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James Joyce’s Love Letters

“If I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.”

As an ardent lover of love letters, I have encountered few exemplars of the genre more piercing than those penned by James Joyce (February 2, 1882–January 13, 1941).

In 1904, just after his first major essay was rejected from publication, 22-year-old Joyce met Nora Barnacle — a young chambermaid he described as “a simple honorable soul,” one “incapable of any of the deceits which pass for current morality.” From the moment they met until Joyce’s dying day, the two were bound by an uncommon love that translated into a relationship unconventional in many ways, especially by the era’s standards — they had a son and a daughter out of wedlock and didn’t marry until 27 years into their lifelong relationship.

Nora’s unselfish honesty was intensely alluring to Joyce. Only with her was he, a man otherwise guarded and chronically mistrustful, capable of complete self-revelation — she was the nonjudgmental, loving receptacle for his dueling enormities of ambition and self-consciousness that often bled into self-loathing. The unflinching trust that developed between them became the supreme engine of their love — for what is love if not the net we trust will catch us as we fall from grace into our deepest imperfections, then bounce us back up to our highest selves?

In a letter from October of 1909, found in Joyce’s altogether spectacular Selected Letters — the same treasure trove that gave us the teenage author’s beautiful letter of appreciation to Ibsen, his greatest hero, and his poetic plea to Lady Gregory — 27-year-old Joyce writes to Nora during a trip to Dublin:

You dear strange little girl! And yet you write to ask if I am tired of you! I shall never be tired of you, dearest… I cannot write you so often this time as I [am] dreadfully busy from morning to night. Do not fret, darling. If you do you will ruin my chances of doing anything. After this I hope we shall have many many many long years of happiness together.

My dear true good little Nora do not write again doubtfully of me. You are my only love. You have me completely in your power. I know and feel that if I am to write anything fine or noble in the future I shall do so only by listening at the doors of your heart.

Two days later, still away and working hard to have Dubliners published, Joyce is seized with longing for Nora and grows even more homesick:

My darling Tonight the old fever of love has begun to wake again in me. I am a shell of a man: my soul is in Trieste [the couple’s home]. You alone know me and love me.

A century before philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s terrific treatise on why embracing our neediness is essential for healthy relationships, Joyce embraces his and pleads with Nora in the same letter:

I am a jealous, lonely, dissatisfied, proud man. Why are you not more patient with me and kinder with me? The night we went to Madame Butterfly together you treated me most rudely. I simply wanted to feel your soul swaying with languor and longing as mine did when she sings the romance of her hope in the second act Un bel di: “One day, one day, we shall see a spire of smoke rising on the furthest verge of the sea; and then the ship appears.” I am a little disappointed in you. Then another night I came home to your bed from the café and I began to tell you of all I hoped to do, and to write, in the future and of those boundless ambitions which are really the leading forces in my life. You would not listen to me. It was very late I know and of course you were tired out after the day. But a man whose brain is on fire with hope and trust in himself must tell someone of what he feels. Whom should I tell but you?

But after this lamentation, the letter rises above these trifling resentments and takes a most heartening turn toward the ultimate assurance of love — that however short we may fall of our highest selves, however much we may disappoint our loved ones, they will love us anyway and love us not despite but because of our imperfect humanity. Decades before Joseph Campbell admonished against the deadliness of perfectionism in love, Joyce writes:

I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.

But against the backdrop of this all-consuming love, an unexpected drama unfolded — that fall, during the same trip to Dublin, Joyce was led to mistakenly believe that Nora had been unfaithful to him in the early days of their romance five years earlier, a period he cherished as one of sacred intimacy. He wrote to her from what he would later characterize as a state of “utter despair,” attacking her for the betrayal, berating himself for being unworthy of her love, and treating her infidelity as proof of his unworthiness. In the midst of all this, Nora — who had been tasked with singlehandedly managing the household and raising the children while Joyce was away trying to get Dubliners published — grew increasingly frustrated and threatened to leave him.

When it became apparent that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding and Nora had never been unfaithful, he proceeded to send her a series of letters, both breathtakingly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, further berating himself for having so misjudged his beloved’s character and beseeching her to forgive him. In an intensely self-flagellating letter from early November of 1909, Joyce writes:

You write like a queen. As long as I live I shall always remember the quiet dignity of that letter, its sadness and scorn, and the utter humiliation it caused me.

