A Wild Perfection
I began in Ohio. I still dream of home.
from "Stages on a Journey Westward"
At Fort Lewis, Washington, Twelve years ago, when I was eighteen, We fired all day long at practice targets And wounded one of our own men. When I ran to help him, I saw a whole gray earth Opening in a vein of his cry: From full green to emptiness, A mile's field of dead fir stumps High as the level of adolescent waists, Low as a man's knees. We had mown a grove down. I was one of the State's gardeners.
from "The Trees in Minnesota"
As far as the school proper is concerned, Jack and I both are supremely satisfied. The caliber of the teachers is evidently very excellent, and consequently the requirements are stiff. We shall be expected to wrestle with the books often and with energy if we want to retain our feeling of intelligence.
from a letter to the parents of Jack Furniss February 29, 1948
The earliest of James Wright's letters to be found were written in the spring of 1946. One is to his high school English teacher, Elizabeth Willerton, and the other is to her friend Professor James L. McCreight. In each letter James discussed plans to enlist in the service and presented personal views on Latin poetry, his great love.
James enlisted in the army that summer. After completing basic training, he served with the peacetime army in Japan. He continued to read, study, translate the works of Catullus, and admire not only Latin poetry but poetry in general. He also wrote to his parents, Jessie and Dudley Wright; Susan Lamb; and Elizabeth Willerton.
Susan Lamb, later Graham, was a classmate from Martins Ferry High School. She and James had worked together on the yearbook staff of the 1946 Ferrian, he as editor and she as assistant editor. He often included a sonnet or translation in his letters to her. Elizabeth Willerton, later Esterly, was portrayed by James as a teacher who "introduced her high school students to literature with a clarity and intelligence, a kind of summons to enter whatever nobility there is in the human race, with something very like genius."
After he was discharged from the army, James returned to his family, who had moved from Martins Ferry to a farm at nearby Warnock. "As for home," he wrote Susan Lamb, "I am situated on a farm, plopped down in the wilderness about fifteen miles out of Bellaire. The atmosphere suits me famously. I have music for passivity, books for activity and a free-thinking mother for conversation."
James met Jack Furniss, a young man from Ohio, while in the army. Furniss recommended Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, to James, and they both were accepted, enrolling as freshmen in January 1948. James formed close friendships with many fellow classmates, includingAlbert Herzing, E. L. Doctorow, Roger Hecht, Robert Mezey, and Eugene Pugatch. Equally strong bonds were formed with his teachers John Crowe Ransom, Philip Timberlake, and Andre Hanfman. Most of these friendships were to last throughout his life.
The letters written during his four years at Kenyon reveal James's scholarship, growing interest in music, and broadened exposure to literature. After graduating from Kenyon in January of 1952, James married Liberty Kardules, a fellow student at Martins Ferry High School. The young couple went to Center Point, Texas, where James taught for a semester at the Tenney School, and then sailed for Europe that fall, as James had been accepted at the University of Vienna in Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. Their son Franz was born there on March 18, 1953.
In the spring of 1953 James sent a highly detailed six-page letter to Robert Mezey. It was handwritten in the cramped but neat style that James would employ throughout his life. The first four pages contain extensive comments on a group of Mezey's poems, including one very long one. The last two pages, which are included here, offer both advice and encouragement to Mezey. The end of the letter divulges James's own thoughts on Vienna and America as seen from a new and distant perspective. The letter closes with loving words about his new son.
To James L. McCreight
Martins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946
Dear Professor McCreight:
Of course, by this time, you have forgotten our discussion of Latin and English poetry. Still, ponder a moment and recall me as the rather wild-eyed young man whose conception of the Muses stirred you to send him a volume of Catullus.
As I told you, I discovered Catullus in a Caesar book during my second year of Latin, and the white gush of nobility in his lines ate at me considerably. Perhaps his ability to create poetical images could not approach that of Virgil, or even that of the more sensible Horace, but his cries, such as:
nam tui Catulli; plenus sacculus est aranearum.
charged me with a weird hunger, such as that created by Chopin or Poe.
I have included with this letter a few translations, or paraphrases. They do not cling to his purity; no translation, however perfect, can do that, for a poet's balancing of his native tongue is shocked by a translation, and can scarcely be reconstructed.
Your kindness in sending me the books has given me the courage to include, also, a work which I consider my most mature. The defects in my "Elegies" are very apparent. I am conscious, in my re-reading of them, of a clumsy straining after effect. But in no other attempt have I so utterly succeeded in speaking for myself, and I am convinced thatany originality which exists in them is valuable enough to overshadow their weaknesses. As you read them, you will be conscious of the absence of a syllable here and there, and even of the discarding of iambics altogether. I would rather sacrifice technical skill than sincerity. And I have let the rhythm of emotion govern many of the lines rather than the rhythm of Milton.
Within a few days I shall undergo a physical examination for the Navy. If I pass, I shall be two years removed from a formal education. However, I hope to become well situated, so that I may work more with Catullus, and thus keep Latin alive within me.
If you will pardon the colloquialism, I don't understand why I continue my writing of these damned verses. I tell myself that I care little or nothing for people's opinions, but my vanity prods me toward attempts at publication.
Most likely, I shall starve, a degenerate.
Thank you again for your consideration in sending the poems of Catullus. His songs are pure gold, and he will live forever.
Thank you, Jim Wright Kuckuck Lane, Stop 4 Martins Ferry, Ohio
To Elizabeth Willerton
Martins Ferry, Ohio Spring 1946
Dear Miss Willerton:
Having nearly lost count of time and space, I have no idea when this letter may reach you. Yet, the thing must be written, and the boil must be squeezed.
John Harrison and I have been barred from the Navy, because of our eyesight. Whether or not we shall pursue the Army, I cannot say. For God's sake! I don't know where to turn. If I attempt to attend school, the draft will surely suck me up. Still, I am almost certain that I can scrabble through one year on what I have saved. My longing for Latin is deeper than ever now, since I have assembled a vocabularylarge enough to read the beautiful volume of Catullus not only with pleasure, but with a great deal of fire.
Among his lyrics I discovered a sweet little song which weighs the merits of a lovely Gallic maiden with the beauty of Lesbia. His hendecasyllables are without blemish, and so I used the same meter in my translation. The spondee, the dactyl, and the three sparkling trochees ripple quickly but in a loosely hung rhythm, like a flicker of light. Also I have paraphrased his "spring song" into iambics, which hardly do justice to its purity. O for a tongue like Latin, full of thunder, each word being supported by its separate classical marble column!
You will be interested to hear that I have only recently completed the reading of Thomas Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I have nothing to say. Only I would give my tongue for a chance to review it with you. It confirms a wild idea of mine: that Tom Wolfe and William Saroyan are two of America's greatest poets, although their genius ran, and is flowing, through the medium of prose.
I found Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy" as nauseating as you declared, but I turned thereupon to his sonnets, and again I found him to be what a low and ancient whisper had long before claimed: that, regardless of any allusion to degeneracy, William Wordsworth was a noble poetic spirit, and his sonnets rank with any cry in their weird simplicity of effervescence. Damn the disillusion after the French Revolution! Damn the reversion to the Tories! Damn the "Idiot Boy"!
Wordsworth is alive.
Finally, I acknowledged Professor McCreight's gracious act in sending me the Catullus volume. In response to his invitation I sent him my nine "Elegies," together with a few translations from Catullus.
Forgive me for being so damnably self-centered in this letter, but this siege of walking the streets, cursing through teeth, browsing nervously through the library, and speaking Latin into the wind while riding in an automobile will wreck me thoroughly unless I speak.
I still have two of your books in my possession, and somehow I must return them. Speaking of books, I have obtained a copy of Housman's posthumous poems. Among them is included a review of Housman by Christopher Morley
Please, O please be patient with the two or three sonnets I send. They are weak, but I cannot escape writing them.
And please write to me. Touch me with your beauty, the longed-for, the sought-for, the found beauty; for it is an ancient beauty, such as a man, being a diluted poet, may scarcely come upon in a world like the one into which I have fallen.
Your warm friend, Jim Wright
To Jessie Lyons Wright
Fort Lewis, Washington July 28, 1946
Since this is the weekend, and since I passed yesterday's inspection all right, I'll write again today. I just returned from church, and I am enclosing the bulletin. The chapel here is a beautiful building, built just like any simply constructed church. The men fill it for every Sunday morning service.
Weariness and fatigue are rapidly losing their grip on me, and only the quick, heavily striking tiredness remains. But this tiredness comes only in spasms. We go to sleep after a rough day, thinking that in the morning we shall be so damned stiff that we won't be able to make reveille, and yet, when the CQ charges and gallops through the barracks at 5:30 a.m., beating his gums and blaring his varied screams, we leap from bed, dress, wash up, sweep, mop, make beds, and fly out to formation and to chow in such a crazy hurry that we forget that yesterday we were tired. By that time, it is too late. After healthy exertion, sleep seems to charge a man's battery.
I hope things are fine at home. My mail is beginning to seep through a little, but I could use more. You must understand how much even one flimsy letter means, after hearing the soft purrings of the drill corporal.
I'll write again later. I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine.
Love to everyone, Jim
PS. Get Jack and Pop to write.
PPS. Don't forget to tell Marge to write, too.
PPPS. And, most important, you write!!
Fort Lewis, Washington August 5, 1946
I received letters from you and Pop today, and in yours you told me to ask for anything I wanted. My wishes are still for the same things: Miss Willerton's address and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Don't forget that, if you cannot find that particular poet, I want you to send my copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. These would certainly make me feel much better.
Don't misunderstand. Physically and mentally I am in fine condition. I can toss the heavy rifle around now like a toothpick. But, being my mother, you know that I am a little off balance, and that I require vast chunks of fuel to sate my imagination, which very often rushes hot as a furnace.
I see Sebastian about every night, and we surely have enjoyable talks.
I must hit the sack now. Please write soon, and tell the others to do the same. I would write to each of them, but my minutes are jammed completely full.
I am sending Sunday's Chapel bulletin.
To Susan Lamb
Fort Lewis, Washington August 7, 1946
Finally I have torn away from the company area, for the sake of writing in peace. To sit in the Service Club Library is a relief, because my bones still ache from today's detail. The First Sergeant caught a few of us who had hung up our trousers without buttoning them, and he had us scrub-down the outside of the barracks. Next time I'll remember.
