Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

04 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Famous Writers on the Creative Benefits of Keeping a Diary

By:

Reflections on the value of recording our inner lives from Woolf, Thoreau, Sontag, Emerson, Nin, Plath, and more.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers. W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Journaling, I believe, is a practice that teaches us better than any other the elusive art of solitude — how to be present with our own selves, bear witness to our experience, and fully inhabit our inner lives. As a dedicated diarist myself, I’ve always had an irresistible fascination with the diaries of artists, writers, scientists, and other celebrated minds — those direct glimpses of their inner lives and creative struggles. But, surely, luminaries don’t put pen to paper for the sake of quenching posterity’s curiosity — at least as interesting as the contents of those notable diaries is the question of why their keepers keep them. Here are a few perspectives from some of history’s most prolific practitioners of this private art.

Anaïs Nin was perhaps the most dogged diarist in recorded history — she began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and maintained the habit until her death at the age of 74, producing sixteen volumes of published journals in which she reflected on such diverse, timeless, and timely subjects as love and life, embracing the unfamiliar, reproductive rights, the elusive nature of joy, the meaning of life, and why emotional excess is essential for creativity. In a 1946 lecture at Dartmouth, she spoke about the role of the diary as an invaluable sandbox not only for learning the craft of writing but also for crystallizing her own passions and priorities, from which all creative work springs:

It was while writing a Diary that I discovered how to capture the living moments.

Keeping a Diary all my life helped me to discover some basic elements essential to the vitality of writing.

When I speak of the relationship between my diary and writing I do not intend to generalize as to the value of keeping a diary, or to advise anyone to do so, but merely to extract from this habit certain discoveries which can be easily transposed to other kinds of writing.

Of these the most important is naturalness and spontaneity. These elements sprung, I observed, from my freedom of selection: in the Diary I only wrote of what interested me genuinely, what I felt most strongly at the moment, and I found this fervor, this enthusiasm produced a vividness which often withered in the formal work. Improvisation, free association, obedience to mood, impulse, bought forth countless images, portraits, descriptions, impressionistic sketches, symphonic experiments, from which I could dip at any time for material.

It was also her way of learning to translate the inner into the outer, the subjective into the universal:

This personal relationship to all things, which is condemned as subjective, limiting, I found to be the core of individuality, personality, and originality. The idea that subjectivity is an impasse is as false as the idea that objectivity leads to a larger form of life.

A deep personal relationship reaches far beyond the personal into the general. Again it is a matter of depths.

In her extensive meditation on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, found in the altogether absorbing A Writer’s Diary (public library), 37-year-old Virginia Woolf speaks to the value of journaling in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing:

The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles.

[...]

I note however that this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles. Still if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap.

A diary, she observes at the age of forty-eight, also builds a bridge between our present selves and our future ones, which are notoriously cacophonous in their convictions. She writes with a wink:

In spite of some tremors I think I shall go on with this diary for the present. I sometimes think that I have worked through the layer of style which suited it — suited the comfortable bright hour, after tea; and the thing I’ve reached now is less pliable. Never mind; I fancy old Virginia, putting on her spectacles to read of March 1920 will decidedly wish me to continue. Greetings! my dear ghost; and take heed that I don’t think 50 a very great age. Several good books can be written still; and here’s the bricks for a fine one.

Henry David Thoreau was among history’s greatest and most lyrical diarists, as evidenced by The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library) — that endlessly revisitable compendium, full of Thoreau’s timeless meditations on everything from the true meaning of success to the greatest gift of growing old to the meaning of human life. In an entry from October of 1857, Thoreau considers the allure of the diary not for the writer but for the reader:

Is not the poet bound to write his own biography? Is there any other work for him but a good journal? We do not wish to know how his imaginary hero, but how he, the actual hero, lived from day to day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a close friend of Thoreau’s and a keen observer of the human experience, illuminated the question of diary-writing with a beautiful sidewise gleam, observing in The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson (public library):

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.

In her eternally moving The Diary of a Young Girl (public library), Anne Frank at first questioned the very act that immortalized her and touched the lives of millions:

For someone like me, it is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a thirteen year old schoolgirl.

