by THOMAS WOLFE
New York City
DEAR MRS. ROBERTS : &emdash
. . . I have poured my life, my strength, and almost all my time for almost a year into my book, which is now nearing its end. I think it is the best thing I’ve ever done: certainly it is the only thing I have ever really worked on. I have learned that writing is hard work, desperate work, and that (as Ben Jonson said) “Who casts to write a living line must sweat.” I have lived since I came back to New York in a deserted ramshackle building that trembles when a car passes; I have lived in its huge dirty garret, without heat, without plumbing — without anything but light. My mother wrote me several weeks ago — I hear from at least one member of my family every two or three months — congratulating me on the possession of “rich friends.” Well, I suppose I have rich friends — a few of all kinds, rich and poor, have shown me amazing devotion — but I have taken only what was necessary for the barest existence. I have lived closer to poverty this year than ever in my life. And I do not regret it. I have had all I needed. The world for me was ghost when I wrote.
I don’t know what the outcome will be. I have no power to peddle my wares, and I strike patronage a blow in the face. The other day word reached me that a rich woman who has supported a famous little theater here for years (Miss Alice Lewisohn of the Neighborhood Playhouse) had told one of the directors last year that she would have done my play (Welcome) but that I was the most arrogant young man she had ever known. The news gave me pleasure: my proud foolish words to her of disdain and contempt came back to me and I felt that I had acted well — I who will never be dandled into reputation by wealth. I have forsaken all groups; I live, save for the affection of a few friends, as much alone as anyone can live. And I know I am right! I believe — they believe — I shall come through. I am swamped with offers of employment for the next year — at N.Y.U., with an advertising company, in the movies, scenario. I have accepted none of them — I hope I shall find one when the time comes. But I have done nothing, thought of nothing, but writing. I wish I could tell you more of my book. I meant alone this: I think I shall call it Alone, Alone, for the idea that broods over it, and in it, and behind it is that we are all strangers upon this earth we walk on — that naked and alone do we come into life, and alone, a stranger, each to each, we live upon it. The title, as you know, I have taken from the poem I love best: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: —
Alone on a wide, wide sea!
And never a saint took pity on
My soul in agony.
My state is not bad — in spite of the fact that I am considered arrogant and proud (the protective coloration of one who was born without his proper allowance of hide). I am told, by someone who loves me, that I could have what I want of people — “the city at my feet,” and so on — if I let myself out on them. Perhaps not — but, what’s better, my friends like me.
I’m very tired; my health has stood the pounding beautifully. I don’t know what I shall do when I finish. J may go abroad for a short trip. . . .
Written from New York, April 6,1928
Forgive this long silence. I finished my book and sent it to a publisher for reading ten days ago. This means nothing more than that it will get read, and that I will get an answer in another three weeks. I am completely, utterly exhausted — the last twenty pages were agony — but I have a feeling of enormous relief to know that it’s done. I have done a rashly experimental thing — the publishing firm said it’s the longest manuscript they’ve had since An American Tragedy — but like Martin Luther, I couldn’t do otherwise. Hereafter I’ll keep more within prescribed limits. The dean of Washington Square College (N.Y.U.), who is a young man, a millionaire, an idealist, and a sensitive, romantic person, has just: finished reading it. He wrote me a magnificently honest letter about it: he was terribly shocked at the pain, the terror, the ugliness, and the waste of human life in the book — he thought the people rose to nobility and beauty only at the end (in this he is terribly wrong!). But he said the book was unique in English and American literature, that if it is published it must be published without changing a word, and that he felt he had lived with the people in it for years.
Whether any publisher can be found who is willing to take the chance, I don’t know. But, for good or bad, I’m going the whole distance now. I shall not be back at N.Y.U. next fall. They have been splendid and offered me a raise, and finally told me the latchstring was out at any time — that I could come back any time I needed the job.
If the book doesn’t go, I’m going to begin hack writing — stories, articles, advertising — anything I can get. Anything is right, I feel, that will take me closer to the heart of my desire. I shall probably go abroad again this summer — where or for how long I can’t say. Again, a great deal depends on the book. . .