Susan, have you ever read the poems of Thomas Chatterton? He lived just before the time of Keats, and he wrote some lyrics that are marvelous. But the fact that shocked me sharply was that he was onlyseventeen years of age at his death! John Keats was devoted to his writing, and dedicated an exquisite sonnet to him.
This afternoon I sat alone in the barracks behind my bed near the wall, and I was just weary enough to permit remembrances of beauty [to] flood over me. I was so lonely and lost, and so desperate for love of Something unknown, misunderstood, that I thought of Keatsnot of the poet of sensuous color, but of John Keats, the confused little boy who loved his life, but was more passionately devoted to his death.
Verse, fame, and beauty are intense indeed, But Death intenser; Death is Life's high meed.
And suddenly I wanted to see him, to talk the whole mess over with him, for he would understand. But I called, and he was dead.
Susan, will you please read my sonnet? 1 I am conceited and self-centered with no justification, but please hear my outpouring.
And will you write soon?
Fort Lewis, Washington September 3, 1946
For several weeks now I have pummeled my head bluntly against a wall. There were a hundred million words in me, each one separately raising its singular hell, but finding no medium of effluence. Now it seems that, since I have released from myself the puerile foolishness, the uncontrollable impossibility of which I wrote in two or three letters, the words are flooding outward like venous blood. Indeed, this afternoon I felt so fluidly facile that I dipped into a rhythmic form which I had come to consider not only lost to me, but irrevocable. This is the hendecasyllabic line, the peculiarly marvelous hippety-hop cadence which Catullus popularized in his love lyrics. I have not forgotten much of the dear purity of Catullus. Just before I came to the Army, I wrestledwith many translations which I had already completed, and with a few that somehow I had missed, endeavoring to retain in English a larger share of Catullus' spirit by utilizing his own favorite metre.
The poem which I enclose is not a translation, nor is it even a paraphrase. It is merely more outpouring of guts on paper, concerning which I received your permission several weeks ago.
It is not a poem, nor a lyric of any sort, but only a release. I hope you will not receive it as more of the silliness which you have probably already laughed off. Just read it, aloud or silently, hide it in an old dictionary, burn it, sell it to one of the 10¢ pulp magazines, or whatever you like. At least it is out of me, and through it I can more clearly recall Catullus. I must surely not be akin to him, because, although he most deliciously soared upon his physical and spiritual consciousness, he never was the brutal sensualist which my corruption of his form has shown me to be.
Yours, apologizing for this interpolation of boredom, Jim
Washington, D.C. October 5, 1946
The whole weekend is mine, and at the moment I am in the United Nations Service Center in Wash., D.C. This afternoon my two friends, from Missouri and California, and I floated around the city, and we are very tired. I feel as though I must write now to someone, not concerning anything in particular, but only for the sake of pouring, pouring, pouring.
I wonder if ever, in my whole idea of things, I can trade with someone, this whipped-up agony of love of life. Now, in music I have found in you a deeply gratified passion. In poetry for poetry's sake I have sent echoes down the entire universe through Miss Willerton. Believe me, if I hadn't been able to write to you, I would have died. But there is something else, and I don't even understand how to describe it. I shall try.
I love to be alive. For me it was ever a rare holiness to lie down at night, and to draw into my breast a long deep breath, just before I went to sleep. There was an open sidewalk, laid bare to wind, along the streetcar line parallel to Wheeling Steel in Martins Ferry, and in therain I used to walk straight against the wind, and lashed into a shakiness by its breath, I sang and prayed and cried to myself a hundred thousand times. It was because I love the earth and my chance to live on it that I used to lay my rifle down in the Washington forests, and stroke my fingers through the needles and dirt. Lines of poetry from Thomas Wolfe, mighty, burly cries by Caesar, a fiery scream by Byron or Brookeall used to set me pacing the floor.
Flooding my tired feet with hot watertasting buttermilk after awaking from sleeplistening to "Claire de Lune"smelling newlyground coffeesinging as I washed my facetouching a dog's furseeing hair blow in the wind, glittering in the sunthese describe the undescribable for me. I love them, but such is common. The miracle is that often I hate them, too, only to run back blindly, falling at their feet with a more fierce love than ever.
Do you see? Do you understand? I love it, the whole wild, senseless, confused, dying mess of my life, and I don't even know why.
Please answerO, please, Susan. Answer often, if you can, because I need you, more deeply than I can write or you can realize.
Is my reasoning so blasphemous?
Fort Belvoir, Virginia October 13, 1946
Yesterday afternoon my two friends and I crossed the long bridge beyond the Lincoln Memorial, and wandered silently through the stillness of Arlington Cemetery. As we stepped up the marble shelter encircling the amphitheatre the autumn heaven throttled the air with a gloom, and we only slid past the columns when the rain began. Even with the gnarled groves bent down by the sheets of wind and water, and the yellow leaves shot like bullets beneath the huge marble panel, whereon is carved the thoughtful remark of Horace:
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
we beheld it: the bed of that nameless young man who is asleep, and cannot very well enjoy his honor.
We watched the guard change, and in a few moments we charged wildly down through the torrent to the bus stop.
Susan, a little earlier I had stood beneath a column at the rear of the Lincoln Memorial, and gazed across the Potomac at the wooded area wherein is enclosed the monument to Sheridan. And a wind was blowing, and over the bridge a bird was fighting it, and I heard music that I had believed dead in me.
Because I was moved yesterday, and because I thought more clearly than usual, this morning I wrote something for you. It seems that all the beauty and nobility which I have seen have given me a little conviction. Finally, I have a solidness on which to stand [ ...]
Goodbye for the moment.
Fort Belvoir, Virginia December 2, 1946
Will you be patient with the brevity of my letter? I am in the latrine, only a few moments ago having beaten the last line of Ovid to the floor.
This afternoon I received your letter of Nov. 30. Thank you, Susan. I was damned sure that the absence of your letters was due only to the fact that you were busy. Did you enjoy Thanksgiving? I believe you must have done so, for you have a splendid capacity for enjoying your life. Please continue to write to me, and always tell me of your love of life. You have no idea how it keeps me at ease.
I intend to write again the first chance I get.
I have enclosed my little tale from Ovid.2 I want you to read it first, for I have discovered your warmth in the same manner as Pygmalion found hisin the soundless depth of beauty, in the singular echo of understanding.
To Elizabeth Willerton
Zama, Japan January 6, 1947
Tonight I felt lousy. Therefore I turned to Catullus for a sea in which to drown. This lyric (other side), an ode by a very sensitive and young poet to Lesbia's pet sparrow, is the first paraphrase I have attempted in weeks.3 I tell you, Catullus is as dear to me as are sleep and music.
Please look for neither ecstasy nor a moral in my paraphrase. It is only a softly mournful remark, and the Latin is unspeakably gorgeous. Catullus therein created a line which sings thus:
Et solaciolum sui doloris.
Elizabeth, read this line aloud. The relationship between the "I's" and "o's" is a miracle of liquid floating ecstasy.
Forgive me. I told you my mood was crazy again.
The lights are going out.
I shall not sleep well. Catullus and I are pacing the floor.
To Susan Lamb
Zama, Japan March 24, 1947
There is nothing this evening except the usual thrum of silence. Honestly I have endeavored to quell the spasm of my writing for the sake of reading the darker realisms which I have so long evaded for more explosive thoughts. Susan, I have plunged deeper into Dostoyevsky; I have tried to absorb some of the brutal richness of the Negro, Richard Wright; I have undertaken an analysis of the style of John O'Hara; and tonight I intend to begin a churning dive toward reading and studying Thomas Wolfe's last novel, You Can't Go Home Again. If myletters savor of any undue unhappiness, it is surely a reflection of my reading and of my struggle against the romanticism toward which I tend. How I long for realism! On the other side of realism, somewhere, lies the Nirvana.
Please do not think me aimless. I fully realize that there is no door for my writing. So desperately I need to be alive that somehow I believe my whole life to be only a long heavy period of studying and writing and drowning in the sensualism which is the surest pivot for the piercing dream.
You must know that I shall need to attend school when I leave the army. Of course, I shall not remain for long; but nowhere else will I ever find a single chance of sleeping beneath the controlled brilliance of Catullus, for whom I own an honest and a genuine love.
I am lost, Susan. I feel that I am pretty far gone by now. But I want to be sure that you know and understand this: In my dreaming, in my reading, in my writingin my every concept of the undissolved ghost which must be the answer and the hope to my life, and thus to the life of everyone who lives, and has lived, on the earthyou are the warm body of a girl, the comfortable face, the sleep, and the smoothing pool into whom I have been sure that I can pour unrefined all of my longings, my physical passions (of which the spiritual are only projections), my frustrations, and the unhappy, strange explosions of beauty and truth which through your letters have quickened these quavering days of my early manhood. For these reasons, I love you, Susan. If you do not desire to have me love you to such a length, please write of it to me. There it is, as clearly as I can say it.
Will you write to me?
To Elizabeth Willerton Esterly
Gambier, Ohio May 10, 1949
After a long period of silence, I have here only a short note to accompany the three large envelopes of typescript which I want to askyou to take. A word or two of explanation is not even necessary, I know. It never has been, with you. You always understand the weirdest actionsprobably (certainly) because a human being is likely to do anything at all. However, here are a few stage directions for my action:
I began these, as a series of apprentice compositions, about the middle of last July. In them, I tried, more than anything else, to maintain the rude energy, the directness. In the early pieces, I had to sacrifice form altogether; but, as Mann pointed out, man's life (even in America) is, among many eruptions of brutality, an almost instinctive search for form, for order, oras you always sayfor the Answers, whatever they are. Therefore, at present, I am working steadily toward a synthesis of form and energy. I'm afraid the only things I'm learning now are technicalbut I am 21, and I am going to live until I die. You are going to find many bad poems here, Elizabethbad, as suchif you should want to read any of them; but remember that in America, in Ohio (please don't think me a nationalistI'd rather be a human being than anything else) the truest expression (Emerson called it fully half of our beingI agree) has always been sprawling, and full of mistakes and tremendous, compassionate insightsWhitman, WolfeSherwood Andersonand thus easily criticized. Forgive meI'm not trying to rationalize away my mistakes. God knows, I'm a bad enough poetI only want you to recall that anything I ever write will be sprawling, screaming, and enormous in size. This is not an intention but a basic element. I am not a sculptor of cameos, but an idiot monster licking the world with a fire tongue. My problem is to let myself find the right form. These things here are, as Ransom said, full of a certain crude energy. For this reason, I often irritate and offend my fellow versifiers here at Kenyon (there are severala couple of Eliot boys, a classicist, a metaphysical agrarian, and one fellow who is a poetic genius in my opinionhis name is Robert Nugentmore of him later, with one of his splendid poems, if I can get one). But I'm not afraid.
