My Dear Hawthorne, — People think that if a man has undergone any hardship, he should have a reward; but for my part, if I have done the hardest possible day’s work, and then come to sit down in a corner and eat my supper comfortably — why, then I don’t think I deserve any reward for my hard day’s work — for am I not now at peace? Is not my supper good? My peace and my supper are my reward, my dear Hawthorne. So your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter is not my reward for my ditcher’s work with that book, but is the good goddess’s bonus over and above what was stipulated — for for not one man in five cycles, who is wise, will expect appreciative recognition from his fellows, or any one of them. Appreciation! Recognition! Is love appreciated? Why, ever since Adam, who has got to the meaning of this great allegory — the world? Then we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended. I say your appreciation is my glorious gratuity. In my proud, humble way, — a shepherd-king, — I was lord of a little vale in the solitary Crimea; but you have now given me the crown of India. But on trying it on my head, I found it fell down on my ears, notwithstanding their asinine length — for it’s only such ears that sustain such crowns.
Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewood’s, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In me divine maganimities are spontaneous and instantaneous — catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can’t write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then — your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon. It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. Now, sympathizing with the paper, my angel turns over another page. you did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book — and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, — the familiar, — and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes.
My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning. Farewell. Don’t write a word about the book. That would be robbing me of my miserly delight. I am heartily sorry I ever wrote anything about you — it was paltry. Lord, when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So,now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; — I have heard if Krakens.
This is a long letter, but you are not at all bound to answer it. Possibly, if you do answer it, and direct it to Herman Melville, you will missend it — for the very fingers that now guide this pen are not precisely the same that just took it up and put it on this paper. Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! it’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.
What a pity, that, for your plain, bluff letter, you should get such gibberish! Mention me to Mrs. Hawthorne and to the children, and so, good-by to you, with my blessing.
P.S. I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.
P.P.S. Don’t think that by writing me a letter, you shall always be bored with an immediate reply to it — and so keep both of us delving over a writing-desk eternally. No such thing! I sh’n’t always answer your letters, and you may do just as you please.
I didn’t really start to read until I went to Graduate School and then I began to read and write at the same time. When I went to Iowa I had never heard of Faulkner, Kafka, Joyce, much less read them. Then I began to read everything ay once, so much so that I didn’t have time I suppose to be influenced by any one writer. I read all the Catholic novelists, Mauriac, Bernanos, Bloy, Greene, Waugh; I read all the nuts like Djuna Barnes and Dorothy Richardson and Va. Woolf (unfair to the dear lady, of course); I read the best Southern writers like Faulkner and the Tates, K.A. Porter, Eudora Welty and Peter Taylor; read the Russians, not Tolstoy so much as Doestoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and Gogol. I became a great admirer of Conrad and have read almost all his fiction. I have totally skipped such people as Dreiser, Anderson (except for a few stories) and Thomas Wolfe. I have learned something from Hawthorne, Flaubert, Balzac and something from Kafka, though I have never been able to finish one of his novels. I’ve read almost all of Henry James – from a sense of High Duty and because when I read James I feel something is happening to me, in slow motion but happening nevertheless. I admire Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. But always the largest thing that looms up is The Humerous Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I am sure he wrote them all while drunk too.
From a letter by Flannery O’Connor.
The letter, dated 28 August, 1955, was addressed to a young woman who began writing O’Connor after reading her work. Their correspondence lasted until O’Connor’s early death in 1964, and, as editor Sally Fitzgerald notes in The Habit of Being (where the letter is published), the letters to this woman (identified only as “A,” as she wished to remain anonymous) are particularly rich, in that all O’Connor “had to say to this almost uniquely important friend did not go up in talk but had to be written down.”
May 31, ’82.—”From to-day I enter upon my 64th year. The paralysis that first affected me nearly ten years ago, has since remain’d, with varying course—seems to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far; but my spirits are first-rate. I go around in public almost every day—now and then take long trips, by railroad or boat, hundreds of miles—live largely in the open air—am sunburnt and stout, (weigh 190)—keep up my activity and interest in life, people, progress, and the questions of the day. About two-thirds of the time I am quite comfortable. What mentality I ever had remains entirely unaffected; though physically I am a half-paralytic, and likely to be so, long as I live. But the principal object of my life seems to have been accomplish’d—I have the most devoted and ardent of friends, and affectionate relatives—and of enemies I really make no account.”
From an 1882 letter Walt Whitman wrote to a German friend.
It’s a fine novel [For Whom the Bell Tolls], better than anybody else writing could do. Thanks for thinking of me and for your dedication. I read it with intense interest, participating in a lot of the writing problems as they came along and often quite unable to discover how you brought off some of the effects, but you always did. The massacre was magnificent and also the fight on the mountain and the actual dynamiting scene. Of the sideshows I particularly liked the vignette of Karkov and Pilar’s Sonata to death—and I had a personal interest in the Moseby guerilla stuff because of my own father. The scene in which the. father says goodbye to his son is very powerful. I’m going to read the whole thing again.
