Lessons in love and the early stirrings of genius appear in the casual correspondence of literary greats.
What is it about letters that speaks to us so powerfully, intrigues us so seductively? Letters in general have a way of revealing as much about the subject matter as they do about the author and the recipient, but when they offer slivers of the lives, loves, and longings of those we hold in high regard, they hold a whole different kind of appeal. Today, we turn to five chronicles of famous correspondence that shed new light on the hearts and minds of cultural icons.
1. Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom
As a hopeless lover of children's books, I have tremendous respect and infinite gratitude for Ursula Nordstrom (1910-1988), who headed Harper's Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940 to 1973 and who is often considered the single most influential and visionary champion of innovation in children's book publishing in the past century, reining in a new era of children's literature free from the approval shackles of morality tales and, instead, full of room for children's emotions and imaginations to roam. Known for trusting her intuition above all else, she edited -- and, some would say, co-envisioned -- such timeless classics as Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon (1947), E. B. White's Charlotte's Web (1951), Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are (1963), and Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree (1964), among many others.
In Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Leonard Marcus opens up the HarperCollins archives to reveal Nordstrom's remarkable character, with its rare blend of razor-sharp intellect and boundless creativity, through her correspondence. These letters -- witty, thought-provoking, hopelessly entertaining, unapologetically brilliant -- not only offer a priceless time-capsule of the collaborative work behind such iconic books, but they also bespeak Nordstrom's incredible work ethic that appears at once superhuman and underpinned by profound humanity.
"Nordstrom belongs to the last generation of devoted letter writers. She took immense pleasure in the act, often writing to authors when there was no obvious necessity of doing so, except for the all-important necessity of keeping a 'channel open' to them. Although she naturally did much of her editorial work with local authors in person or by phone, she also sent long, funny, perceptive letters to those with whom she had just spoken by telephone or just that day met for lunch. Time and again, she simply could not resist the temptation to write."
The portrait on the cover comes from none other than Maurice Sendak himself, whose own correspondence with Nordstrom makes several cameos throughout the book. From a letter to a 27-year-old Sendak dated February 21, 1955, which captures in equal measure Nordstrom's grit, gut, and exceptional graciousness:
I've wanted to write you a note and tell you over the 'phone that your new ideas for the ending of Kenny's Window seem wonderful to me, and I'm sure it's going to be a beautiful book. Keep working on it and when you have all the chapters together, you and I can go over it word for word, and get down to brass tacks, you should forgive the originality of my prose style. But the main thing is: thanks for everything I am sure you are doing to the book. The pages you showed me the other day in the Vanderbilt made me very very very happy.
As for your color pictures for the Krauss book -- words are no good whatsoever. There are a few peaks in an editor's life, and seeing those pictures of yours has been a peak of mine. They are indescribably lovely and absolutely perfect and -- well, pure in the best sense."
2. My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933
There's something relentlessly alluring about the voyeurism of other people's letters to begin with, but make them love letters and it's a whole different level of mesmerism. Such is the case of My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933, the product of an ambitious digitization project by Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, a fine addition to these 7 favorite digitization projects in the humanities.
This exceptional volume gathers 650 meticulously selected and annotated letters exchanged between one of the most prominent couples in art history, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) and legendary artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), who over the course of their 30-year romance exchanged more than 5,000 letters -- roughly 25,000 pages -- on everything from the rich detail of their daily lives to the breathless angels and demons of their passion.
Culled by editor Sarah Greenough, these missives -- sometimes sweet ("Dearest Duck"), sometimes steamy ("the sensuousness of you touching the sensuousness of me"), always profoundly heartfelt ("I love you, Dearest One, if I am capable of love") -- reveal a rare glimpse of the tender humanity behind the cultural icons and, along the way, offer a richer understanding of their creative process as artists.
From one of O'Keeffe's spicy letters, which seem to somehow mirror the fluid, light urgency of her floral paintings:
"Dearest -- my body is simply crazy with wanting you -- If you don't come tomorrow -- I don't see how I can wait for you -- I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours -- the kisses -- the hotness -- the wetness -- all melting together -- the being held so tight that it hurts -- the strangle and the struggle."
And from Stieglitz, as O'Keeffe became his photographic muse:
"- How I wanted to photograph you -- the hands -- the mouth -- & eyes -- & the enveloped in black body -- the touch of white -- & the throat -- "
(As a compulsive dasher myself -- sometimes to a painful degree -- I found their excessive use of dashes both comforting and charming.)
"How much we have in common. -- Traits. -- Both turn everything we touch into something really living -- & amusing -- for ourselves. -- Both can laugh -- really laugh -- even at our heartaches... 300 years you want to live!! -- I wish I could give you that as a gift -- "
Perhaps most poetic of all is that the couple's romance, captured in the 600 stirring pages of My Faraway One, embodies those highest ideals of being not merely lovers but also each other's finest muses, greatest fans and most constructive critics -- which makes it as much an invaluable piece of art history as it is a personal yet universal fragment of human aspiration.
Originally featured last October.
3. Young Hemingway's Letters
After spending a decade sifting through Ernest Hemingway's correspondence, Penn State professor Sandra Spanier collaborated with Kent State University's Robert W. Trogdon to curate this first in what will be a series of at least 16 volumes. The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907-1922, one of the 11 best biographies and memoirs of 2011, exposes a young Hemingway different, richer, more tender than the machismo-encrusted persona we've come to know through his published works. Though Hemingway had articulated to his wife in the 1950s that he didn't want his correspondence published, his son, Patrick Hemingway, says these letters could dispel the myth of the writer as a tortured figure and distorted soul, a pop-culture image of his father he feels doesn't tell a complete and honest story.
"My principal motive for wanting it to happen was that I think it gives a much better picture of Hemingway's life than any of his biographers to date [...] [My father] was not a tragic figure. He had the misfortune to have mental troubles in old age. Up until that, he was a rather lighthearted and humorous person." ~ Patrick Hemingway
The letters -- lively, quirky, full of doodles and delightfully unusual spellings -- cover everything from Hemingway's childhood in Oak Park, Illinois, to his adventures as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in WWI to the heartbreak of his romance with a Red Cross nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky and his eventual marriage to Hadley Richardson.