I only ask that you take these experimental compositions and hide them from me. Read a couple if you like. Forgive me for not writing. Lost in work, as you must be this time of year. Please give my regards to your folks and to Henry.
I don't yet have a job lined up for the summer. If I don't find someway to make money, I may not even get back to school. If that should happen, I don't know what I'd do. Army again, I suppose.
Pleaseif you can find a timea note? I'll have a small surprise for you before commencement, I think.
Thank you, Elizabeth. Jim
To Susan Lamb
sometime in August. I don't know what the hell the date is Warnock, Ohio [August 9, 1949]
My dear Susan,
I threw away my cigarette, and began to make little mystic symbols in the sand with the rubber toe of my left combat boot. Two early fireflies left the limb of a willow, and drifted past my face in two trailing arcs of yellow that remained marked in the twilit air in afterimages of green and blue. It was the first time in my life that I had left the world as it was, and had become but nothing. There was meager consolation in the remembrance that the western world was not breaking into fits of weeping because I had left it to sit near a riverside at Sagami, smoke an American cigarette as if it belonged to me, watching the amorous airdances of two lightning bugs, and hear the musical raindrums thudding in pagan cadences up out of Atsugi five miles down the river.
Sand had piled itself into little silver dunes of astonishing regularity, that reminded one of the backs of minnows that run away from fingers at the edges of a creek back in Ohio. But these creatures were arrested in their escape, and seemed frozen. The ambiguity of visual imagination that turned them from dunes to tiny fish to dunes again was the very element which forced me into a musing about two other things at once. I thought of the friends I had almost had in the westalmost had, and lost in the most profound sense, because of my failure to control the great winds which tended to come up unexpectedly out of my solar plexus. Other people seemed frightened to death at me. Icould not convince those of my sincerity face to face, and had resorted finally to the composition of a journal, in which at least I could practice the releasing of my full powers. And yet even this was almost never successful; because writing is not only music. It is also architecture, demanding the technique, mastered only after months and years of the bitterest labor, which that art possessesif the architect is to construct a cathedral of merit instead of a mere group of disordered, flimsy outhouses. At this particular period of which I speak, I was somewhere around the eightieth page of the new journal folio, and already had begun to realize that I had been too musicalthat there was a certain want of body on my pagesthat I was drowning, as Shelley almost did, in pale lemon jelly. I suppose a young man gets a green sickness at times, certainly; and mine was particularly bad that late afternoon. The second thing, beyond my own shifting and fading friendships back west and my own fundamental technical collapses in the journal, I had further meditations. The wind rose a bit, and brought with it the first scents of October which, so far as I have been able to tell, are identical the world overat least over half of it which I have traversed during my service career. And, as I looked over the few cherry skeletons over the river, near the rice paddies which rise up a gradual slope into the heights which eventually gather into the tremendous blue peak of the Oyama mountain, I suddenly realized, as for the first time, that I had spent almost a year in Japan. I remembered the dollface of my friend who had lost her lover in the Chinese campaigns, and who, at fortytwo, retained a youthfulness which I should be the merest romanticist to describe. I thought of how my section commander had given me hell (laughing, as I learned, afterwards) when he had caught me wasting working hours by listening to her as she translated for me a small poem which she had written for a children's magazine. Recollection of that single charming incident brought back a horde of others. There was Nakano, my thirty-eight year old clerk who had a small daughter whose picture he never tired of showing me; and who had spent, I know, laborious evenings in translating in English several of the haiku (little seventeen-syllable verses) of the poet Basho, of whom I had requested information. I saw their faces come floating out to me from the bare cherry scrubs on the other side of the river; literally hundreds of faces, some whom I knew by acquaintance, some whom I know well,and many whom I could not even name, but nevertheless recalled vividly. Like evening birdsongs, their names: Nakano, Gloria, Tada, Kazuko, Tomiko, Kazoe, Inoue, Akira, Yokomizo, Hashida, Yuriko, Kodame, Matsumoto, Iko. Honey bucket collectors, painters, old begging ladies, poets, and gentlemen who row boats over the Sagami rivers. I wondered if they would ever arrange themselves in orderthe kind of order which I know of, as a young man reared in the west. And then I wondered if they might not be more cosmic in their present arrangement, gathering together with their own inscape like the patterns in a Japanese painting which are never repeated, and yet which retain a thread of community.
The raindrums were quiet now, but the wind was still rising easily. A cicada blew a flute over the water, and was answered by a dryad in the locusts to my left. Now it was all dark, and the whole air was heavy with firefly comets burning over the river like a disturbed and microcosmic firmament. I had my hair combed, and my hat off at my side. It seemed that, no matter how much the wind rose, my hair lay perfectly parted except for one tiny lock which I couldn't make go up with the rest; so I let it hang over the right side of my forehead. Far and away across and down the river, on the other side, I could see two figures in shadowy kimonos moving down near the shore, evidently to look over the water, and then move back up a path between the two forest clumps, disappearing at once past the little rise which lay between the river and the first of many rice fields. These two people did not make me feel any more akin to my own world; and, if anything, their presence, distant as it was, only accentuated my isolation. One feels kindly toward the people who come in sight. Between myself and these two there was only a single shallow river. Between myself and America there was a huge ocean. And between myself and the people whom I used to know, and even those with whom I had somewhat corresponded, there were great gaps of water and space, and walls of an invisible but evidently impenetrable structure. Being set off like that, I spent perhaps whole hours in wondering how I was ever to gain any real contact with my own environment, wherever it happened to be at the moment. The early verses had clearly faded quite away on the notes of a music applied to the wrong medium. At that time, of course, I had never even heard of LaFountaine, and Parks, and Ransom, withtheir tremendously vital and incisive criticism. I had no intellectual tools with which to go back to my own journal and begin an unfeeling onslaught against myself for my own good. The cold but necessary implements of logic were not my forte, and without even recognizing their existence I was sorely missing themmissing them to the extent that I felt practically dissociated from my own body. So self-centered, and therefore so lost, I think it was a good thing that most folks kept clear of me. I probably would have hurt them pretty badly. But this confession was not on my mind at the time of which I write. At the end of that evening, I simply sat on the edge of the Sagami on the sand in the light of fireflies, and using in my own mind the two disappearing people on the other side as symbols of the disappearing world which went away warily along with the note of a dying cicada that I was sure was singing itself utterly away. I threw away my cigarette and made a few more mystic symbols on the sand with the rubber toe of my left combat boot, before rising, putting on my hat, and starting back up through Zama in order to make it inside the post before ten o'clock.
Sitting by this window at Warnock during these evenings, remembering how much bitter work has gone into the journal, how repetitions and experiments in both German and English have swollen it to upwards of seven hundred pages in the past year, and remembering also how I have gone into print a couple of times and not seen the sky subsequently fall, I feel often more able to reach forth to the other people in the world as they exist in flesh and blood, to probe a little with their dreams as well as my own, to love and respect the humor and irony of the existence of any young man, in America or anywhere else! Believe me, dear Susan my friend, this slow transmogrification has been horridly difficult for me, selfish as I am by nature. That's why I feel that a long correspondence is such a medicine for myself. True, this also is selfish; and yet only my best friends will endure it. That's why you endure it. Of course, you don't have time to answer at much length; but this simply means you're busy with creation. I feel good over the whole correspondence.
By now it is entirely dark here. A rain has begun to blow up; and[ ...] all the lights in the damned house have gone out. Some electrical disturbance outside, I guess. Now they're on again, and you see that I made a typing mistake a few lines above which makes the wholedamned paragraph look like a freshman theme introduction. I shall begin again, now.
If I slip into dramatics in this or my other letters, remember that I have a hideous time in expressing myself clearly. I mean it. Perhaps the ability to write a single sentence from beginning to end and the same time make clear sense out of the words is one of the rarest of human achievements. And yet, I still need to write, and extensively. I can't tell you how much better I feel if I can only write a long letter to someone who, I feel convinced, will read iteven though writing takes all the guts out of me. It always exhausts me, and yet I can't help writing like a fire hose. Perhaps the great fury is caused by the essential loneliness inherent in any creative activity, whether profitable or not. I am sure that often you must need terribly to talk to someonejust talk and talk, without sticking to any particular subjectand yet find yourself at a loss as to the method and idiom which you can use as an easing outlet. This has been, in one sense, a kind of damnation for me; for I recall one occasion a few years back when I must have made something of an idiot of myself by pouring out my uncertainty of passion for the world in the form of a group of alleged "love-letters"; and have since often regretted the action for many reasons. Probably the most important reason is that what I said in my earlier, and younger, letters was not at all what I was trying to say, to get out of my system in a creative manner. It is the previously mentioned problem of trying to apply impressionistic music to the wrong mediumlanguage. Language is as much architectural as musicalpossibly more the former. Therefore it is not a matter of singing straight off and irresponsibly the surface feelings of one's consciousness. It is a matter of patiently constructing and rebuilding. One ought, in writing a composition in words, to build the cathedral first, and support it with buttresses of meditation and reason. The music comes later, with emotional maturity. The music is the understanding which might be symbolized by the insertion of an organ into that very cathedralnot during the cathedral's construction, but after the architect has made sure that the granite stones will not fall down about the heads of both himself and the person to whom he is trying to sing. But I was very young at eighteen years of ageyounger than my years, I guessand I very nearly lost a precious friendship byshooting off my mouth, so to speak, through the mails. I ought to have devoted all of my diffuse emotions to the discipline which came later. That I did not lose that friendship of which I writeand I hope there are indications that I have not lost it entirelyseems to me somewhat miraculous, when I consider the reactions of most folks to such explosions of irresponsibility. The young person to whom those early letters were directed happened to be one of unusual kindness and understanding for one of her yearsshe was just my age, or a little younger. I look back on the situation with some amazement now, astonishment that I was not told in no uncertain terms to go to hell with my childish blubberings. In a sense, possibly this would have been a wise action on the part of the young lady who was the target. And yet it is not out of the way of the argument here to remember also that I was an extremely nervous, lonely, and confused young man. I am bound to be prejudiced in my appreciations, and therefore I say without stint that the young lady displayed great wisdom by easing me back to my disturbed senses courteously and lightly.