I have lost your esteem. I have worn down your love. leave me then. Take away your children from me to save them from the curse of my presence. Let me sink back again into the mire I came from. Forget me and my empty words. Go back to your own life and let me go alone to my ruin. It is wrong for you to live with a vile beast like me or to allow your children to be touched by my hands.


Leave me. It is a degradation and a shame for you to live with a low wretch like me. Act bravely and leave me. you have given me the finest things in this world but you were only casting pearls before swine.

If you leave me I shall live for ever with your memory, holier than God to me. I shall pray to your name.

Nora, remember something good of the poor wretch who dishonored you with his love. Think that your lips have kissed him and your hair has fallen over him and that your arms have held him to you.

I will not sign my name because it is the name you called me when you loved me and honoured me and have me your young tender soul to wound and betray.

Art by Mimmo Paladino for a special edition of Ulysses

And yet the most hope-giving part of the episode is that the perceived breach of trust only strengthened their bond. Perhaps it is no accident that we use the heart — a mighty muscle — as the symbolic seedbed of love. It’s a biologically apt metaphor: We can’t build our bodily muscles without first tearing down the fibers of which their tissue is woven — hypertrophy, or muscle growth, occurs when the body repairs the fibers torn down during exercise, thickening them in the repair process. Trust, too, grows by hypertrophy.

A day later, Joyce writes to Nora — or of Nora, for he uses the third person to relay to her a diaristic vignette intended to convey the depth of his feelings for her:

I received two very kind letters from her today so that perhaps after all she still cares for me. Last night I was in a state of utter despair when I wrote to her. Her slightest word has an enormous power over me. She asks me to try to forget the ignorant Galway [Nora’s hometown] girl that came across my life and says I am too kind to her. Foolish good-hearted girl! Does she not see what a worthless treacherous fool I am? Her love for me perhaps blinds her to it.

I shall never forget how her short letter to me yesterday cut me to the quick. I felt that I had tried her goodness too far and that at last she had turned on me with quiet scorn.

Today I went to the hotel where she lived when I first met her. I halted in the dingy doorway before going in I was so excited.


I have been in the room where she passed so often, with a strange dream of love in her young heart. My God, my eyes are full of tears! Why do I cry? I cry because it is so sad to think of her moving about that room, eating little, simply dressed, simple-mannered and watchful, and carrying always with her in her secret heart the little flame which burns up the souls and bodies of men.

I cry too with pity for her that she should have chosen such poor ignoble love as mine: and with pity for myself that I was not worthy to be loved by her.


Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.

I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believe in as a boy.

Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.

Jim and Nora remained together for the remainder of the author’s days. Complement the amorous portion of Joyce’s wholly magnificent Selected Letters with the love letters of Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Charlotte Brontë, Oscar Wilde, Ludwig van Beethoven, James Thurber, Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Frida Kahlo.


Iris Murdoch on the Fluidity of Gender and Sexuality: Her Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Brigid Brophy

“It’s snowing (big flakes) and I love you.”

Iris Murdoch on the Fluidity of Gender and Sexuality: Her Intensely Beautiful Love Letters to Brigid Brophy

“A self that goes on changing goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her defense of letter writing as the humanest art. Hardly any writer has filled this ideal with more ever-changing aliveness than the great Irish novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) — a woman who lived by her own standards and sensibilities, defying convention not for the mere sake of defiance but out of a longing, above all, for a more evolved and expansive conception of love as the guiding force of life.

In her lifetime, Murdoch spent countless hours sitting at a roll-top desk once property of J.R.R. Tolkien, answering every missive she received and writing thousands of letters about literature, love, and life to friends, lovers, colleagues, and students. The finest of them are now collected in Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch, 1934–1995 (public library).


Perhaps most beautiful, electrifying, and psychologically revealing of all was her correspondence with her longtime lover and lifelong friend Brigid Brophy (June 12, 1929–August 7, 1995) — a remarkable polymath, social reformer, and animal rights activist who wrote novels, librettos, reviews, children’s books, and critical studies of influential artists, including a terrific treatise on Aubrey Beardsley. “You are certainly the best letter-writer I have ever encountered,” Murdoch gushes in one of her letters to Brophy, “your words all coloured and warmed by you.”

