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17 APRIL, 2013

The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866

By:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

Manners today are often seen as a quaint subject that belongs in Lord Chesterfield’s outlandish advice on the art of pleasing or Esquire‘s dated guide to dating. But in a culture where we regularly do online what we’d never do in person and behave offline in ways our grandparents wouldn’t have dared dream of even in their most defiant fantasies, there’s something to be said for the lost art of, if not “manners,” politeness and simple respect in communication. Though originally published in 1866, Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness (public library; public domain; free Kindle download) by Arthur Martine contains a treasure trove of timeless — and increasingly timely — pointers on the necessary art of living up to our social-animal destiny.

Martine contextualizes his mission:

Politeness has been defined as an “artificial good-nature;” but it would be better said that good-nature is natural politeness. It inspires us with an unremitting attention, both to please others and to avoid giving them offense. Its code is a ceremonial, agreed upon and established among mankind, to give each other external testimonies of friendship or respect. Politeness and etiquette form a sort of supplement to the law, which enables society to protect itself against offenses which the law cannot touch. For instance, the law cannot punish a man for habitually staring at people in an insolent and annoying manner, but etiquette can banish such an offender from the circles of good society, and fix upon him the brand of vulgarity. Etiquette consists in certain forms, ceremonies, and rules which the principle of politeness establishes and enforces for the regulation of the manners of men and women in their intercourse with each other.

[…]

The true aim of politeness, is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible. … Politeness is a sort of social benevolence, which avoids wounding the pride, or shocking the prejudices of those around you.

But he offers an important disclaimer:

[Politeness] must be cultivated, for the promptings of nature are eminently selfish, and courtesy and good-breeding are only attainable by effort and discipline. But even courtesy has limits where dignity should govern it, for when carried to excess, particularly in manner, it borders on sycophancy, which is almost as despicable as rudeness. To overburden people with attention; to render them uncomfortable with a prodigality of proffered services; to insist upon obligations which they do not desire, is not only to render yourself disagreeable, but contemptible.

Among Martine’s most timeless advice are his guidelines on the art of conversation, to which an entire section of the book is dedicated. He begins:

As the object of conversation is pleasure and improvement, those subjects only which are of universal interest can be made legitimate topics of pleasantry or discussion. And it is the gift of expressing thoughts and fancies in a quick, brilliant, and graceful manner on such topics,—of striking out new ideas, eliciting the views and opinions of others, of attaching the interest of all to the subject discussed, giving it, however trifling in itself, weight and importance in the estimation of the hearers, that constitutes the great talent for conversation. But this talent can never, we may safely aver, be displayed except in a good cause, and when conversation is carried on in a spirit of genuine charity and benevolence.

He offers a few pointers:

  1. Know when not to speak:
  2. The power of preserving silence is the very first requisite to all who wish to shine, or even please in discourse; and those who cannot preserve it, have really no business to speak. … The silence that, without any deferential air, listens with polite attention, is more flattering than compliments, and more frequently broken for the purpose of encouraging others to speak, than to display the listener’s own powers. This is the really eloquent silence. It requires great genius—more perhaps than speaking—and few are gifted with the talent…

  3. Mind the rudeness of laconic response:
  4. Never give short or sharp answers in ordinary conversation, unless you aspire to gain distinction by mere rudeness; for they have in fact no merit, and are only uncivil. “I do not know,” “I cannot tell,” are the most harmless words possible, and may yet be rendered very offensive by the tone and manner in which they are pronounced. Never reply, in answer to a question like the following, “Did Mrs. Spitewell tell you how Miss Rosebud’s marriage was getting on?” “I did not ask.” It is almost like saying, I never ask impertinent questions, though you do; we learn plenty of things in the world without having first inquired about them. If you must say, you did not ask, say, that “you forgot to ask,” “neglected it,” or “did not think of it.” We can always be ordinarily civil, even if we cannot always be absolutely wise.

  5. Don’t be a self-righteous contrarian:
  6. Leave quibbling of every kind to lawyers pleading at the bar for the life of a culprit; in society and conversation it is invariably out of place, unless when Laughter is going his merry round. At all other times it is a proof of bad breeding.