It is most enlightening, and somehow (I don't know why) rather ghostly curious that only recently, by sheer accident, I began to correspond with that young lady again. At the present juncture she has already finished attending the school inhabited by her during our last correspondence; and is studying and working at her chosen profession at a hospital in Columbus. The opportunity for writing letters to her arose quite naturally and easilyso easily that I half-suspect the operation of some old law of compensation that demands old ruins be reconstructed on the principles of reason and emotional maturity, with a minimum, even absence, of the old and irresponsible impressionism. It is difficult to describe in this short space the importance and value which can accrue to me through writing to that friend again, under the newer and better controlled conditions. I ought to point out that the present period of my life has to be devoted to a reemphasis of the intellectual tools with which I want to try to understand and appreciate the environment in which I live, and am going to live in the future, in the world. Now, the most precise way for expansion of a person's faculties is his speaking to his friends. If one is social, or is a smooth conversationalist, he can seek his friends' minds by talk. I possess neither of these qualities; and, besides, only a few friends will allow a person to write to them extensively. I have a few such, and they live a considerabledistance from my home, all of them. Thus, the immense intrinsic value to me of my correspondence. Every letter is a voyage of discovery into my friends' personalities; and the voyage is carried on, at least from my end, by my language alone, without the distracting and possibly disgusting influence of my physical person. My corresponding friends have been so few and so far away, that they have not begrudged me the satisfaction of writing to them at length. I reckon there must be, at the present time, five persons with whom I exchange letters of some length. Two of them are poets (who possess excellent senses of criticism which they enjoy operating); a playwright from San Francisco; a young lady, just graduated from Bryn Mawr in Philadelphia, and now working in biochemistry; and the other young lady, upon whose consciousness I have again recently begun to make inroads with letters. It may be objected that long letters are boring and disturbing and distracting. I answer by saying that, such is my friendship that my friends will tell me at once if I write at too great a length. I would not be embarrassed by such a statement of a fact. Exchange of courtesies, and even objections, by means of words is an excellent procedure, and eliminates embarrassments which naturally arise with physical presence.
You'd enjoy seeing this farm, Susan. It had lain fallow for the most part during some fifteen years before my folks obtained it a couple of years ago. I returned from overseas just about in time to join the general struggle against a wilderness of weeds and other disorganization. A little noticeable progress has been made. Of course, I am away from home for more than eight months out of every year; but my father and brother get home every evening, while my mother is here to keep her hands on the reins, milk the cows, and prevent the six pigs from escaping from that devil's island of a pen. Circumstances have allowed me to remain here during this whole summer; and my brother and I have just this week brought in a fair load of hay, the first crop we've yet had. This hay situation is just one indication of the whole process. We attack everything at once and systematically, and little by little signs of progress become visible. It will take some length of time, though, before we can call the place truly productive and self-sufficient. The rudiments are here. We have two cows and a new calf, several pigs andchickens, a fairly decent garden of corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, beans, and a creditable pasture. Our set of animals, both wild and domestic, is a fine onekind and intelligent. The bull frog who lives with his wife and kids down the creek near the pasture spring is a superior singer, one of the most gifted of minstrels. Sometime you must be sure to come and visit me.
My home, as I hope I have implied, is in no way upper, or even middle, class. It is simply and plainly a small Ohioan farm, still trying to find its way out of fifteen years' fallowness. There are two types of confusion in the house proper: my younger brother has half the house covered with scientific apparatus; and I have snarls of books, records, and notebooks covering the other half. We have our own ideas of order, and do not expect others to understand them. We are the Nietzschean farmers in the best degree and sense. We will yield to the prejudices of others, even visitors, even rich ones, if there are any (and there never are); we will salute the flag, vote, and pray when the occasion arises; we will acquiesce with the prevailing social mores and folkways, whatever they happen to be at the moment, whenever we step beyond the rusty barbed wire fence; but by God our conceptions of confusion owe nothing to the French, our ideas of harmonium owe nothing to Plato; we have concepts of confusion floating about the premises, and these are of private manufacture. Thus, if you ever visit us, you may have to undergo a deal of orientation, in order to pick your way among the crags, fens, hills, bogs, dens, fogs, rocks, and caves of the Wright homestead. However, the invitation stands. Give me a ring sometime when you're free.
Yesterday I was visited by my friend Ethelwyn Clark, a former student of Bryn Mawr. She drove here from Philadelphia to spend a few hours before returning to help her mother move to a new place in New Jersey. The high point of the brief visit is the fact that Eff left her gorgeous St. Bernard, Melly, to stay with me for three weeks. Melly has not yet attained her full growth, but she is still monstrous in size. After she gets more used to the rural company she is going to have to keep, she won't be any trouble at all; and she has a sweet nature. Susan, I don't know what it isbut there is a marvelous luxuriance about a St. Bernard. It makes a person feel rich to have one around. I don't mean rich in the superficial sense, but deeply wealthy in spirit. I suppose it's the very hugeness of the dog that does this for a person. Melly is largein body, face, everything; and her affection is so pure and innocent, that one could ask nothing beyond having her sit at his feet, and the universe is temporarily satisfactory. My older brother will be down this coming weekend, and if he gets any creditable photographs of her I'll send you one.
Pete Lannum will leave at the end of this week for Chicago, where he will attend a television school.
I spent a little time during the past week with Liberty Kardules (you remember her). She has just finished her first year of nurse training at Martins Ferry hospital, and, I suppose, will go to Cleveland to study before long. Speaking of nurses, perhaps you know that both Mary Margeret Hughes and Sarah Davies finished their training this spring. I spoke with Mary Margeret briefly last week; and found her to be slightly disillusioned. Perhaps this was merely an inadequate surface impression. I haven't seen her for months.
Your letter, dear Susan, was another concise and thoughtful one. My lack of comment on it and its controversial material has a reason. Tomorrow I am due to leave for Lancaster, where I will spend the next few days with a friend from the army and school. For this reason, I wanted to dash off the present note, in order to make sure I had your letter answered before I get involved in other activities. However, I shall continue to write to you in the present free styleretaining your thoughts as well as I can, ruminating over them, and letting the responses come to you as they form themselves. After I get home, I shall probably have time to answer the problem you pose more directly from my opinions on the subjectand I have several on the topic of organized religion, although they may sound a little grotesque, and even absurd.
In the meanwhile, thank you very much for your letter. It is always a pleasure to hear from you and about your activities and thoughts. Don't be in any hurry, but please answer when you have time. Meantime, always think of me as your friend,
To Jack Furniss's Parents
Warnock, Ohio August 17, 1949
My last few days have been spent in setting my affairs in order, and for this reason my letter of acknowledgment and appreciation is coming a bit late. Late though it be, I want to state right from the beginning that my few days' visit at your home were most pleasant, and I shall not ever forget my being treated with the greatest courtesy and friendliness. The trait which I have appreciated most in Jack is his unfailing talent for making himself old friends with diverse personalities in a very few moments, and then always treating those friendships as precious. Believe me when I say that now, having spent a few days in Jack's domestic environment, I understand the kind of splendid family training which is behind his immediate warmth and sincerity.
As Jack has possibly told you, my visit to Lancaster was my first to that part of the state. I still do not know my native part of the country nearly as well as I should, and an acquaintance with Lancaster, the Lake, and so on, will certainly influence my wanting to see it again sometime.
But, as I say, the moments at the Furniss home were best, and warmest. I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions there, as well as the interesting people I metespecially the Eymans. I have a particular desire to renew acquaintance with Hubie sometime; for he strikes me as being one of the most sensitive, intelligent, and sincere young men I have met in a very long time.
Please tell Jack that I am almost finished with his book The Naked and the Dead, and I shall send it back to him very soon. When he reads Tolstoy's War and Peace, I am certain he will find many interesting parallels between that noblest of novels and Mailer's considerable work. The exploration of each character's background, right down to his spiritual beliefs, is a huge device, and only the greatest talent possesses the imagination and insight to use it to correct advantage. Although The Brothers Karamazov is the deepest novel I know, War and Peace has a greater and more significant settingthe Napoleonic invasion of Russiaand is bound to present more acute difficulties, of the dramatic sort especially, to the omniscient novelist. Tolstoy used his magnificent materialan examination of all kinds of men, from ruler down to peasantto great and perhaps unsurpassable advantage; but I am convinced that evenTolstoy's preeminent position as a war novelist is a little shaken by the explosion caused by this young man, Norman Mailer. As a reader I am only a layman; but, between you and me, I predict great things for the latter. We have had novelists of great talent in America. There is no sense in despairing over the literary achievements of a nation that has fathered Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis at his best, Herman Melville, and some others; I merely wish to point out, by way of passing, that the appearance of The Naked and the Dead is a definite, undeniable indication that the drive of the great vision of democracy is not dead by any means. Regardless of my frequent criticisms, I still believe passionately in my country. I still believe that we have come closer in actuality to the great social dreams of thinkers of the past than any other group. It is not necessary for me to point out to you, who know and understand American history more thoroughly than I do, that any nation thrives on self-criticism, self-examination; and that, as long as it can attempt to understand itself in a healthy manner, it remains young. Such a self-evaluation is The Naked and the Dead, and it deserves to be read as such. This is my opinion.
Again allow me to thank you all for a splendid few days at your home. I hope to see you again during the next semester at Kenyon.
Sincerely, James Wright
To Elizabeth Willerton Esterly
Warnock, Ohio January 1, 1950
Just a few minutes ago I talked to you on the phone. Let me tell you immediately, before I forget, that I very nearly phoned you again. I want to remind you that Liberty Kardules is now in training at a hospital in Cleveland, and that I promised her I would give you her address.
Here it is:
Miss Liberty Kardules 1803 Valentine Ave. Cleveland 9, Ohio
Please let me urge you to write to her very soon, even if you can find time only for a short note. For months now she has wanted very intenselyto see you or hear from you; and circumstances of one sort or another have always managed to get in the way. I imagine her being so far away from home so suddenly will bewilder her for a little while. This is not to say that the sky will fall if you don't write to her, of course. It's just that your writing to her would also give her access to your own address and situation; would allow her to write back; and thus afford both of you a distinct pleasure. She is a whole person, as you are; probably one of the most real people I know. I like to think that the three-dimensional people of my acquaintance are in contact with one another. I mean, of course, that there are so few whose total dimensions I personally am able to see; and the mutual forces operating among them somehow gives me further drive to find the depth in the others whom I don't yet know.