The two women were bound by an intense intellectual entanglement, their letters strewn with allusions ranging from Plato to Proust. But there was also an intensity of a different sort and a different order — a love both passionate and deeply affectionate. They had a great deal in common. Both were polymaths and gifted writers, both were in unconventional open marriages, both had minds of enormous intellectual and creative potency. They met under befitting circumstances — in 1954, Murdoch’s novel Under the Net won second prize at the Cheltenham Literature Festival; first prize went to 25-year-old Brophy’s Hackenfeller’s Ape.

Over the next few years, they corresponded regularly and became increasingly close. Murdoch was drawn to Brophy’s talent, beauty, and political idealism, but was at first hesitant about giving shape to the attraction between them, reluctant to meet Brophy’s unambivalent sexual desire in kind and engage in a romantic relationship.

In a 1960 letter, Murdoch writes:

My dear, your letters are so hard to answer… I am grateful in a straight and simple way for your kindness (and generosity). And of course because I admire you (more perhaps than you realise) I am flattered. And I adore the texture of your mind; and you are a writer and a thinker and beautiful. And you are witty. These things, though they remain scattered, are good and enrich me. I loved your flowers and your sending them – I have had much pleasure from them and they still bloom…

I stand between the difficulty of not making even a respectable vix satis [only just acceptable] sort of response … and the fear of “leading you on” in some non-admissible way… I do not want to harm you, though I would perhaps have no objection to hurting you in certain respects. Anyway. You see the difficulties. I cannot prevent myself (‘do not’ is better) from responding to your warmth and your (in every sense) wit. Yet you know I am in some ways no use…

With love

In another letter to Brophy, who was deeply interested in psychoanalysis and influenced by Freud’s work, Murdoch echoes Margaret Mead’s prescient views on the fluidity of gender and sexuality (set down in a letter to Mead’s own soul mate) and channels her ambivalence about the budding romance in a poem both playful and poignant:

Thanks for your poem (Freudian) received.
I must confess I found it quite a tonic,
And hope you will not be unduly peeved
If I reply in spirit more ironic.
I doubt in fact if you will be aggrieved
At being greeted in a style Byronic,
Since mixing of the sexes, which you prize,
Dear Byron certainly exemplifies.

How cleverly you write!
It’s quite confusing.
You want me female, then you want me male,
Or else hermaphrodite, to suit your choosing,
While for yourself you have some other tale
Of corresponding moves. (‘You are amusing!’)
To understand this stuff I simply fail,
Eschewing Freud and all his patter, for I
Don’t make of sex a basic category.

Of course, one has a sex, I can’t deny it.
For purposes of passports, clothes et cetera
I am a woman, and I don’t decry it.
Since man has always done his best to fetter her,
A woman would be man, if she could try it,
In many cases — but this would not better her
In any deep respect, and as a spirit
Woman is man’s superior in merit.


Nature denies us a consummate bliss
But gives us much to rest some happiness on:
Too great exactitude would come amiss.
Half sundered and in darkness we must press on.
For what it darkly is, then take my love,
And in the forest lost we still shall rove.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

In March of the same year, Murdoch continues to resist but is already developing a deep attachment to Brophy:

My dear, thank you very much for your letter. I loved seeing you.

Nothing is inevitable, I think. You move me deeply, as you know. But I cannot offer you more than I ever could, and even for that time and space divide us. This is a mouldy frozen-up reply to your charming letter (which I have destroyed: I’m afraid I did destroy the earlier ones too, which I now regret!).

I cannot think that (unless you throw me out, out that is of whatever and whenever I am in) I shall ever stop wanting to see you, and when I see you, being moved and affected in deep ways by you. I love receiving letters from you (and love writing to you, which is quelque chose as I detest letter-writing in general). I know I am unsatisfactory and that I must just ask you (and earnestly, because this matters to me) to put up with me as I am. (After all I put up with you as you are: or is this a Jesuitical argument?) Dearest girl, just that. I embrace you. Ever,


Over the coming weeks, Murdoch is further pulled asunder by the opposing forces of her desire for Brophy and her paralysis at the sense of lacking the courage to engage in a sexual relationship. She laments the dispiriting disconnect in another letter penned later that month:

My dear, this is the unsatisfactory sequel to my other letter… I don’t know what to say. You know I am deeply attached to you, and that attachment has survived shocks, misadventures and time. I think it is pretty strong and solid, and its continuance means a lot to me. Yet I am not quite constructed as you wish — hence partly conduct which seems from your end erratic… Your letter made me feel sad and ineffectual, desiring yet not finding in myself a strong full-blooded response of some sort to your fierceness.