Oscar Wilde, a man of strong opinions and even stronger passions, exercised his characteristic wit in The Importance of Being Earnest (public library):

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

In a 1957 diary entry found in Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963 (public library) — the same volume that gave us Susan Sontag on marriage, life and death, the duties of being 24, and her 10 rules for raising a child — 24-year-old Sontag writes under the heading “On Keeping a Journal”:

Superficial to understand the journal as just a receptacle for one’s private, secret thoughts—like a confidante who is deaf, dumb, and illiterate. In the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could do to any person; I create myself. The journal is a vehicle for my sense of selfhood. It represents me as emotionally and spiritually independent. Therefore (alas) it does not simply record my actual, daily life but rather — in many cases — offers an alternative to it.

There is often a contradiction between the meaning of our actions toward a person and what we say we feel toward that person in a journal. But this does not mean that what we do is shallow, and only what we confess to ourselves is deep. Confessions, I mean sincere confessions of course, can be more shallow than actions. I am thinking now of what I read today (when I went up to 122 B[oulevar]d S[ain]t-G[ermain] to check for her mail) in H’s [Sontag's lover ] journal about me — that curt, unfair, uncharitable assessment of me which concludes by her saying that she really doesn’t like me but my passion for her is acceptable and opportune. God knows it hurts, and I feel indignant.

A few years later, Sontag revisits the subject in an essay about Albert Camus’s notebooks, found in her 1966 collection Against Interpretation: And Other Essays (public library):

Of course, a writer’s journal must not be judged by the standards of a diary. The notebooks of a writer have a very special function: in them he builds up, piece by piece, the identity of a writer to himself. Typically, writers’ notebooks are crammed with statements about the will: the will to write, the will to love, the will to renounce love, the will to go on living. The journal is where a writer is heroic to himself. In it he exists solely as a perceiving, suffering, struggling being.

Sylvia Plath like Nin, began keeping a diary at the age of eleven and penned nearly ten volumes, which were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (public library) — that vibrant and bittersweet compendium that gave us Plath on life and death, wholeheartedness, and the reverie of nature. She saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing, but perhaps the most ensnaring passage from her published journals is one of strange synchronicity two literary legends of staggering genius and staggering tragedy meet across space and time through the pages of their diaries. In February of 1957, six years before her suicide, Plath captures the role of the diary as a lifeline for the writer with poignancy utterly harrowing in history’s hindsight:

Just now I pick up the blessed diary of Virginia Woolf which I bought with a battery of her novels saturday with Ted. And she works off her depression over rejections from Harper’s (no less! – – – and I hardly can believe that the Big Ones get rejected, too!) by cleaning out the kitchen. And cooks haddock & sausage. Bless her. I feel my life linked to her , somehow. I love her – – – from reading Mrs. Dalloway for Mr. Crockett – – – and I can still hear Elizabeth Drew’s voice sending a shiver down my back in the huge Smith class-room, reading from To The Lighthouse. But her suicide, I felt I was reduplicating in that black summer of 1953. Only I couldn’t drown. I suppose I’ll always be over-vulnerable, slightly paranoid. But I’m also so damn healthy & resilient. And apple-pie happy. Only I’ve got to write. I feel sick, this week, of having written nothing lately.

But perhaps the most important meta-point on the subject comes from Woolf herself, who considered the impact of reading a writer’s diaries on how we experience his or her formal work, an impact the magnitude of which she argues is ours to decide on:

How far, we must ask ourselves, is a book influenced by its writer’s life — how far is it safe to let the man interpret the writer? How far shall we resist or give way to the sympathies and antipathies that the man himself rouses in us — so sensitive are words, so receptive of the character of the author? These are questions that press upon us when we read lives and letters, and we must answer them for ourselves, for nothing can be more fatal than to be guided by the preferences of others in a matter so personal.

Indeed, if there is one thing I’ve learned about diaries, both by having read tens of thousands of pages of artists’ and writers’ journals and by having frequently revisited my own from the distance of time, is that nothing written in a diary is to be taken as the diarist’s personal dogma. A journal is an artificially permanent record of thought and inner life, which are invariably transient — something the most prolific diarist in modern literary history articulated herself in her elegant defense of the fluid self. We are creatures of remarkable moodiness and mental turbulence, and what we think we believe at any given moment — those capital-T Truths we arrive at about ourselves and the world — can be profoundly different from our beliefs a decade, a year, and sometimes even a day later.

