Bukowski have remained a mere postal worker without the patron who helped him quit his soul-sucking day job to be come a full-time writer? Would young Hermann Hesse have sunk into resignation without Thomas Mann’s deeply assuring letters?

Among the beneficiaries of these small yet life-changing kindnesses was teenage James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

His first published work — a laudatory review of Henrik Ibsen’s play When We Dead Awaken — appeared in the influential Fortnightly Review in the spring of 1900. Joyce was only eighteen. Ibsen, who had just suffered a series of strokes, was deeply touched by the article’s benevolent sentiment. He wrote to his English translator, the prominent Scottish drama critic William Archer, to express appreciation for Joyce’s review. Archer then wrote to the young author, passing along Ibsen’s words of gratitude.

Joyce, already high on the honor of being published in the prestigious journal, was elevated to absolute elation by the knowledge that not one but two of his literary idols had not only paid attention to his work but had appreciated it. On April 28, five days after receiving Archer’s letter, he sent the following reply, found in Joyce: Selected Letters (public library):

Dear Sir I wish to thank you for your kindness in writing to me. I am a young Irishman, eighteen years old, and the words of Ibsen I shall keep in my heart all my life. Faithfully yours

Jas A. Joyce

But the exchange was no fleeting gratification. Almost a year later, in March of 1901, Joyce sent Ibsen a beautiful letter for the playwright’s seventy-third birthday.

Having just turned nineteen, Joyce writes:

I can hardly tell you how moved I was by your message. I am a young, a very young man, and perhaps the telling of such tricks of the nerves will make you smile. But I am sure if you go back along your own life to the time when you were an undergraduate at the University as I am, and if you think what it would have meant to you to have earned a word from one who held as high a place in your esteem as you hold in mine, you will understand my feeling.

Etching for Ulysses by Italian artist Mimmo Paladino. Click image for more.

And yet Joyce, perhaps gripped with youth’s dual capacity for profound admiration and stubborn pride, is quick to redact any impression of excessive adulation while assuring Ibsen that his veneration comes from a place more sincere than the vanity of superficial idolatry:

Do not think me a hero-worshipper — I am not so. And when I spoke of you in debating societies and so forth, I enforced attention by no futile ranting.

But we always keep the dearest things to ourselves. I did not tell them what bound me closest to you. I did not say how what I could discern dimly of your life was my pride to see, how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism. And this is what I write to you of now.

But for all his precocious mastery of thought and language, Joyce is still very much a teenager — to him, a 73-year-old is so ancient as to be practically dead. In a rather morbid passage, Joyce assumes the role of a mortality-hypnotist and writes:

Your work on earth draws to a close and you are near the silence. It is growing dark for you. Many write of such things, but they do not know. You have only opened the way — though you have gone as far as you could upon it… But I am sure that higher and holier enlightenment lies — onward.

Ibsen lived another five years, but the play young Joyce had reviewed was his last, which renders Joyce’s closing words triply touching:

As one of the young generation for whom you have spoken I give you greeting — not humbly, because I am obscure and you in the glare, not sadly, because you are an old man and I a young man, not presumptuously, nor sentimentally — but joyfully, with hope and with love, I give you greeting. Faithfully yours,

James A. Joyce

Perhaps Ibsen’s assuring words were what gave young Joyce “the faith in the soul” of which he wrote in his magnificent letter to Lady Gregory the following year.

Complement Joyce: Selected Letters, which is a treasure trove in its hefty totality, with Isaac Asimov’s heartwarming fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s wonderful letter to George Eliot.

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18 MARCH, 2015

Martin Luther King on the Two Types of Laws and the Four Steps to Successful Nonviolent Resistance

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“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

On April 3, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began coordinating a series of sit-ins and nonviolent demonstrations against racial injustice in Birmingham, Alabama. On April 12, he was violently arrested on the charge of parading without a permit, per an injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing” that a local circuit judge had issued two days earlier, a week into the protests.

On the day of Dr. King’s arrest, eight male Alabama clergymen issued a public statement directed at him, titled “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense.” They accused him of being an “outsider” to the community’s cause, suggested that racial injustice in Alabama shouldn’t be his business, and claimed that the nonviolent resistance demonstrations he led were “unwise and untimely.” “We further strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations,” they wrote. It was such a blatant example of the very injustice Dr. King had dedicated his life to eradicating — the hijacking of what should be “common sense” to all in the service of what is “common” and convenient to only those in power — that he felt compelled to respond. The following day, while still in jail, he penned a remarkable book-length open letter. (“Never before have I written a letter this long,” he marveled as he penned the final paragraphs.)