By late spring, Murdoch’s longing and fearful ambivalence are reaching their respective crescendos:

It’s funny that it’s so plain that it’s love that makes the world go round, although it’s so very difficult to get it right. I mean odd that it’s so plain. I’m very tired and confused as you see.

A week later, the returns to the perplexing plainness of it:

One day you’ll realise that I’m not wise or detached enough to “do anything about you” which would be up to much, given that I can’t produce the essential goods: and then perhaps you will accept me as just a poor bastard who struggles along through life in a muddled way, and your old friend. Do not be obsessed or in pain, darling. How unnecessary it seems. Yet how much time one spends thus. I wasn’t drunk, incidentally, and love (properly understood) does make the world go round.


With much of that world-propelling stuff, Brigid, ever your unsatisfactory old

That fall, a curious factor infiltrates their dynamic — the inevitable boundary-breach that happens as the personal and the professional blur when two people both closely identified with their work find themselves enamored with one another and unable to tell where in the infatuation the person ends and the work begins. If you are vitalized by the world of ideas and turned on by brilliance, do you fall in love with the person or with the person’s brilliance expressed in the work — and can the two be disentwined? And when you are deeply invested in your own work, isn’t it fair to expect a prospective lover to love your work with the same passion that she loves you? How disorienting, then, for Murdoch to suddenly find Brophy critical of her work, having all the while assumed complete adoration.

To Murdoch’s credit, she handles her disappointment with extraordinary self-awareness and grace:

Until now I have taken the view that your odd attitude to my work was unimportant. Lots of my friends don’t like what I write … but mostly they keep quiet about it, and it doesn’t matter. I don’t, by the way, dislike, or don’t think I do, interesting criticism, if devoid of spite. Interesting criticism one practically never gets, of course. My own debate about the merits of my work and how to improve it is one that I think no one else can contribute to. I believe I have a reasonably just estimate of my faults and virtues as a writer and know when and in what respect I am overpraised. I confess I am surprised that you altogether dislike my work, as I should have thought it was complex enough to have some things in it which would touch your heart and mind. I am beginning now to think that your total rejection of it is important, and I am not sure what should be done. It is not a matter of love me love my books. I feel no specially protective attachment to the completed things which recede at a great speed into the past. It is partly that I am, I think, rather like my books, so that it is at least odd (and a little unnerving) to find you detesting them… I wonder if we shouldn’t perhaps discuss the whole matter sometime (an idea which before Sunday would have seemed to me ludicrous).

All my love

But despite the rejection of her work — or perhaps, in some strange sadomasochistic way, because of it — Murdoch’s attraction to Brophy only intensifies over the following year. Meanwhile, she is ever gracious and generous in her own response to Brophy’s work, writing in a 1962 letter:

I have read your novel with great delight. I do think it’s good, a handsome lovely clever book, with excellence on every page, as proper books should have. You must be the first person who has described sexual intercourse beautifully and well in a book.

The novel in question was Brophy’s Flesh, which she dedicated to Murdoch and sent her a beautifully wrapped copy inscribed “Flash, a navel by Brigid Bardot.” Upon receiving the gift, Murdoch writes:

Dearest girl, I have never before received a novel dedicated to me wrapped up in silver paper. I am utterly delighted. The labour of love round the outside is much appreciated too and I hope represents many happy hours. The picture of you on the back rather turns my head. The hunched broad-shouldered appearance is just right. […] I shall treasure it. I also liked the account of you and your Keeper; and the mysterious ‘go there’. (Where?) The dédicace gives me enormous pleasure. I feel very proud and want to go round telling everyone I know you. NB I adore the novel too. Thank you, Brigid. I embrace you, you dazzling creature. With great thanks and love, your much cheered up


In January of 1963, Murdoch is at last ready to consummate the desire between them and a romantic relationship ensues. (How disappointing, yet perhaps understandable given our culture’s long and lamentable history of denying the dignity of LBGT love, that despite their ample and unambiguous love letters, their relationship was repeatedly framed as a “friendship” in Peter Conradi’s 2001 biography of Murdoch.)

