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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

19 NOVEMBER, 2013

Europe, America, Utopia: Calvino on Hemingway

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“In Hemingway one finds almost all of what was meant by America.”

“I continue to maintain that I have never loved any writer as much as Hemingway, even though his character can be vulgarized,” Italo Calvino wrote in one of his letters in 1964. In another letter, he pointed to Hemingway as the author who most influenced his own early work. In fact, the evolution of his relationship with Hemingway reveals a great deal about both writers and, beyond that, about some of the most central concerns in twentieth-century literature and in the writerly soul in general.

Calvino believed that the Russian-American engendered the “communistization” of Italian intellectuals in the avant-garde, and the dissolution of that alliance during the Cold War affected Italian culture just as profoundly. In a 1950 letter to the literary critic Mario Motta, found in Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — which also gave us his thoughts on writing, America, abortion and the meaning of life, and his poetic resume — 27-year-old Calvino wrote that Russia and America, more than actual countries or political ideologies, functioned as placeholders for “a collection of Italian data and aspirations” and were “two utopian countries, two incomplete and complementary utopias,” the sum of which added up to what many intellectuals considered the true objective of the Italian Resistance. But it was Hemingway whom Calvino saw as the anchor of the American part of the equation. In the same letter, Calvino considers writing an article about Hemingway and cracks open his conflicted thought process:

In [Hemingway] one finds almost all of what was meant by America. The virginity of its history, its technique (knowing how to do things), freedom and fullness of love, the open air, a direct democracy in human relations, courage. And, as writing, one finds in it the maximum help for developing one’s technique: H.’s language is technical and functional, in which there is nothing that is without immediate, rational utilization, there is no abstraction, solipsism or fanciness (as had previously been the case in the great but obscure Faulkner). But H. is an “America” that fails to find its “Russia.” It finds instead (and the problem is it goes looking for it) its “Europe.” This is H.’s decadentism. And he finds it on the basis (and as a diversion and explanation) of the elements from the worst side of America (which is as real as the other side) that are in him: alcoholism, ignorance, emptiness. And, as a barbarian, he has highly refined intuitions regarding European barbarism-civilization; he enters the Olympus of our most refined irrationalism, he the “technical” writer: but what is that to us now? We could have sent any old Montherlant to see bullfights. It was something else we wanted from him, something else now that what comes back more and more to our eyes — to the point of covering the aspects we sought and loved in him and still seek and love in him — now that what comes back, as I was saying, are the other aspects. . . These matter to us less and less now, so it is something else, then, something that is now beyond him… beyond him (where?) that we are looking for now. As you can see, these are very difficult ideas to express. And note that these things came to my mind as I was writing, and every time I’ve begun writing about this damned man what came to mind were different things, and certainly when I come to write this article I’ll write things that are different again, and now I need to keep the rough copy of this letter otherwise I’ll forget everything.

In another letter to Motta a month later, Calvino revisits the subject of Hemingway:

Hemingway — notwithstanding (or rather precisely because of) the fundamental American emptiness that he notices all around him and of which he too is a part — Hemingway who feels the need to go back to the basic relationships of man with things: fishing well, lighting fires well, establishing relations between a man and a woman well, and between men and other men, blowing up bridges well (except that he lacks the general perspective, and becomes futile and gets bored; what do bull-fights matter to us, even when well done?)

Four years later, at age 31, Calvino formulated and formalized his thoughts on Hemingway in the essay “Hemingway e noi” (“Hemingway and Ourselves,”) found in the anthology Why Read the Classics?, which also gave us his 14 timeless definitions of what makes a classic.

For a first-hand impression of Hemingway’s literary convictions, see his thoughts on writing and the dangers of ego, his advice to aspiring writers, his short, somewhat embittered Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and his young self’s irreverent ideas of heaven and hell.

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15 NOVEMBER, 2013

The Lesbian Love Letters of Pioneering Victorian Photographer and Photojournalist Fannie Benjamin Johnston

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“If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving.”