Aware of the media’s power to incite the popular imagination, King and his team began distributing mimeographed copies to the clergy of Birmingham and eventually made their way to the press. Major newspapers and magazines, including The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Post, published excerpts. The full text was eventually published as Letter from Birmingham City Jail (public library) and became not only a foundational text of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s but an enduring manifesto for social justice and the human struggle for equality in every sense of the word, in every corner of the world.

Drawing on his vast pool of intellectual resources — from Socrates to St. Augustine to Thoreau — and his own singular gift for blending the powers of a philosopher, a preacher, and a poet, Dr. King debunks the clergymen’s arguments one by one, beginning with their assertion that the injustice in Birmingham is not his “outsider” business:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

He outlines the four pillars of nonviolent resistance — which bear a poignant parallel to the four rules for arguing intelligently that philosopher Daniel Dennett would formulate more than half a century later — and writes:

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: 1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive; 2) negotiation; 3) self-purification; and 4) direct action.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bertrand Russell’s timeless wisdom on the constructive and destructive elements in human nature“Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power,” he wrote in 1926, “but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it.” — King puts forth the wonderful notion of “creative tension” as a force of constructive action:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue… There is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must see the need of having nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men to rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

King’s ideas undoubtedly influenced South African writer, freedom-fighter, and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer when, a decade later, she contemplated the role of the writer as precisely such a gadfly on the back of injustice — something King further illuminates when he adds:

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing create, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

He considers why such nonviolent instigation of “creative tension” is vital to the claiming of freedom:

History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and give up their unjust posture; but … groups are more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

Dr. King's handwritten notes for the letter (The King Center Archive)

He zooms in on the accusation of untimeliness and, arguing that “justice too long delayed is justice denied,” and puts in poignant perspective the relativity of timeliness:

I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; … when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Fun-town is closed to colored children, and see depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair.

Indeed, he argues that at the root of the clergymen’s accusations is a profound misconception of time. Time, as we know, is a human invention that Galileo perfected; like all technology, it is a neutral tool that can be bent to wills good and evil, put toward ends constructive and destructive — something King captures beautifully:

All this … grows out of a tragic misconception of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively. I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift out national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

He goes on to explore the expatiation of the legal system for the unjust ends of those in power:

There are two types of laws: There are just and unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” … An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. To use the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, segregation substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. So segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, but it is morally wrong…

[…]

An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority group that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.

In a sense, contemporary popular culture is built on the same foundation as unjust law — on the warping of sameness and difference, which Shonda Rhimes addressed with extraordinary elegance of insight in her Human Rights Campaign award acceptance speech. To King, indeed, the law should be reclaimed as an ally to the populace in its diverse totality rather than a formalized system of objectifying people. He sees nonviolent resistance not as a way to destroy the law but as a way to normalize it:

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law… That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, … and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.

But the law, of course, cannot and should not be separate from the social forces that support it. In one of his most poignant remarks in the letter, which resonates all the more deeply in our present culture where impenitent reaction has replaced considered response and become the seedbed of misunderstanding, King adds:

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Letter from Birmingham City Jail remains an indispensable read for any thinking, feeling member of the human family. Complement it with Einstein’s little-known correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on race and racial justice and Margaret Mead on the root of racism and how to counter it.

Thank you, Jacqueline

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10 MARCH, 2015

More than Words: The Illustrated Love Letters, Thank-You Notes, and Travelogues of Great Artists, from Kahlo to Calder to Saint-Exupéry

By:

“Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.”

Virginia Woolf aptly called letter writing “the humane art.” But what amplifies the humanity and immediacy of words is the addition of art itself — how instantly alive Van Gogh’s illustrated letters feel, to say nothing of Edward Gorey’s envelope drawings.

That magical marriage of epistolary text and image is what Liza Kirwin explores in More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (public library) — a wonderful selection of love letters, thank-you notes, travel missives, visual instructions, picture-puzzles and plays on words from the world’s largest repository of artists’ papers, featuring missives from creative titans like Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, Alexander Calder, and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Kirwin, who serves as deputy director of the venerable archive and has also culled from it the illustrated lists and inventories of great artists, begins the book with a perfect line from a letter the great American graphic artist John Graham wrote to his third wife, Elinor, in July of 1958 — a gem from the archive’s John Graham Papers collection:

Letter writing is probably the most beautiful manifestation in human relations, in fact, it is its finest residue.