I never got to tell you how I like To Have and to Have Not either. There is observation and writing in that that the boys will be imitating with a vengeance—paragraphs and pages that are right up with Dostoiefski in their undeflected intensity.
Congratulations too on your new book’s great success. I envy you like hell and there is no irony in this. I always liked Dostoiefski with his wide appeal more than any other European—and I envy you the time it will give you to do what you want.
With Old Affection,
P.S. I came across an old article by John Bishop about how you lay four days under dead bodies at Caporetto and how I flunked out of Princeton (I left on a stretcher in November—you can’t flunk out in November) … What I started to say was that I do know something about you on the Italian front, from a man who was in your unit—how you crawled some hellish distance pulling a wounded man with you and how the doctors stood over you wondering why you were alive with so many perforations. Don’t worry—I won’t tell anybody. Not even Allan Campbell who called me up and gave me news of you the other day.
P.S. (2) I hear you are marrying one of the most beautiful people I have ever seen. Give her my best remembrance.
(November 8, 1940; republished in New Directions’ edition of The Crack Up).
Why Scott—you poor miserable bastard, it was damn handsome of you to write me. Had just heard about your shoulder and was on the edge of writing when I got your letter. Must be damned painful and annoying. Let us know how you are. Katy sends love and condolences. We often talk about you and wish we could get to see you.
I’ve been wanting to see you, naturally, to argue about your Esquire articles [The Crack-Up]—Christ, man, how do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff? If you don’t want to do stuff on your own, why not get a reporting job somewhere. After all not many people write as well as you do. Here you’ve gone and spent forty years in perfecting an elegant and complicated piece of machinery (tool I was going to say) and the next forty years is the time to use it—or as long as the murderous forces of history will let you. God damn it, I feel frightful myself—I have that false Etruscan feeling of sitting on my tail at home while etcetera etcetera is on the march to Rome —but I have two things laid out I want to finish up and I’m trying to take a course in American history and most of the time the course of world events seems so frightful that I feel absolutely paralysed—and the feeling that I’ve got to hurry to get stuff out before the big boys close down on us. We’re living in one of the damnedest tragic moments in history—if you want to go to pieces I think it’s absolutely O. K. but I think you ought to write a first rate novel about it (and you probably will) instead of spilling it in little pieces for Arnold Gingrich—and anyway, in pieces or not, I wish I could get an hour’s talk with you now and then, Scott, and damn sorry about the shoulder. Forgive the locker room peptalk.
(1936; republished in New Directions’ edition of The Crack-Up).
Partial transcript from The Library of Congress:
Before I leave America I must see you again–there is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honour so much. With warm affection, and honourable admiration, Oscar Wilde.
The Walt Whitman Archive fleshes out the story:
On 18 January 1882 Wilde visited Walt Whitman in Camden, where the poet was then living with his brother and sister-in-law. Wilde told Whitman that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was first published, that Lady Wilde had read the poems to her son, and that later, at Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves to read on their walks. Flattered, Whitman offered Wilde, whom he later described as “a fine large handsome youngster,” some of his sister-in-law’s homemade elderberry wine, and they conversed for two hours. Asked later by a friend how he managed to get the elderberry wine down, Wilde replied: “If it had been vinegar I would have drunk it all the same, for I have an admiration for that man which I can hardly express”
Late in his life, William Gaddis became a big fan of Thomas Bernhard who he quoted at length in a letter he sent to critic Gregory Comnes (that’s Gaddis’s handwriting). Via/more.
Today is Raymond Carver’s birthday. Read excerpts of Carver’s letters to his editor Gordon Lish at The New Yorker. A few highlights (the letter from July 8, 1980 is fantastic and should be read in full, by the way)—
July 15, 1970
Hombre, thanks for the superb assist on the stories. No one has done that for me since I was 18, I mean it. High time I think, too. Feel the stories are first class now, but whatever the outcome there, I appreciate the fine eye you turned on them. Hang tough.
February 1, 1979
I’m going to Mardi Gras with Tess; and the Fords are coming down in March for spring break and we’re going into Mexico by train for a week. . . . I’m happy, and I’m sober. It’s aces right now, Gordon. I know better than anyone a fellow is never out of the woods, but right now it’s aces, and I’m enjoying it.
July 8, 1980, 8 a.m.
I’ve got to pull out of this one. Please hear me. I’ve been up all night thinking on this, and nothing but this, so help me. I’ve looked at it from every side, I’ve compared both versions of the edited mss—the first one is better, I truly believe, if some things are carried over from the second to the first—until my eyes are nearly to fall out of my head. You are a wonder, a genius, and there’s no doubt of that, better than any two of Max Perkins, etc., etc. And I’m not unmindful of the fact of my immense debt to you, a debt I can simply never, never repay. This whole new life I have, so many of the friends I now have, this job up here, everything, I owe to you for “Will You Please.” You’ve given me some degree of immortality already.
January 21, 1983
What’s the matter, don’t you love me anymore? I never hear from you. Have you forgotten me already? Well, I’m going back to the [Paris Review] interview and take out all the good things I said about you.