by Juhi Singhal Karan
There’s something enduring about words that have been inked onto paper by someone for another. These missives have the capacity to reach across space and time and touch lives that have nothing to do with the writer or the intended reader. Here we bring to you five such missives, five “letters of note” by bloomers.
Raymond Chandler: God damn it, I split it so it will stay split
Raymond Chandler, whose “ideas of what constitute[d] good writing [became] increasingly rebellious,” once wrote in a letter to his publisher that he very well knew the difference between “a vernacular style and . . . an illiterate or faux naïf style.” Just a year earlier he had asked his editor at The Atlantic Monthly to give the following message to his proofreader:
By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between.
Sherwood Anderson: His heart is not in his work
For the longest time Sherwood Anderson’s day job was in advertising. Till one day. He decided that enough was enough and wrote a letter of resignation, firing himself:
You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability, but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work.
There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing, being long and messy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtiniez of Kalamazoo when they come into the office.
But Anderson is not really productive. As I have said his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired and if you will not do the job I should like permission to fire him myself. I therefore suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the company on [the first of next week]. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let’s can him.
Mark Twain: All ideas are second-hand
Mark Twain’s words were voluminous and varied, from a letter to his three-year-old daughter to the would-be-next burglar. Here, from one of his many correspondences, is the letter he wrote to Helen Keller on, in the words of Brain Picking’s Maria Popova, “combinatorial creativity and the myth of originality”:
Oh, dear me, how unspeakably funny and owlishly idiotic and grotesque was that ”plagiarism” farce! As if there was much of anything in any human utterance, oral or written, except plagiarism! The kernel, the soul—let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances—is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. . . . [I]t takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing—and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite—that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple; and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.
Charles Bukowski: I started so late I owe it to myself to continue
Charles Bukowski became a “so-called professional writer, after giving the first 50 years away,” only after the publisher of Black Sparrow Press offered him a monthly stipend of $100. This enabled Bukowski to quit his job at the post office. In a letter to his benefactor, 17 years later, he describes “the steadily diminishing humanity of those fighting to hold jobs they don’t want but fear the alternative worse,” and goes on to say:
So, the luck I finally had in getting out of those places, no matter how long it took, has given me a kind of joy, the jolly joy of the miracle. I now write from an old mind and an old body, long beyond the time when most men would ever think of continuing such a thing, but since I started so late I owe it to myself to continue, and when the words begin to falter and I must be helped up stairways and I can no longer tell a bluebird from a paperclip, I still feel that something in me is going to remember (no matter how far I’m gone) how I’ve come through the murder and the mess and the moil, to at least a generous way to die.
To not to have entirely wasted one’s life seems to be a worthy accomplishment, if only for myself.
P.S. Duffy: Sometimes we need sharply drawn distinctions between good guys and bad ones
P.S. Duffy’s debut novel, The Cartographer of No Man’s Land, was deemed an “[E]ssential reading for historical fiction lovers” by Library Journal. In a letter to the book blog Books on the Nightstand she discusses genre divisions through the lens of Holden Caulfield’s and Scout Finch’s eyes, saying “The issue of genre is one that I’ve thought about since The Cartographer of No Man’s Land came out because it’s been called historical fiction, serious fiction, war fiction, and WWI fiction. Lots of categories—none of which were in my mind when I wrote it!”
Her [Ruth Graham’s] claim is that despite sophisticated writing and excellent characters, a good YA book has less relevance for the mature reader for than a teenager because the protagonists aren’t themselves mature. . . .
So what about Holden Caulfield and Scout Finch? They’re both young; they both gave us a vision of the world as seen through their eyes. They weren’t geared for the YA market because there wasn’t any such thing back then. Both books were read by adults and teens. . . .
The grown-up Scout narrator brings us directly into her child’s eye view of the events she recounts. Infused with the purity, simplicity, and idealism of a child, free of the concessions adult life demands, child Scout shows us civil rights as a struggle of good versus evil in a way that takes adult compromises to task and shames us all. Holden Caulfield struggles to be authentic in a phony world—one rife with the emptiness of conformity and false gods (money, power). This is not escape literature. It is serious literature.
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