Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Sherwood Anderson’

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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09 JANUARY, 2013

Sherwood Anderson on Art and Life: A Letter of Advice to His Teenage Son, 1927

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“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

The quest to find one’s purpose and live the creative life boldly is neither simple nor easy, especially for a young person trying to make sense of the world and his place in it.

In the spring of 1926, Sherwood Anderson sent his seventeen-year-old son John a beautiful addition to history’s most moving and timeless letters of fatherly advice. Found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (UK; public library), the missive offers insight on everything from knowing whose advice not to take to the false allure of money to the joy of making things with your hands:

The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.

The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.

If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.

Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.

Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.

I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.

There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.

Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.

With love,

Dad.

The following year, after Anderson and his wife took eighteen-year-old John and his sister Marion to Europe, the boy remained in Paris to study painting. Drawing on his own artistic experience and the parallels between writing and painting, Sherwood sent John another poignant letter of advice in April of 1927, adding to history’s finest definitions of art and stressing the importance of discipline in cultivating “talent”:

In relation to painting.

Don’t be carried off your feet by anything because it is modern — the latest thing.

Go to the Louvre often and spend a good deal of time before the Rembrandts, the Delacroixs.

Learn to draw. Try to make your hand so unconsciously adept that it will put down what you feel without your having to think of your hands.

Then you can think of the thing before you.

Draw things that have some meaning to you. An apple, what does it mean? The object drawn doesn’t matter so much.

It’s what you feel about it, what it means to you.

A masterpiece could be made of a dish of turnips.

Draw, draw, hundreds of drawings.

Try to remain humble. Smartness kills everything.

The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.

Any cleanness I have in my own life is due to my feeling for words.

The fools who write articles about me think that one morning I suddenly decided to write and began to produce masterpieces.

There is no special trick about writing or painting either. I wrote constantly for 15 years before I produced anything with any solidity to it.

[…]

The thing of course, is to make yourself alive. Most people remain all of their lives in a stupor.

The point of being an artist is that you may live.

[…]

You won’t arrive. It is an endless search.

I write as though you were a man. Well, you must know my heart is set on you. It isn’t your success I want.

There is a possibility of your having a decent attitude toward people and work. That alone may make a man of you.

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