This, perhaps, is the greatest gift of the diary — its capacity to stand as a living monument to our own fluidity, a reminder that our present selves are chronically unreliable predictors of our future values and that we change unrecognizably over the course of our lives.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 MARCH, 2014

March 28, 1941: Virginia Woolf’s Suicide Letter and Its Cruel Misinterpretation in the Media

By:

A humbling reminder that self-righteousness is the enemy of compassion and judging another human being’s private struggle is a disgrace to our own humanity.

On March 28, 1941, shortly after the devastating dawn of WWII, Virginia Woolf filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse behind her house never to emerge alive. A relapse of the all-consuming depression she had narrowly escaped in her youth had finally claimed her life. She left behind a remarkable body of work — from her poignant diaries to her magnificent essays to her little-known children’s books to “the longest and most charming love letter in literature” — and a cohort of heartbroken friends, but the most stirring thing she left behind was her suicide letter to her husband Leonard:

Dearest,

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.

I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

What made the letter especially heartbreaking, however, wasn’t just that it embodied so excruciatingly modernity’s tragic epidemic but also that its fate reflected the ugliest aspects of media and journalism. In Afterwords: Letters on the Death of Virginia Woolf (public library), scholar Sybil Oldfield notes that after Woolf’s letter was made public, members of the British press took it upon themselves to bestow upon the beloved author a last judgment — a painfully ungenerous one. On April 27, a month after Woolf’s death, The Sunday Times ran the following self-righteous evisceration by a Mrs. Kathleen Hicks, wife of the Bishop of Lincoln:

Sir, — I read in your issue of Sunday last that the coroner at the inquest on Mrs. Virginia Woolf said that she was “undoubtedly much more sensitive than most people to the general beastliness of things happening in the world to-day.” What right has anyone to make such an assertion?

If he really said this, he belittles those who are hiding their agony of mind, suffering bravely and carrying on unselfishly for the sake of others. Many people, possibly even more “sensitive,” have lost their all and seen appalling happenings, yet they take their part nobly in this fight for God against the devil.

Where are our ideals of love and faith? And what shall we all be if we listen to and sympathize with this sort of “I cannot carry on?”

Mrs. Hicks’s ideals of love and faith, apparently, did not include empathy. Upon reading this, Leonard Woolf was so appalled that he immediately sent to the newspaper an emotionally charged fact-check rebuttal:

I feel that I should not silently allow to remain on record that Virginia Woolf committed suicide because she could not face the “terrible times” through which all of us are going. For this is not true… Then newspapers give her words as:

“I feel I cannot go on any longer in these terrible times.”

This is not what she wrote: the words which she wrote are:

“I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

She had had a mental breakdown about twenty-five years ago; the old symptoms began to return about three weeks before she took her life, and she felt that this time she would not recover. Like everyone else, she felt the general strain of the war, and the return of her illness was partly due to that strain. But the words of her letter and everything which she has ever said prove that she took her life, not because she could not “carry on,” but because she felt she was going mad again and would not this time recover.

But, devastatingly, even Leonard’s rebuttal, too, was twisted out of context. Published under the already misleading headline “I Cannot Carry On” — the then-version of clickbait — the article replaced the phrase “those terrible times,” Virginia’s reference to her first acute bout of depression in her youth, with “these terrible times,” changing the meaning completely and making it a reference to World War II, an interpretation that aligned quite conveniently with the media’s spin of Woolf’s suicide as an act of unpatriotic cowardice rather than a personal tragedy. To make matters even more lamentable, the Times reprinted the misquotation several days later — the then-version of reblogging or retweeting without critical analysis and fact-checking. Similar attacks, some of which were even unleashed on Woolf’s posthumously published work, continued in the press for more than a year.

The incident is particularly unsettling for two reasons: At its root is a testament to what a cruel and indiscriminate predator depression is, capable of consuming even humanity’s greatest minds, yet the uncompassionate response illustrates just how poorly we understand the condition. Above all, however, embedded in the media’s treatment of Virginia’s suicide is a grotesque reminder that the only thing more morally repugnant than passing judgment on another human being’s private struggle and inner world — than choosing self-righteousness over compassionate understanding — is doing so publicly, especially as a currency of tabloidism. What a spectacular failing of the awareness that it’s far more rewarding to understand than to be right. One can only hope this awareness has evolved for us, both as a culture and as individuals, since Woolf’s time.

