Friday, 30 March 2012

I am very real



In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school's furnace as a result of its "obscene language." Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn't receive a reply.

(Source: The Letters of Note book, courtesy of The Estate of Kurt Vonnegut.)

November 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, 29 March 2012

You are mistaken in calling it a novel



In September of 1961, a young publicist at Simon & Schuster named Nina Bourne began sending out copies of a forthcoming book to a whole host of notable readers, in an attempt to solicit a blurb or two for its release. They were accompanied with an enthusiastic note from Bourne that read, "This is a book I’d get a critic out of the shower to read."

The novel in question was Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and the following response came from Evelyn Waugh.

(Source: The Letters of Evelyn Waugh; Image: Evelyn Waugh, via LIFE.)

6 September 1961

Dear Miss Bourne,

Thank you for sending me Catch 22. I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady's reading. It suffers not only from indelicacy but from prolixity. It should be cut by about a half. In particular the activities of "Milo" should be eliminated or greatly reduced.

You are mistaken in calling it a novel. It is a collection of sketches—often repetitious—totally without structure.

Much of the dialogue is funny.

You may quote me as saying: "This exposure of corruption, cowardice and incivility of American officers will outrage all friends of your country (such as myself) and greatly comfort your enemies."

Evelyn Waugh

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Skills of Leonardo da Vinci



In the early 1480s, many years before he painted the world-famous pieces for which he is now best known—the Mona Lisa being just one—Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci sought a job at the court of Ludovico Sforza, the then de facto ruler of Milan. Fully aware that Sforza was looking to employ military engineers, Leonardo drafted an application letter that put his seemingly endless engineering talents front and centre, by way of a 10-point list of his abilities; interestingly, his artistic genius is merely hinted at towards the very end. It is believed that the final document, pictured above and translated below, was penned not in Leonardo’s hand, but by a professional writer. The effort paid off, and he was eventually employed. A decade later, it was Sforza who commissioned him to paint The Last Supper.

(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note. For more info, visit Books of Note.)

My Most Illustrious Lord,

Having now sufficiently seen and considered the achievements of all those who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war, and having noted that the invention and performance of the said instruments is in no way different from that in common usage, I shall endeavour, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets, and thereafter offering them at your complete disposal, and when the time is right bringing into effective operation all those things which are in part briefly listed below:

1. I have plans for very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy, and others, sturdy and indestructible either by fire or in battle, easy and convenient to lift and place in position. Also means of burning and destroying those of the enemy.

2. I know how, in the course of the siege of a terrain, to remove water from the moats and how to make an infinite number of bridges, mantlets and scaling ladders and other instruments necessary to such an enterprise.

3. Also, if one cannot, when besieging a terrain, proceed by bombardment either because of the height of the glacis or the strength of its situation and location, I have methods for destroying every fortress or other stranglehold unless it has been founded upon a rock or so forth.

4. I have also types of cannon, most convenient and easily portable, with which to hurl small stones almost like a hail-storm; and the smoke from the cannon will instil a great fear in the enemy on account of the grave damage and confusion.

5. Also, I have means of arriving at a designated spot through mines and secret winding passages constructed completely without noise, even if it should be necessary to pass underneath moats or any river.

6. Also, I will make covered vehicles, safe and unassailable, which will penetrate the enemy and their artillery, and there is no host of armed men so great that they would not break through it. And behind these the infantry will be able to follow, quite uninjured and unimpeded.

7. Also, should the need arise, I will make cannon, mortar and light ordnance of very beautiful and functional design that are quite out of the ordinary.

8. Where the use of cannon is impracticable, I will assemble catapults, mangonels, trebuckets and other instruments of wonderful efficiency not in general use. In short, as the variety of circumstances dictate, I will make an infinite number of items for attack and defence.

9. And should a sea battle be occasioned, I have examples of many instruments which are highly suitable either in attack or defence, and craft which will resist the fire of all the heaviest cannon and powder and smoke.

10. In time of peace I believe I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture, and the construction of both public and private buildings, and in conducting water from one place to another.

Also I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay. Likewise in painting, I can do everything possible as well as any other, whosoever he may be.

Moreover, work could be undertaken on the bronze horse which will be to the immortal glory and eternal honour of the auspicious memory of His Lordship your father, and of the illustrious house of Sforza.