He then goes on to outline a cautionary taxonomy of “bores” and other ill-mannered conversation archetypes, diagnosing the specific downfall of each:

  1. The loud talker, who “silences a whole party by his sole power of lungs”:
  2. All subjects are alike to him; he speaks on every topic with equal fluency, is never at a loss, quotes high authority for every assertion, and allows no one else to utter a word; he silences, without the least ceremony, every attempt at interruption, however cleverly managed. … Great, and especially loud and positive talkers, have been denounced by all writers on manners as shallow and superficial persons.

  3. The excessive life-sharer, whom you no doubt know well from your Facebook timeline:
  4. [This is] the man who gives an account of his dogs, horses, lands, books, and pictures. Whatever is his, must, he thinks, interest others; and listen they must, however resolutely they may attempt to change the current of his discourse.

    Women of this class are sometimes too fond of praising their children. It is no doubt an amiable weakness; but I would still advise them to indulge as little as possible in the practice; for however dear the rosy-cheeked, curly-headed prattlers may be to them, the chances are, that others will vote the darlings to be great bores; you that have children, never speak of them in company.

  5. The clever bore “takes up every idle speech, to show his wisdom at a cheap rate”:
  6. The grave expounder of truisms belongs to this class. He cannot allow the simplest conversation to go on, without entering into proofs and details familiar to every child nine years of age; and the tenor of his discourse, however courteous in terms and manner, pays you the very indifferent compliment, of supposing that you have fallen from some other planet, in total and absolute ignorance of the most ordinary and every-day things connected with this little world of ours. All foreigners are particularly great at this style of boring.

  7. The indifferent or apathetic bore parades his inattentiveness in your face:
  8. If he refrains from the direct and absolute rudeness of yawning in your face, [he] shows, by short and drawling answers, given at fits and starts, and completely at variance with the object of the conversation, that he affects at least a total indifference to the party present, and to the subject of discourse. In society, the absent man is uncivil; he who affects to be so, is rude and vulgar. All persons who speak of their ailings, diseases, or bodily infirmities, are offensive bores. Subjects of this sort should be addressed to doctors, who are paid for listening to them, and to no one else. Bad taste is the failing of these bores.

  9. The lingering bore who overstays his welcome:
  10. [These are] the ladies and gentlemen who pay long visits, and who, meeting you at the door prepared to sally forth, keep you talking near the fire till the beauty of the day is passed; and then take their leave, “hoping they have not detained you.” Bad feeling or want of tact here predominates.

  11. The hobby-riders, who sound like a broken record:
  12. [They] constantly speak on the same eternal subject [and] bore you at all times and at all hours, whether you are in health or in sickness, in spirits or in sorrow, with the same endless topic, must not be overlooked in our list; though it is sufficient to denounce them. Their failing is occasioned by a total want of judgment.

  13. The Malaprops, with their special gift for choosing the least appropriate topics of conversation:
  14. A numerous and unhappy family [who] are constantly addressing the most unsuitable speeches to individuals or parties. To the blind they will speak of fine pictures and scenery; and will entertain a person in deep mourning with the anticipated pleasures of to-morrow’s ball. A total want of ordinary thought and observation, is the general cause of the Malaprop failing.

  15. The egotistical bore, who stifles with his vanity:
  16. It is truly revolting, indeed, to approach the very Boa-constrictor of good society; the snake who comes upon us, not in the natural form of a huge, coarse, slow reptile, but Proteus-like, in a thousand different forms; though all displaying at the first sight the boa-bore, ready to slime over every subject of discourse with the vile saliva of selfish vanity. Pah! it is repulsive even to speak of the species, numerous, too, as the sands along the shore.

