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Posts Tagged ‘letters’

Context

November 6, 2014 | by

A daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson from Mount Holyoke Seminary, ca. 1847.

I’ve always loved this line of Emily Dickinson’s: “November always seemed to me the Norway of the year.” Where did I first encounter it? Who knows—maybe a kid’s book of quotations or a calendar or something else. I know the context was cheerful rather than melancholy, although on a day like this one—gray, rainy, fall shading into winter—it felt apt, in its gnomic way.

What did Norway convey to Dickinson, who had never left New England? A bleaker, more romantic version of the same? A place of Norse legends and epics? Perhaps she’d met Scandinavian immigrants and this informed her remark. But however she intended it, it’s so evocative. It was not until very recently that I read the fuller context, from an 1864 letter to her frequent correspondent Elizabeth Holland:

It is also November. The noons are more laconic and the sunsets sterner, and Gibraltar lights make the village foreign. November always seemed to me the Norway of the year. ------ is still with the sister who put her child in an ice nest last Monday forenoon. The redoubtable God! I notice where Death has been introduced, he frequently calls, making it desirable to forestall his advances.

In the same letter, she mentions the recent death of the family’s maid, Margaret O’Brien—“I winced at her loss, because I was in the habit of her, and even a new rolling-pin has an embarrassing element, but to all except anguish, the mind soon adjusts.” Another friend is ill. And, of course, there would have been the background of the Civil War, felt even from within her home. The letter ends, “Sharper than dying is the death for the dying’s sake.” 

The first English translation of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s landmark Popular Tales from the Norse appeared in 1859. It’s filled with trolls, enchanted animals, captive princesses held under spells. One of the best known is “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” a Cupid-Psyche story in which a maiden is only allowed to interact with her husband by darkness. Others feature mountain people, envious of those who get to live by daylight. Did it make its way to Amherst? I have never read of it in Dickinson’s letters, but perhaps a scholar can tell me otherwise. 

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God, Satan, Waugh

October 28, 2014 | by

Evelynwaugh

A portrait of Waugh by Carl Van Vechten.

Evelyn Waugh was born today in 1903. You can read his Art of Fiction interview here, but there’s also, courtesy of the Spectator’s seemingly endless archives, this unverified bit of trivia from a letter to the paper sent in 1971:

Sir: Colin Wilson, your reviewer of Graham Greene’s autobiography A Sort of Life quotes from a supposed remark that Evelyn Waugh made to Greene—‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of God than Wodehouse made out of Jeeves.’

I believe there are other versions of this story, although I cannot now remember who told me mine.

A few years ago, while in New York, I was but a stone’s throw from the Algonquin Hotel, Mr. Waugh and Mr. Greene were staying in the hotel. Late in the night Mr. Waugh popped into Mr. Greene’s room where a publisher’s party was still going strong to celebrate another Greene book. At some point during this party Evelyn Waugh announced: ‘You know, Graham, you’ve made more money out of the Devil than I’ve made out of God.’

Apocryphal or otherwise, the story does contain a more typical Waugh bite than the Jeeves analogy.

Michael Hastings

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Ultrarumpus

October 14, 2014 | by

1000px-EE_Cummings_signature.svg 

For E. E. Cummings’s birthday: a letter he wrote to Ezra Pound in October 1941, larded with gossip, political commentary, neologisms, and mordant pseudonyms. (Look out for Archibald MacLeish and William Carlos Williams, among others.) Pound and Cummings first met in Paris in 1921; this letter and others from the expansive Pound-Cummings correspondence appeared in our Fall 1966 issue, with Cummings’s “often eccentric punctuation and his verbal byplay intact.”

