Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

08 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Incomparable Things Said Incomparably Well: Emerson’s Extraordinary Letter of Appreciation to Young Walt Whitman

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“I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion.”

One concentrated effort I’ve made in the past year has been the regular practice of sending notes of appreciation to strangers — writers, artists, varied creators — whose work has moved me in some way, beamed some light into my day. It’s so wonderfully vitalizing for us ordinary mortals to send and receive such little reminders of one another’s humanity — especially in a culture where it’s easier to be a critic than a celebrator. But there is something particularly magical and generous about an established cultural icon taking a moment to send a note of appreciation to an emerging talent who one day becomes a celebrated icon in turn — infinitely heartening gestures like Isaac Asimov’s fan mail to young Carl Sagan and Charles Dickens’s flattering letter to George Eliot. But perhaps the most exquisite one of all took place between two of the greatest literary legends our world has ever known.

On July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass — the monumental tome, inspired by an 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson titled The Poet, that would one day establish him as America’s greatest poet. But despite Whitman’s massive expectations for the book, sales were paltry and the few reviews that rolled in were unfavorable.

Illustration by Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself.' Click image for more.

Everything changed on July 21 that year when Whitman received an extraordinary letter of praise from none other than Emerson himself, who was not only the muse for the volume but also, by that point, America’s most significant literary tastemaker. The missive, found in the formidable but enchanting volume The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library), is nothing short of spectacular — both in its beauty of language and its generosity of spirit:

Dear Sir,

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, & which large perception only can inspire.

I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying & encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name real & available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, & have felt much like striking my tasks, & visiting New York to pay my respects.

R.W. Emerson

But, after all, can one expect anything less of modern history’s greatest champion of friendship?

For another masterwork of generosity in the gift of appreciation, see Charles Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron — the man who helped Buk quit his soul-sucking job to become a full-time writer.

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03 SEPTEMBER, 2014

The Hedgehog and the Fox: Italo Calvino on the Two Types of Writers

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“I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one.”

Ezra Pound outlined six types of literary personalities. Susan Sontag listed the four people a great writer must be. For Italo Calvino, every writer exhibited one of only two basic constitutions.

From Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985 (public library) — the same treasure trove of wisdom that gave us Calvino’s advice on writing, his prescient meditation on abortion and the meaning of life, and his thoughts on America, how to assert oneself, and how to lower one’s “worryability” — comes the celebrated author’s clever classification of writerly temperaments.

Responding to literary critic Guido Almansi’s 1978 review of an essay collection by Isaiah Berlin titled after a line from Archilochus — “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” — 55-year-old Calvino writes:

The fox-hedgehog system would lead me to very different classifications from yours. If the hedgehog is the writer who has one unshakeable conceptual and stylistic unity, whereas the fox adapts his strategy to the circumstances, [the Italian novelist and journalist Alberto] Moravia is a hedgehog in that he is tenaciously consistent with himself whatever he writes, both in terms of poetics and of his vision of the world. Whereas I change my method and field of reference from book to book because I can never believe in the same thing two times running, therefore I am a fox, even though I dream of being a hedgehog in all my dreams, and even though I try to write hedgehog books if you take each of them one by one. [The film director, writer, and poet Paolo] Pasolini is a fox, yes, because he adopts different strategies (worldly novels written in dialect, poems with the virtuoso effects of classical rhetoric) but he is also a hedgehog (and not a super-fox) because in all his incarnations his conceptual world is at its core compact and unchangeable. It seems to me that your classification tends to be polarized along the extrovert-introvert axis and in my view this is beside the point.

Noting that classifying poets is particularly challenging, Calvino adds that the fox-hedgehog system doesn’t work for all literary landscapes, especially for the Italian literature of the time:

I see that I am tempted to define as “hedgehogness” the limited means used (which can also be a strength, in that it is an immersion in one’s own nature) and to see experimentalism as “foxness” (which can be motivated by serious anxieties) but maybe that is not the way that Berlin’s move should be understood — his system works for the great classics and defines categories of greatness and not limits: the hedgehog must know “one big thing” and the fox must identify with the Shakespearean variety of the world.

Supplement Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941–1985, an intimate glimpse of one of the most original minds in creative history, with Calvino’s poetic résumé, his witty and wise New Year’s resolution, and his 14 definitions of what makes a classic.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2014

From a Gentleman to a Lady: A Clever Cryptographic Love Letter from the 1850s

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“…dropped from the pocket of a young man who is very well known in sporting circles.”

It’s been said that “nothing is mysterious, no human relation, except love,” which is a dynamic language that has to be learned. As a lover of love letters, I was infinitely delighted, while perusing the Printed Ephemera collection of the Library of Congress, to chance upon an ingenious specimen from the 1850s bridging the mystery and language of love in a cryptographic masterpiece.

The missive was allegedly penned by a resourceful young man courting the daughter an overbearing and protective father — one imagines a stern Victorian patriarch. Knowing that all of his beloved’s correspondence would have to pass parental decency tests, the young bachelor cleverly engineered his language so that the letter could be read two ways — line by line, as the unsuspecting father would, which renders the text a contemptuous disavowal of romance, or by skipping over all even-numbered lines and reading only the odds, which transmogrifies the message into a passionate declaration of love. Hats off to you, sir.

One can only imagine the kind of field day Oscar Wilde would’ve had with this idea, had he cared to make his own love letters less scandalous.

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