Written from New York, January 12, 1929
Everything you write has power to touch and move me and excite me. My heart beats faster when I see your writing on a piece of paper, and I read what you write me over and over again, exultant and happy over every word of praise you heap upon me. Nothing you have ever written me has so stirred me as your letter which I got today. I have mounted from one happiness to another during this past week since I came back from Europe, and the knowledge that you are now so generously sharing with me my joy and hope just about sends the thermometer up to the boiling point. For several days now I have felt like that man in one of Leacock’s novels who “sprang upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.” I have literally been like that — at times I have not known what to do with myself. I would sit in the club here stupidly, staring at the publisher’s glorious letter of acceptance; I would rush out and walk eighty blocks up Fifth Avenue through all the brisk elegant crowd of late afternoon. I am gradually beginning to feel grand again, and it is occurring to me that the only thing to do is to get to work again.
I have the contract in my inner breast pocket, ready to be signed, and a check for $450 pinned to it, $50 having already been paid to my literary agent, Mrs. Ernest Boyd, as her 10 per cent share. There is literally no reason why I should walk around New York with these documents on my person, but in a busy crowd I will sometimes take them out, gaze tenderly at them, and kiss them passionately. Scribner’s have already signed the contract, I am to sign it Monday, but, with their customary fairness, they have advised me to show it to a lawyer before I sign it. I am therefore going with Mrs. Boyd on Monday to see Mr. Melville Cane, a lawyer, a poet, an associate of Harcourt, Brace and Company, and the finest attorney on theatrical and publishing contracts in America. I have met him once, he read part of my book, and he has since been my friend and well-wisher. He told the person who sent me to him some time ago that I represented what he had wanted to be in his own life, that I was one of the most remarkable people he had ever met. And when he was told yesterday that I had sold my book he was delighted.
I am filled at the moment with so much tenderness towards the whole world that my agent, Mrs. Boyd, is worried — she is a Frenchwoman, hard and practical, and she does not want me to get too soft and trusting in my business relations. I wrote Scribner’s a letter of acceptance in which I could not hold myself in. I spoke of my joy and hope, and my affection and loyalty towards the publishers who had treated me so well, and my hope that this would mark the beginning of a long and happy association which they would have no cause to regret. In reply I got a charming letter in which they told me I would never have to complain of the interest and respect they have for my work. Mrs. Boyd herself was almost as happy as I was — although she is agent for almost every important French author in America, and publishing and acceptances are the usual thing for her — she said the thing was a great triumph for her as well, as Scribner’s consider me “a find” and are giving her credit for it. It is all very funny and moving. Seven months ago when she got the book and read parts of it, she got interested — it was too long (she said), but there were fine things in it, she thought someone might be interested, and so on. Now I am a “genius” —she is already sorry for poor fellows like Dreiser and Anderson; she told the publishers that “this boy has everything they have in addition to education, background (etc., etc.). Of course, poor fellows,” she said, “it’s not their fault — they never had the opportunity” — and so on and so on. Also, she pictures the other publishers as tearing their hair, gnashing their teeth, and wailing because they are not publishing the book. She gave it to one or two to read — they all said it had fine things in it, but was too long, they must think about it, etc. — and meanwhile (says she) Scribner’s got it. . . .
I want to start and continue my life by being decent and loyal to those people who have stood by me — whether for business or personal reasons. If we muddy and cheapen the quality of our actual everyday life the taint, I believe, is bound to show, sooner or later, in what we create. Mrs. Boyd is so happy that Scribner’s took it. She said I should be very proud of that; she said they were the most careful and exacting publishers in America — others publish 50 or 100 novels a year, but Scribner’s only 10 or 12, although they bring out many other books. They are also trying to get the younger writers — they now have Ring Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway (to say nothing of Wolfe). They were reading sections of my book, they told me, to Lardner and Hemingway a week before I got home — I’m afraid somewhat coarse and vulgar sections.
