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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

06 JULY, 2015

A Living Obituary: Faulkner’s Beautiful Epitaph for Himself

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“He made the books and he died.”

By the time 64-year-old William Faulkner took his last breath on July 6, 1962, he had been a little-known Jazz Age artist, a world-famous sage of literature, the author of an obscure children’s book with a curious back-story, the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, and a Nobel laureate whose prize acceptance speech is itself a supreme work of art.

Perhaps because of this prolific and diverse body of work, or perhaps because he was as deliberate about how he lived his life, Faulkner was remarkably deliberate about how he would be remembered after his death.

While working on The Portable Faulkner in 1946, legendary editor Malcolm Cowley had pressed the author for biographical details, but the request was met with resistance. Three years later, Life magazine asked Cowley to write a piece on Faulkner. But after encountering Cowley’s biographical essay on Hemingway for a similar Life assignment, Faulkner grew reaffirmed in his resistance to being the subject of an intrusive biography.

In a 1949 letter to Cowley, penned a few months before Faulkner was awarded the Nobel Prize and found in Selected Letters of William Faulkner (public library), the 51-year-old author writes his own epitaph in what is essentially a beautiful living obituary:

I am more convinced and determined than ever that this is not for me. I will protest to the last: no photographs, no recorded documents. It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago, and like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph too, shall be them both: He made the books and he died.

Faulkner’s resistance springs from the same source as Anaïs Nin’s refusal to be profiled and our present concerns about privacy — the fear that because no life is really a single and linear story, compressing its ever-evolving complexity into a static set of biographical details or data points does a grave disservice to what Walt Whitman called the multitudes comprising each of us. Any attempt at a neatly packaged public understanding therefore engenders in the private individual a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Assuage Faulkner’s concern with Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Faulkner on the meaning of life, the writer’s responsibility to society, and his little-known children’s book.

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02 JULY, 2015

Thomas Mann’s Moving Tribute for His Dear Friend Hermann Hesse’s Sixtieth Birthday

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“I… love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face…”

Nothing sustains creative culture more sturdily than the invisible scaffolding of kinship between artists supporting each other through the merciless cycles of criticism, acclaim, and indifference. Among the most heartening such dyads are Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) and Thomas Mann (June 6, 1875–August 12, 1955), who provided each other with a steady supply of support and encouragement over a lifetime of beautiful letters. But nowhere is their bond more touching than in the tribute Mann penned for his friend’s sixtieth birthday, published in the morning edition of Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 2, 1937, and later included in the out-of-print gem The Hesse/Mann Letters: The Correspondence of Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann 1910–1955 (public library).

Mann writes:

Today, July 2, is Hermann Hesse’s sixtieth birthday. A great, beautiful, memorable day! It is being fervently celebrated in thousands of hearts in all countries where German is spoken… It is by permitting themselves such feelings, by defiantly taking the liberty of loving, that people are saving their souls in Germany today.

By joyfully celebrating this day we too shall be saving our souls.

After a few laudatory remarks about Hesse’s patriotism, Mann extols his friend’s literary sensibility:

His work raises the familiar to a new, spiritual level, which may be termed revolutionary, not in a direct political or social, but in a psychological, poetic sense; it is truly and authentically open and sensitive to the future.

Noting that Hesse’s beloved tenth novel, Steppenwolf, is on par with James Joyce’s Ulysses “in experimental daring,” he adds what might be mistaken for a backhanded compliment by the less sensitive reader but is, at bottom, the kind of praise that can only be given by someone who knows an artist’s complex inner world intimately, cherishes that complexity, and holds the whole of the artist with immense love:

I feel very deeply that for all its sometimes cranky individualism, for all its grumpy-humorous or mystical-nostalgic rejection of the world and the times, this lifework … must be counted among the highest and purest spiritual endeavors of our epoch. Consequently it is an honor as well as a pleasure to offer the author of this work my hearty congratulations and the expression of my esteem on this festive occasion. I long ago chose him as the member of my literary generation closest and dearest to me and I have followed his growth with a sympathy that drew nourishment as much from the differences as from the similarities between us…

I also love the man, his serenely contemplative, kindly-mischievous air, the fine, deep glance of his poor weak eyes, which with their blueness light up the gaunt, sharply cut face of an old Swabian peasant.

[…]

And so, once again: Thanks and best wishes. Hesse’s humor, the exuberance of language shown in the visible fragments of his late work, and the manifest pleasure he takes in his craft offer us, I believe, every assurance that hand in hand with the heightened spirituality of his advanced years he has preserved the formative powers needed for the realization of so daring a dream-project as The Glass Bead Game. We wish him success and fulfillment… We also hope that his fame may spread ever more widely and deeply, and bring him the honor which has long been his due, but which at the present time would take on special meaning, in addition of course to providing a most delightful bit of news: the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Nine years later, Hesse was indeed awarded the Nobel Prize — in no small part thanks to Mann’s repeated exhortations.