Elizabeth, I spoke for a couple of minutes tonight about Rilke, who is in my opinion the greatest poet of this century. (I have no true right to say this, for I can't read French, which is as may be.) Perhaps the only book through which to begin an acquaintance with himhis literary work, his philosophical concepts which have influenced more Europeans than most crisis-mongers would admit, and his personalityis a small volume entitled Letters to a Young Poet. It is available now in an excellent translation, but I can't remember the publisher. I can find out easily enough, and would like to send you the information; so that perhaps you can find it. You and Henry should both read the thing. When Rilke was still an adolescent, he was sent by his family to serve in a certain Prussian military academy. This was toward the close of the 19th century. He had a hell of a time, and never forgave the operators of the place, even though they wrote to him on the publication of his third or fourth book. The point is that a little later another young German fellow, named Franz Kappus, at the age of 19 was attending the same school. He had written a few verses, and suffered under the routine of the academy. Wondering whether to give up his own identity and really be a soldier, or to pursue the course of creation, he wrote to Rilke (this was about 1905), sent a few poems of his own, and asked for advice. Rilke, who was 28 at the time, answered at once, and the two maintained a correspondence for roughly a decade. It is Rilke's half of the correspondence which is printed in the little book I mentioned. The letters are fresh, and yet profound. You will discover therein one of the most vital intellectual and spiritual currents of ourcentury, one that is not spent because so many other young men, even though isolated, have recognized it and examined themselves in its light. Rilke was a personal friend of the French sculptor Rodin (The Thinker, The Kiss, The Hand of God, etc.), and discusses him at length. He also knew, and was intensely influenced by, Tolstoy. It is not ivory-tower stuff. It is an important influence by a genius, an influence which has been neglected in its true significance by all save a few poets and philosophers; but which is enormously important for the shape of the future. There is a Dutch student at my school who told me that many of his European friends, both Dutch and Belgian, literally worship Rilke's poetry. Jim Clark (you recall Miss Charlotte Lane) corresponded with a German who frequently mentioned Rilke as an extremely popular Lyriker. Can we say the same for Walt Whitman on this continent? I don't know. We should be able to. The true poet is not secluded. He is a man of enormous vitality and vision, a man, as Wordsworth said, speaking to men. They are our eyes. Nothing manmade ever existed in actuality unless it existed first in somebody's imagination. If this were true only in the artistic realm, then we could take Beethoven or leave him, depending on personal taste, and continue to listen to hillbilly music if it pleased us. But it is not true only in the artistic realm. It is also true of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud (consider the insane asylums of the not-too-distant past, the Bedlams and so on), and whatever socialistically-minded thinker who conceived and worked out the plan to educate decently the veterans of the recent war. Get this Rilke book, please. Beethoven says more than music. Rilke says more than poetry. He has much to say about three fundamental facts in his letters: sex, death, and God.
Perhaps it will give a decent idea of his approach to the world, his world, the God in it, the objects and the harmony in which they can be seen, the Gestalt (a wonderful German word which you can translate as something like "the general configurations which objects joined together can assume, almost spontaneously, before your senses") appearing in diverse objects, if I quote a little verse, very famous among Europeans, which is simple enough to be analysed briefly. It is called "Herbst," or "Autumn":
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit, Als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten,Sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde. Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde Aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt. Und sieh die andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen Unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.
The leaves fall, fall as from a great distance, as though withered in the far gardens of heaven; they fall and their gestures are those of surrender, and in the nights falls the heavy earth out of all the stars into loneliness. We all fall: this hand falls there, and behold the others: this falling is in all, and still is one, which this Fall eternally, tenderly gathers into its hands.
It is difficult to transfer to English, which has its own kind of humor, the subtle pun darting back and forth between the verb "fallen," the change from this verb, which of course means to fall, into a neuter noun Fallen, meaning not only the gerund "falling" but also the Fall of the year, as in English. Consider the progression of images. Leaves fall not only from trees, but out of far gardens in heaven; then a shift to the earth as it falls through space (friends tell me that this is a legitimate astronomical viewwill you please ask Henry about it?); and, before this sense of great spaciousness and significance fades, a cornering of the central image, the idea of falling and blending with the world, the universe even, and applying it to us all. It is death perhaps, but not the view of death held by most men. It is a surrender to the temporary ruin out of which humus is formedthe humus of dead leaves from which living plants appear; and the broader humus of the human spirit, through which emerges the tragic sense of human life on this planet. (The true tragic sense is optimisticyou taught me that, in your discussion of Sophocles, in your paper on Dostoyevsky, and elsewhereremember?)The one thing which is really missing from this discussion, the thing which is indispensable, is the chance to read the "Herbst" poem aloud. Rilke is as musical in German as Keats is in English, and you know what that means. Music and meaning run very closely parallel, and enrich each other without confusion. Swinburne confuses, because he sacrifices meaning for music. Keats is enormous because he never, at his best, sacrifices either, but makes them reflect each other and enlarge each other; so that, if you are paying attention, you never come to the end of the poem. It is a living, breathing entity, ever enlarging itself and the reader of it, reaching further and opening new doors of apprehension and consequent appreciation of things which are perhaps not even directly related to the poem. Do I make myself clear? When you hear "To be or not to be, that is the question" you do not shed tears over poor Hamlet's sex problems. You try to answer the question "to be or not to be"; and in trying to do so you find that the question involves more than Hamlet, more than the whole Elizabethan theatre, even more than Shakespeare himself. This is why I regret that we can't discuss the Rilke lyric without the inherent music. If you know any German people down there, and there are bound to be either a couple of Germans or a few students of German, please ask one of them to read you this Rilke aloud. If I am being vague now, you will know what I mean when you hear those long euphonious assonances, almost a phenomenon in German poetry until this century. Of course, some scattered few (I speak from the Oxford Book of German Verse) made wide variations on the old folk-stanza, but none with the genius with which Rilke adapted the language to the long, spread out cadences which seemed made only for more inherently soft languages, and made it sound as if a man can't write his thoughts in any other way.
You both would enjoy my German professor, and his wife, a Lithuanian who is most vivacious. His name is Dr. Andre Hanfman, and as far as I know he was born in Russia. They have made me welcome at their house, and I visit them often when there is a slow evening.
You asked about my own work. I told you that it is different from anything of mine you have ever seen before. I am glad to be partly free of myself. Perhaps the most acute of artistic problems is the emergence from one's self. T. S. Eliot observed that, for the artist, art seeks to escapefrom personality. He meant that an audience is more interested in your insight into the nature of truth among men and objects, and your most objective creations, than in your allergy to headcolds, your taste for green neckties, or your liking for beer. Of course, it is a just view as well as an accurate statement. My problem has always been how to get out of myselfperhaps how to most effectively project myself beyond the limits of my many pettinesses. You remember Browning's last poem in the Men and Women series, "One Word More," in which he undertook an explanation to Mrs. Browning, that he was like the moon, never revolving; he shone to the world through his poems, but kept the other side, the undiscovered one, for more private revelations. He was right. At least I believe he was right. Perhaps I state it with conceit, but I mean to get to the central problems of the century, the ones that flow in all our veins, and not in mine alone.
However that may be, if you really want to see something of mine, and I believe you do, let me offer you one of a series on which I have worked intermittently for some months. Perhaps it will be of interest, since we spoke on the phone tonight about what had happened to God during the past half-century. The poem speaks of him, or them, if you prefer. One or two explanatory points can be made for your convenience. The poem is in the form of the verse epistle. It is presumably written by Tityrus, a farmer and poet, to his friend Hirpinus Snodgrass, with whom he has been corresponding for years. The names are probably familiar. Virgil's Eclogues are written about several characters, and the first begins with a reference to the shepherd Tityrus. The name Hirpinus comes out of one of Horace's odes in the second book. Over toward the end of the poem you will find the lines:
... I should still remember ... one poet whose magnificence of insight ...
The poet is, of course, Hart Crane; and the reference is to his phrase in "White Buildings," "They say that Venus shot through foam to light."
Forgive a long and single-tracked letter. Give my regards to Henry.
To Susan Lamb
Gambier, Ohio January 4, 1950
We have here another quick note, absolutely limited to fifteen minutes, which may not last out the present page.
If I remember correctly (and I am not sure I do), I answered your welcome card; but the letter, if there was one, probably was pretty confused, since I had to do so damned many other things during the vacation. I read a German novel, wrote four pages of my imperishable German prose, read a biography of August Strindberg, read another novel, The Fountainhead, translated six more verses by the poet Rilke,4 wrote 20 more pages for my journal, saw our excellent friend Pete Lannum (who, for my part, is one of the greatest men of the twentieth century), ate about 50 lbs. of a recently butchered hog, fired a rifle at a dead branch of an oak tree on my place, missed, translated 200 more lines from Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon, and got so drunk last Saturday night at a joint just past Stop 7 in Martins Ferry that I couldn't even open my eyes, at one point, for about fifteen minutes running; and got the dates of days mixed, so that I came back to school a day early.
I'm very sorry you had only a day at home. You will be interested to hear that I spoke to the former Miss Willerton over the phone for a little while. She says she and Henry and his (their) little girl are fine; but that she misses teaching. I can see why, of course, after her spending so many years in the profession. In case you don't have it, here's the address [ ...]
Damn it, before I forget: please, for God's sake, give me your phone number in Columbus. Everytime I get down there, I think of calling you, and never never never never never have the number.
I must go now and eat. Buy Bonds.
To Albert Herzing
Warnock, Ohio [July 1950] Saturday
Congratulations on this Martha Foley affair. Her collection is widely known, and it will mean that you will hear from any number of publishers. I've only read one of your stories and, as you may remember, I enjoyed it very much. Even Timberlake liked it immensely. His antipathy toward modern literature is very great, you know, and he seldom admits enjoyment of anything in Hika. This may seem like a small thing to say, but I thought you might be interested.