And if any of the above-mentioned things seem impossible or impracticable to anyone, I am most readily disposed to demonstrate them in your park or in whatsoever place shall please Your Excellency, to whom I commend myself with all possible humility.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

You children write illiterate letters



In 1958, a schoolboy named Robert Leifert wrote to the author and humourist, James Thurber, and asked for some assistance with a school project. Sadly for Robert (or luckily for Robert, depending on your viewpoint) it seems he caught Thurber on a bad day, and before long the youngster was the proud owner of the following delightfully grumpy response.

Let's hope it was of some use.

(Source: Selected Letters of James Thurber; Image: James Thurber in 1954, via Wikipedia.)

Mr Robert Leifert
New York City, New York

January 4, 1958

Dear Robert,

Since a hundred schoolchildren a year write me letters like yours—some writers get a thousand—the problem of what to do about such classroom "projects" has become a serious one for all of us. If a writer answered all of you he would get nothing else done. When I was a baby goat I had to do my own research on projects, and I enjoyed doing it. I never wrote an author for his autograph or photograph in my life. Photographs are for movie actors to send to girls. Tell your teacher I said so, and please send me her name.

One of the things that discourage us writers is the fact that 90 per cent of you children write wholly, or partly, illiterate letters, carelessly typed. You yourself write "clarr" for "class" and that's a honey, Robert, since s is next to a, and r is on the line above. Most schoolchildren in America would do a dedication like the following (please find the mistakes in it and write to me about them):

To Miss Effa G Burns
Without who's help
this book could never
of been finished it,
is dedicated with
gartitude by it's
arthur.

Show that to your teacher and tell her to show it to her principal, and see if they can find the mistakes.

Just yesterday a letter came in from a girl your age in South Carolina asking for biographical material and photograph. That is not the kind of education they have in Russia, we are told, because it's too much like a hobby or waste of time. What do you and your classmates want to be when you grow up—collectors? Then who is going to help keep the United States ahead of Russia in science engineering, and the arts?

Please answer this letter. If you don't I'll write to another pupil.

Sincerely yours,

JAMES THURBER

Monday, 26 March 2012

His heart is not in his work



Before becoming a full-time author, Sherwood Anderson worked as a copy-writer for a Chicago-based advertising agency named Taylor Critchfield Co, and it wasn't until 1918, by which time he was 41 years of age, that he was able to take the leap and devote himself to his craft.

When it came to resigning from the agency, he took a less traditional route and wrote the following letter to his boss, Bayard Barton.

(Source: Homage to Sherwood Anderson, 1876-1941; Image: Sherwood Anderson, via Virginia Tech.)

Chicago
June 25, 1918

Dear Barton:

You have a man in your employ that I have thought for a long time should be fired. I refer to Sherwood Anderson. He is a fellow of a good deal of ability, but for a long time I have been convinced that his heart is not in his work.

There is no question but that this man Anderson has in some ways been an ornament to our organization. His hair, for one thing being long and mussy gives an artistic carelessness to his personal appearance that somewhat impresses such men as Frank Lloyd Wright and Mr. Curtenius of Kalamazoo when they come into the office.

But Anderson is not really productive. As I have said his heart is not in his work. I think he should be fired and if you will not do the job I should like permission to fire him myself. I therefore suggest that Anderson be asked to sever his connections with the Company on August 1st. He is a nice fellow. We will let him down easy but let's can him.

Respectfully submitted,

Sherwood Anderson

Friday, 23 March 2012

With all my heart and soul



On their fourth wedding anniversary in April of 1996, just eleven months after the riding accident that saw him paralysed from the neck down, Christopher Reeve's wife, Dana, gave him the following letter. They remained married until his death in 2004, by which point the Superman actor had lent his name to the American Paralysis Foundation and worked tirelessly to promote their cause. In 2006, Dana passed away after succumbing to lung cancer.

Transcript follows.

(Source: Care Packages; Image: Dana & Christopher Reeve, via.)



Transcript
11 April 1996

My darling Toph,

This path we are on is unpredictable, mysterious, profoundly challenging, and, yes, even fulfilling. It is a path we chose to embark on together and for all the brambles and obstructions that have come our way of late, I have no regrets. In fact, all of our difficulties have shown me how deeply I love you and how grateful I am that we can follow this path together. Our future will be bright, my darling one, because we have each other and our young 'uns.