The two friends’ moving correspondence can be found in The Hesse/Mann Letters. Complement it with Mann on time and the soul of existence, then revisit other heartening dyads of support from the annals of creative culture: James Joyce and Ibsen, Maurice Sendak and Ursula Nordstrom, Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, and Mark Twain and Helen Keller.

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30 JUNE, 2015

The Art of Constructive Criticism: Trailblazing Feminist Margaret Fuller Rejects Young Thoreau and Helps Him Improve His Writing

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“I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, ‘He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.’ She is not yours till you have been more hers.”

Few things reveal your intellect and your generosity of spirit — the parallel powers of your heart and mind — better than how you give feedback, especially if it is to a friend and especially if the work in question leaves something to be desired. Evidence like Samuel Beckett’s masterwork of tough love and poet Thom Gunn’s role in Oliver Sacks’s evolution as a writer further impresses how rare the masters of this delicate, monumental art of constructive criticism are.

But there is no greater genius at it than trailblazing journalist, essayist, and editor Margaret Fuller, whose 1845 book Woman in the Nineteenth Century endures as a foundational text of feminism. It originated as an essay titled “The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women,” published two years earlier in the influential Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, of which Fuller had become founding editor — elected over Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also being considered for the position — in 1839.

In the fall of 1841 — shortly after moving into Emerson’s house and around the time he was contemplating the true measure of meaningful labor in his famous diary — 24-year-old Henry David Thoreau, urged by Emerson, submitted one of his poems to The Dial. What he received from Fuller was a rejection on the surface but an enormous and generous gift at its heart — in a lengthy and immeasurably beautiful letter, she delineated the reasons for the poem’s rejection and offered caring constructive feedback on how to improve not only his writing but the very soul from which it springs.

Fuller’s masterpiece of constructive criticism is preserved in the original by Project REVEAL at Harry Ransom Center and was included in the 1907 volume Heralds of American Literature: A Group of Patriot Writers of the Revolutionary and National Periods (public library) by essayist and literary culture champion Annie Russell Marble.

Fuller's original handwritten letter to Thoreau (Harry Ransom Center)

On October 18, 1841, Fuller — herself only thirty-one — writes:

I do not find the poem on the mountains improved by mere compression, though it might be by fusion and glow. Its merits to me are, a noble recognition of Nature, two or three manly thoughts, and, in one place, a plaintive music.

With great sensitivity to every artist’s vulnerable tendency to take criticism of his or her work as criticism of his or her character, Fuller envelops her critique of Thoreau the poet in great warmth for Thoreau the person, assuring him that behind his mediocre poem lies great potential — but making clear that he must work diligently at it in order to attain it:

Yet, now that I have some knowledge of the man, it seems there is no objection I could make to his lines (with the exception of such offenses against taste as the lines about the humors of the eye…), which I would not make to himself. He is healthful, rare, of open eye, ready hand, and noble scope. He sets no limits to his life, nor to the invasions of nature; he is not willfully pragmatical, cautious, ascetic, or fantastical. But he is as yet a somewhat bare hill, which the warm gales of Spring have not visited… He will find the generous office that shall educate him…

Although she is only seven years Thoreau’s senior, barely in her thirties herself, Fuller brims with precocious wisdom. More than a century before Grace Paley asserted in her advice to aspiring writers that “in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world,” Fuller gently points Thoreau to the greatest education for a writer — life itself, the richness of experience amassed by living it, and the enlarging effects of human relationships:

The unfolding of affections, a wider and deeper human experience, the harmonizing influences of other natures, will mould the man and melt his verse. He will seek thought less and find knowledge the more. I can have no advice or criticism for a person so sincere; but, if I give my impression of him, I will say, “He says too constantly of Nature, she is mine.” She is not yours till you have been more hers. Seek the lotus, and take a draught of rapture. Say not so confidently, all places, all occasions are alike. This will never come true till you have found it false.

After encouraging him to keep submitting his work and to write to her, Fuller — a century before George Orwell’s famous admonition against “stale metaphors, similes and idioms” — adds:

Will you finish the poem in your own way, and send it for the ‘Dial’? Leave out

“And seem to milk the sky.”

The image is too low; Mr. Emerson thought so too.

She ends with the kind of signature that embodies what Virginia Woolf meant in calling letter-writing “the humane art” and makes one wistful for its death:

Farewell! May truth be irradiated by Beauty! Let me know whether you go to the lonely hut, and write to me about Shakespeare, if you read him there. I have many thoughts about him, which I have never yet been led to express.