Finally, I must tell you that the ten days since I got home on the Italian boat have been the most glorious I have ever known. They are like all the fantasies I had as a child of recognition and success — only more wonderful. That is why my vision of life is becoming stronger and more beautiful than I thought possible a few years ago — it is the fantasy, the miracle that really happens. For me at any rate. My life with its beginnings has been a strange and miraculous thing. I was a boy from the mountains, I came from a strange wild family, I went beyond the mountains and knew the state, I went beyond the state and knew the nation, and its greatest university, only a magic name to my childhood, I went to the greatest city and met strange and beautiful people, good, bad, and ugly ones, I went beyond the seas alone and walked down the million streets of life. When I was hungry and penniless, anemic countesses, widows of broken-down opera singers — all manner of strange folk — came to my aid. In a thousand places the miracle has happened to me. Because I was penniless and took one ship instead of another I met the great and beautiful friend who has stood by me through all the torture, struggle, and madness of my nature for over three years, and who has been here to share my happiness these past ten days. That another person, to whom success and greater success is constant and habitual, should get such happiness and joy from my own modest beginning is only another of the miracles of life.
Ten days ago I came home penniless, exhausted by my terrible and wonderful adventures in Europe, by all I had seen and learned, and with only the hated teaching, — now become strangely pleasant , — or the advertising, before me. The day after New Year’s — truly a New Year for me — it began: the publisher’s demand over the telephone that I
come immediately to his office, that first long conference, as I sat there wild, excited, and trembling as it finally dawned on me that someone was at last definitely interested, the instructions to go away and think over what had been said two or three days, the second conference, when I was told definitely they had decided to take it, the formal letter of acceptance, with the terms of the contract, and finally the contract itself, and the sight of the blessed check. Is not this too a miracle?— to have happened to a penniless unhappy fellow in ten days? Are a child’s dreams better than this? Mrs. Boyd, trying to hold me down a bit, said that the time would soon come when all this would bore me, when even notices and press clippings would mean so little to me that I would not glance at them — so, she says, does her husband, a well-known critic and writer, feel and act. But isn’t it glorious that this should have happened to me when I was still young and rapturous enough to be thrilled by it? It may never come again, but I’ve had the magic — what Euripides calls “the apple tree, the singing, and the gold.”
Of my voyage in Europe this time, of all that happened to me this time, and of how all this began I can do no more here than to give you a summary: of my adventures on the ship, of my wanderings in France and Belgium and Germany, of all the books and pictures I saw and bought, of my new book, now one third written, of my stay in Munich and the strange and terrible adventure at the Oktoberfest (with all its strange and beautiful aftermath) — how, insane with the brooding inversions of my own temper, disappointed and sick at heart because of the failure of acceptance of my book, lost to everyone who cared for me (not even leaving an address), sick with a thousand diseases of the spirit, I fell foul of four Germans at the Oktoberfest and, no longer caring whether I killed or got killed, had a terrible and bloody fight in mud, darkness, and pouring rain, in which, although my scalp had been laid open by a blow from a stone beer mug, and my nose broken, I was too mad and wild to know or care if I was hurt or not — and became conscious only after the other people had been knocked senseless or fled and I had choked unconscious the one who remained, while his poor wife screamed, fell on my back, and clawed my face to pieces to make me loosen my grip on his throat. Only then did I become conscious of the shouts and cries of the people around me, only then did I know that what choked and blinded me, filling my eyes and nostrils, was not rain but blood; then while I searched stupidly about in the mud for my hat, which had been lost, all the people cried and screamed, “A surgeon! A surgeon! Go for a surgeon!” and the police came and took me into custody, taking me immediately to the police surgeons and dressing my wounds.