Murdoch writes to Brophy:

Dear girl, you made for once quite a sensible suggestion … that we should make each other happy. Let us do that. It may need a little care at first (like holding together two bits of cracked china…)

By the spring, she has fully surrendered to her romantic attachment and writes:

I count on your love (increasingly: alarming thought) — and the threat of its withdrawal causes much alarm.

But as the romance unfolded, Brophy began to demand increasingly more of Murdoch’s time and attention, which only reawakened the sense of deficiency that had held Murdoch back during her initial reluctance to engage in the relationship. At the end of September, she beseeches Brophy:

Dearest girl, forgive my falling short, and just take me along as I am. I can’t put it more eloquently, but I do love you. (You asked earlier: how did I know? Partly by introspection and partly by a study of my conduct.)

But this “falling short” — or the deliberate withdrawal punctuating their attraction — seems to be precisely what fuels the relationship. That spring, Murdoch writes:

I am a blunderer, but I don’t intentionally cause you real pain. If I ever deliberately twist your arm it is only to occasion so much pain as will be indistinguishable from pleasure. You on the other hand when you decide to punish me (vide the letter I received this morning) emulate Modesty [Blaise] with her kongo [Japanese martial arts weapon] and nerve-centres technique. Don’t do it. I am fonder of you every day and your power to hurt me grows alarmingly.

A week later, Murdoch pens a letter that captures the psychology of how frustration fuels satisfaction in love with extraordinary insight and metaphorical acuity:

My dearest creature, please forgive any hurt from my letter. I do love you, and that is the main point. And if I am alarmed at what seemed your vicious aspect you must appreciate that I have had cause for the alarm. Time cures these things and time is bringing us closer together. It seems absurd in a way how difficult it all is — maybe difficulty is of the essence. It is like a relationship between two railway engines. It would be nice to be together in one shed. But we seem to spend the time rushing about on various tracks trying to meet. Sometimes it looks as if we are going to have a head-on collision. Then one of us goes roaring away down a side track wildly whistling. Then when it seems we might come together the tracks suddenly divide…

Yes, I do love you, do believe it.


A few weeks later, she writes again:

The only thing I am “afraid” of where you are concerned is that you may suddenly put me in a position where I have to break off relations with you. This, as a hedonist who loves you, I should dislike.


How much I wish you would keep a true woman’s eye and love me still and know not why…

With love


The allusion is to a verse from an anonymous 17th century poem set to music as a madrigal, titled “Love Not Me for Comely Grace”: “Keep, therefore, a true woman’s eye, / And love me still but know not why — / So hast thou the same reason still / To doat upon me ever!” But by year’s end, Murdoch arrives at the inevitable “why” of love:

Darling, you know that affection and good will are no use. Only love is any use. […] Why can we not be in love with a love which is simply sui, nostri, generis [of our own kind]?


I can’t write more now, I am so tired. If you were here I would just touch you and feel better. I have no eloquence at the moment with which to try to persuade you not to recede from me — but do not.

In December of 1964, Murdoch returns to the intersection of the personal and the professional, inevitable in the synthesis of a love this intellectually charged:

I am amused that you feel it wrong to ask for the heart of any (woman presumably) who is not a great writer. (This would limit your choice to…?)

I am not a great writer. Neither are you. (I have never of course really told you what I think of your work, though what I have said is truthful. In fact I don’t think critically in detail about what you write. I love it as an emanation of you, and admire what is patently admirable in it.) I certainly don’t feel any inhibition about asking for your heart. I ask for it shamelessly and need it… Honestly I feel now I couldn’t possibly do without you. I don’t scream this only because I don’t really feel in danger of losing you.


Much much much love


Their relationship continued for the next few years, animated both by an intimate intensity and a wonderful sweetness — the kind captured in this disarming line from one of Murdoch’s letters from 1966, now a full twelve years after their first meeting:

It’s snowing (big flakes) and I love you.

Living on Paper is a revelatory and exquisitely insightful read in its totality, brimming with Murdoch’s uncommon sincerity and shrewdness. Complement this particular aspect of the tome with the love letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokov, Albert Einstein to Mileva Marić, Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer, Mozart to his wife, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.


Thomas Wolfe on Ambition, Gratitude, and the True Measure of Success, in Letters to His Mother

“It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life — the only thing that matters.”

