Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

02 AUGUST, 2013

How Much Edna St. Vincent Millay Loved Her Mother

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“Almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you.”

Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most extraordinary creative icons of the twentieth century — beloved poet, eloquent lover of music, delinquent schoolgirl, writer of passionate love letters and playfully lewd self-portraits, literary gateway drug for children, the recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, only the third woman to win the award. But one of Millay’s most exceptional qualities is the rare relationship she shared with her mother, Cora B. Millay, whom Edna loved profoundly enough to make any daughter jealous of this deep bond and whom she frequently addressed with terms borrowed from the vocabulary of romance — “dear,” “dearest,” “sweetheart,” and even “my Best Beloved” — to imbue this great platonic union with the intensity, if not the nature, of romantic passion.

In a letter from June 15, 1921, found in the altogether wonderful The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library), 29-year-old Edna — who customarily signed her letters to her loved ones as “Vincent,” an oft-discussed preference in the context of her open bisexuality — writes to her mother and two sisters from Paris:

I am always button-holing somebody and saying, “Someday you must meet my mother.” … I do love you very much, my mother.

* * *

It is nearly six months since I saw you. A long time. Mother, do you know, almost all people love their mothers, but I have never met anybody in my life, I think, who loved his mother as much as I love you. I don’t believe there ever was anybody who did, quite so much, and quite in so many wonderful ways. I was telling somebody yesterday that the reason I am a poet is entirely because you wanted me to be and intended I should be, even from the very first. You brought me up in the tradition of poetry, and everything I did you encouraged. I can not remember once in my life when you were not interested in what I was working on, or even suggested that I should put it aside for something else. Some parents of children that are “different” have so much to reproach themselves with. But not you, Great Spirit.

I hope you will write me as soon as you get this. If you only knew what it means to me to get letters from any of you three over there. Because no matter how interesting it all is, and how beautiful, and how happy I am, an dhow much work I get done, I am nevertheless away from home — home being somewhere near where you are, mother dear.

If I didn’t keep calling you mother, anybody reading this would think I was writing to my sweetheart. And he would be quite right.

The following month, on July 23, Edna sends another loving letter to Cora:

Dearest Mother, —

You do write the sweetest and most wonderful letters! They are so lovely that very often I read parts of them aloud to people, just as literature. It was delicious what you told me about the turtle, — you are so gentle and kind to everything, dear — and all the things you write about birds and animals I love. Thanks for the little flower. I never saw one like it, either.

[…]

And, sweetheart, how would you like, in place of the birthday present I did not send you from the 10th of June, sometime in the late fall or winter, depending on how much money I can make between now and then, to come over here, and play around with your eldest daughter a while in Europe? We could go to Italy and Switzerland and to England and Scotland, and, if there are not too many riots and street fights there at the time, — mavourneen, we would go to Ireland! … and then, my Best Beloved, you and I will just have ourselves a little honey-moon.

With all the love of my heart,

Vincent

Millay adds a charmingly self-aware postscript:

P.S. — Do you suppose, when you & I are dead, dear, they will publish the Love Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay & her Mother?

As an aside, as fantastic as The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay may be in its entirety, it is hard to decide what’s more tragic — that this magnificent volume is long out of print, or that it bears one of the most hideous covers ever designed, belying the spirit of such a beautiful woman and beautiful poet to a degree bordering on travesty. Please oh please, dear overlords of publishing, won’t you consider reprinting this gem and having someone like Chip Kidd, Jessica Hische, or Coralie Bickford-Smith design a fittingly glorious cover?

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30 JULY, 2013

Hemingway’s Ideas of Heaven and Hell: The 26-Year-Old Author’s Letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“To me a heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town.”

In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway became good friends, despite their frequently conflicting worldviews and lifestyle choices. Only three years apart, their literary careers paralleled one another and both authors reached worldwide acclaim by the time they were thirty. From the altogether fantastic tome Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 (public library) comes 26-year-old Hemingway’s delightfully irreverent meditation on his ideas of heaven and hell. It captures with subtle but remarkable precision his characteristic oscillation between humor and insight and the very tug-of-war between idealism and vice that both produced his Nobel-worthy literary legacy and claimed his life:

Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Paris, 1925

Burguete, Navera.
July 1 [1925] –

Dear Scott –

We are going in to Pamplona tomorrow. Been trout fishing here. How are you? And how is Zelda?

I am feeling better than I’ve ever felt — haven’t drunk any thing but wine since I left Paris. God it has been wonderful country. But you hate country. All right omit description of country. I wonder what your idea of heaven would be — A beautiful vacuum filled with wealthy monogamists. All powerful and members of the best families all drinking themselves to death. And hell would probably an ugly vacuum full of poor polygamists unable to obtain booze or with chronic stomach disorders that they called secret sorrows.

To me a heaven would be a big bull ring with me holding two barrera seats and a trout stream outside that no one else was allowed to fish in and two lovely houses in the town; one where I would have my wife and children and be monogamous and love them truly and well and the other where I would have my nine beautiful mistresses on 9 different floors and one house would be fitted up with special copies of the Dial printed on soft tissue and kept in the toilets on every floor and in the other house we would use the American Mercury and the New Republic. Then there would be a fine church like in Pamplona where I could go and be confessed on the way from one house to the other and I would get on my horse and ride out with my son to my bull ranch named Hacienda Hadley and toss coins to all my illegitimate children that lined the road. I would write out at the Hacienda and send my son in to lock the chastity belts onto my mistresses because someone had just galloped up with the news that a notorious monogamist named Fitzgerald had been seen riding toward the town at the head of a company of strolling drinkers.

Well anyway were going into town tomorrow early in the morning. Write me at the / Hotel Quintana
Pamplona
Spain

Or don’t you like to write letters*. I do because it’s such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something.

So long and love to Zelda from us both –

Yours,
Ernest

* Quite the contrary, Fitzgerald himself was a masterful letter-writer with enormous range, from the heartwarming to the instructive the brilliantly acerbic.

Complement with Hemingway’s wisdom on writing, his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and his soul-stirring account of shooting his beloved cat. Letters of the Century: America 1900-1999 is a treat in its entirety, featuring missives from such luminaries as Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein.

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25 JULY, 2013

How to Quit Your Job Like Sherwood Anderson: The Best Resignation Letter Ever Written

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“He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.”

Like a number of celebrated creators — including Dr. Seuss, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Wendy MacNaughtonSherwood Anderson started out in advertising to make ends meet, first as an advertising solicitor, then as an ad salesman and copywriter for farming equipment, and eventually as a copywriter in Chicago-based advertising agency Taylor Critchfield Co. until he became a successful novelist at the age of 41. Though he was man of timeless, profound insight on the creative life and the originator of some of history’s finest fatherly advice, he was also a man of masterful humor and remarkable wit. In 1918, when the time came to free himself from the shackles of the corporate world and plunge wholeheartedly into his craft, Anderson wrote what’s possibly the best letter of resignation ever penned, found in the altogether delightful Funny Letters from Famous People (public library):

Dear Barton:

You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability, but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work.

There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and messy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office.

But Anderson is not really productive. As I have said his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired and if you will not do the job I should like permission to fire him myself. I therefore suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on [the first of next week]. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.

Respectfully submitted,

Sherwood Anderson

Funny Letters from Famous People, edited by none other than Charles Osgood, is a treat in its entirety.

Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz courtesy the New York Public Library; thanks, Kaye

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