Martine adds an admonition against talking too much by way of Jonathan Swift, who observed:

Nothing is more generally exploded than the folly of talking too much; yet I rarely remember to have seen five people together, where some one among them hath not been predominant in that kind, to the great constraint and disgust of all the rest. But among such as deal in multitudes of words, none are comparable to the sober, deliberate talker, who proceedeth with much thought and caution, maketh his preface, brancheth out into several digressions, findeth a hint that putteth him in mind of another story, which he promises to tell you when this is done, cometh back regularly to his subject, cannot readily call to mind some person’s name, holdeth his head, complaineth of his memory; the whole company all this while in suspense; at last says, it is no matter, and so goes on. And to crown the business, it perhaps proveth at last a story the company has heard fifty times before, or at best some insipid adventure of the relater.

He then offers his own counsel on striking the right balance:

In conversation there must be, as in love and in war, some hazarding, some rattling on; nor need twenty falls affect you, so long as you take cheerfulness and good humor for your guides; but the careful and measured conversation just described is always, though perfectly correct, extremely dull and tedious — a vast blunder from first to last.

Martine quotes La Bruyère:

The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer. Men do not care to admire you, they wish you to be pleased with them; they do not seek for instruction or even amusement from your discourse, but they do wish you to be made acquainted with their talents and powers of conversation; and the true man of genius will delicately make all who come in contact with him feel the exquisite satisfaction of knowing that they have appeared to advantage.

Of the vanity of knowledge — which makes it tempting to learn to talk about books you haven’t read — Martine observes:

No, no, let us not deceive ourselves; we never want subjects of conversation; but we often want the knowledge how to treat them; above all, how to bring them forward in a graceful and pleasing manner.

He then recapitulates the essence of the art of conversation:

Cheerfulness, unaffected cheerfulness, a sincere desire to please and be pleased, unchecked by any efforts to shine, are the qualities you must bring with you into society, if you wish to succeed in conversation. … a light and airy equanimity of temper,—that spirit which never rises to boisterousness, and never sinks to immovable dullness; that moves gracefully from “grave to gay, from serious to serene,” and by mere manner gives proof of a feeling heart and generous mind.

The chapter ends with some “general rules for conversation,” in which Martine presents a selection of do’s and don’ts. Here is a synthesis of his most salient points:

  1. Don’t correct your conversation partner or go on righteousness crusades. It is a sign of, at best, vanity or, at worst, sheer rudeness to force your opinion on another.
  2. Reproof is a medicine like mercury or opium; if it be improperly administered, with report either to the adviser or the advised, it will do harm instead of good.

    If a man is telling that which is as old as the hills, or which you believe to be false, the better way is to let him go on. Why should you refuse a man the pleasure of believing that he is telling you something which you never heard before? Besides, by refusing to believe him, or by telling him that his story is old, you not only mortify him, but the whole company is made uneasy, and, by sympathy, share his mortification.

    It is bad manners to satirize lawyers in the presence of lawyers, or doctors in the presence of one of that calling, and so of all the professions. Nor should you rail against bribery and corruption in the presence of politicians, (especially of a New York politician,) or members of Congress, as they will have good reason to suppose that you are hinting at them. It is the aim of politeness to leave the arena of social intercourse untainted with any severity of language, or bitterness of feeling.

    Whenever the lady or gentleman with whom you are discussing a point, whether of love, war, science or politics, begins to sophisticate, drop the subject instantly. Your adversary either wants the ability to maintain his opinion,– and then it would be uncivil to press it — or he wants the still more useful ability to yield the point with unaffected grace and good-humor; or what is also possible, his vanity is in some way engaged in defending views on which he may probably have acted, so that to demolish his opinions is perhaps to reprove his conduct, and no well-bred man goes into society for the purpose of sermonizing.

    To reprove with success, the following circumstances are necessary, viz.: mildness, secrecy, intimacy, and the esteem of the person you would reprove.

  3. Be selective. Novelist William Gibson has stressed the importance of a “personal micro-culture”. Susan Sontag wrote in her diary that she’s only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Artist Austin Kleon has astutely argued that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life.” Martine suggests the same is true of selecting your conversation company:
  4. If you have been once in company with an idle person, it is enough. You need never go again. You have heard all he knows. And he has had no opportunity of learning anything new. For idle people make no improvements.

    Don’t give your time to every superficial acquaintance: it is bestowing what is to you of inestimable worth, upon one who is not likely to be the better for it.