Margaret F.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Thoreau did go to the lonely hut to be owned by Nature, sequestering himself in the humble cabin he built with his own hands to write the very work for which he is remembered today. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,” he reflected in Walden — the most enduring masterwork of his meditations on those essential facts of life learned during his time in that lonely hut. There, he clearly took Fuller’s invaluable advice to heart — the shift she encouraged in his writing and his way of being is palpable both in Walden and in the beautiful journals he kept while living in the woods.

As for Shakespeare, he did read and admire him: “A genius — a Shakespeare, for instance — would make the history of his parish more interesting than another’s history of the world,” Thoreau wrote in the very journals that made the history of his interior parish more interesting than any history of the world.

Complement with Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of walking and what it really means to be awake.

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25 JUNE, 2015

The One That Got Away: The Bittersweet Story of George Orwell and His Childhood Sweetheart

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“It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met.”

One summer day in a1914, an English family found a neighborhood boy standing on his head in their garden. When asked about his peculiar position, he replied: “You are noticed more if you stand on your head than if you are the right way up.”

The boy was eleven-year-old Eric Blair, better known today as George Orwell (June 25, 1903–January 21, 1950), and the neighboring family were the Buddicoms, whose three children — Jacintha, Prosper, and Guinever — became young Eric’s favorite playmates. But it was the budding poet Jacintha, two years older than Eric, who captured his heart — soon, between them blossomed the tender and unspoken romantic affection of early adolescence.

And then something happened that abruptly ruptured the relationship — something that would remain a secret for decades, until years after Jacintha’s death in 1994 and more than half a century after Orwell’s.

Prosper and Guinever Buddicom with Eric Blair (right)

In the 2006 postscript to Buddicom’s 1974 memoir Eric & Us (public library), her cousin Dione Venables — who was left the copyrights to the book after Buddicom’s death and did significant research in the family archives — tells a disquieting story: Although Eric was a romantically awkward youth reticent to assert himself and unprone to aggression — and although he would grow up to be quite the feminist — during a summer holiday with the Buddicoms shortly before his departure to Burma in 1922, he “attempted to take things further and make SERIOUS love to Jacintha” despite her protestations. Failing to honor the basic “no means no” tenet of respectful intimate relationships, he pinned her down — he was 6’4″ and she just under 5′ — and, despite her exhorting him to stop, managed to rip her skirt and bruise her shoulder. He came to what little was left of his senses before the bodily assault went any further, but the assault on the relationship had fully ruptured it. Eric stayed with the family for the remainder of the holiday, but was kept apart from Jacintha.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1918

Upon returning from Burma five years later, he immediately sought out the Buddicoms, hoping to see Jacintha. Although he could barely make ends meet, he had brought with him an engagement ring for her.

He was invited for a visit, but only her siblings were there and the family was evasive about her absence — an absence shrouded in shame, for it was due to what was considered a grave transgression: Jacintha had just given birth to a child out of wedlock, by a man who fled the country as soon as he found out about the pregnancy. Her aunt and uncle adopted the baby, and she never told Orwell any of what was going on despite their occasional correspondence. He, instead, assumed that Jacintha was gone because she was still hurt and angry with him — which was undoubtedly true, but far from the complete story.

He eventually convinced Prosper to share her London number and telephoned her right away, begging her to meet him so he could make amends. She refused. He tried again two weeks later, but she would not relent. They went their separate ways. Jacintha eventually became the inspiration for many of Orwell’s female characters, most notably Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Illustration by Jonathan Burton for a Folio Society edition of 'Nineteen Eighy-Four.' Click image for more.

But the story doesn’t end there. Mere months before Orwell’s death, Buddicom found out in a letter from her aunt that her childhood friend Eric was the famous author George Orwell. Her feelings for him had remained conflicted and complex — she was hurt by his inexplicable youthful outburst, but had also never forgiven herself for not forgiving his flawed humanity and giving him a second chance. She was haunted by the latent realization that he had been her big love, the one that got away.

In a moving 1972 letter, found in the altogether revelatory George Orwell: A Life in Letters (public library), Buddicom exorcised this conflictedness while trying to console a relative navigating a similar situation of bearing a child out of wedlock. She writes:

I have just finished reading your sad letter and hasten to answer it. I cannot believe that the same miserable tragedy has struck twice in the same family but I CAN give you my total understanding and sympathy which might help a little. Strangely, your letter comes at a time when my mind and concentration are centred on similar events that took place in my life also some time ago.

[…]

How I wish I had been ready for betrothal when Eric asked me to marry him on his return from Burma. He had ruined what had been such a close and fulfilling relationship since childhood by trying to take us the whole way before I was anywhere near ready for that. It took me literally years to realise that we are all imperfect creatures but that Eric was less imperfect than anyone else I ever met. When the time came and I was ready for the next step it was with the wrong man and the result haunts me to this day… Memories of the joys and fun that Eric and I shared, knowing each other’s minds so totally ensured that I would never marry unless that “oneness”” could be found again.