Thomas Wolfe on Ambition, Gratitude, and the True Measure of Success, in Letters to His Mother

“Does what goes on inside show on the outside?” Van Gogh wrote to his brother in contemplating how ambition is transmuted into art, adding wistfully: “Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney and then go on their way. So now what are we to do, keep this fire alive inside, have salt in ourselves, wait patiently…”

Most artists are driven by this fuming disconnect between their interior fire and its exterior smoke, but few have confronted it with more blazing a refusal to be patient than the great novelist and dramatist Thomas Wolfe (October 3, 1900–September 15, 1938), who channeled his fiery ambition with extraordinary eloquence and intensity in the correspondence collected in the out-of-print gem Thomas Wolfe’s Letters to His Mother (public library) — the closest thing we have to a record of the creative credo animating one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.


Wolfe was very much a craftsman of his own destiny — his father was a gravestone carver, his mother operated a boarding house, and he was the youngest of their eight children. He entered college when he was only fifteen and was admitted into Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at nineteen. In a letter from mid-May of 1921, as he was completing his first semester of graduate studies at Harvard, twenty-year-old Wolfe writes to his mother:

I’ve put a heavy burden on myself; the burden of vindicating your generosity. If I fail you need never expect me home. You’ll never hear from me again. If I succeed, and it is on that I love to think, I will be able to return and afford you, I hope, a certain measure of satisfaction and pride. Meanwhile, whatever taunts may be thrown at me, if any, of selfishness, pride, conceit, snobbishness, or what not, strike against as tough a hide as a sensitive fellow can call to his defense.

I tell you, if success depends on desperate determination I will not fail. I think if the realization ever came to me that I was doomed to eternal failure, that “my bright sun” would always be just out of reach — I think I would kill myself… Of one thing I earnestly entreat you never to doubt: That is the sense of gratitude and loyalty I feel to you and Papa… When I retire at night, when I wake in the morning I am conscious of the weight of my gratitude; it is the spur that drives me on.

Thomas Wolfe and his mother sitting on the porch of Old Kentucky Home, the boarding house Julia Wolfe operated in Asheville, North Carolina
Thomas Wolfe and his mother, Julia, sitting on the porch of his childhood home in Asheville, North Carolina.

Shortly after Wolfe received his master’s degree from Harvard the following year, his father died — an event that devastated him and deeply imprinted his identity as a writer. To pull himself from under the weight of grief, he reached for the heights of creative self-actualization with ever-greater ambition and determination. In a letter from March of 1923, he writes to his mother:

I feel the sap rising in me, I cannot with all humility, help but feel that the thing is bound to come, and come with a rush when it does.

Two months lather, Wolfe’s ambition erupts:

I know this now: I am inevitable. I sincerely believe the only thing that can stop me now is insanity, disease, or death. The plays I am going to write may not be suited to the tender bellies of old maids, sweet young girls, or Baptist Ministers but they will be true and honest and courageous, and the rest doesn’t matter. If my play goes on I want you to be prepared for execrations upon my head. I have stepped on toes right and left… I am not interested in writing what our pot-bellied members of the Rotary and Kiwanis call a “good show” — I want to know life and understand it and interpret it without fear or favor. This, I feel is a man’s work and worthy of a man’s dignity. For life is not made up of sugary, sticky, sickening Edgar A. Guest sentimentality, it is not made up of dishonest optimism, God is not always in his Heaven, all is not always right with the world. It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life — the only thing that matters. It is savage, cruel, kind, noble, passionate, selfish, generous, stupid, ugly, beautiful, painful, joyous — it is all these, and more, and it’s all these I want to know and, by God, I shall, though they crucify me for it. I will go to the ends of the earth to find it, to understand it … and I will put it on paper, and make it true and beautiful.

But Wolfe, a staunch idealist who despised how commercialism hijacks beauty from truth, adds a piercing caveat:

When I speak of beauty I do not mean a movie close-up where Susie and Johnnie meet at the end and clinch and all the gum-chewing ladies go home thinking husband is not so good a lover as Valentino. That’s cheap and vulgar. I mean everything which is lovely, and noble, and true. It does not have to be sweet, it may be bitter, it does not have to be joyous, it may be sad.


I know there is nothing so commonplace, so dull, that it is not touched with nobility and dignity. And I intend to wreak out my soul on paper and express it all. That is what my life means to me: I am at the mercy of this thing and I will do it or die.