I had a letter from Edgar Doctorow two days ago. He spent the summer taking care of kids at a camp. I also heard from Willie Hass who did the same. Both seem concerned over this Korea thing, as everyone is, I guess. The entire affair, of course, is without sense and meaning, and all one can do is try to stay away from it as long as possible. I suppose we all shall have to go in time, and there is nothing whatever to be gained by the venture. I cannot imagine anybody with a spark of mentality being taken in by the hysterical propaganda which is being exerted in order to justify the war. The tactics of the Gestapo have crept even to some degree into official circles; so all one can do is try to keep his mouth shut and his conscience assuaged by self-inflicted lies. To me, Truman sounds like the most stupid, cliché-ridden figure in the entire history of western politics. It is just our luck to lose the advantage of Roosevelt's imagination and vision at the present terrible moment; but I suppose we can't expect to be guided by genius every moment of our history. But I didn't mean to get sidetracked so on politics. Several friends have written me their candid opinions on the present international situation, and then asked me to burn the letters. This is a dangerous attitude, and it is time that every thinking man take a stand on his right to opinion. I served my country in the army, and I still believe in its destiny. This, I believe, is not incompatible with a desire to help improve it. In our businessman culture, the business man has taken upon himself the odious job of self-appointed guardian of public morals and patriotism. If the army wants me, I am entirely willing to serve again and again, if necessary. I am not willing to grant to the Rotary clubs the right to form my opinions for me, with the alternativeof being damned as a left-winger and either disgraced or jailed. During the history of our troubled race, countless thousands of men, most of them greater than I, have been faced with a choice between spiritual death and social discomfort. I don't know whether or not I have the courage to follow their positive choices; but I do know that I feel something fundamentally wrong with the government of my country, and I think a sound change is needed in the direction of the country's life. Perhaps a change from the Dems to the Reps would be sufficient to revitalize our policies both at home and abroad. I hope this is the extent of the difficulty. Regardless of the flexibility of any system, any government is only as strong as the men who happen to compose its positions at any given moment. Truman, like Andrew Johnson in relation to Lincoln, has neither the physical force nor the imagination required to continue the work of his great predecessor.
But enough of that. I might point out that you need not burn this letter.
Along with an increased interest in politics this summer, I have worked hard at verses and have written three stories. These are the first tales I have ever tried to compose, and I'm not sure whether they're successful or not. I may wish to offer one to Hika if the editors think them worthy.
Thanks for [Richard] Gibson's address. I shall write him directly.
To Jack Furniss
Warnock, Ohio [August 1950]
Although I am no surer of my motives now than I generally am, I have been engaged through the whole summer in some kind of considerationof the country I live inin the traditions from which it came originally, in the men who founded it, in the present situation of its people, and their meaning on this lonely continent. I think you must agree that one of the grandeurs of America is its loneliness. Of course, this is not to say that often, mostly in our small towns, we possess remarkable capacities for warmth and intimacy of relationship. That also is one of our grandeurs, and it is the more precious because of the loneliness of the stage on which it is played. For the loneliness I speak of is related directly to the very hugeness of the land, the fabulous range of its plains and mountains, and the brooding sense of the great spaces which fills us all who were born here and possess in our blood the sense of largeness. Perhaps this may account for our being in large part a nervous and restless people, anxious sometimes, but always energetic, continuously experimenting with ourselves and the manners in which man has engaged himself in order to find the harmonious relationship with the universe and with his fellows. I think I was extremely fortunate in my army travels, because I got to travel across these states four timestwice across the north, once across the south, and once across the center. The things I saw and was reminded of were equally multitudinous. This latter word is huge; but such words in terms of America are singularly appropriate. I say this because, as I suggested above, I think there is a peculiar relationship between the lay of the land hereits physical characterand the specific problems of existence which beset us the inhabitants. You know that in America we are dealing with a phenomenon; the marvel of men trying, and in a remarkable degree succeeding, to be free. The fact that we have clung so tenaciously to this notion, that the individual man is mostly capable of governing himself and of directing the interests of his own life has been the root of our national paradox. It makes us weak and, in turn, this very weakness is our strength. There is a vital point here, one which, in my consideration, cannot be dispensed with, if you or I or anybody is to understand America. I say, then: being weak, we are strong. I speak of weakness in terms of immediacy, such as that of national preparedness in time of war. This will make a workable example. Consider with me, then: almost invariably America, at the beginning of any conflict in which it is involved, is caught unprepared. Why? I think it is because the very great majority of us are not interested in joining the service and thus being always on our toes againstwar. Now, I do not deny that people in other nations, great or small, may feel the same. They do not want to die either. Agreed. But their governments may think otherwise, and, if so, they can compel the citizens to be ready for war whether they like it or not. This is a strength, the strength of immediacy. That is, when somebody (e.g., North Korea) wants to strike a blow, they can be entirely ready. Why? Because in more normal circumstances they have their feet on the necks of their people; and this characteristic, as far as living as a human being is concerned, is a weakness. I hope I am making myself clear. I hope this, because the paradox which I have tried to state may well be one important key to the other idea at hand; namely, that in time the Americans generally turn out to be enormously strong. The catch is that this strength takes time. It takes time for people who are normally engaged in the pursuits of peace to shift their power into the channels of war. However, we can point to history (very recent history, even; that of World War II) and indicate that, long though it may take, this strength, when it has arrived, is huge. The American capacity for teamwork and efficient cooperation, despite the cynical remarks of many muddle-headed, "bright" young men, is factually speaking one of the more remarkable phenomena in the history of western civilization. I am almost sure that the fact of its taking so long to organize and direct is a direct outcome of that diffuse scattering of talents and energies which I mentioned above. You have only to reflect for a moment on the infinite variety to be found in any single human being. Then remember the some 160 billion human beings we have, restless and energetically moving about on this continent, and on top of this, doing pretty much what their interests direct them to do. It is enormously complex, and it is always shifting. You may object that many, a great many, of our people have to stay situated in one place in order to take care of their families. I answer that you should consider the situation of similar men in countries of older cultures. A very important consideration in this instance is offered by Laski, Wolfe, and other commentators on the American scene. This consideration is in the sense of possibility which we still possess, and, God willing, always shall. Even if a fellow, for example, spends his life in a coal mine, this does not mean that his sons and daughters must do the same. I agree that many of our new citizens, who came from other countries, still possess old views, and therefore may feel that their children ought, ethically and traditionallyspeaking, to follow the same line of work which has been pursued by the family for generations. But also I ask you to remember that these new citizens are living and working in another historical and social context. The American spirit (by which I mean the general attitude of the people toward the ideas which have shaped, and still shape, the way of life here. An excellent example may be found in the sport of baseball, where teamwork combines, and not incompatibly, with an opportunity for brilliant individual experimentation) constantly insists that, despite the temporary and transient opinions of local folks and Sinclair Lewises and Babbitts alike, the individual is to be commended proportionately as he realizes, or attempts to realize, his individuality. That is the general feeling in this country, whether it is vocally expressed or not. It is operative. Finally, I hope you will not be offended at my using you yourself as an example which ought to drive home my point. Your father is in the insurance business; and, if you were a European or an Asiatic, there is little doubt in its being assumed that you would be in the insurance business also. Needless to say, you and your neighbors would exert enormous force of social opinion that your son should follow the same course; and so on, as long as possible. Now, consider the actual situation, and the two conditions are eliminated. I do not know what you eventually will be in your society. You may be an insurance man. On the other hand, I am not aware of any kind of pressure, on the part of your parents or of society in general, to make you be an insurance man. You will be distinguished, I have no doubt, sincerely speaking. But there is a power in the very air, rooted in the ideas of our progenitors and in many of our contemporaries, which will give you great leeway in your choice of the field in which you wish to be distinguished. Now, there is another thing to think about: there are in America families who would like to see their sons hang on to mamma's breast for their entire lifetimes. But we have no business considering these anomalies in any general survey of America. They are the business of the mental doctors. I am trying here to speak of the folks who have, in my opinion, attained to that freedom, not only of individual accomplishment, but of spirit, which permits a fellow to follow his bent without injuring his conscience. The point of all this is to remind you that this freedom is going inevitably to mean a certain wildness in the complexion of the whole nation. If everybody is given much freedom of choice and selection, we are going to be much morerestless and energetic in our pursuit of lives. We are also going to be lonely. Not lonely, perhaps, in the sense of our relations with our immediate families; but rather in relation to those two great corresponding facts: the hugeness of the country and the hugeness, the space, of the ideas and traditions which accompany it.
As in any group of free men, there is some confusion. Also, there is, and has always been here, the search for order. Here I can make use of two accurate terms by the German poet Nietzsche, who suggested that there are two great forces in the world. One of them is the force of pure animality and physical energy, called the Dionysian. The other he called the Apollonian, which represents the desire to bring order out of chaos. America is fascinating to watch when one considers it according to these forces which are in operation without ceasing. There is a strain between the confusion and the search for order. This strain is our life, our national vitality. It may be compared to a sculptor (the sense and desire for order) working with a huge mass of pure white marble (the shapeless confusion) which resists the sculptor's hand, but which often responds to his sensitivity and his skill, and yields forms of great strength and loveliness. I think more and more, as I grow and mature a little, that the strain, the power of directing and unifying our mass originality together with our sense of order and organization, is one of the most vital motivations in our lives as individuals and in the life of our nation as a whole.
Undoubtedly you will find in these previous remarks many things which do not concur with logic or with the facts available. However, I hope they stimulate further discussion.
There is an author with whom, to my knowledge, you have not become acquainted. However, I want you to know him, because, knowing him, you receive many interesting and valuable insights into that America which we have been discussing and which commands both our affection and our awe. This author is Thomas Wolfe. He has been recently attacked by certain critics because his books do not meet their rules as they think novels should be written. This is absurd, of course, because Wolfe was not a novelist at all. He was a poet, and his books are full of gorgeous paeans and lamentations over the enormous and heroic beauties of America. In order to illustrate his insights, and perhaps to draw you into reading an author whom I am sure you would enjoy with great intensity, I want to quote a passage taken from hishuge book (1,000 pages) called Of Time and the River. This is one of Wolfe's most notable descriptions of life as he sees it in this country, and I want you to read it for pleasure. The passage really may make a poem; and it may be called "America." Read it, and look into your own memories:
America has a thousand lights and weathers and we walk the streets, we walk the streets forever, we walk the streets of life alone ...