Pioneering photographer Frances “Fannie” Benjamin Johnston received her first camera as a gift from Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman and used it to usher in a new era of photojournalism. Beginning with portraits of family and friends, she was soon recognized as a formidable talent and came to photograph some of the era’s greatest celebrities, including Mark Twain, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Roosevelt, becoming a true self-made woman and creative entrepreneur by the standards of the age. Around the time she turned thirty, Fannie met Mattie Edwards Hewitt, the then-wife of the St. Louis photographer Arthur Hewitt — a marriage the arrangements of which remain unclear, but appear to have been largely for practical purposes. Mattie worked in her husband’s darkroom and was herself passionate about photography, so when Johnston first encountered Hewitt’s work, she was impressed and complimented it effusively. This mutuality of creative admiration soon blossomed into romantic love — a proposition particularly radical, and even dangerous, for two nineteenth-century women.

And yet what a romance it was — the soul-stirring letters from Hewitt to Johnston, found in the altogether fascinating biography The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864–1952 (public library), join the ranks of other exquisite epistolary exchanges of lady-love, including those between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wynn Matthison, and Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict.

Mein Liebling –

… Just reread your letter, am I all the nice things you say about me, I wonder? Ever since you told me that I was indeed worthwhile, I have felt like another woman, and now if I have been able to make you truly care for me, well, I am very very happy over it. You do not know the wealth of tenderness there is in my heart for you, and shall I tell you why I have needed you so much and seemed so longing for love and affection? I have already told you of how little of the above I [received] in my home.

When I married that nice little man, I thought of course I should get all the love my heart had yearned for, but somehow he has always seemed too busy to stop long enough for such nonsense, as he calls it.

Seven years ago, baby came and stayed just long enough to leave me with a hungry mother’s heart. Since then I have never met with anyone that could fill this great big [void] … until I met you in Buffalo and well, you know how I have tried to show you in every possible way that I loved you, loved you dearly.

… I am not foolish enough to expect you to love me in this way only it was so sweet and meant so very much that I could not but tell it over and over.

Your life is so full and your friends so many — that you have cared for me should make me satisfied.

I am not going to weary you with a love letter every time I write, so don’t worry dear…

… If I have been the help you say I am to you, then I am more than glad. I have been so afraid from the first that you would think me a foolish sentimental woman and I was so happy when you told me the other day that you understood — If I have been proud of you and your work and put you on a pedestal, as you say, please let me keep you there, for you deserve it surely and that is my way of loving. . . .

I wonder why I expect you to understand me better than most people — is it because I love you so?

In another letter, Hewitt wrote:

…Ah I love you, love you better than ever you know. . . . Yes my dear we will turn over a new leaf and stand together in time of weakness or need of help and we must not ever again turn away head or take hand away but when I need you or you need me — must hold each other all the closer and with your hand in mine, holding it tight, I will clear away all misunderstandings or doubts and the sun will shine again. . . .

And in another:

I slept in your place and on your pillow — it was most as good as the cigarette you lit and gave me all gooey — not quite, for we had you and the sweet taste too — I am foolish about you I admit. . . .

Portrait of Frances Benjamin Johnston by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In 1909, Mattie divorced Arthur and moved to New York to be with Frances, living and working together, and eventually making their creative collaboration official in 1913 when they opened a joint studio specializing in architectural photography. The only surviving record of their romance are those early letters from the years when they lived apart and wrote to each other, more of which can be found in The Woman behind the Lens.

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11 NOVEMBER, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut’s Life-Advice to His Children

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Educate yourself, welcome life’s messiness, read Chekhov, avoid becoming an architect at all costs.

Kurt Vonnegut (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007) endures as one of modern history’s most beloved authors, a wiseman of storytelling and a shaman of style. He was also, however, one great dad: In Kurt Vonnegut: Letters (public library) — which also gave us the author’s priceless daily routine, his endearing apartment woes, and this lovely short poem he penned for his friend — Vonnegut adds to history’s finest letters of fatherly advice in a series of letters to his children. Besides his own three kids — Nanette, Mark, and Edith — Vonnegut and his first wife, Jane, ended up raising three of his sister Alice’s four children after Alice and her husband died of unrelated causes within 24 hours of each other; he later adopted another daughter with his second wife, Jill.