In a sentiment strikingly similar to young Sylvia Plath’s exaltation at the raw material of writing, Wolfe adds:

This is why I think I’m going to be an artist. The things that really mattered sunk in and left their mark. Sometimes only a word — sometimes a peculiar smile — sometimes death — sometimes the smell of dandelions in Spring — once Love. Most people have little more mind than brutes: they live from day to day. I will go everywhere and see everything. I will meet all the people I can. I will think all the thoughts, feel all the emotion I am able, and I will write, write, write.

In another letter to his mother from July of the following year, Wolfe revisits the sense of gratitude driving his art:

Life teaches us. Nothing endures. Nothing lasts except beauty — and I shall create that… I shall never forget, or be lacking in gratitude for what you have done for me — but I shall repay that some day. I shall be great — if I do not die too soon — and you will be known as my mother. I say that seriously — I believe it. There is no one like me, and I shall conquer. Fools will call this conceit, but let them say what they will — they are fools.

A little more than a year later, Wolfe began writing what would become Look Homeward, Angel — his autobiographical debut novel, the 1929 publication of which catapulted him into literary celebrity. He wasn’t yet thirty. Nine years later, complications from pneumonia took his life two weeks before his thirty-eight birthday. The day after his funeral, The New York Times wrote:

There was within him an unspent energy, an untiring force, an unappeasable hunger for life and for expression which might have carried him to the heights and might equally have torn him down.

Thomas Wolfe’s Letters to His Mother is an electrifying read in its entirety, brimming with precisely this “unappeasable hunger for life and for expression” that Wolfe channeled into his work and his ideas on art, literature, and life. Complement this particular portion with Georgia O’Keeffe’s magnificent letter to Sherwood Anderson on what success really means and David Foster Wallace on the double-edged sword of ambition.


Gustav Mahler’s Love Letters to His Wife

“I could sense the bliss that springs from love when one loves with total conviction and knows one’s love to be reciprocated.”

Gustav Mahler’s Love Letters to His Wife

“Music,” Oliver Sacks wrote, “can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” A great love letter, itself a high feat of composition, accomplishes the same — a parallel that might explain why great composers are also great writers of love letters, as evidenced by Mozart’s magnificent missive to his wife and Beethoven’s epistle to his “immortal beloved.”

In November of 1901, the great Austrian late-Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860–May 18, 1911), then director of the Vienna Court Opera, met Alma Schindler, a gifted aspiring composer herself. Nineteen years his junior and wary of his reputation as a serial romancer of young opera singers, Alma was at first reluctant to engage with him in any way. But Mahler fell madly in love with her and pursued her single-mindedly until she fell for him too. Their fervent courtship and subsequent marriage were by intensely beautiful love letters, second only to Vladimir Nabokov’s letters to Véra, eventually published in Gustav Mahler: Letters To His Wife (public library) alongside excerpts from Alma’s diaries that offer additional insight into the complexity of their romance, as any romance.

Gustav Mahler, 1902
Gustav Mahler, 1902

About a month after they met, Mahler found himself so lovestruck that he couldn’t envision his life without Alma. Desperate for a commitment, he sent her an extraordinarily candid letter that seemed, on the surface, like an ultimatum — he beseeched her to abandon her musical studies and give herself over to him wholly. But unlike Tchaikovsky’s concerns about having a wife more successful than him, beneath Mahler’s seeming ultimatum was simply a misguided attempt to counter the great vulnerability of love — in the face of our all-consuming longing for permanence and completeness, it offers no guarantees at all.

Mahler writes:

Almschi, I beg you, read this letter carefully. Our relationship must not degenerate into a mere flirt. Before we speak again, we must have clarified everything, you must know what I demand and expect of you, and what I can give in return — what you must be for me. You must “renounce” (your word) everything superficial and conventional, all vanity and outward show (concerning your individuality and your work) — you must surrender yourself to me unconditionally… in return you must wish for nothing except my love! And what that is,Alma, I cannot tell you — I have already spoken too much about it. But let me tell you just this: for someone I love the way I would love you if you were to become my wife, I can forfeit all my life and all my happiness.