Of the beautiful and moving aftermath of this terrible and brutal affair, in which for the first time I went to the bottom of my soul, and saw how much power for evil and insanity lies in all of us, crying out inside me not because of my body’s loss, but because of my soul’s waste and loss, and the lovely people I had left so far behind me — I can tell you little of all this here. But it makes a strange and moving story — the appearance next, morning of this blind and battered horror, caked in blood and dirty bandages from head to waist at one of the greatest clinics in Germany; of the dry and prim American medical professor working for six months in Munich with the greatest surgeon in Germany — how he came forward, took me in charge, took me to the greatest head surgeon in Germany, who made me come under his observation and stay in his hospital three days; of how the nuns, innocent and sweet as children, nursed me and brought me food, of how they shaved my head, while the great man grunted German and went over my skull and more with his thick butcher’s fingers; of how the American doctor came to see me twice a day, bringing books and fruit, and the enormous kindliness of his heart — of how finally he refused to accept a penny for his own services, backing away nervously, turning red, and saying in his prim professorly way that he had a “son at home almost, as tall as you are” — of how then he almost ran out of the room polishing his eyeglasses; then, of how, still battered and blue, with a dueling student’s skullcap covering my bald head I went to Oberammergau, how one of my wounds broke open there, and I was nursed by the man who played Pilate (a doctor) and by Judas, and by a little old woman there, almost eighty, whom I had known in Munich — almost as mad as I was, no husband any more, children dead, even the name of her village in America only a name she couldn’t always remember; a vagabond at seventy-eight around the world, hating the Germans she once loved, and loving only the Oberammergauers who had known her for forty years. She had written one book about them and was at work on another, but she was afraid she was going to die and wanted me to promise to write it for her — when I refused to do this we had fallen out and she had left Munich in a temper at me.
Now, all battered up, I was coming to see her again. She was the daughter of a Methodist minister, and despite her long life in Europe and the Orient she had never lost the stamp of it — she read insanely all the statistics concerning illegitimate children in Munich and Oberammergau, going almost insane when she discovered the guilt of her adored Passion Players. Her treatment of me now was a mixture of old Methodist intolerance and “it serves you right.” combined with love and tender mercy. Of how I left Oberammergau, of how she followed me up to Munich in a few days, of how the police almost drove me mad with their visits, questions, and inspections, of how the poor old thing became my accomplice, almost driving me mad with her advice and suspicions, seeing a policeman looking for me behind every bush, and rushing over to warn me at my pension at all hours of day and night; of how finally she saw the great Zeppelin over Munich early one morning and came to pull me out of bed twittering with excitement, of how from this time on she lived only for the Zeppelin, staying in her cold pension nearly all day long with the radio phones clamped to her ears, her old eyes bright and mad as she listened to news of the flight to America; of how a night or two later the pension people had tried to get me when I was at the theater, and of how the old woman had died that night with the phones to her ears still; of how they got me next morning and I went over and saw her there, and old Judas and his daughter Mary Magdalene who had known her for thirty years — they had come up that morning from Oberammergau, they were weeping gently and softly, they were taking her back, according to her wish, to bury her there (she had said it to me a hundred times); of how I had asked if I should go with them, and they had looked into my wild and bloody eyes, at my swollen nose, seamed head, and gouged face, and shook their heads slowly. Then of how I knew I must leave this place which had given me so much — as much as I could hold at the time — and taken so much. My lungs were already raw with cold, I was coughing and full of fever — I felt a strange fatality in the place as if I too must die if I stayed longer.
So that afternoon I took the train for Salzburg, drawing my breath in peace again only when I got over the Austrian border. Then four days in bed in Salzburg and on to Vienna. The first days in Vienna, still in a sort of stupor from all I had seen or felt— full of weariness and horror; then slowly I began to read, study, and observe again. Then, just before I went to Budapest Mrs. Boyd’s first warning letter about the book I had forgotten — Scribner’s was interested; I should write at once. Forgot about it, believed in promises and the book no more — went to Hungary, went out among the wild and savage people of the plains, Asiatics now as they were when they came twelve hundred years ago under Attila. Then back to Vienna again and there a letter from Scribner’s — at last, it seemed, something really hopeful. This whole story — strange, wild, ugly and beautiful, I don’t know what it means — but the drama and the struggle within me at this time were much more interesting than the purely physical things outside. What it means, I don’t know, but to me it is strange and wonderful, and my next book, a short one, will probably be made from it. I have never written home or to you about, this before — telling the bare facts — because it takes too long and tires me out to tell it. You must say nothing of this to anyone — I will put it all down some day in a book, together with much more strange and marvelous, so that who can read may see.