  5. Keep your commitments but give those who fail to keep theirs the benefit of the doubt:
  6. Be careful of your word, even in keeping the most trifling appointment. But do not blame another for a failure of that kind, till you have heard his excuse.

  7. Be mindful of your audience and don’t parade your knowledge before those less learned:
  8. All local wits, all those whose jests are understood only within the range of their own circle or coterie, are decided objectionables in general society. It is the height of ill-breeding, in fact, to converse, or jest, on subjects that are not perfectly understood by the party at large; it is a species of rude mystification, as uncivil as whispering, or as speaking in language that may not be familiar to some of the party. But you must not make a fool of yourself, even if others show themselves deficient in good manners; and must not, like inflated simpletons, fancy yourself the object of every idle jest you do not understand, or of every laugh that chance may have called forth. Ladies and gentlemen feel that they are neither laughed at nor ridiculed.

    In society, the object of conversation is of course entertainment and improvement, and it must, therefore, be adapted to the circle in which it is carried on, and must be neither too high nor too deep for the party at large, so that every one may contribute his share, just at his pleasure, and to the best of his ability.

    A gentleman will, by all means, avoid showing his learning and accomplishments in the presence of ignorant and vulgar people, who can, by no possibility, understand or appreciate them. It is a pretty sure sign of bad breeding to set people to staring and feeling uncomfortable.

    In a mixed company, never speak to your friend of a matter which the rest do not understand, unless it is something which you can explain to them, and which may be made interesting to the whole party.

    Do not endeavor to shine in all companies. Leave room for your hearers to imagine something within you beyond all you have said.

    Think like the wise; but talk like ordinary people. Never go out of the common road, but for somewhat.

    Put yourself on the same level as the person to whom you speak, and under penalty of being considered a pedantic idiot, refrain from explaining any expression or word that you may use.

  9. Omission isn’t lying, it’s politeness. (Here we might disagree with Martine.) Learn to evade.
  10. You need not tell all the truth, unless to those who have a right to know it all. But let all you tell be truth.

  11. Say “yes” whenever possible. When you say “no,” do so firmly:
  12. If a favor is asked of you, grant it, if you can. If not, refuse it in such a manner, as that one denial may be sufficient.

  13. Let your opinion change — advice particularly apt in today’s hasty culture where not having an opinion is considered an embarrassment; seek to understand rather than to be right, and don’t be a know-it-all:
  14. Fools pretend to foretell what will be the issue of things, and are laughed at for their awkward conjectures. Wise men, being aware of the uncertainty of human affairs, and having observed how small a matter often produces a great change, are modest in their conjectures.

    Reflect upon the different appearances things make to you from what they did some years ago, and don’t imagine that your opinion will never alter, because you are extremely positive at present. Let the remembrance of your past changes of sentiment make you more flexible.

    In disputes upon moral or scientific points, ever let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.

    Give your opinion modestly, but freely; hear that of others with candor; and ever endeavor to find out, and to communicate truth.

    It is an advantage to have concealed one’s opinion. For by that means you may change your judgment of things (which every wise man finds reason to do) and not be accused of fickleness.

  15. Don’t be pretentious and do away with affectation:
  16. Avoid the habit of employing French words in English conversation; it is extremely bad taste to be always using such expressions as ci-devant, soi-disant, en masse, couleur de rose, etc. Do not salute your acquaintances with bon jour, nor reply to every proposition, volontiers.

    There is an affected humility more insufferable than downright pride, as hypocrisy is more abominable than libertinism. Take care that your virtues be genuine and unsophisticated.

    If you can express yourself to be perfectly understood in ten words, never use a dozen. Go not about to prove, by a long series of reasoning, what all the world is ready to own.

    You will please so much the less, if you go into company determined to shine. Let your conversation appear to rise out of thoughts suggested by the occasion, not strained or premeditated: nature always pleases: affectation is always odious.

  17. Practice genuine humility and avoid arrogance:
  18. Nothing is more nauseous than apparent self-sufficiency. For it shows the company two things, which are extremely disagreeable: that you have a high opinion of yourself, and that you have comparatively a mean opinion of them.