Today I have to express myself without measure or restraint (to you this letter must appear immodest). And Alma, before I arrive on Saturday I must have your reply… Almschi, my beloved, be strict with yourself, regard me not as the object of your love (though that is what I otherwise particularly delight in), but imagine you are writing to a stranger who will then send me his report. Write with utter candor, tell me all you have to say and all you know. Rather than living in self-deception, I would prefer for us to part at once. — Otherwise, being the way I am, I know it would end in a catastrophe for both of us.

This letter will come as a dreadful shock to you — I know it, Alma, and even if this is only cold comfort, you can well imagine that I am suffering just as much. I call to God, though aware that you have not yet made His acquaintance, to guide your hand, my love, in writing the truth and not letting yourself be led astray by ostentation. — For this is a moment of great importance, these are decisions that will weld two people together for eternity. I bless you, my dearest, my love, no matter how you react…

Many tender kisses, my Alma. And I beg you: be truthful!

Your Gustav

As Mahler anticipated, the letter caused Alma great disquiet, for she recognized that it was indeed “a moment of great importance” in which she was called on to be indecision’s executioner. The following day, she wrote in her diary:

A.M. at home — this letter. My heart missed a beat … give up my music — abandon what until now has been my life. My first reaction was — to pass him up. I had to weep — for then I realized that I loved him. Half-crazed with grief, I got into my finery and drove to “Siegfried” — in tears… I feel as if a cold hand has torn the heart from my breast.

Mama & I talked it over late at night… I was dumbfounded. I find his behavior so ill-considered, so inept. It might have come all of its own… quite gently… But like this it will leave an indelible scar…

But by the following evening, her diary reflects a radical change of heart as she chooses love over work. A century before Anne-Marie Slaughter’s courageous case for considering conceptions of happiness other than professional success, Alma writes:

I forced myself to sleep the night through. This morning I read his letter again — and suddenly I felt such warmth. What if I were to renounce “my music” out of love for him? … And now I have a strange feeling that my love for him is deep & genuine… I long for him boundlessly.


Before lunch I went shopping in Döbling — just to get out of the house. My heart trembled in anticipation. On the way I met his servant. I read his letter on the street. How right he is about everything.

I love him!

The letter she read in the street was this:

My beloved Alma,

Here in my home town, where we can breathe the same air, I greet you from the heart! I had scarcely entered my room (how nice that you have already seen it!), when I espied that sweet, familiar handwriting, and I was not unmoved to read your dear words, which must have been written before you received my last letter — During the past two days, the thought of the initial impression it must have made on you has been dampening my spirits. My wish for both of us is that my letter will communicate nothing but my love and fidelity, and that you come to see how strong and deep they are.

You do realize, don’t you, how hard and uncompromisingly truthful I can be when I love someone? before I take you in my arms, we must be clear about everything — for this afternoon I would no longer possess the necessary strength and self-control to speak about the many things that have to be discussed. Never have I so desired or feared a latter from you as the one that my servant is now on his way to collect. What will you tell me?

But don’t get me wrong. It’s not what you say that will be decisive, but what you are. At this moment we have to disregard the passion that currently holds sway over us (which is only possible when we are not together — and that explains why I have communicated with you as long as possible in writing). Only then will we have found the inner calm and loving certainty to forge that bond which will bind us indissolubly, to our last breath.

That night, Alma writes in her diary:

He arrived — as kind and loving as ever. Our kisses were hot. I am wax in his hands… I want to give him everything. My soul is his. If only everything were clear!

With time as the great, perhaps the only, clarifying force, the two were married in a private ceremony seven weeks later. They remained together until the composer’s death in 1911 and continued writing each other beautiful love letters until the very end. In one, penned a few months before his death, Mahler writes to Alma:

Your latest letter was so sweet. For the first time in eight weeks — actually for the first time in my life — I could sense the bliss that springs from love when one loves with total conviction and knows one’s love to be reciprocated… But Almschi, you must keep repeating this to me, for I know that by tomorrow I shall no longer believe it! For this is “bliss without repose.” And now good night, my fairest, my sweetest one…

My beloved, your Gustav

Gustav Mahler: Letters To His Wife is a beautiful read in its totality, alive with an intense tenderness we rarely see committed to words, much less conveyed via our contemporary media of correspondence. Complement it with the love letters of Frida Kahlo, Allen Ginsberg, Margaret Mead, Violet Trefusis, Paul Cézanne, and Franz Kafka


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