With all my heart and soul I love you,

Dana

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Your disgusted so-called father



In January of 1891, 20-year-old Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas met the man with whom he would soon fall in love — Oscar Wilde. On April 1st of that year, disgusted by his son's homosexual relationship with Wilde, Bosie's father, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry, sent him the following threatening letter.

Bosie famously responded to his father's letter with a telegram that simply read, "WHAT A FUNNY LITTLE MAN YOU ARE."

Sadly, four years later, in May of 1895, Wilde was imprisoned for two years for "gross indecency," following an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute his lover's father for libel. Wilde was released in May of 1897 in ill health, and passed away in 1900.

(Source: Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions; Image: Oscar Wilde & "Bosie," via.)

Alfred,—

It is extremely painful for me to have to write to you in the strain I must; but please understand that I decline to receive any answers from you in writing in return. After your recent hysterical impertinent ones I refuse to be annoyed with such, and I decline to read any more letters. If you have anything to say do come here and say it in person. Firstly, am I to understand that, having left Oxford as you did, with discredit to yourself, the reasons of which were fully explained to me by your tutor, you now intend to loaf and loll about and do nothing? All the time you were wasting at Oxford I was put off with an assurance that you were eventually to go into the Civil Service or to the Foreign Office, and then I was put off with an assurance that you were going to the Bar.

It appears to me that you intend to do nothing. I utterly decline, however, to just supply you with sufficient funds to enable you to loaf about. You are preparing a wretched future for yourself, and it would be most cruel and wrong for me to encourage you in this. Secondly, I come to the more painful part of this letter—your intimacy with this man Wilde. It must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyze this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it. With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression. Never in my experience have I ever seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are. Also I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you not know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These Christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up.

Your disgusted so-called father,

Queensbury.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Things to worry about



When he wasn’t busy writing some of the most critically lauded and enduring novels of the 20th Century, The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald could often be found penning the most fascinating of letters to such famous characters as his good friend, Ernest Hemingway; editor extraordinaire, Maxwell Perkins; and his wife and fellow author, Zelda—to name but a few. However, no letters are more revealing, or indeed endearing, than those written to his daughter, Scottie, many of which see him imparting wisdom in a way only he could. This particular letter of advice, written to Scottie while she was away at camp and still just 11 years of age, is a perfect example.

(Source: F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters ; Image: Fitzgerald with both his daughter, "Scottie," and wife, Zelda, via.)

La Paix, Rodgers' Forge
Towson, Maryland

August 8, 1933

Dear Pie:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy — but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed pages, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare's in which the line occurs "Lillies that fester smell far worse than weeds."

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you, and always pleasantly; but if you call me "Pappy" again I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?

I will arrange the camp bill.

Halfwit, I will conclude.

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about Cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Worry about. . .

Things not to worry about:

Don't worry about popular opinion
Don't worry about dolls
Don't worry about the past
Don't worry about the future
Don't worry about growing up
Don't worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don't worry about triumph
Don't worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don't worry about mosquitoes
Don't worry about flies
Don't worry about insects in general
Don't worry about parents
Don't worry about boys
Don't worry about disappointments
Don't worry about pleasures
Don't worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Daddy

P.S. My come-back to your calling me Pappy is christening you by the word Egg, which implies that you belong to a very rudimentary state of life and that I could break you up and crack you open at my will and I think it would be a word that would hang on if I ever told it to your contemporaries. "Egg Fitzgerald." How would you like that to go through life with — "Eggie Fitzgerald" or "Bad Egg Fitzgerald" or any form that might occur to fertile minds? Try it once more and I swear to God I will hang it on you and it will be up to you to shake it off. Why borrow trouble?

Love anyhow.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Sorrow passes and we remain



In July of 1883, Henry James, the famed novelist responsible for writing, most notably, The Portrait of a Lady, received a worryingly emotional letter from Grace Norton, a friend of some years and successful essayist who, following a recent death in the family, had seemingly become depressed and was desperate for direction. James, no stranger to depression himself, responded with a stunning letter which, despite beginning, “...I hardly know what to say to you,” contains some of the greatest, most compassionate advice ever put to paper—a feat made all the more impressive on learning that it was written just months after the deaths of his own parents.

For more information about depression, visit Mind.

(Source: Henry James: Selected Letters; Image: Henry James in 1912, via.)