Getting to present matters, the letter in Vienna six or seven weeks ago was the first indication I had of what has happened. . . . The Scribner’s letter was signed by one Maxwell Perkins, whom I have since come to know as a fine and gentle person, full of wisdom. Mrs. Boyd tells me to listen to him carefully—he is one of those quiet and powerful persons in the background, the sole and only excuse, she says, for Scott Fitzgerald having been successful as he is. In his letter he said he had read my book, and while he did not know whether any publisher could read it as it is, he did know it was a very remarkable thing and no editor could fail to be excited by it (I didn’t tell him one or two had failed). What he wanted to know, he said, was when Scribner’s could talk with me. I was excited and eager, and as usual too enthusiastic. I wrote him at once, saying briefly my nose was broken and my head scarred (which was beginning early with a stranger, of course) but that his words of praise filled me with hope and eagerness. Said I’d be home Christmas or New Year’s. Followed two more weeks in Vienna, three in Italy, then home from Naples. Called him up morning after New Year’s. He asked me if I had the letter sent to the Harvard Club and I said no — it had probably been sent abroad. He asked me to come to Scribner’s at once. I went up — in a few minutes I was taken to his office, where I found Mr. Charles Scribner (simply there, I think, to take a look at me, for he withdrew immediately, saying he would leave us alone).
Mr. Perkins is not at all “Perkinsy” — name sounds Midwestern, but he is a Harvard man, probably New England family, early forties, but looks younger, very elegant and gentle in dress and manner. He saw I was nervous and excited, spoke to me quietly, told me to take my coat off and sit down. He began by asking certain general questions about the book and people (these weren’t important — he was simply feeling his way around, sizing me up, I suppose), then he mentioned a certain short scene in the book, and in my eagerness and excitement I burst out, “I know you can’t print that! I’ll take it out at once, Mr. Perkins.” “Take it out?” he said. “It’s one of the greatest short stories I have ever read.” He said he had been reading it to Hemingway week before. Then he asked me if I could write a short introduction for it to explain the people — he was sure Scribner’s magazine would take it; if they didn’t someone else would. I said I would. I was at once elated and depressed — I thought now that this little bit was all they wanted of it.
Then he began cautiously on the book. Of course, he said, he didn’t know about its present form — somewhat incoherent and very long. When I saw now that he was really interested I burst out wildly saying that I would throw out this, that, and the other — at every point he stopped me quickly saying, “No, no — you must let that stay word for
word — that scene’s simply magnificent.” It became apparent at once that these people were willing to go far farther than I had dared hope — that, in fact, they were afraid I would injure the book by doing too much to it. I saw now that Perkins had a great batch of notes in his hand and that on the desk was a great stack of handwritten paper — a complete summary of my whole enormous book. I was so moved and touched to think that someone at length had thought enough of my work to sweat over it in this way that I almost wept. When I spoke to him of this he smiled and said everyone in the place had read it. Then he went over the book scene by scene — I found he was more familiar with the scenes and the names of characters than I was — I had not looked at the thing in over six months. For the first time in my life I was getting criticism I could really use — the scenes he wanted cut or changed were invariably the least essential and the least interesting; all the scenes that I had thought too coarse, vulgar, profane, or obscene for publication he forbade me to touch save for a word or two. There was one as rough as anything in Elizabethan drama — when I spoke of this he said it was a masterpiece, and that he had been reading it to Hemingway. He told me I must change a few words. He said the book was new and original, and because of its form could have no formal and orthodox unity, but that what unity it did have came from the strange wild people — the family — it wrote about as seen through the eyes of a strange wild boy. These people, with relatives, friends, townspeople, he said were “magnificent”— as real as any people he had ever read of. He wanted me to keep these people and the boy at all times foremost — other business, such as courses at state university, etc., to be shortened and subordinated. Said finally if I was hard up he thought Scribner’s would advance money.
