Posts Tagged ‘Eudora Welty’

Henry Miller loses it. Eudora Welty looks for a job.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
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lettersI just discovered the website “Letters of Note,” thanks to a couple of recommendations from friends.

The website is exactly what the title promises:  famous letters, culled from a variety of sources.  Here are the two my friends recommended.

First letter: author Henry Miller’s 1932 message to diarist and novelist Anaïs Nin.   They’d just started a torrid affair.  (And to think I’d settled for a dozen roses.)

August 14, 1932

Anais:

Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes—you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home, a Moor with a heavy face, a negress with a white body, eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can’t see how I can go on living away from you—these intermissions are death. How did it seem to you when Hugo came back? Was I still there? I can’t picture you moving about with him as you did with me. Legs closed. Frailty. Sweet, treacherous acquiescence. Bird docility. You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old—you are a thousand years old.

Inamorata  (Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

Inamorata (Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking. Not a passion any longer for flesh, but a complete hunger for you, a devouring hunger. I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible. Where has gone the time when men fought, killed, died for a glove, a glance, etc? (A victrola is playing that terrible aria from Madama Butterfly—”Some day he’ll come!”)

I still hear you singing in the kitchen—a sort of inharmonic, monotonous Cuban wail. I know you’re happy in the kitchen and the meal you’re cooking is the best meal we ever ate together. I know you would scald yourself and not complain. I feel the greatest peace and joy sitting in the dining room listening to you rustling about, your dress like the goddess Indra studded with a thousand eyes.

Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that’s in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don’t find them—not any. That means I am in love, blind, blind. To be blind forever! (Now they’re singing “Heaven and Ocean” from La Gioconda.)

I picture you playing the records over and over—Hugo’s records. “Parlez moi d amour.” The double life, double taste, double joy and misery. How you must be furrowed and ploughed by it. I know all that, but I can’t do anything to prevent it. I wish indeed it were me who had to endure it. I know now your eyes are wide open. Certain things you will never believe anymore, certain gestures you will never repeat, certain sorrows, misgivings, you will never again experience. A kind of white criminal fervor in your tenderness and cruelty. Neither remorse nor vengeance, neither sorrow nor guilt. A living it out, with nothing to save you from the abysm but a high hope, a faith, a joy that you tasted, that you can repeat when you will.

All morning I was at my notes, ferreting through my life records, wondering where to begin, how to make a start, seeing not just another book before me but a life of books. But I don’t begin. The walls are completely bare—I had taken everything down before going to meet you. It is as though I had made ready to leave for good. The spots on the walls stand out—where our heads rested. While it thunders and lightnings I lie on the bed and go through wild dreams. We’re in Seville and then in Fez and then in Capri and then in Havana. We’re journeying constantly, but there is always a machine and books, and your body is always close to me and the look in your eyes never changes. People are saying we will be miserable, we will regret, but we are happy, we are laughing always, we are singing. We are talking Spanish and French and Arabic and Turkish. We are admitted everywhere and they strew our path with flowers.

I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon’s soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.

HVM

Second letter:  23-year-old author Eudora Welty was looking for a job in 1933.  Where else but The New Yorker?  And what else could the magazine say but “no”?  I wouldn’t have hired her either.  It’s a bit too arch for me.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

welty

Older but wiser.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Remembering William Maxwell: “He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012
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Maxwell

Sophisticated? He didn’t think so. (Photo: Brookie Maxwell)

In preparation for Stanford’s “Another Look,” a new book club launched by the English department at Stanford, I wrote a retrospective on author William Maxwell, whose  masterpiece, So Long, See You Tomorrow, will be the inaugural book for  “Another Look”  on Monday, November 12.   The book will be discussed by award-winning author Tobias Wolff, with Bay Area novelist, journalist, and editor Vendela Vida and Stanford’s lit scholar Vaughn Rasberry, to be followed by an audience discussion.  More on “Another Look” here

***

“I never felt sophisticated,” the erudite and elderly Midwesterner explained to NPR’s Terry Gross in 1995.  His modesty is certainly one reason why William Maxwell remains a connoisseur’s writer, never achieving the wider recognition he deserves.

Yet Maxwell’s career was situated at the epicenter of American literature and letters: On staff at the New Yorker from 1936 to 1975, he was the editor of J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, John Cheever, and many other luminaries.  He also contributed regularly to the magazine’s reviews and columns, and continued to do so until 1999, a year before his death.  Maxwell wrote six novels, many short stories, a memoir, two books for children, and about forty short, whimsical pieces, which he called “improvisations.” Three volumes of letters have also been published.

Others have readily compensated for Maxwell’s modesty.  Christopher Carduff, editor of the Library of America edition of the author’s complete works, once called him “a kind, wise, quiet voice. One of the essential American voices of our time.”

“I don’t think he tried very hard to promote himself,” said writer Benjamin Cheever, son of novelist John Cheever, in a telephone interview. “He was very, very quiet – both as a public person and as a conversationalist.  He used a pause better than most of us use a paragraph.”

“He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation,” wrote John Updike in The New Yorker.  “His shapely, lively, gently rigorous memoirs, out of the abundance of heartfelt writing he bestowed on posterity, are most like being with Bill in life, at lunch in midtown or at home in the East Eighties, as he intently listened, and listened, and then said, in his soft dry voice, exactly the right thing.”

The path of Maxwell’s life took few sharp turns. He was born in Lincoln, Illinois, on August 16, 1908. His professional life was almost entirely bound up with the New Yorker, where he worked for four decades – in a sense, he became the “company man” his father would have approved.

After an intensely long and lonely bachelorhood, he married the most beautiful woman he had ever met.  Their marriage lasted until her death, a week before his own.  He and Emily (universally called “Emmy”) had two daughters – the first born when he was 46.

His work habits were relentlessly predictable:  According to his daughter Katharine Maxwell, he was consistently in bed at 10 p.m., and up at 6 a.m.  He didn’t like the superficial chitchat of cocktail parties.  He excused himself abruptly from dinner parties at 9.45 p.m. – he wanted to be fresh to write the next morning.

About four-fifths of his oeuvre is set in or around his hometown. Thanks to him, Lincoln has become a landmark as indelible as Hannibal, Missouri, in the annals of American literature.

“The shine went out of everything”

There was one defining peak on the otherwise rather flat landscape of Maxwell’s life: his mother’s death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, when he was 10. He never really got over it; almost all his friends and acquaintances speak about it when recalling him.

“He couldn’t speak of her without tears welling up in his eyes,” recalled his daughter, Katharine Maxwell. She said it resulted in a sort of flinty atheism, a grudge almost – “yet he said he thought God could write a better story than he could.”  Maxwell’s friend and fellow writer at the New Yorker, Alec Wilkinson, described him as “melancholy-minded.” Said Wilkinson: “His mother’s death stamped him forever with an awareness of the fragility of human happiness.  It kept him away from any religions. I remember him saying that ‘no one can fail to be astonished by creation – that’s as far as I’m going to go as to a governing faculty to the universe.’”

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