Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

17 JUNE, 2014

Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother

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“The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”

How does one keep going when the going gets really, really tough? From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — which also gave us Cather’s only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — comes a magnificent letter 43-year-old Cather wrote to her younger brother on July 8, 1916. It was a trying time in Cather’s personal life — the heartbreaking end of an era: The great love of her life, the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, had left her for a man she married, extinguishing the possibility of their companionship and romantic involvement that Cather so longed for. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, had just died, which only contributed to Cather’s anguishing sense of having lost a home. Meanwhile, she had grown increasingly disappointed with her own family’s crusade “to get mixed up with kings and move in the highest society,” while facing the force of their disapproval of her life as a writer and a queer woman.

In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles — for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen, 1926

Cather writes:

My Dear Douglass…

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living—or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories — one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.

However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year — I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right — and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…

Time is good for violent people.

Yours with much love

Willie

She did write something “worthwhile” again, of course — worthwhile enough to earn her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with a dive into the Brain Pickings letters archive.

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06 JUNE, 2014

Kafka on Books and What Reading Does for the Human Soul

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How to melt “the frozen sea within us.”

“Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote while contemplating the future of reading in 1951. Indeed, the question of why books matter and what reading does for the human spirit has occupied minds great and little, from Carl Sagan’s beautiful meditation in Cosmos to the 9-year-old girl whose question about why we have books I once answered. But perhaps the best articulation of what books do for the soul comes from a mind often painted as dark and depressive, yet capable of extraordinary sensitivity to the beauty of life: Franz Kafka.

In a November 1903 letter, found in the altogether enchanting compendium Letters to Friends, Family and Editors (public library), 20-year-old Kafka writes to his childhood friend, the art historian Oskar Pollak:

Some books seem like a key to unfamiliar rooms in one’s own castle.

A few months later, in January of 1904, he expounds on this sentiment in another letter to Pollak:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

Complement Letters to Friends, Family and Editors with the illustrated gem Kafka for kids, then revisit Maurice Sendak’s little-known and lovely posters celebrating books and reading.

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05 JUNE, 2014

The Breathtaking Love Letters of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West

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“All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated.”

More than a decade before her love affair with Virginia Woolf, in an era when LGBT Pride was as laughable a concept as LGBT shame was culturally codified, English author Vita Sackville-West fell in love with another woman, the writer and socialite Violet Keppel, and the two embarked upon one of the most intense and turbulent affairs in literary history. The exquisite epistolary records of their relationship, which was later fictionalized in Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando, span more than a decade and are captured in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West (public library) — an immensely moving addition to history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, preserved at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, brimming with some of the most urgently, breathtakingly passionate uses of the English language.

Violet and Vita had been friends since childhood, but began forming an intense romantic bond during their teenage years and eventually became lovers in their twenties. The surviving letters, beginning in 1910 when Violet was sixteen and Vita eighteen, capture the exultant and anguishing whirlwind of love so passionate yet so utterly quixotic in the context of their era’s bigotry toward same-sex romance.

In October of 1910, 16-year-old Violet replies — in French, and with exquisite candor — to a letter in which Vita had asked her why she loves her:

I am in the act of asking myself if I ought to reply to your question? A question furthermore most indiscreet and which merits a sharp reprimand. Reply, don’t reply, reply! Oh to the devil with discretion!

Well, you ask me pointblank why I love you… I love you, Vita, because I’ve fought so hard to win you… I love you, Vita, because you never gave me back my ring. I love you because you have never yielded in anything; I love you because you never capitulate. I love you for your wonderful intelligence, for your literary aspirations, for your unconscious (?) coquetry. I love you because you have the air of doubting nothing! I love in you what is also in me: imagination, the gift for languages, taste, intuition and a host of other things…

I love you, Vita, because I have seen your soul…

Over the decade that followed, the two remained lovers even though Vita married the wealthy writer and politician Harold George Nicolson in 1913. They had a mutually agreed upon open marriage. In 1914, Vita gave birth to the first of their two sons and Violet, at her “own sarcastic request,” became a godmother. She and Vita continued to correspond passionately and to steal the occasional weekend getaway for consummating their love.

Violet came to call Vita “Mitya,” short for “my Dmitri,” a character from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the voluptuous music of which Violet identified with her beloved — it was a choice particularly poignant in its gender-reversal, as Violet wrote in a number of her letters that she would’ve married Vita if she were a man so the two could live happily ever after. But with marriage equality a century away, the fantasy of marriage was only possible if she envisioned her beloved as a male character.

Despite the increasingly forbidding circumstances of their lives, Violet fell deeper and deeper in love. In a letter from the spring of 1918, she writes:

Drunk with the beauty of Mitya! All today I was incoherent. I tell you, there is a barbaric splendor about you that conquered not only me, but everyone who saw you. You are made to conquer, Mitya, not be conquered… You could have the world at your feet.

