The Art of Friendship


Arts & Culture

Philia, the root of Philadelphia, roughly translates to “friendship” in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, an enduring source for understanding the ethics of friendship. Aristotle identifies three essential bases for friendship: utility, pleasure, and virtue. Friendships of virtue, Aristotle believes, are ideal because only they are based on recognition.

When I was thirty, I moved back to Philadelphia. I had only been gone a few years, and though I knew better, I had half expected it to be just as I’d left it. It was not: most of my friends had left the city altogether or moved, married, to the edges of town. Occasionally, I would run into people I had once known, encounters that produced deep and surprising embarrassment in me; unexplained life choices digested in fast, always alienating, appraisal. The more unsettling thing was that my close friendships were changing, too.

Friendship has never seemed both more important and less relevant than it does now. The concept surfaces primarily when we worry over whether our networked lives impair the quality of our connections, our community. On a nontheoretical level, adult friendship is its own puzzle. The friendships we have as adults are the intentional kind, if only because time is short. During this period, I began to consider the subject. What is essential in friendship? Why do we tolerate difference and distance? What is the appropriate amount to give? And around this same time, I discovered the curious, decades-long friendship between the writers Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, and the sculptor Wharton Esherick. Their relationship seemed to me model in some ways; they were friends for over twenty years, mostly living in different cities. Each man was dedicated to pursuing his own line of work, and the insecurities and single-mindedness of ambition seemed analogous too to the ways that adulthood can separate us from our friends.

Wharton Esherick’s studio and living space is preserved as a museum, about thirty miles outside Philadelphia. It stands in a cluster of the artist’s other handmade buildings on a little wooded lot. Esherick created much of what is found inside the museum, from the smooth-grained floorboards to the furniture, chairs, and oblong tables balanced on shapely legs or held up by a geometry of them. There are carved doors and coat pegs, tiny busts of the workmen who built the house, plus that of a songbird that often visited. In what used to be the bedroom is a photograph of Sherwood Anderson. “I produce because I want to make something with my talent equal to [my friend’s] production,” Esherick once said. “Fine music makes fine pictures. Fine pictures make fine drama. Fine drama makes fine music or poetry or song. Each stimulates the other… ”

Esherick met Anderson in the propitious-sounding refuge of Fairhope, Alabama. It was spring, 1920. Friendship, some say, is the province of youth, but Esherick was thirty-two when he met Anderson, who was forty-three at the time. Each man was near the start of his artistic career. (Anderson had recently published Winesburg, Ohio). Fairhope was a respite for Anderson from a struggling marriage; for Esherick, it was an escape from financial stress. The colony was (and remains today) a single-tax community, born from socialist utopian ideals. “A resort &hellip full of middle class eccentrics… ” Anderson sniffed at first arrival. Later, even he was seduced by the idylls of the place. (He declared he’d gone “color mad”). It was a productive, happy time; the men spent mornings at work and afternoons in shared recreation, in the woods or on the water.

Legend has it that it was Anderson who spied Esherick’s talent for woodwork first. At the time, Esherick considered himself a painter, and he was planning an exhibition for the community. As an experiment, he carved a frame for his painting Moonlight. The frame is engraved with sprays of pine needles gilded in bronze paint. It surrounds a dark impressionist-looking painting of a stand of Alabama pines. Anderson is said to have advised Esherick to quit painting for woodwork on sight. The influence that Anderson had on Esherick’s move from painting is unknown, but it’s not hard to imagine that Anderson’s recognition and encouragement of Esherick’s talent came at an opportune time. Esherick had been frustrated by his inability to find his own painting style. “If I can’t paint like Esherick, I can at least sculpt like Esherick,“ the artist said.

Do all friendships have a Fairhope-like heart, wherein the potential of friendship is a place, real or imagined, that we continue to inhabit even when reality challenges sentiment? Sentiment, the thing that Lionel Trilling said cost Anderson the ability to convey meaning in writing, may have no better host than friendship. Consider Anderson’s story “Loneliness.” In it, Enoch Robinson is a man of secret ambition and yearning. He sets out to be an artist in the familiar way. He goes to New York City and discovers people who set him aflame with enthusiasm, but who also have the uneasy effect of making him stupefied and mute, sidelined. Somewhat abruptly, Enoch gets married, becomes a father, dispatches to the suburbs. For a time, he takes pride in appearances, but a gnawing dissatisfaction gets the better of him. He leaves. Alone, Enoch peoples a room with invisible men and women, in whose special company Enoch finds happiness at last. When he meets a woman who promises real companionship, he feels his imaginary friends threatened. He drives her away and she flees, “taking all his people with her.”