By this time I was wild with excitement — this really seemed something at last — in spite of his caution and restrained manner I saw now that Perkins really was excited about my book, and had said some tremendous things about it. He saw how wild I was; I told him I had to go out and think — he told me to take two or three days but before I left he went out and brought in another member of the firm, John Halt Wheelock, who spoke gently and quietly — he is a poet — and said my book was one of the most interesting he had read for years. I then went out and tried to pull myself together. A few days later the second meeting — I brought notes along as to how I proposed to set to work, and so on. I agreed to deliver one hundred pages of corrected manuscript, if possible, every week. He listened, and then when I asked him if I could say something definite to a dear friend, smiled and said he thought so; that their minds were practically made up; that I should get to work immediately; and that I should have a letter from him in a few days. As I went prancing out I met Mr. Wheelock, who took me by the hand and said, “I hope you have a good place to work in — you have a big job ahead.” I knew then that it was all magnificently true. I rushed out drunk with glory; in two days came the formal letter (I wired home then), and yesterday Mrs. Boyd got the check and contract which I am now carrying in my pocket. God knows this letter has been long enough — but I can’t tell you half or a tenth of it, or of what they said.
Mr. Perkins said cautiously he did not know how the book would sell — he said it was something unknown and original to the readers, that he thought it would be a sensation with the critics, but that the rest is a gamble. But Mrs. Boyd says that to print such a gigantic manuscript from a young unknown person is so unusual that Scribner’s would not do it unless they thought they had a good chance of getting their money back. . . . I should love it, of course, if the book were a howling success, but my idea of happiness would be to retire to my apartment and gloat . . . and to let no more than a dozen people witness my gloating. But I think if I ever see man or woman in subway, elevated, or taxicab reading it I will track that person home to see who he is or what he does, oven if it leads me to Yonkers. And Mr. Perkins and Mr. Wheelock warned me not to go too much with “that Algonquin Crowd” — the Hotel Algonquin here is where most of the celebrities waste their time and admire one another’s cleverness. This also makes me laugh. I am several million miles away from these mighty people, and at the present time want to get no closer. All the Theatre Guild people, whom I know through my dear friend, have called her up and sent congratulations.
But now is the time for sanity. My debauch of happiness is over. I have made promises; I must get to work. I am only one of the thousands of people who write books every year. No one knows how this one will turn out. . . .
This book dredges up from the inwards of people pain, terror, cruelty, lust, ugliness, as well, I think, as beauty, tenderness, mercy. There are places in it which make me writhe when I read them; there are others that seem to me to be fine and moving. I wrote this book in a white heat, simply and passionately, with no idea of being either ugly, obscene, tender, cruel, beautiful, or anything else — only of saying what I had to say because I had to. The only morality I had was in me; the only master I had was in me and stronger than me. I went into myself more mercilessly than into anyone else—but I am afraid there is much in this book which will wound and anger people deeply — particularly those at home. Yet terrible as parts are, there is little bitterness in it. Scribner’s told me people would cry out against this, because people are unable to realize that that spirit which is sensitive to beauty is also sensitive to pain and ugliness. Yet all of this goes into the making of the book and because of this Scribner’s have believed in it and are publishing it. I will soften all I can but I cannot take out all the sting — without lying to myself and destroying the book. For this reason we must wait and see. If the people of Asheville some day want to heap coals of fire on my head by giving me a cup, perhaps I shall fill it with my tears of penitence — but I doubt that this will come for a long time. The people of Asheville, I fear, may not understand me after this book and may speak of me only with a curse — but some day, if I write other books, they will. And my God! What books I feel within me and what despair since my hand and strength cannot keep up with all my heart has felt, my brain dreamed and thought.
I have spent an entire afternoon writing this to you — it is a volume, but now I have worked off my wild buoyancy and must get to work. . . .