[Wright goes on to type out a full five pages from Of Time and the River, Book II ("Young Faustus"), Chapter XIV]
You are no doubt wondering by this time the reason for running on so, this long attempt to say something single and clear. It is this: I have been trying to give some conception, together with a reinforcement through quoting the man whom I consider one of modern America's leading interpreters, of the manifold variety of the country in which you and I are young men. I am simply trying to remind you that in any free country such variety must exist. The fact that it does existthe fact that we can possess and consider the ideas and opinions of sincere liberalsmeans that we are still operating under a principle of freedom. It is a fact. Think it over: if we were under a totalitarian system, we would have no liberals, nor conservatives either. We should all be goading it to the self-awareness which is the primary condition of improvement.
Meanwhile, my position on the present war situation is clear. We are endangered, there is no doubt. And I stand ready to answer when I am needed. America is precious to me, and not least among its virtues is the right of free discussion and criticism.
Jack, believe me, you do not need to be apprehensive about the willingness of the liberals to support this nation. Nowhere else could any man attempt to speak his mind so freely. The whole point is this: there is a temporary confusion arising from the fact that we are free, and that therefore every man is talking at once. But a common danger from without will unite us to the immediacy of the common defense.
Of course, it is a moment of crisis, and that is what prompted yourletter. It is also what prompted my quick and sincere answer. I hope I have succeeded in explaining what I mean by America's temporary weakness and this weakness (i.e., the right of every man to mind his own business) as its strength in the long run. Only free men are strong. A bully may punch Joe Louis in the back, and it may take Joe fully five minutes to turn around and face him. But when that turning is accomplished, Joe only needs one punch. This is exactly what I think is the situation in America. The Korean situation arose, as did Pearl Harbor, when we here were minding our own business. At the moment we are turning around. When our power is mobilized (and the Americans are widely known for their power of cooperation in crisis), it will require but one punch.
In the meanwhile, let us retain our mutual sense of discussion. It is this discussion which gives us the strength to respond to aggression. Without it we should be as weak as is any country under totalitarianism.
I hope I have made myself clear.
To Elizabeth Willerton Esterly
Warnock, Ohio January 6, 1951
I suppose this letter, before it really gets finished, will run to many pages, and be typed on odd kinds of paper, all different. Some of it may be done on this lined stuff, some on typing paper, with various kinds of type, or composed in long hand with varying colors of ink or lead. On the other hand, the letter may end after a mere page or so. But you know the inconsistency of form to be found in my correspondence. I like to write spontaneously. Letters can be very close to conversation; and hence they can be valuable. In an honest and vigorous conversation, a man is always open to attack; and through attack he is instructed.
That is the kind of thing which frightens me about Henry. As you yourself pointed out very excitedly, he often closes his arguments withexcellent figures of speech. The catch is that a discussion ought never be closed, by a figure of speech or anything else. I think I very well understand your statement: that a perfect solution to any human problem makes you want to tear it to pieces.
This is all leading up to Ivan Karamazov. It is close to midnight now, and I shall be up all night with Dostoyevsky. You know, of course, that I read the book with your essay on it back at Martins Ferry in the early days. I read it again in Japan. Now I am reading it again. I am afraid it is not a work which one can read for fictional pleasure. I don't mean to deny the coherence of the structure of the book. I only mean that reading, say, the perfect and lovely poems of Robert Herrick is quite a distinct experience from reading The Brothers. For, regardless of aesthetic considerations, Dostoyevsky has this in common with Shakespeare: his characters are, above all, human. Hence, all pleasant possibilities of perfect consistency are removed, and one has to face a train of very violent and frequently unexplained contradictions. You remember that often, very often in fact, D. declines to explain his characters' confusions. He, again, is not being precious or "artistic"; but there is only one way to expose his great themes, and that is to show them in operation among people projected, as far and as clearly as possible for a writer, as they actually are. One of the great themes, for example, is D.'s insistence that social justice is an element which must figure in any metaphysical "Weltanschauung" or that "world-view" is too limited to be of value to the serious thinker. Nobody can escape, indeed nobody ought to escape, the touch of mortality, the sense of guilt and responsibility toward his fellows. Not even Alyosha escapes. Does not Ivan point out to him that even he (Alyosha) is a Karamazov and therefore has a devil seated in his heart? Now, in this connection, let me suggest that you look at Goethe, in case you ever look into The Brothers again. Goethe defines the doctrine of the devil and man as traveling hand in hand. Briefly, dreadfully oversimplified, I should present Goethe's definition thus: man is innocent and virtuous without the devil, but he is not able to account for the problem of evil, which problem is always with us, and must therefore be understood if it is to be dealt with; now, only the devil can stimulate man. Once man is stimulated by the devil, or the challenge of evil, he begins to get restless, he begins to move about and search, he begins to realize that his separate branches of knowledge and achievement (science, poetry, sex, architecture, music,jurisprudence, etc.) are as nothing unless he can find the principle which reveals their interrelation. Here comes the Goethe paradox of principle as action, for only in action can man find the underlying principle of harmony. The principle is love. Towards the end of Faust, Part II, Goethe has this famous line:
Die Tat ist alles, nichts der Ruhm ...
The deed is everything, fame is nothing ...
Principle as action, action as principle. The best example of the conception I can think of is the life of Christ. Look up the 9th chapter of the gospel according to St. John, and ask yourself: who has the more powerful understanding of the universe, Christ or the public critics; in other words, who possesses the keenest insight into an underlying principle (love) which is able to bind the situation of the blind beggar into a coherent metaphysical whole, in which all elements, even the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, are set in order?
But the way of getting at these ideas is a devious one, even more so in Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare than in Goethe, because the latter is too willing sometimes to give up his people, characters in preference for the clarity of the idea; while, as we say, the other two authors are always and everywhere concerned primarily with the place of the living, frequently self-contradictory human being in the metaphysical system of justification for God or order or whatever you want to call it, according to your religion or atheism etc.
This is my reason for thinking suspiciously about Henry's stopping the discussion with a good figure of speech about boundaries. I think the function of a figure of speech, in a discussion, of course, quite literally, is to be attacked or broken. We establish certain points in our analyses, clarify and illustrate them through simile or metaphor, and then proceed, as humbly as may be, to tear holes in them and look through them to a deeper understanding. For no matter what Henry says about masochism or your alleged "enjoyment of your dissatisfaction" the problem of evil remains a Gothic one, one which I still feel is not an ultimate problem but rather a developing one.6 Hence the needfor reinterpretation of it, for the double need of trying to understand and fit things together even while, as you and Henry so justly say, one must try to get to know as many fellows personally as possible. For my part, I may insert the parenthetical remark that I am beginning to think my only salvation in the present and future crises will be in my fighting my own native reserve, and in compelling myself to do all sorts of things like hitch-hiking, in order to find the human being. I do not believe the human being can be given Utopia. He is too tough to understand. The very depth and toughness of understanding required for any humble student of his human brothers is perhaps the keenest thing I am getting out of my third reading of the Dostoyevsky novel. If Henry doesn't know the book you certainly ought to introduce him to it. For you yourself only tell Henry that perfect solutions to the human problem are suspect. Dostoyevsky has the valuable and useful (for us) ability to portray this suspicion in dramatic form. We can refuse ideas dissociated from life for the sake of hypothetical discussions, but it is simply out of the question to refuse life itself, and that is what D. is trying to indicate to us.
I hope I am making myself clear. I am not finally secure in my ideas on the subject, and hence the supreme value of personal discussions. We can check and recheck one another as we proceed.
Monday night the religion class meets and discussion of Dostoyevsky will begin. Dr. Andre Hanfman, the [German professor] and linguist will be with us, I think. He is also a student of Russian and general European history. Another fellow here, Dr. Richard Solomon, is a very brilliant historian trained in one of the old school German academies. If we can get him in on the talk, we should really have something. His knowledge of European history is prodigious; and, to top it all off, he also knows Russian.
I'll let you know about the class. I expect, frankly, most of the divinity students to be rather smugly resentful about Dostoyevsky and the latter's relentless probing into the human being; but the discussion is the important thing, and the problems are too real to deny. Hence, it is my intention to keep my ears open, my mouth shutat least until some of our authorities speak their pieces.
If you're interested, I've written two poems in German. If we ever solve our periodical's financial troubles, I think I'll print one, just for the hell of it.
I wish you would find time to write Liberty a note. She needs some such thing, and would appreciate it so much.
This will have to do temporarily. When I see Dr. Sutcliffe again, I'll procure some stuff for you to look over.
Write me when you have time.
My best to Henry, Jim
Warnock, Ohio December 29, 1951
It's too bad I missed you. I was down in Martins Ferry, wrangling with Liberty's father, when your card arrived. Then I phoned the farm on Thursday night, but you had already gone [ ...]
I must return to Gambier about next Wednesday; and a short time after my return I must take the comprehensive examination in English. I am not especially confident of my ability to remember the intense intellectual and emotional experiences of the past four years in my study of literature at Kenyon. However, I suppose I'll manage to pass. I am a candidate for a degree with honors, you know; and one of the horrors of my life is the prospect of re-writing, within about one week, the honors essay which I turned in to the English department just before the Christmas vacation began. The paper is entitled "The Will in the Thought and Art of Thomas Hardy," and is 245 pages long, with notes and bibliography. It is rather a lurching, sprawling thing, with extensive discussion of many nineteenth-century European trends of thought; and the head of the English dept. has already expressed disapproval of some of my methods. (It isn't Sutcliffe, who is teaching at Harvard this year; but Dr. Coffin, considerably more conservative and, though a generous man, less brilliant.) The work on the paper became something of a monster to me at the last; and I am not sure I can take much work on it in terms of revisionsince I have made three copies of the third and (I thought) final draft. The life of the scholar can drive a person nuts, as you must certainly know. I say this especially because, during the writing of the other thing, I have been struggling terribly on a new poem, a very long one; and I must confess that I've not even finished the first scene. It will be the fourth long poem I've done. The lastone, called "The Earth: a True Romance," is the most successful; but if I ever get the time for the present piece it can be even better. I am going to enter "The Earth" in a contest.