In a 1969 letter to his 22-year-old son Mark, Vonnegut offers a daisy chain of practical and irreverent fatherly advice:

Advice my father gave me: never take liquor into the bedroom. Don’t stick anything in your ears. Be anything but an architect.

The following year, Kurt and Jane separated, and he began living with the woman who would become his second wife nine years later. Worried about how the divorce might affect his youngest biological daughter, Nanette — whom he affectionately addressed as “Nanny,” “Nanno” or “Dear old Nan” — he wrote in a 1971 letter to the 17-year-old girl:

Well — it could go two ways with us: you could figure you had been ditched by your father, and you could mourn about that. Or we could keep in touch and come to love each other more than ever before.

The second possibility is the attractive one for me. It’s the absolutely necessary one for me. And the trouble with it is that you will have to write me a lot, or some, anyway, and call up sometimes, and so on. We’ve got to wish each other happy birthdays, and ask how work is going, and tell each other jokes, and all that. And you’ve got to visit me often, and I’ve got to pay more attention to what sorts of things are really good times instead of chores for you.

Nanette — who recently wrote about her conflicted relationship with her dad and his fame in the introduction to this fantastic posthumous collection of Vonnegut’s first and last works — took the second possibility and the two remained in close touch over the years. This heartening excerpt from a 1972 letter to Nanette reveals the warmth of their relationship:

You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter from out there … that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.

In another letter, 50-year-old Vonnegut writes to his “Dear Nanno”:

Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.

(More than three decades later, he would echo this in his wonderful letter of life-advice to the children in a high school class, urging them to “practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience BECOMING, to find out what’s inside you, to MAKE YOUR SOUL GROW.”)

Vonnegut on a trip to Niagara Falls with his children, 1963.

His most timeless advice, however, comes in a late-1971 letter to Nanette and speaks to today’s recurring theme of welcoming the unplanned:

Dear Old Nanno –

You’re learning now that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable, social structure — that the older you get people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago. So home can fall apart and schools can fall apart, usually for childish reasons, and what have you got? A space wandered named Nan.

And that’s O.K. I’m a space wandered named Kurt, and Jane’s a space wanderer named Jane, and so on. When things go well for days on end, it is an hilarious accident.

You’re dismayed at having lost a year, maybe, because the school fell apart. Well — I feel as though I’ve lost the years since Slaughterhouse-Five was published, but that’s malarky. Those years weren’t lost. They simply weren’t the way I’d planned them. Neither was the year in which Jim had to stay motionless in bed while he got over TB. Neither was the hear in which Mark went crazy, then put himself together again. Those years were adventures. Planned years are not.

I look back on my own life and I wouldn’t change anything. . . .

Later in the same letter, he adds another piece of advice:

I think it’s important to live in a nice country rather than a powerful one. Power makes everybody crazy.

He concludes the letter with some vital advice on educating oneself beyond the classroom, offering Nanette a mock-strict directive on soul-expansion:

Learn German during your last semester at Sea Pines, and you’ll learn more than I ever learned in high school. I doubt that they can get you in shape to cool the college boards, so the hell with the college boards. Educate yourself instead. In the final analysis, that’s what I had to do, what Uncle Beaver had to do, and what we all have to do.

I am going to order you to do something new, if you haven’t done it already. Get a collection of the short stories of Chekhov and read every one. Then read “Youth” by Joseph Conrad. I’m not suggesting that you do these things. I am ordering you to do them.

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters remains a delight. Pair it with Vonnegut on how to write with style, his fictional interviews with luminaries, and this NPR interview with him in Second Life shortly before his death, then pair his advice with more fatherly wisdom from Einstein on the secret to learning anything, John Steinbeck on falling in love, Ted Hughes on nourishing the inner child, and Sherwood Anderson on the creative life.

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