One can’t help but feel that Buddicom is speaking to her own younger self — this, after all, might be true of most advice ever given — as she issues an unambiguous admonition to the young woman from this ambivalent place of resentment and wistful what-ifs:

You are still an extremely beautiful woman, even if you feel that this has been your downfall. The men in your life have not wanted your very great intelligence and so it has caused you to drift from relationship to relationship, looking for something you never find. A tragedy which you simply must take control of, or life will begin to depend on the bottle rather than the fascination of other lives and situations. At least you have not had the public shame of being destroyed in a classic book as Eric did to me. Julia in Nineteen Eighty-Four is clearly Jacintha, of that I feel certain. He describes her with thick dark hair, being very active, hating politics — and their meeting place was a dell full of bluebells. We always wandered off to our special place when we were at Ticklerton which was full of bluebells. They die so quickly if you pick them so we never did but lay amongst them and adored their heavy pungent scent. That very bluebell dell is described in his book and is part of the central story but in the end he absolutely destroys me, like a man in hob nailed boots stamping on a spider. It hurt my mother so much when she read that book that we always thought it brought on her final heart attack a few days later. Be glad that you have not been torn limb from limb in public.

Gather yourself together, my Dear. Our family is well blessed with looks and brains and you have both in liberal quantities. You are an extremely elegant communicator so enjoy what you have instead of looking at the past… You have the finest of minds which outstrips your physical attributes. Make both work for you. Look ahead. What is past is gone. It is the only way I manage to keep my reason.

But the story of Jacintha and Eric isn’t entirely heartbreaking — it has, in fact, a rather bittersweet ending.

Jacintha Buddicom in 1948

In early 1949, as soon as Buddicom found out from her aunt that George Orwell was her childhood friend Eric, she telephoned his publisher to find out where he lived, hoping to reconnect and repair the relationship. Orwell, already in poor health, was being cared for in a sanatorium. She wrote to him on February 9, as soon as she got his address, but dated the letter February 14 — Valentine’s Day.

Orwell was greatly delighted by her missive and responded the very same day, but at first kept his tone rather reserved and signed with the somewhat distancing “Yours, Eric Blair.” He wrote:

I am a widower. My wife died suddenly four years ago, leaving me with a little (adopted) son who was then not quite a year old… I have been having this dreary disease (T.B.) in an acute way since the autumn of 1947, but of course it has been hanging over me all my life, and actually I think I had my first go of it in early childhood… I am trying now not to do any work at all, and shan’t start any for another month or two. All I do is read and do crossword puzzles. I am well looked after here and can keep quiet and warm and not worry about anything, which is about the only treatment that is any good in my opinion. Thank goodness Richard is extremely tough and healthy and is unlikely, I should think, ever to get this disease.

But seeing that the letter wasn’t posted immediately, he wrote a second, far warmer and more emotional one the next day, opening with their favorite childhood greeting:

Hail and Fare Well, my dear Jacintha,

… Ever since I got your letter I’ve been remembering. I can’t stop thinking about the young days with you & Guin & Prosper, & things put out of mind for 20 and 30 years. I am so wanting to see you. We must meet when I get out of this place, but the doctor says I’ll have to stay another 3 or 4 months.

George Orwell with his son, Richard, in 1946. (Photograph: Veina Richards)

What he writes next is of particular poignancy in light of the past — after Jacintha’s illegitimate daughter was born, her sister Guinever had remarked that young Eric “might well have welcomed the little girl as his own child.” Now, thirty years later, in telling Jacintha about his five-year-old adopted son, he poses a question perfectly innocent for him and perfectly piercing for her:

I would like you to see Richard… When I was not much more than his age I always knew I wanted to write, but for the first ten years it was very hard to make a living…

Are you fond of children? I think you must be. You were such a tender-hearted girl, always full of pity for the creatures we others shot & killed. But you were not so tender-hearted to me when you abandoned me to Burma with all hope denied. We are older now, & with this wretched illness the years will have taken more of a toll of me than of you. But I am well cared-for here & feel much better than I did when I got here last month. As soon as I can get back to London I do so want to meet you again. As we always ended so that there should be no ending.

Farewell and Hail.

Eric

Despite their mutual eagerness to reconnect, there was indeed no ending — Orwell’s health suffered a rapid decline over the next few months and he died of a massive lung hemorrhage in the early hours of January 21, 1950. But in this bittersweet epistolary reconciliation, the two shared a grace that few ruptured relationships enjoy — a special kind of closure in that one final, redemptive “Farewell and Hail.”

George Orwell: A Life in Letters is a fantastic read in its totality. Complement these with the beloved author on why he writes, his eleven golden rules for the perfect cup of tea, and some beautifully haunting illustrations for the celebrated novel into which he wrote Jacintha.

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