    The modest man is seldom the object of envy.

    If you are really a wit, remember that in conversation its true office consists more in finding it in others, than showing off a great deal of it yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with himself is sure to be pleased with you.

Martine’s Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness is a treat in its entirety. It’s available as a free download in multiple formats from Project Gutenberg, or as a cleaned up and formatted free Kindle book.

Public domain photographs via The Library of Congress

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17 APRIL, 2013

The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook: A Rare 1961 Treasure Trove of Unusual Recipes and Creative Wit

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“Permit two egg yolks to recline.”

There is indisputable charm to cookbooks inspired by modern art, literature, and science, and the authentic recipes of favorite poets hold a special allure, but none come close to the magnificent The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook (public library) — a lavish 350-page vintage tome, illustrated with 19th-century engravings and original drawings by Marcel Duchamp, Robert Osborn, and Alexandre Istrati. Originally published in 1961, it features 220 recipes and 30 courses by 55 painters, 61 novelists, 15 sculptors, and 19 poets, including such luminaries as Man Ray, John Keats, Marcel Duchamp, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves, Harper Lee, Irving Stone, William Styron, and Georges Simenon. The diverse contributors take the assignment with various degrees of seriousness, some sharing their recipes in earnest and others using the cookbook as a canvas for wit and creative deviation — but all having invariable and obvious fun with the project.

The foreword comes from none other than Alice B. Toklas, who knows a thing or two about literary cookbooks. She offers three of her favorite famous concoctions, among which an omelet recipe which George Sand once sent Victor Hugo:

OMELETTE AURORE

Beat 8 eggs with a pinch of salt, 1 tablespoon sugar and 3 tablespoons heavy cream. Prepare the omelet in the usual manner. Before folding it, place on it 1 cup diced candied fruit and small pieces of marrons glacés which have soaked for several hours in 2 tablespoons of curaçao. Fold the omelet to keep the fruit in place, on a fireproof serving dish. Surround with marrons glacés and candied cherries. cover at once with frangipani cream made by stirring 2 whole eggs and 3 yolks with 3 tablespoons of sugar until they are pale lemon-colored. Then add 1 cup of flour and a pinch of salt, stirring until it is perfectly smooth. Add 2 cups of milk and mix well. Put the mixture in a saucepan over the lowest heat and stir until it is quite thick. It must not boil. Be careful that the cream does not become attached to the bottom or sides of the saucepan. When it has thickened remove it from the heat and add 2 tablespoons of butter and 3 powered macaroons. Stir and mix well. Pour the sauce over the omelet and sprinkle ¼ cup diced angelica over the top. Then sprinkle 6 powered macaroons on top and, finally, 3 tablespoons of melted butter. Place the omelet in a preheated 550-degree oven only long enough to brown it lightly.

Tucked inside my original edition was also a flyer featuring several beautifully typeset teaser cards.

Irving Stone speaks to the life-anchoring power of a writerly routine and outlines “The Perfect Writer’s Luncheon”:

I am one of those writers who, as he gets halfway through a long book, decides that there is nothing he can possibly eat that will agree with him. I start out at page 1, line 1, weighing some 170 pounds, and a quarter of a million words later, in seventh draft and ready for the printer, I have come down to 145 pounds. With particularly long books, I get so thin that there is nothing around my hips to hold up my slacks; and, during the last chapters I find it nearly impossible to write sitting down because there is no flesh left to sit on.

As a consequence I have evolved the perfect writer’s luncheon, and I have not deviated from it in thirty-five years. My sole and complete lunch consists of an American cheese sandwich on toast and a dish of tea. There are times when the monotony of this lunch is almost unbearable. However, during the last year of the writing of each book, if I attempt to substitute a tongue or beef sandwich, or even a piece of chicken, I am so distressed that I am unable to set down a line during the afternoon.

By a rough estimate, I think I have eaten ten thousand cheese sandwiches during my thirty-five years of concentrated writing. They reached their point of diminishing returns twenty-five years ago, but when one has to make a decision between dietary ennui or indigestion — what choice is there?