A few weeks later, at the end of a few days together, Violet writes:

It was Hell leaving you today. God how I adore you and want you. You can’t know how much… Last night was perfection… I am so proud of you, my sweet, I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature. I exult in my surrender today…

Mitya, I miss you so — I don’t care what I say — I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone … have bent me to your will, shattered my self-possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me yours, yours, so that away from you I am nothing but a useless puppet! an empty husk.

In July of 1918, the reality of their impossible love sets in more firmly and Violet writes in anguish:

What sort of a life can we lead now? Yours, an infamous and degrading lie to the world, officially bound to someone you don’t care for…

I, not caring a damn for anyone but you, utterly lost, miserably incomplete, condemned to leading a futile, purposeless existence, which no longer holds the smallest attraction for me…

I never thought I would (or could) love like this.

Violet’s desperation swells all the more painfully if one were to imagine how their relationship might have unfolded had marriage equality been around at the time — a wistful realization that Violet herself touches on with remarkably prescient poignancy in a letter from August of 1918:

Oh, Mitya, come away, let’s fly, Mitya darling — if ever there were two entirely primitive people, they are surely us: let’s go away and forget the world and all its squalor — let’s forget such things as trains, and trams, and servants, and streets, and shops, and money, and cares and responsibilities. Oh god! how I hate it all — you and I, Mitya, were born 2000 years too late, or 2000 years too soon.

Later that night, Violet writes:

I want to see you. I want to hear your voice. I want to put my hand on your shoulder and cry my heart out. Mitya, Mitya, I have never told you the whole truth. You shall have it now: I have loved you all my life, a long time without knowing, 5 years knowing it as irrevocably as I know it now, loved you as my ideal…

Nine days later, on August 25, Violet can no longer contain her longing and pleads with Vita to go away together, oscillating between prostrate vulnerability and fervent ultimatum:

My days are consumed by this impotent longing for you, and my nights are riddled with insufferable dreams… I want you. I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately. I am starving for you, if you must know it. Not only the physical you, but your fellowship, your sympathy, the innumerable points of view we share. I can’t exist without you, you are my affinity, the intellectual “pendent” to me, my twin spirit. I can’t help it! no more can you! … We complete each other…

Mitya, we must. God knows we have waited long enough! Something will go “snap” in my brain if we wait any longer and I shall tell everyone I know that we are going away and why. Do you think I’m going to waste any more of my precious youth waiting for you to screw up sufficient courage to make a bolt? Not I!…

I want you for my own, I want to go away with you. I must and will and damn the world and damn the consequences and anyone had better look out for themselves who dares to become an obstacle in my path.

Above all, Violet is consumed with violent resistance to the life of mediocrity and duplicity, to the concessions they are forced to make in their love in the face of what society deems acceptable. In letter from October of 1918, she channels that resistance with exquisite urgency:

O Mitya, give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve us from the neat little neutral faintly pink or faintly mauve ambiguities that trot between…

Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before, let’s explore and investigate, let’s tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back!

But by the following spring, the bold fantasy had grown stifled by reality. Violet reluctantly became engaged to Denys Trefusis, a soldier with the British Royal Horse Guards, who had been courting her for years. Although Denys had given his word to remain a “gentleman” — that is, he had promised the marriage would be chaste, so that Violet could remain faithful to Vita — the prospect of committing to someone other than her beloved was unbearable to Violet. By March of 1919, as she approaches her twenty-fifth birthday, Violet grows even more desperate over the disconnect between the intensity of her love for Vita and the options handed down to them by life in Edwardian England:

My beautiful, my lovely, I want you so… Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise, they become you not. Lead the life Nature intended you to lead.

And yet Society, subjugating Nature, has different plans for them. On the last day of March in 1919, Violet attends “a ball of some sort” where her mother had publicly announced her reluctant engagement to Trefusis. That night, at 2 A.M., she sends Vita the most beautiful and harrowing letter of their entire correspondence, emblematic of the heartbreaking impossibility imposed on their love by the era’s punishing conventions and perhaps the most moving case ever made for the heart of marriage equality:

I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can’t face this existence… It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself. O Mitya, what have you done to me? O my darling, precious love, what is going to become of us?

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else… Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you … a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining…

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear in pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamor for you… You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination — the most powerful in the world.

It is as heartbreaking as it is unsurprising that the two women never escaped the shackles of their era’s narrow possibilities. Violet went through with the marriage to Denys. At the height of their inevitable marriage troubles a few years later, he burned all of her letters, rendering those preserved in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West a rare and bittersweet sacrality of a romance so beautifully full of expansive possibility yet so tragically stifled by the narrowness of a culture unwilling to see that all love is sacred.

Edith Windsor, patron saint of modern love, put it best.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.