The illustrated letter is an even more beautiful such manifestation, as artist Walter Kuhn remarked in a letter to his wife: “One should never forget that the power of words is limited.”

Lyonel Feininger to Alfred Churchill, May 20, 1890

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

German-American Expressionist painter and comic strip artist Lyonel Feininger asserted this sentiment with double the ardor in a May 1890 letter to the art critic and lecturer Alfred Churchill:

I will … make one more demand upon your friendship, also it is your promise to me before we parted. viz: to illustrate your letters! If it is only a little landscape or a simple figure, or any little sketch or sketches illustrating the text of your letters, it will be just as welcome and will do you very considerably good in helping you on in penwork or ready interpretation of any little conception you may wish to put on paper.

Frida Kahlo to Emmy Lou Packard, October 24, 1940

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the many gems is one from Frida Kahlo — who was a prolific letter writer, most notably of gorgeous and profound illustrated love letters to Diego Rivera — thanking muralist Emmy Lou Packard for taking such good care of Rivera during his trip to San Francisco. The couple had divorced a year earlier, and yet Kahlo writes, illustrating the letter with lipsticked smooches:

Kiss Diego for me and tell him I love him more than my own life.

Kahlo and Rivera remarried a few weeks later and remained together, not without tumult, until death did them part. Years later, as he recalled first meeting the teenage Kahlo, Rivera would consider her “the most important fact” of his life.

Alfred Joseph Frueh to Geiuliette Fanciulli, January 29, 1913

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

One of the sweetest love letters comes from caricaturist Alfred Joseph Frueh, who called his fiancée’s missives “pinkies” (on account of the pink paper she used) and declared that weeks without pinkies “are as empty as cream puffs without cream.” In one letter, he sent her a set of charming cartoons, writing in the postscript that he had to tear up a “pinky” and adding: “But you’ll send me another, wontcha?”

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, September 8, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Among the most charming specimens from the section on travel letters is one from Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, listing in beautiful penmanship and delightful illustrations the masses of fruit he was consuming during his 1894 trip to Venice:

Delicious fruits are here in Venice now, and I consume vast quantities of it. Melons, pears, peaches, plums, apples, figs, grapes and other things unknown to my interior.

[…]

I eat fruit so much of the time and so much at a time that I go to bed at night expecting.

But folded into this playful admission of dietary excess is Smith’s larger and graver meditation on the excesses and pretensions of the art world. With the conflicted ambivalence not uncommon in artists — a polarizing pull between wanting commercial success on the one hand and having deep disdain for the system that bestows it on the other — he recounts his visit with the prominent American art patron Isabella Steward Gardner:

Mrs. Gardner wishes so much to have the extreme pleasure of having me make her a visit there that I have promised to go over on Wednesday and end my visit in Venice there.

I lunched there yesterday and showed my pictures and dined with the Brimmers and again passed them all out and told the same little anecdotes with the same inflexion of voice — and they seemed pleased and Colleroni and I are pretty well set up and conceited — for when they weren’t admiring him — they were the workmanship — and I simply floated home in air I was that puffed up my waistcoat hasn’t a button to its name — and the upper part of my trousers looks like two funnels.

And you will ask — you miserable money ideaed things you sordid American parents you will ask if I sold any pictures to Mrs. Gardner — so I will just say yes — “it was bit off” — and with love to you all

I remain your little sonnie JoJo

Joseph Lindon Smith to his parents, June 15, 1894

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Smith’s irreverent playfulness and his conflicted attitude toward the art world appear in another letter to his parents from that spring, when he was holding informal exhibitions four evenings a week and buyers — mostly American collectors visiting Venice — were clamoring to buy his work. Illustrating his letter with a drawing that captures perfectly this duality of the artist as panhandler and fashionable commodity, he writes:

Dear Mother and Father,

“It never rains but it pours.”

Behold your son painting under a shower of gold. I am selling pictures on every side and every day. — And we are feeling very much set up and bloated at Palazzo Dario these days.

[…]

I am going to make this last picture the best thing I have ever done.

Man Ray to Julian Edwin Levi, June 26, 1929

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some are landmarks not only of art history but of all history — shortly before the stock market crash of 1929, surrealist icon Man Ray is sitting in an American bar in Paris, sketching a self-portrait in a lyrical letter to his friend Julian Edwin Levi:

The blue light is creeping over Blvd. Montparnasse and the sparrows are chirping in the trees waiting for a windfall.