Afterwords is a moving read in its entirety — sample it with these letters of condolence from some of Woolf’s famous friends, including T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, E.M. Foster, Elizabeth Bowen, and H.G. Wells, then see Patti Smith’s moving remembrance of Virginia.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Most Moving and Timelessly Beautiful LGBTQ Love Letters in History

By:

A sublime manifestation of the highest hope one soul can have for a union with another.

What is love? This question haunts the human psyche perhaps more persistently than any other. It has occupied our collective imagination for millennia, it has baffled scientists, taunted philosophers, and tantalized artists. So mystified by love were the Ancient Greeks that they itemized six types of it. But nothing defines it with more exquisite expressiveness than the love letter. At its best, it makes the personal universal, then personal again — a writer from another era or another culture captures the all-consuming complexity of love with more richness and color and dimension than we ourselves could, making us feel at once less alone and more whole in our understanding of love and of ourselves.

As we turn the leaf on a new chapter of modern history that embraces a more inclusive definition of love — both culturally and, at last, politically — here is a celebration of the human heart’s highest capacity through history’s most beautiful and timelessly bewitching LGBTQ love letters.

VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE-WEST

The gender-bending protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s pioneering novel Orlando, which subverted censorship to revolutionize the politics of queer love, was based on the English poet Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s onetime passionate lover and lifelong dear friend. In fact, the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Be that as it may, the two women also exchanged some gorgeous love letters in real life, found in the altogether wonderful collection The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library). Here is one from Virginia to Vita from January of 1927, shortly after the two had fallen madly in love:

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.

On January 21, Vita sends Virginia this disarmingly honest, heartfelt, and unguarded letter, which stands in beautiful contrast with Virginia’s passionate prose:

…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

MARGARET MEAD AND RUTH BENEDICT

Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.

Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which also gave us Mead’s prescient position on homosexuality — are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:

Ruth, dear heart,

. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.

A few days later:

Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.

You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.

In another letter:

[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.

And later:

Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)

In December of that year, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:

Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.

I kiss your hair, sweetheart.

Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:

In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers. . . .

When I do good work it is always always for you … and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.

Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:

I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —

Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.

By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:

I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.

Sweet, I kiss your hands.

As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:

Ruth dearest,

I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.

I love you, Ruth.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)

In September of 1928, as Mead travels by train to marry her second husband after her first marriage crumbled, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:

Darling,

[…]

I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.

Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.

[…]

Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.

Your Margaret

By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:

Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.

Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:

Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.

See more of their gorgeous correspondence here.

ALLEN GINSBERG AND PETER ORLOVSKY

From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco, 1955

In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:

Dear Petey:

O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!

What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .

I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.

A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:

…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .

As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:

I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .

Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to —

Love,

Allen

In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:

I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .

Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:

Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.

He ends the letter with a short verse:

Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY AND EDITH WYNN MATTHISON

In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 and from which she was almost expelled for partying too muchEdna St. Vincent Millay met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us Millay on her love of music and her playfully lewd self-portrait — these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:

Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.

In another, she pleads:

I will do whatever you tell me to do. … Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything. … But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way. … I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.

In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:

You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.

With love,

Vincent Millay

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND LORENA HICKOK

Eleanor Roosevelt endures not only as the longest-serving American First Lady (1933-1945), but also as one of history’s most politically impactful, a fierce champion of working women and underprivileged youth.

But her personal life has been the subject of lasting controversy.

In the summer of 1928, Roosevelt met journalist Lorena Hickok, whom she would come to refer to as Hick. The thirty-year relationship that ensued has remained the subject of much speculation, from the evening of FDR’s inauguration, when the First Lady was seen wearing a sapphire ring Hickok had given her, to the opening up of her private correspondence archives in 1998. Though many of the most explicit letters had been burned, the 300 published in Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok (public library) — at once less unequivocal than history’s most revealing woman-to-woman love letters and more suggestive than those of great female platonic friendships — strongly indicate the relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok had been one of great romantic intensity.