October 8, 1941

DEAR EZRA

whole, round, and heartiest greetings from the princess & me to our favorite Ikey-Kikey, Wandering Jew, Quo Vadis,Oppressed Minority Of one, Misunderstood Master, Mister Lonelyheart, and Man Without A Country

re whose latest queeries

            East Maxman has gone off on a c-nd-m in a pamphlet arguing everybody should support Wussia, for the nonce. “Time” (a loose) mag says Don Josh Bathos of London England told P.E.N. innulluxuls that for the nonce writers shouldn’t be writing. Each collective choisi(pastparticiple,you recall,of choisir)without exception and—may I add—very naturally desires for the nonce nothing but Adolph’s Absolute Annihilation, Coûte Que Coûte (SIC). A man who once became worshipped of one thousand million pibbul by not falling into the ocean while simultaneously peeping through a periscope and sucking drugstore sandwiches is excoriated for,for the nonce,freedom of speech. Perfectly versus the macarchibald maclapdog macleash—one(1)poet,John Peale Bishop, hold a nonce of a USGov’t job;vide ye newe Rockyfeller-sponsored ultrarumpus to boost SA infrarelations. Paragraph and your excoed Billy The Medico made a far from noncelike W.C. of himself(per a puddle of a periodical called “Decision”)relating how his poor pal E.P. = talented etc but ignorant ass who etc can’t play the etc piano etc… over which tour d’argent the wily Scotch duckfuggur Peter Munro Jack 5 Charles Street NYCity waxed so wroth he hurled at me into New Hampshire a nutn if not incandescing wire beginning “stab a man in the back but do it three years too late”:’twould hence appear you’ve still some friends, uncle Ezra, whether vi piace or non

now to descend to the surface;or, concerning oldfashioned i: every whatsoever bully(e.g. all honourless & lazy punks twerps thugs slobs politicos parlourpimps murderers and other reformers continues impressing me as a trifle more isn’t than least can less and the later it’s Itler the sooner hit’s Ess. Tune: The Gutters Of Chicago

“make haste” spake the Lord of New Dealings
“neutrality’s hard on my feelings”
—they returned from the bank
with the furter in frank:
& the walls,& the floors,&the ceilings)

As my father wrote me when I disgraced Orne—forsan et haec. And the censor let those six words through

hardy is as hardy does

                                    —salut!

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Just Slap Something on It

October 2, 2014 | by

vangoghletter

A sketch of a cicada in a van Gogh letter from July 1888.

Next month will come Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent van Gogh, which runs to nearly eight hundred pages and is frequently more absorbing, expansive, and instructive than a collection of letters ought to be. (He seldom seems to miss the forest for the trees, you could say.) As I thumbed through it, a passage leaped out at me from exactly 130 years ago—a letter van Gogh wrote to his younger brother, Theo, on October 2, 1884. It’s both Grade A existential grousing—were it not for the (faintly) uplifting conclusion, I could’ve believed that Thomas Bernhard wrote it—and, it seems to me, pretty sound advice.

Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares—and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’

Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.

But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs on to that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’—they say.

Let them talk, those cold theologians.

Letter_of_Van_Gogh

A letter of van Gogh’s from May 2, 1890.

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Staff Picks: Beckett, Boxtrolls, Bard

September 26, 2014 | by

Boxtrolls

A still from Boxtrolls.

Reading a collection of letters from the beginning straight through to the end is one step up from reading the phone book. I know there are valuable bits throughout literary letters, but they’re so often scattered among details like how much so-and-so paid for a ham sandwich and how hard it is to find a good Danish translator. So I have not read all of the third volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters, but I have nevertheless spent a good deal of time with it. The years 1957 through 1965 find Beckett at the height of his fame. He writes very soberly but with affection and appreciation, no matter the subject. In response to Robert Pinget’s highly unfavorable reaction to Comment c’est, Beckett writes, “I am grateful to you for being so frank. That is friendship.” My favorite parts in the letters are the seemingly rare moments in which Beckett seems to loosen up, as when he writes to the radio producer and translator Barbara Bray, with whom he was close, “Bought six pairs of socks today in the Wednesday market. Very colourful. Not the socks. 5 francs a pair.” Or, in another letter to Bray, “Still drunk this morning after sudden hopeless useless midnight bucket of brandy and sitting in special ever since 37 pub and have yours to hand and in head grinding old poem in vain by Hölderlin influences entitles Dieppe circa 37 also … ” —Nicole Rudick