2 slices of white bread — dull, factory-baked, full-of-air, unadorned kind.
1 slice pasteurized American cheese — presliced too thin, to be sure no pimento mixed in, too exciting.

Toast bread, lay cheese on one slice, cover with the other. On festive, daring occasions put open face in oven for a few minutes to get holiday change.

Beloved author and anti-censorship opinionator Harper Lee shares her tongue-in-cheek recipe for “Crackling Bread”:

First, catch your pig. Then ship it to the abattoir nearest you. Bake what they send back. Remove the solid fat and throw the rest away. Fry fat, drain off liquid grease, and combine the residue (called “cracklings”) with:

1 ½ cups water-ground white meal
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk

Bake in very hot oven until brown (about 15 minutes).

Result: one pan crackling bread serving 6. Total cost: about $250, depending upon size of pig. Some historians say this recipe alone fell the Confederacy.

Denise Levertov, an all-time favorite poet, presents her signature unnamed dessert:

This is a dessert I invented. No name attached.

Mix
equal quantities of:
Sour cream
Tart applesauce
Mashed bananas

Add:
Maple syrup to taste
(If you put too much,
add a little lemon juice)

Top
with: Sliced bananas and walnuts

Creative culture icon Marcel Duchamp reveals his secret to Steak Tartare:

Let me begin by saying, ma chere. that Steak Tartare, alias Bitteck Tartare, also known as Steck Tartare, is in no way related to tartar sauce. The steak to which I refer originated with the Cossacks in Siberia, and it can be prepared on horseback, at swift gallop, if conditions make this a necessity.

Indications: Chop one half pound (per person) of the very best beef obtainable, and shape carefully with artistry into a bird’s nest. Place on porcelain plate of a solid color — ivory is the best setting — so that no pattern will disturb the distribution of ingredients. In hollow center of nest, permit two egg yolks to recline. Like a wreath surrounding the nest of chopped meat, arrange on border of plate in small, separate bouquets:

Chopped raw white onion
Bright green capers
Curled silvers of anchovy
Fresh parsley, chopped fine
Black olives minutely chopped in company with yellow celery leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Each guest , with his plate before him, lifts his fork and blends the ingredients with the egg yolks and meat. In center of table: Russian pumpernickel bread, sweet butter, and bottles of vin rosé.

Legendary photographer and Dadaism godfather Man Ray takes a liberty of defiant proportions with his “Menu for a Dadaist Day”:

Le Petit Dejeuner.

Take a wooden panel of an inch or less thickness, 16 to 20 inches in size. Gather the brightly colored wooden blocks left by children on the floors of playrooms and paste or screw them on the panel.

Déjeuner.

Take the olives and juice from one large jar of prepared green or black olives and throw them away. In the empty jar place several steel ball bearings. Fill the jar with machine oil to prevent rusting. With this delicacy serve a loaf of French bread, 30 inches in length, painted a pale blue.

Dîner.

Gather wooden darning eggs, one per person. If the variety without handles cannot be found, remove the handles. Pierce lengthwise so that skewers can be inserted in each darning egg. Lay the skewered eggs in an oblong or oval pan and cover with transparent cellophane.

Anna Tolstoy, dedicated biographer of her father, serves up her Russian Mint Cookies:

Mix well. Make balls the size of an apricot. Heat stove — 350 degrees. Bake for 12-15 minutes till bottom of cookies gets light brown. Keep in closed jar or in a bag in the refrigerator.

2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Boil and cool off
Add:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (any kind)
1 teaspoon baking ammonia (must be ground into powder)
25-30 drops peppermint oil
5 ½ cups white flour

Complement The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook with the legendary Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and the delightful John Keats’s Porridge, then wash down with some artful parody of famous writers’ imaginary recipes.

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17 APRIL, 2013

Willa Cather’s Only Surviving Letter to Her Partner, Edith Lewis

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“I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures.”