God bless you for your letter, and forgive the great length of this one, so filled with my own affairs that I have not yet sent my love to Mr. Roberts. Give it to him with all my heart and tell him I want no better news from home than that he is up and hale again. I have told you about my own business at such length because I believed you really wanted to hear it all, and because I am so happy to share it with you. But God bless you all and bring you all health and happiness. . . .
I shall write you a short letter when I am calmer, telling you about N.Y.U. plans, and how my work on the book is coming. Love to all.
P.S. Whatever of this you think may interest my family pass on, but tell them also, for God’s sake, to be discreet. It made me so happy to be able to wire them good news the other day. Now, let’s all hope something comes of it.
Again, God bless you all.
Note: I can hardly read parts of this myself, but you have had to puzzle my hen scratching out before, and perhaps you can do it again. I wrote it in a great hurry and I was very excited — but I hope you make it out.
It’s not a letter — it’s a pamphlet. Maybe I’ll ask you to give it back some day in order to see how foolish I felt.
P.P.S. This is a horribly long letter. I’m as limp as a rag. I pity the people who have to read it and I pity the poor devil who wrote it.
Written from New York, August 11, 1929
I have been away in Maine and Canada on a vacation, and ... I found your letter here when I came back. As usual, everything you say touches and moves me deeply. I wish my work deserved half of the good things you say about it: I hope that some day it will. The knowledge that you have always believed in me is one of the grandest possessions of my life. I hope it may be some slight return for your affection and faith to know that I have always believed in you, first, as a child, with an utterly implicit faith and hope, and later, as a man, with a no less steadfast trust. Life docs not offer many friendships of which one can say this. I know how few there are, and yet my own life has been full of love and loyalty for whoever understood or valued it.
In your letter you say that many facts in my life you never knew about when I was a child, that much about me you did not understand until later. This does not come from lack of understanding; it comes because you are one of the high people of the earth, with as little of the earth in you as anyone I have ever known — your understanding is for the flame, the spirit, the glory — and in this faith you are profoundly right. It is a grand quality to see only with that vision which sees the highest and the rarest. All that you did not see caused me great unrest of spirit as a child when I thought of you, and perhaps more now.
I hope you may be wrong in thinking what I have written may distress members of my family, or anyone else. Certainly, I would do anything to avoid causing anyone pain—except to destroy the fundamental substance of my book. I am afraid, however, that if anyone is distressed by what seemed to me a very simple and unoffending story, their feeling when the book comes out will be much stronger. And the thought of that distresses me more than I can tell you. Nothing, however, may now be done about this. Everything that could reasonably be done to soften impressions that might needlessly wound any reader has been done by my publishers and me. Now, the only apology I have to make for my book is that it is not better — and by “better” I mean that it does not represent by any means the best that is in me. But I hope I shall feel this way about my work for many years to come, although there is much in this first book about which I hope I shall continue to feel affection and pride.
A thousand words leap to my tongue — words of explanation, persuasion, and faith — but they had better rest unsaid. Silence is best. More and more I know that the grievous and complex web of human relationship may not be solved by words. However, our motives or our acts may be judged or misjudged, our works must speak for us, and we can ultimately only trust to the belief of other men that we are of good will. I can not explain the creative act here. That has been done much better than I could hope to do it, by other people. I can only assure you that my book is a work of fiction, and that no person, act, or event has been deliberately and consciously described.
The creative spirit hates pain more, perhaps, than it does anything else on earth, and it is not likely it should try to inflict on other people what it loathes itself. Certainly the artist is not a traducer or libeler of mankind — his main concern when he creates is to give his creation life, form, beauty; this dominates him, and it is doubtful if he thinks very much of the effect his work will have on given persons, although he may think of its effect on a general public. But I think you know that fiction is not spun out of the air, it is made from the solid stuff of human experience — any other way is unthinkable.
Dr. Johnson said a man would turn over half a library to make a single book; so may a novelist turn over half a town to make a single figure in his novel. This is not the only method but it illustrates, I believe, the whole method. The world a writer creates is his own world — but it is molded out of the fabric of life, what he has known and felt — in short, out of himself. How in God’s name can it be otherwise? . . .
(To be concluded)