J. Kathleen White to Ellen Hulda Johnson, September 1, 1986

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another letter marks a turning point in the history of computing technology. In the fall of 1986, artist and writer J. Kathleen White brags in a letter to art historian Ellen Hulda Johnson about using a computer to draw a cat, a dog, and a bird:

These household pets here pictured come from computer land.

Alexander Calder to Ben Shahn, February 24, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Then there are those practical matters for which words simply don’t suffice — such as directions. In his letter of invitation to artist Ben Shahn, the great Alexander Calder encloses a hand-drawn map to his home — and it somehow feels like one of his iconic mobiles.

Robert Lortac to Edward Willis Redfield, August 18, 1919

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Some letters offer oblique assurances about the creative path. Like many subsequently successful artists, French filmmaker and cartoon animation pioneer Robert Collard (known as R. Lortac) had a day-job. During his years as a real estate consultant, he included in a letter to his friend Edward Willis Redfield — a landscape artist — a series of beautiful drawings to give him a better sense of “the character of the landscape” in Brittany, where Redfield was planning a trip.

Andy Warhol to Russell Lynes, 1949

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Another such oblique assurance comes from Andy Warhol. Immediately after graduating from college and moving to New York City — where his overbearing mother would soon follow him to take care of her son through poverty — Warhol applied for a job at Harper’s. Without the slightest care for punctuation or capitalization, except when it comes to his own name, 21-year-old Warhol answers editor Russell Lynes’s request for biographical information:

Hello mr. lynes
thank you very much
biographical information

my life couldn’t fill a penny post card i was born in pittsburgh in 1928 (like everybody else — in a steel mill)

i graduated from carnegie tech now i’m in NY city moving from one roach infested apartment to another.

Andy Warhol.

And yet later that year, Lynes gave Warhol one of his first jobs — to illustrate a John Cheever short story for Harper’s. It would be another decade before he began working as a low-level art director at Doubleday, producing his little-known children’s book illustrations — he filled the time by collaborating with his mother on feline drawings — and nearly twenty years before he established himself as a pop culture icon.

A letter from the German painter and writer Edith Schloss brings a delightful meta-touch to the volume — in 1981, in thanking Philip Pearlstein and other supporters for their help with her American visa, she writes on the back of the letter:

I wish we had a National Archives here to give all my junk & diaries to — I’m not good at throwing things away.

Edith Schloss to Philip Pearlstein, March 25, 1981

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Pearlstein eventually donated his own papers to the Smithsonian’s esteemed archive from which this book is culled, and Schloss — most likely upon his suggestion — soon did the same.

Some are delightful for their little-touches — like multimedia artist Red Grooms’ genial copyediting on the word “snail” in his altogether charming thank-you note to three of his friends for letting him stay at their home in Europe during an extended visit.

Red Grooms to Elisse and Paul Stuttman and Edward C. Flood, 1968

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Perhaps the tenderest letter in the book is also an elegant homage to time and place. Legendary French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent writes his affectionate letter to his dear friend and Vogue art director Alexander Liberman inside a sketch of a traditional Islamic cloak typically worn by women in Marrakech, where the designer had a home, against a background of a traditional Moroccan pattern.

Yves Saint-Laurent to Alexander Liberman, June 7, 1970

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

My very very dear Alex

I am here, in Marrakech
and I am thinking of you as always
of your friendship, loyalty
and your sincerity
I hope to see you as soon as possible and hug you
I love you with all my heart

Yves

But my favorite letter comes from beloved author and contemplator of life Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, penned shortly after the completion of his masterwork The Little Prince — the manuscript of which he also illustrated.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Hedda Sterne, 1943

Letter from the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The letter is merely a dinner invitation to his friend, but it is the postscript, referencing the completion of The Little Prince, that makes it irresistibly endearing and bittersweet:

P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.

About a year later Saint-Exupéry, left on a reconnaissance mission as a fighter pilot, never to return. He was forty-four — a biographical detail utterly eerie given that in Saint-Exupéry’s beloved book, the Little Prince watches the sun set exactly forty-four times.

More than Words is an absolute treat in its totality. Complement it with Kirwin’s other collection, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Collections of the Smithsonian Museum, then revisit Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz’s illustrated love letters and Lewis Carroll’s rules of letter writing.

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