Long before the age of data and hacking and involuntary transparency, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Willa Cather was a fierce custodian of her own privacy. Despite being a prolific letter-writer, she burned much of her correspondence and, in a will written during the final and rather dark years of her life, forbad the posthumous publication of the remainder. Now, more than sixty-five years after her death, her correspondence is at last revealed in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library). But even so, only a fraction of her letters survive, the vast majority a victim of Cather’s own privacy-obsessed hand — something editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout speculate was “an expression of a personality seeking to control all access to itself.” They make a note of Cather’s extreme compulsion for privacy:

In her maturity, Cather was a skillful self-marketer, and a major element of her marketing strategy was to limit her publicly available texts to those she had meticulously prepared.

Cather was most voracious in guarding — and, to a large degree, destroying — her the most personal of her letters. This is the only known surviving letter from Cather to her lifelong partner and literary executor, Edith Lewis, with whom Cather lived for the last 39 years of her life. A poetic ode to the same cosmos that great minds from Ptolemy to Carl Sagan have admired, it may lack the passion of Virginia Woolf’s letter to Vita Sackville-West or the proud surrender of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s confessions to Edith Wynn Matthison or the longing of Eleanor Roosevelt’s missives to Lorena Hickok, but it bespeaks one of love’s greatest hallmarks: the shared wonderment at the magnificence of a universe two souls inhabit as one. For, as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has famously put it, “Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Sunday 4:30 P.M.
[October 5, 1936]
Shattuck Inn, Jaffrey, New Hampshire

My Darling Edith;

I am sitting in your room, looking out on the woods you know so well. So far everything delights me. I am ashamed of my appetite for food, and as for sleep — I had forgotten that sleeping can be an active and very strong physical pleasure. It can! It has been for all of three nights. I wake up now and then, saturated with the pleasure of breathing clear mountain air (not cold, just chill air) of being up high with all the woods below me sleeping, too, in still white moonlight. It’s a grand feeling.

One hour from now, out of your window, I shall see a sight unparalleled — Jupiter and Venus both shining in the golden-rosy sky and both in the West; she not very far above the horizon, and he about mid-way between the zenith and the silvery lady planet. From 5:30 to 6:30 they are of a superb splendor — deepening in color every second, in a still-daylight-sky guiltless of other stars, the moon not up and the sun gone down behind Gap-mountain; those two alone in the whole vault of heaven. It lasts so about an hour (did last night). Then the Lady, so silvery still, slips down into the clear rose colored glow to be near the departed sun, and imperial Jupiter hangs there alone. He goes down about 8:30. Surely it reminds one of Dante’s “eternal wheels”. I can’t but believe that all that majesty and all that beauty, those fated and unfailing appearances and exits, are something more than mathematics and horrible temperatures. If they are not, then we are the only wonderful things — because we can wonder.

I have worn my white silk suit almost constantly with no white hat, which is very awkward. By next week it will probably be colder. Everything you packed carried wonderfully — not a wrinkle.

And now I must dress to receive the Planets, dear, as I won’t wish to take the time after they appear — and they will not wait for anybody.

Lovingly
W.

I don’t know when I have enjoyed Jupiter so much as this summer.

Edith Lewis, left, with Willa Cather in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, 1926

(Image: Special Collections, University of New Brunswick)

Of the choice to violate Cather’s insistence on privacy, the editors rationalize:

The concerns that we believe motivated her to assert her preference are no longer valid. Cather’s reputation is now as secure as artistic reputations can ever be, and her works will continue to speak for themselves. These lively, illuminating letters will do nothing to damage her reputation. Instead, we can see from our twenty-first-century perspective that her letters heighten our sense of her complex personality, provide insights into her methods and artistic choices as she worked, and reveal Cather herself to be a complicated, funny, brilliant, flinty, sensitive, sometimes confounding human being. Such an identity is far more satisfying — and more honest — than that of a “pure” artist, unmoved by commercial motivations, who devoted herself strictly to her creations and nothing else.

[…]

Cather is now a part of our cultural history. Her works belong to something greater than herself. It is time to let the letters speak for themselves.

And speak they do — vibrant, dimensional, full of the uncontrolled richness of human experience, The Selected Letters of Willa Cather join the ranks of history’s most wonderful letters.

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