On March 5, 1933, the first evening of FDR’s inauguration, Roosevelt wrote Hick:

Hick my dearest–

I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.

Then, the following day:

Hick, darling

Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

And the night after:

Hick darling

All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”

And in yet another letter:

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

Hick herself responded with equal intensity. In a letter from December 1933, she wrote:

I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

Granted, human dynamics are complex and ambiguous enough even for those directly involved, making it hard to assume anything with absolute certainty from the sidelines of an epistolary relationship long after the correspondents’ deaths. But wherever on the spectrum of the platonic and romantic the letters in Empty Without You may fall, they offer a beautiful record of a tender, steadfast, deeply loving relationship between two women who meant the world to one another, even if the world never quite condoned or understood their profound connection.

OSCAR WILDE AND SIR ALFRED “BOSIE” TAYLOR

Even as we make historic progress on the dignity and equality of human love, it’s hard to forget the enormous indignities to which the lovers of yore have been subjected across the 4,000-year history of persecuting desire. Among modernity’s most tragic victims of our shameful past is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, driven into bankruptcy and exile, and finally succumbed to an untimely death. But Wilde’s most “sinful” quality — his enormous capacity for passionate, profound love — was also one of the most poetic gifts of his life.

In June of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s own Dorian Gray — his literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy. Their correspondence, collected Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (public library), makes for an infinitely inspired addition to the most beautiful love letters exchanged between history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples.

In January of 1893, Wilde writes to Bosie:

My Own Boy,

Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.

Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.

Always, with undying love, yours,

Oscar

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Bosie, November 1892 (The Morgan Library)

In early March of 1893, Wilde channels love’s exasperating sense of urgency:

Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.

I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead —

Ever your own,

Oscar

* “renter” was slang for male prostitute in London

Their affair was intense, bustling with dramatic tempestuousness, but underpinning it was a profound and genuine love. In a letter from late December of 1893, after a recent rift, Wilde writes to Douglas:

My dearest Boy,

Thanks for your letter. I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, and out of sorts, but I am happy in the knowledge that we are friends again, and that our love has passed through the shadow and the light of estrangement and sorrow and come out rose-crowned as of old. Let us always be infinitely dear to each other, as indeed we have been always.

[…]

I think of you daily, and am always devotedly yours.

Oscar

In July of the following year, Wilde writes:

My own dear Boy,

I hope the cigarettes arrived all right. I lunched with Gladys de Grey, Reggie and Aleck York there. They want me to go to Paris with them on Thursday: they say one wears flannels and straw hats and dines in the Bois, but, of course, I have no money, as usual, and can’t go. Besides, I want to see you. It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself. The only thing that consoles me is what Sybil of Mortimer Street (whom mortals call Mrs. Robinson) said to me*. If I could disbelieve her I would, but I can’t, and I know that early in January you and I will go away together for a long voyage, and that your lovely life goes always hand in hand with mine. My dear wonderful boy, I hope you are brilliant and happy.

I went to Bertie, today I wrote at home, then went and sat with my mother. Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me.

London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever.

Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you.

Oscar

* The fortuneteller’s prophesy apparently came true — Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers together the following January.

In 1895, at the height of his literary success, with his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest drawing continuous acclaim across the stages of London, Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel. But the evidence unearthed during the trial led to Wilde’s own arrest on charges of “gross indecency” with members of the same sex. Two more trials followed, after which he was sentenced for two years of “hard labor” in prison. On April 29 of that year, having hit emotional and psychological rock-bottom, his reputation ruined and his health deteriorating, Wilde wrote to Douglas on the eve of the final trial:

My dearest boy,

This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonour be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in return will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and the encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that.

Another letter, written on August 31, 1897, shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, reads:

Café Suisse, Dieppe
Tuesday, 7:30

My own Darling Boy,

I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.

I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,

Oscar

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of their relationship comes from a letter Wilde wrote to Leonard Smithers — a Sheffield solicitor with a side business of printing erotica, who became the only publisher interested in Wilde’s books in his post-prison years — on October 1, 1897:

How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.

More of their exquisite correspondence appears in Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, but that one sentence alone — “He understands me and my art, and loves both.” — is an immeasurably beautiful addition to history’s most profound definitions of love, a sublime manifestation of the highest hope one creative soul can have for a union with another.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.