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Posts Tagged ‘Sherwood Anderson’

08 DECEMBER, 2014

Georgia O’Keeffe on Public Opinion and What It Means to Be an Artist, in a Letter to Sherwood Anderson

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“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you…”

Georgia O’Keeffe, celebrated as America’s first great female artist, was a woman of strong opinions on art, life, and setting priorities and an uncommon gift for committing to words what she committed to canvas. But some of her most revelatory insights on art and the creative experience were shared in a series of letters to writer Sherwood Anderson, who had befriended legendary photographer Alfred Stieglitz — O’Keeffe’s husband and her correspondent in volumes of passionate love letters. Encountering O’Keeffe’s art in the early 1920s had inspired Anderson to pick up the paintbrush for the first time and begin painting himself. Meanwhile, the two developed an epistolary fellowship around their shared ideas about art and their amicable intellectual disagreements. (Only three years later, Anderson would come to articulate his own unforgettable wisdom on art in a letter to his son, very likely influenced by O’Keeffe and their creative rapport.)

Found in Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters (public library) — an altogether unputdownable out-of-print volume released in 1987, a year after O’Keeffe’s death, to mark her centennial — the letters stand as a sublime paean to the kind of creative integrity that rises above public opinion and blazes with crystalline clarity of conviction. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder how O’Keeffe’s art — how her sanity — might have suffered had she lived in our present era of perpetual sprinting on the social-media hamster wheel of public opinion.

Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

On August 1, 1923, she writes to Anderson:

This morning I saw an envelope on the table Stieglitz addressed to you—I’ve wanted so often to write you—two things in particular to tell you—but I do not write—I do not write to anyone—maybe I do not like telling myself to people—and writing means that.

First I wanted to tell you—way back in the winter that I liked your “Many Marriages”—and that what others have said about it amused me much—I realize when I hear others speak of it that I do not seem to read the way they do—I seem to—like—or discard—for no particular reason excepting that it is inevitable at the moment.—At the time I read it I saw no particular reason why I should write you that I liked it—because I do not consider my liking—or disliking of any particular consequence to anyone but myself—And knowing you were trying to work I felt that opinions on what was past for you would probably be like just so much rubbish—in your way for the clear thing ahead—And when I think of you—I think of you rather often—it is always with the wish—a real wish—that the work is going well—that nothing interferes —

I think of you often because the few times you came to us were fine—like fine days in the mountains—fine to remember—clear sparkling and lots of air—fine air.

After a characteristically evocative note about Stieglitz’s health that spring had rendered him “just a little heap of misery—sleepless—with eyes—ears—nose—arm—feet—ankles—intestines—all taking their turn at deviling him,” O’Keeffe expresses deep gratitude for the very thing that led Virginia Woolf to term letter writing “the humane art”—the soul-salving power of a letter sent by one human being to another:

You can see why I appreciated your letters—maybe more than he did—because of what they gave him—I don’t remember now what you wrote—I only remember that they made me feel that you feel something of what I know he is—that it means much to you in your life—adds much to your life—and a real love for him seemed to have grown from it

And in his misery he was very sad—and I guess I had grown pretty sad and forlorn feeling too—so your voice was kind to hear out of faraway and I want to tell you that it meant much—Thanks

Aware of misfortune’s one-way mirror of hindsight, she adds, “I can only write you this now because things are better.”

'The Lawrence Tree' by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1929

O’Keeffe and Anderson continue their correspondence and in another letter sent a month later, she defies her self-professed distaste for “telling [herself] to people” and instead divulging — with the exhilarating intensity of expression that both her art and her letters to loved ones emanate — a magnificent glimpse of her inner life and creative spirit. She considers the role of form in art and the experience from which art stems:

I feel that a real living form is the result of the individual’s effort to create the living thing out of the adventure of his spirit into the unknown—where it has experienced something—felt something—it has not understood—and from that experience comes the desire to make the unknown—known. By unknown—I mean the thing that means so much to the person that wants to put it down—clarify something he feels but does not clearly understand—sometimes he partially knows why—sometimes he doesn’t—sometimes it is all working in the dark—but a working that must be done—Making the unknown—known—in terms of one’s medium is all-absorbing—if you stop to think of the form—as form you are lost—The artist’s form must be inevitable—You mustn’t even think you won’t succeed—Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant—there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing—and keeping the unknown always beyond you—catching crystallizing your simpler clearer version of life—only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead—that you must always keep working to grasp—the form must take care of its self if you can keep your vision clear.

In a remark of extraordinary humility and wisdom, especially in the hindsight of both O’Keeffe’s present status in the canon of art and Anderson’s in that of literature, she considers the feebleness of any present metric of success against a creator’s ultimate significance for posterity:

You and I don’t know whether our vision is clear in relation to our time or not—No matter what failure or success we may have—we will not know—But we can keep our integrity—according to our own sense of balance with the world and that creates our form—

In a sentiment that calls to mind Maurice Sendak’s famous dissent with a common classification of his work — “I don’t write for children. I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” — O’Keeffe adds:

What others have called form has nothing to do with our form—I want to create my own and I can’t do anything else—if I stop to think of what others—authorities or the public—or anyone—would say of my form I’d not be able to do anything.

I can never show what I am working on without being stopped—whether it is liked or disliked I am affected in the same way—sort of paralyzed—.

All of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art and Letters is a treat for eye and spirit alike. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us and Rilke on why external interference in the artist’s private experience poisons the art.

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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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08 MARCH, 2013

Gertrude Stein Reads “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson”

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“Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.”

We lost Sherwood Anderson — beloved author, dispenser of timelessly poetic fatherly advice — on this day in 1941. And what better way to celebrate his legacy than with a rare recording of reconstructionist Gertrude Stein reading her 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson,” with audio from my alma mater’s wonderful PennSound archive? Indebted to Anderson for the credibility his foreword had lent her 1922 volume Geography and Plays, Stein wrote him this “love poem,” found in A Stein Reader (public library), as a token of gratitude — but, of course, she was in love-love with her lifelong partner, Alice B. Toklas, to whom an earlier version of the poem titled “Idem the Same” had been dedicated.

Very fine is my valentine.

Very fine and very mine.

Very mine is my valentine very mine and very fine.

Very fine is my valentine and mine, very fine very mine and mine is my valentine.

Anderson had befriended Stein during his first trip to Paris after Sylvia Beach, the owner of the legendary English-language bookstore Shakespeare & Company, had spotted him browsing Stein’s then-obscure books and had written a letter of introduction between the two authors. Later, writing in his notebook, he described Stein with impeccable, admiring accuracy:

Imagine a strong woman with legs like stone pillars sitting in a room hung with Picassos… The woman is the very symbol of health and strength. She laughs. She smokes cigarettes. She tells stories with an American shrewdness in getting the tang and the kick into the telling.

A lifelong friendship unfolded.

For more Stein audio indulgence, hear her read from The Making of Americans and give a radio interview about understanding and joy.

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