There is an uneasy symmetry between the lives of Sherwood Anderson and Enoch Robinson. Anderson was a prosperous businessman until he made a dramatic break from his job and family. Shortly after, he took up writing full time. Anderson even kept a room in his country house full of photos of friends and men he admired. ‘[Y]ou may think it’s a poor substitute,” he wrote to H. L. Menken, in a letter requesting that Menken send a picture to add to his wall, “but a picture framed and hung up in a room I am in and out of every day does seem to bring my friends closer… ” The letter carries a whiff of Enoch Robinson’s ruinous impulses, giving the faint impression that friendship is a self-validating enterprise, friends themselves less important. Fortunately, likeness is fleeting. Enoch, hamstrung by ego, threatened by actuality, is condemned to life as an outcast; Anderson had many friends and admirers. And though he built a career on writing about alienation as a symptom of industrial life, he was not indifferent to its pleasures. He died, in 1941, after choking on a martini toothpick while cruise-bound for South America.

One day in 1916, Anderson, a longtime admirer of Dreiser’s, dropped in on the other man, uninvited. Dreiser closed the door in Anderson’s face, then promptly went to his desk to write a letter to Anderson apologizing for the bad behavior. “My first attempt to come a little closer to Dreiser,” Anderson admitted later, “was a failure.” Esherick’s first overtures to Dreiser were similarly rebuffed. Invited by an actress named Kirah Markham, Dreiser visited a theater near where the Eshericks lived with instructions to stay with the Eshericks overnight. It was 1924. When the theater lights dimmed, Esherick tapped Dreiser on the shoulder to whisper introduction and Dreiser, surprised, awkward as ever, pointedly ignored him.

The letters between Anderson, Esherick, and Dreiser are rich in the Aristotelian pleasure. Letters sent between 1920 and 1940 note arrivals, departures, delays, and visits to and from homes in Paoli, rural Virginia, New York City, and Mount Kisco. The men sailed on the Barnegat Bay, walked together in woods, drank and socialized together. They were ribald. Esherick’s papers include letters decorated with lusty doodles, a bosomy woman showering nude, a sketch of Anderson’s enormous rear end. Utility, too, emerges in material and emotional support. Dreiser employed Esherick to work on Dreiser’s country house in Mount Kisco; Esherick collaborated with Anderson on his collection of essays No Swank. When Esherick’s wife was hospitalized, it was Dreiser who offered words of reassurance and support. Dreiser penned Anderson’s eulogy and Esherick created the gravestone, a crescent that rises out of the ground, curving round itself, that reads, “Life, not death, is the great adventure.”

I had hoped the letters might reveal something about friendship: how to be a good friend, when to let go. And they did—but in negative. Virtue, it seems, lives in action; the ways that we make recognition known in matters important and not. Dreiser to Esherick: “Your future today is absolutely all ahead of you.” Anderson to Dreiser: “Jennie, Sister Carrie, the boy in Tragedy … In any one of such stories you break so much ground… ” Esherick’s scene-by-scene report to Anderson about the performance of a staging of Anderson’s Winesburg near Esherick’s home. The men gossiped, joked, and advised each other on reading, professional opportunities, family matters.

Friendship, Aristotle suggests, is the most immediate form of public personhood; it motivates a person for moral excellence, ennobles us to become a stronger unit for a social whole. And yet, the thing is this: the very material of friendship is the exchange of it. In friendship, sentiment is the relationship. Friendship may have a public aspect, but it is essentially a private exchange. If the letters between Anderson, Esherick, and Dreiser showed me anything, it is that friendship remains the special provenance of those who live it.

My own friendships go on changing, adjusting by degrees to demands that I won’t totally understand. A becomes a parent. B wrestles over what a career should look like. C’s stubborn nostalgia threatens to uproot what we still have in common. The reassuring thing is that no single law rules over us. Friendship is a return, as variable as we are.

Jessica Vivian Chiu lives in Philadelphia, PA.