I was appalled to learn from The New Yorker today of a London pop-up restaurant called Death Row Dinners, which will, for fifty quid, “incarcerate” you at “one of London’s toughest high-security restaurants, where our prison chefs serve up a five-course feast of their culinary twists on some of death row’s most interesting and popular last dinners.” It’s not that I find the concept tasteless—it’s that I thought of it first, two years ago, in a satirical essay about food and death. I was all set to litigate, but then I kept reading that New Yorker piece: turns out Death Row Dinners was deemed so offensive that the organizers shut it down, apparently after they were subjected to “seriously threatening behavior.” Still, I don’t want to miss out on any future business opportunities, so I’ll just go ahead and toot my own horn here: I had two other great restaurant ideas in my essay. One was Admiral O’Heimlich’s, a surf and turf pub where community actors feign asphyxia and the waitstaff teaches you how to save choking victims. The other was Turks and Cake-os, a turkey and cake shoppe kept at tropical temperatures and lit exclusively by sunlamps. I’m willing to speak to investors about either, or both. —Dan Piepenbring

Do the imaginative side of yourself a favor and go see Laika’s latest handmade creationThe Boxtrolls, which opens tonight nationwide. The film, based on Alan Snow’s Here Be Monsters!, is at times dark, at times heartwarming, and visually stunning all throughout—especially when you consider that a vast majority of the film, like its predecessors Coraline and ParaNorman, is painstakingly animated. (Full disclosure: my sister, Emelia, is one of the artists who designs and builds the puppets.) —Stephen A. Hiltner

As a Bard alumna, it would be unforgivably rude of me not to mention Alice Gregory’s magnificent profile on Leon Botstein, the president of the college, in this week’s New Yorker. In “Pictures from an Institution,” Gregory, a former Bardian herself, asks a question not unfamiliar to those who regard Leon as a beau ideal of intellectualism and progressive action: What is Bard without Botstein? He has, after all, “built [it] in his own polymath image,” and since he’s sixty-seven—having started as president in 1975, at age twenty-seven—the question of institutional identity is more pressing than ever. But Gregory doesn’t, can’t possibly, answer this. Instead, she shows us Botstein’s idiosyncratic mind. He is an educator; a father; an admirer of horology; a conductor; a raconteur; a man who used to be a boy who stuttered and was called Durachyok, or little fool; and the face not only of Bard but Bard’s Prison Initiative, a program that admits and awards college degrees to inmates. Gregory’s profile renders Botstein so well that we worry about Bard all the more acutely after reading it. —Caitlin Youngquist

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Writing Advice from D. H. Lawrence at Twenty-One

September 11, 2014 | by

Burrows-Lawrence

On September 11, 1906, D. H. Lawrence turned twenty-one. Around that time he wrote this letter to Louie Burrows, a friend with whom he attended University College in Nottingham. The letter dissects one of Louie’s essays about art; it finds Lawrence full of youthful arrogance (“Like most girl writers you are wordy”) and optimism (“the world abounds with new similes and metaphors”). Lawrence and Burrows corresponded steadily for years; in 1910, they were engaged, though Lawrence broke off the engagement in 1912. (The “J” he refers to here is Jessie Chambers, another of his love interests.)

Dear Louie,

I am going to quizz [sic] your essay, not in the approven [sic] school-mistress style, but according to my own whimsical idea, which you may or may not accept. First of all I will find fault.

I do not like the introductory paragraph, it is like an extract from a Catalogue of Pictures for sale at some auctioneers … Like most girl writers you are wordy. I have read nearly all your letters to J, so I do not judge only from this composition. Again and again you put in interesting adjectives and little phrases which make the whole piece loose, and sap its vigour. Do be careful of your adjectives—do try and be terse, there is so much more force in a rapid style that will not be hampered by superfluous details. Just look at your piece and see how many three lined sentences could be comfortably expressed in one line. Read More »

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