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Letters & Essays: 1990s

Letters & Essays of the Day

Denis the Pirate

By Denis Johnson

Ever since the earliest humans learned to sail boats on the sea, there have been pirates. Their main job is to steal treasure and bury it in secret places, but they also sink ships, take prisoners, collect strange animals, and perform bizarre tricks of magic. The most bloodthirsty and terrible pirate ever to sail the Caribbean Sea was my own great-great-great-great grandfather, Denis the Pirate. In the early 1700s no man lived who did not fear his name.

Growing up with Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy

By Reuel K. Wilson

My earliest memories revolve around a handsome white house in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, built by a sea captain toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It rests midway down a low-lying rise called Money Hill. Perhaps money had once been buried there; in any event its illustrious owner, EW, never had enough of it-due to financially irresponsible habits that included not paying income taxes, the lavish use of taxis (he never learned to drive) and the long-distance telephone.

Postwar Paris: Chronicles of Literary Life

By Alice Adams

Two of the most distinguished American literary artists of their generation—their names as frequently invoked by critics and historians as they are seldom linked—appear here in a conversation that is mostly about being in Pans after the Second World War. The occasion giving rise to this conversation was a late September, 1996, University of Pennsylvania weekend observation of my retirement from the English faculty there. When friends Norman Malier and Richard Wilbur accepted invitations to attend, I suggested talking about this experience that both had often said was personally important, that neither had ever overtly visited in his works, and that happened to have a particular relevance to the Penn audience in that season.

On the Cover: Kenneth Noland

By Karen Wilkin

Kenneth Noland’s name is synonymous with a particular kind of American abstraction—one based on the potency of color, rooted in the belief that relationships of hues, like music, can directly and wordlessly stir our deepest emotional and intellectual reserves. Noland’s name stands, too, for pictures with lucid, near-geometric formats—images that ring changes on frontal, symmetrical, deceptively simple compositions, brought to life by seductive color. Probably the best known of these are the Circle paintings—unabashedly beautiful concentric rings of disembodied hues—with which he first announced himself as a painter to be reckoned with, four decades ago.

Selected Notes from Hampstead

By Elias Canetti

In 1980, the year before Elias Canetti was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Susan Sontag wrote that the notebook was the perfect form for a writer like him-a man who was a student of everything rather than of anything in particular or “it allows entries of all lengths and shapes and degrees of impatience and roughness.” Canetti's published works are as various in their shapes as the entries in his notebooks. He originally intended his 1936 Auto-da-Fe to be the first in a series of eight novels, each examining a monomaniac whose madness typified a facet of the modern era.