131 Mount Vernon St.,
Boston

July 28th

My dear Grace,

Before the sufferings of others I am always utterly powerless, and the letter you gave me reveals such depths of suffering that I hardly know what to say to you. This indeed is not my last word—but it must be my first. You are not isolated, verily, in such states of feeling as this—that is, in the sense that you appear to make all the misery of all mankind your own; only I have a terrible sense that you give all and receive nothing—that there is no reciprocity in your sympathy—that you have all the affliction of it and none of the returns. However—I am determined not to speak to you except with the voice of stoicism.

I don't know why we live—the gift of life comes to us from I don't know what source or for what purpose; but I believe we can go on living for the reason that (always of course up to a certain point) life is the most valuable thing we know anything about and it is therefore presumptively a great mistake to surrender it while there is any yet left in the cup. In other words consciousness is an illimitable power, and though at times it may seem to be all consciousness of misery, yet in the way it propagates itself from wave to wave, so that we never cease to feel, though at moments we appear to, try to, pray to, there is something that holds one in one's place, makes it a standpoint in the universe which it is probably good not to forsake. You are right in your consciousness that we are all echoes and reverberations of the same, and you are noble when your interest and pity as to everything that surrounds you, appears to have a sustaining and harmonizing power. Only don't, I beseech you, generalize too much in these sympathies and tendernesses—remember that every life is a special problem which is not yours but another's, and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own. Don't melt too much into the universe, but be as solid and dense and fixed as you can. We all live together, and those of us who love and know, live so most. We help each other—even unconsciously, each in our own effort, we lighten the effort of others, we contribute to the sum of success, make it possible for others to live. Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we after a manner see.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don't think, don't feel, any more than you can help, don't conclude or decide—don't do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain. You will do all sorts of things yet, and I will help you. The only thing is not to melt in the meanwhile. I insist upon the necessity of a sort of mechanical condensation—so that however fast the horse may run away there will, when he pulls up, be a somewhat agitated but perfectly identical G. N. left in the saddle. Try not to be ill—that is all; for in that there is a future. You are marked out for success, and you must not fail. You have my tenderest affection and all my confidence.

Ever your faithful friend—

Henry James

Monday, 19 March 2012

Intolerable Ignorance



Between the date of her death — January 22nd, 1901 — and her extravagant funeral a fortnight later, millions mourned as the body of Queen Victoria lay in state on the Isle of Wight. At some point during this lengthy period, disgusted at what he saw as an excessively long, out-of-touch "spectacle," the great George Bernard Shaw wrote the following fantastic letter to the editor of the Morning Leader newspaper and made his feelings known.

Unfortunately, said editor, Ernest Parke, refused to print it.

(Source: Bernard Shaw Collected Letters 1898-1910; Image: George Bernard Shaw, via.)

Sir:

I am loth to interrupt the rapture of mourning in which the nation is now enjoying its favorite festival—a funeral. But in a country like ours a total suspension of common sense and sincere human feeling for a whole fortnight is an impossibility. There are certain points in connection with the obsequies of Queen Victoria which call for vigorous remonstrance.

Why, may I ask, should the procedure in the case of a deceased sovereign be that which has long been condemned and discarded by all intelligent and educated persons as insanity and superstitious? To delay a burial for a fortnight, to hermetically seal up the remains in a leaden coffin (and those who are behind the scenes at our cemeteries know well what will happen to that leaden coffin), is to exhibit a spectacle, not of reverent mourning, but of intolerable ignorance perpetuated by court tradition long after it has been swept away in more enlightened quarters. The remains of the Queen should have been either cremated or buried at once in a perishable coffin in a very shallow grave. The example set by such a course would have been socially invaluable. The example set by the present procedure is socially deplorable.

If at such a moment the royal family, instead of making each other Field Marshals, and emphasizing every foolish unreality and insincerity that makes court life contemptible, were to seize the opportunity to bring its customs into some sort of decent harmony with modern civilization, they would make loyalty much easier for twentieth century Englishmen.

Yours truly,

G. Bernard Shaw

Friday, 16 March 2012

Respected Paternal Relative



In April of 1866, the future author of Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson, wrote the following letter to his father and expertly asked for some money. He was just 15 years of age at the time.

(Source: The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, Vol. I (1868-1880); Image: Robert Louis Stevenson, aged 15, via EdinPhoto.)