Since I last saw you people I have had a few more publications. The most important were two verses in the autumn issue of the Kenyon Review. But the most fun were a series of five imitations from the German of Heinrich Heine, which appeared in the most recent issue of Hikathe Kenyon undergraduate literary magazine. Incidentally, because of political difficulties, Hika is being printed this year by an independent group of students. Reactionary forces of athletes, fraternities, and other Putsch groups (rampant at Kenyon as at most other colleges in America, I suppose) put the finger on the radicals in the most fascistic student assembly I have ever seen outside of the movies. The only missing elements were mugs of Bavarian beer and a rank of blackshirts chanting the Horst Wessel song. This year I emerged, incidentally, from the ivory tower, and have taken to writing articles for the school newspaper, all of which articles have been intended to reform the morals and manners of Kenyon students (who are becoming absolutely weird, a completely new race of monsters oriented to the current war propaganda). My last "letter to the editor" literally instigated a small riot. I was not molested, however; two successful fistfights earlier in the semester have informed my political enemies of my position with regard to certain techniques of personal slander.
The muckrakers among American undergraduates are eternally unpopular anyway. Unpopularity is one of their social functions. Van Wyck Brooks, in his earlier and more astute moments, pointed out that the poet would be against the government even in Utopia (this would be good for Utopia, because it would save it from ossification). These young men had better realize what the hell is going on: the exploitation of the people's weariness of world war for the sake of establishing a new fascismto get us right back where we started from, namely, dying for nothing. Lost causes are the only enduring ones, said Matthew Arnold. Perhaps he meant that we will never really overcome those two-fisted authoritarians who are at present performing in the guise of red-blooded American boys. Do you know George Orwell's perfect picture of horror and degradation? Imagine, says he, a boot, forever being pushed in your face. Not for me, by God. Before long, anybody with the smallest sense of morality is going to have to take a stand. Thecommunists and fascists are both still loose; and free men are still snagged between them. What do we mean when we say life is worth living? I wonder ... please write ...
To Albert Herzing
Warnock, Ohio February 3, 1952
Will you please subject these verses to the mercies of your editorial staff out there?
I have not been writing because, as you know, I have been completing my term at Kenyon. I passed, incidentally; and affairs are beginning to pile up on me. No sooner had I taken the oral examination, than I was offered a job at a prep school in Texas, of all places. Still drunk from a rough test, I accepted. Next Sunday afternoon (Feb. 10th) Liberty and I will be married; and on the morning of the 11th we will leave by train for Center Point, Texas, fifty miles or so from San Antonio. Though various friends of mine have insisted that Texas is hell, I have few misgivings. I don't intend to stay longer than the spring semester. Also, I had no other job, and must do something now that I will have a wife to take care of. Besides, I was in Texas only oncepassed through on a troop trainand I expect we'll have a rather engaging time, finding out about southerners and so on. We'll be only about 150 miles from Mexico, and may even get over to see a bull fight, or buy some pornography and send it to Lorrie Bright by pony express. Whatever happens, I'll keep in touch with you. As soon as we get more or less settled down there, I'll write you again.
I have a couple of tentative plans for next fall. But I am so relieved to get out from underneath academic pressure, that I may spend another year teaching or working elsewhere before I try to enter a graduate school. Also, there is a possibility still that I may get the Fulbright to Austria. The latter would solve problems for a year.
But at present I am simply relaxing after those gruelling last weeksat Kenyon. I am convinced that the whole damned educational system in the United States is falsely conceived and inadequately executed. We never have time for thinkingthere are always too many footnotes to be made. If the deal in Texas works out the way I expect it to do, I ought to have a reasonably pleasant spring. But the prospect of an eventual two or three years in almost any graduate school I can think of is not too attractive to me. I have a very long poem boiling on the stove, and I am having one sweet leaping hell of a time with it. I hope to get time for it during the next few months.
Meanwhile, as I say, I'll keep in touch with you. Incidentally, Roger Hecht says he heard from you, and that you will appear directly in Poetry. I'll look for the poems with pleasure. They're devoting an issue to the Poetry Workshop of Iowa, aren't they?
Please write to me at Warnock, unless you hear from me at Texas. Anything sent here will be forwarded to me at once.
Center Point, Texas March 17, 1952
(Ah-bah! San Antone!)
You must excuse a hurried note. In a few minutes I must dash over and help to direct a rehearsal for the spring play.
Liberty and I were thoroughly pleased to hear from you, and now that contact is established we must maintain it. What are you going to do this summer? We are trying to find something in Philadelphia. Just before we left Ohio for Texas, Liberty was notified that she passed the state board exam for nurses, and is now R.N. However, since the nearest hospital here is 12 miles off, and transportation is difficult, she is resting from nursing, and is serving as the school's secretary and nurse. But, as I say, we are trying to find something in Philly. Our contact is Bob Mezey (you met him) who, incidentally, is coming down here with Tom Tenney to spend Kenyon's spring vacation. They will arrive either tonight or sometime tomorrow morning.
I wonder if you would tell me the number (month, etc.) of the Poetry issue in which your stuff appeared, so that I can order a copy.
I have been told that Coraddi this year is printing pieces by Mezey, Roger Hecht, Jay Gellens, Nick Crome, and myself. Also, this year Kenyon established a prize for poetrythe Robert Frost Poetry Prize. It isn't much really, only an autographed copy of Frost; but since much interest was shown, and many manuscripts submitted, the prize is bound to increase in value. At least it will be maintained at Kenyon, and perhaps some sort of public social recognition will give the poet some acceptance there; even some prestige. I won the prize this year, I have been told, with a long poem called "The Earth." I don't think you've seen it. I am gratified mostly because it was a long poem (about 35 pages) and the prize indicates that the judges (Ransom, Coffin, Chalmers' wife, Babb, Timberlake) read it.
Listen, I'm latehad an interruption. Please write again soon, and let us know what you're doing this summer. The enclosed things are left entirely to you. I hope you like them.
Martins Ferry, Ohio August 3, 1952
[ ...] Liberty and I had been living and working in Philadelphia for the summer, but were called home by the illness of her mother. I'm helping my folks who are moving to a large new farm near Zanesville, Ohioand Lib is in Cleveland at the moment, seeing about a specialist for her mother.
I forgot to tell you that my Fulbright was granted, and we are scheduled to sail from New York on September 10. I'm to study for about a year at the University of Vienna.
It's good to hear that [Richard] Gibson's novel is on the way, and bad to hear that he will be drafted. Is he still in Europe? How the hell long did his fellowship last, anyhow?
Liberty and I, as I said, spent much of the summer in Philadelphia, a very strange and interesting place. We associated there with a Kenyon undergraduate named Robert Mezey, whom you met during your visit to Kenyon at last fall's dance weekend. Mezey is a bright boy and a pretty promising writer of verses. He was successful with a paperor two in Ransom's classes, and, you may recall, was printed in Coraddi in the spring. He would like very much to write you, and I promised him that I would tell you about him. He will also send you some poems, some of them pretty nice.
Please write to me at the Martins Ferry address on the envelope. Also, if you have extra copies of anything you've written recently, may I see them?
To Robert Mezey
Vienna, Austria April/May 1953
[ ...] You have labored strenuously this year, and I hope you are assured, in your own mind, that your work has meaning. All I can do here is confirm what you must already realize: that, beyond merely technical considerations, you have achieved a greater and finer depth of emotion in the poems of the past year. Of course you know how important emotional maturity is. You no longer are satisfied with phonetically perfect hysterical outbursts on the sexual theme (here I assume you are not satisfied with "The Dream of a Sleeping Serpent"). With "The Ape," "In the Environs of the Funeral Home," "A Post Mortem Speech," "Texas," "The Salesman," you have deepened appreciably in short forms. There is nothing to say about the long poem but that it is beautiful as it stands; and that I am especially glad because it testifies to a belief in life, a celebration, a promise of many more wonderful poems, songs, and humanity. I told you once that I dislike references to poetic genius in your case. You are still young for that kind of thingand there are fires of agony to come. Yet it is equally important, at this period after difficult labor, that you should not hurt yourself by denying the great value of this year's production. Probably another publication would do much for you now. But you must be ready for long and bitter waiting. Publishing procedures are as complex and frustrating as most other institutions in the modern world. Seek always the divine simplicity of poetry. Poetry like this wonderful piece, and yet better.
No use sending you anything else of mine now. I am just midway in making a selection of forty or forty-five poems to show you in a group. I should say I have utterly and thoroughly revised the poem about waiting for Franz, and it is now called "A Legend of My Child's Awakening," with an epigraph in Low German by Storm. I hope you aren't shocked to hear that it now has about 11 stanzas instead of the 8 of the previous version. But nearly everything is changed. I threw out everything as you advised, and wrestled long and deeply with the experience. I think it is the most effective piece I have done this year. You will see.
I hope you see [Eugene] Pugatch. I will write him directly. Instead of getting him the beer stein which he requested (they are hideously expensive, and quite beyond our means), I think I am going to bring him a book. I also will have a small gift for you. I hope you realize that its slight price does not reflect the great affection which prompts it.
Presumably you will have seen Pugatch, and made precise arrangements about our going from N.Y. to Boston and back again. I have something to add: in N.Y. we may conceivably be forced to stay overnight again, and I wonder if it would be possible (and cricket) to exploit the Goldhurst brothers [Richard and William] once more. Of course we want to see Wilbur, Rutledge, and Edgar Doctorow. I would like at least to phone Sy Weissman in Brooklynand what a marvel it would be if we could get in touch with Harvey Robbin.
Furthermore, presumably you will have seen John Schmitt at Kenyon during commencement. Please bring me news of him. When we all get rich, you and John and I must return to Vienna and write an opera together. We saw Wozzeck! It was the greatest piece of drama I ever saw. Also fine was Wagner's "Meistersinger," a fine positive snort of bawdiness, and an orgy of ecstatic song.
But now I am sick of Vienna and Europe. It is too heavy, too slow, too arty. I long for some of that glorious barbarism, that gratifying bleakness and loneliness which is so much of America to me. There is no denying that country America is crude and strange and frightening, but man I love it with my whole person. Beethoven was lonely in this town. What his contemporaries liked was pretty tunes. Now his statue broods very gray in the Zentralfriedhof, bleak as ever, grand and lonely and fulfilling. God damn it! I want to hear the people on the street spitting and snarling my own language. You will never know how much Ianticipate our hitchhiking from Chandlersville to Gambier to see Timberlake, Coffin and Pappy. And you will be crazy about Franz. He grows rounder and rosier and plumper every day, and now he can laugh aloud and try to imitate the vowel sounds. Please write from Philadelphia.
Love, and a letter soon, from Lib. Jim
Copyright © 2005 by Anne Wright