The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘correspondence’

Ornery Little Critters

February 1, 2016 | by

S. J. Perelman, ca. 1957.

From a letter sent by S. J. Perelman to Betsy Drake, dated May 12, 1952. Perelman, one of the most popular humorists of his time, was born on this day in 1904; he died in 1979. Donald Barthelme called him “the first true American surrealist.”I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons—that is, a writer of little leaves. They’re comic essays of a particular type,” Perelman told The Paris Review in 1963. Here he advises Drake on the miseries of screenwriting. “The mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it’s unspeakable,” he told the ReviewRead More »

Truth in Advertising

January 29, 2016 | by

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Martha Jane Burke (“Calamity Jane”), on horseback in 1901. Photo: C. D. Arnold. Via United States Library of Congress

Another person is the best way to learn about a book. At least, it’s my favorite; good reviews are an art form, Web sites a modern marvel, but somehow my best-loved books have come directly from someone else’s recommendation, and the enthusiasm of those conversations is a pleasure in itself. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this particular chain of connection. When you think about it, most of the world’s great religions are based on book recommendation. 

I recently learned about the book I want to recommend to you today via someone whom I met while reporting a story. He, in turn, had been recommended the title by a horse trainer on a film set. Where that guy heard of it, I can’t say, but the chain is doubtless long—dating back, at any rate, to 1976, when Shameless Hussy Press published Calamity Jane’s Letters to Her Daughter

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The Invention of Serendipity

January 28, 2016 | by

The Three Princes of Serendip.

Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in a letter to another Horace—Mann—dated January 28, 1754. The occasion was pretty unremarkable—it was a happy accident, after all—and almost archetypally British: Walpole had used a talisman to discover a link between two families by investigating their coats of arms in an old book. At least Walpole was aware of the dullness of his eureka moment: “I have nothing better to tell you,” he writes, before launching into the fascinating etymology of his new word. It would take nearly two centuries for the adjective form, serendipitous, to come on the scene—its first recorded usage was in 1943. —D. P. Read More »

Letters from Vladivostok

December 14, 2015 | by

From Letters from Vladivostok.


More and more I enjoy seeing the herds go home at sunset or a little before—I amuse myself studying the faces of the cows and there are so many different expressions on them: the intellectual cow, the woman’s rights (or rather the cow’s rights) cow, the peasant cow, the grand duchess cow, the lesser nobility and the cows who would be charwoman if they were humans. And most of them remind me of people I have met. —Eleanor Pray, 1909

Last week, I received a letter from a reader named Birgitta Ingemanson. She’d read a piece of mine from last month in which I mentioned the doldrums that one can sail into when one is between books. These inter-book periods are restless times, and the transition from one world to another can be a challenge. If the book you finished was good, you mourn its loss. Conversely, a bad book can make you gun-shy. What if the next one’s no good, either? Birgitta wrote, “The thought came to me to send you the enclosed book, with the following simple suggestion when the in-between time strikes again: ‘Try this.’ ” The book was one she had edited: Eleanor L. Pray’s Letters from Vladivostok, 1894–1930Read More »

Extreme Remedies

December 7, 2015 | by

George Jackson’s Soledad Brother, forty years later.

George Jackson

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on the French revolutionary Madame Roland, here.

On August 21, 1971, George Jackson pulled a pistol on his wardens at San Quentin, the notoriously racist maximum-security prison to which he’d recently been relocated. When the news broke that he’d freed several of his fellow inmates, presided over the slashing of eight prison officials’ throats (six guards and two trustees), and then died under heavy gunfire while sprinting to freedom, it provoked a strange mixture of shock, anger, revulsion, and grief. Gregory Armstrong, Jackson’s editor at Bantam, would later confess to a reporter how relieved he was that he hadn’t followed through on his offer to help the younger man escape. Bob Dylan wrote a protest song in Jackson’s praise. (“He wouldn’t take shit from no one / He wouldn’t bow down or kneel / Authorities they hated him / Because he was just too real.”) Jackson’s attorney, Stephen Bingham, under suspicion of having smuggled in the escape weapon, fled the country for thirteen years. Huey Newton gave Jackson a long, effusive eulogy (“he lived the life that we must praise”). A group of Black Panthers imprisoned in Folsom advised his parents to “take pride in the fact that you have a large strong family of budding warriors.”

Since the 1970 publication of Soledad Brother, his ferocious, disquieting collection of letters from prison, Jackson had been an international celebrity. In his introduction to the book’s first printing, Jean Genet insisted that the collection “must be read as a manifesto, as a tract, as a call to rebellion, since it is that first of all.” Abdellatif Laâbi read the letters admiringly during his own imprisonment; they let “one follow,” he told his wife in 1975, “the transformation of a man who challenges a new kind of slavery, strips its mechanisms down, and keeps his dignity intact throughout the worst kind of ordeal.” The day before Jackson’s death in 1971, Derrida wrote Genet a long letter worrying that the introduction hadn’t done justice to the dire situation Jackson’s writing was meant to expose. “With the best intentions in the world,” he cautioned, “with the most sincere moral indignation in the face of what, in effect, remains unbearable and inadmissible, one could then lock up again that which one says one wants to liberate.” Read More »

Rimbaud Ascends the Alps

October 20, 2015 | by

Over the Gotthard, an engraving by Wilhelm Rothe after a drawing by Johann Gottfried Jentzsch, 1790.

From a letter by Arthur Rimbaud to his family, dated November 17, 1878, and sent from Gênes. After a disastrous affair with Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud, born on this day in 1854, left France to travel the world, eventually setting up shop in Ethiopia, where he sold coffee and arms before falling gravely ill. This note chronicles his harrowing journey through the Gotthard Pass, in the Swiss Alps. It’s translated from the French by Wyatt Mason, from I Promise to Be Good: The Letters of Arthur Rimbaud.

As for how I got here, it was full of wrong turns and sporadic seasonal surprises … for after a certain point no carriage could get through with an average of fifty centimeters of snow and a storm brewing. The Gothard crossing was supposed to be the route; you can’t get through by carriage in this season, and so I couldn’t get through either.

At Altdorf, on the south side of lake Quatre-Canton along the border of which we strolled through steam, the Gothard road begins. At Amsteg, fifteen kilometers from Altdorf, the road begins to climb and follow the contours of the Alps … At Göschenen, a village that has become a market town because of the affluence of its workers, you see the opening of the famous tunnel at the back of the gorge, the studios and canteens of businesses. Moreover, this seemingly rough-hewn countryside is hardworking and industrious. Even if you can’t see the threshers going in the valley, you can hear the scythes and mattocks against the invisible heights. It goes without saying that most of the local industry manifests in wood. There are many mining operations. Innkeepers show you mineral samples of every variety, which Satan, they say, buys on the cheap and resells in the city. Read More »