Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘letters’

15 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Nobel-Winning Playwright Eugene O’Neill on Happiness, Hard Work, and Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

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“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

[...]

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

Complement Posterity with more enduring fatherly wisdom on life, including Ted Hughes on nurturing one’s eternal inner child, F. Scott Fitzgerald on what is worth worrying about in life, Charles Dickens on cultivating kindness, and Jackson Pollock on falling in love, then revisit Anton Chekhov — whose sensibility O’Neill’s is often likened to — on the eight qualities of cultured people in a letter of advice to his younger brother.

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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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