2 SULYARDE TERRACE, TORQUAY

Thursday

Respected Paternal Relative:

I write to make a request of the most moderate nature. Every year I have cost you an enormous—nay, elephantine—sum of money for drugs and physician's fees, and the most expensive time of the twelve months was March.

But this year the biting Oriental blasts, the howling tempests, and the general ailments of the human race have been successfully braved by yours truly.

Does not this deserve remuneration?

I appeal to your charity, I appeal to your generosity, I appeal to your justice, I appeal to your accounts, I appeal, in fine, to your purse.

My sense of generosity forbids the receipt of more—my sense of justice forbids the receipt of less—than half a crown.

Greeting from, Sir, your most affectionate and needy son,

R. STEVENSON.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

I like words



In 1934, a New York copywriter by the name of Robert Pirosh quit his well-paid job and headed for Hollywood, determined to begin the career of his dreams as a screenwriter. When he arrived, he gathered the names and addresses of as many directors, producers and studio executives as he could find, and sent them what is surely one of the greatest, most effective cover letters ever to be written; a letter which secured him three interviews, one of which led to his job as a junior writer at MGM.

Fifteen years later, screenwriter Robert Pirosh won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his work on the war film, Battleground. A few months after that, he also won a Golden Globe.

(This letter, along with 124 other fascinating pieces of correspondence, can be found in the bestselling book, Letters of Note. For more info, visit Books of Note.)

Dear Sir:

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave "V" words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land's-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?

Robert Pirosh
385 Madison Avenue
Room 610
New York
Eldorado 5-6024

Monday, 12 March 2012

Butt-Head Astronomer



Late-1993, renowned astronomer Carl Sagan learnt that Apple's forthcoming computer, the Power Macintosh 7100, had been given a codename of "Carl Sagan" — the joke being that they would sell "billions and billions." This was mentioned in a MacWEEK article some time later, to which Sagan sent the following letter in response.

Apple soon changed the codename to "BHA." Upon learning that it stood for "Butt-Head Astronomer," Sagan filed a lawsuit for defamation of character, and lost. He then sued Apple again, for the original codename, and lost again. So he appealed. Late-1995, the two parties settled out of court, and Apple apologised for any unintended distress caused by the situation.

The 7100's final codename was "LAW." It stood for "Lawyers Are Wimps."

(Source: Jerome Croft; Image: Carl Sagan, via Astronet.)

January 10, 1994

I have been approached many times over the past two decades by individuals and corporations seeking to use my name and/or likeness for commercial purposes. I have always declined, no matter how lucrative the offer or how important the corporation. My endorsement is not for sale.

For this reason, I was profoundly distressed to see your lead front-page story "Trio of Power PC Macs spring toward March release date" proclaiming Apple's announcement of a new Mac bearing my name. That this was done without my authorization or knowledge is especially disturbing. Through my attorneys, I have repeatedly requested Apple to make a public clarification that I knew nothing of its intention to capitalize on my reputation in introducing this product, that I derived no benefit, financial or otherwise, from its doing so. Apple has refused. I would appreciate it if you so apprise your readership.

Carl Sagan
Director, Laboratory for Planetary Studies
Center for Radiophysics and Space Research
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY

Friday, 9 March 2012

Scientifically yours



I think it's safe to assume that after NASA successfully landed two rovers on Mars in January of 2004, the momentous event was quickly eclipsed by the following letter of congratulations, sent to the JPL days later by a certain Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his accident-prone assistant, Beaker.

Note: Although the Spirit rover's initial problems were overcome, it's unknown whether Beaker's "Spring Fling" was ever called into action.

Transcript follows.

(Source: Scott Hanson at Muppet Wiki; Image of Beaker & Bunsen via.)



Transcript
THE Jim Henson COMPANY

TO: MARS ROVER MISSION TEAM
FR: Dr. Bunsen Honeydew & Beaker, MUPPET LABS

RE: CONGRATULATIONS!

Dear colleagues,

It is with mixed emotions that Muppet Labs offers you a hearty "congratulations" on the recent success of your Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. While we realize that your remarkable accomplishment is a really nifty thing for the entire scientific community, we at Muppet Labs Mars Exploration Team (MULMET) wanted to get there first! We were so close: a mere three weeks--give or take a 20 year margin of error--from launching our own Mars explorers.

Nonetheless, in the spirit of scientific camaraderie and with a promise that we'll-beat-you-next-time, Muppet Labs sends you and your team an enthusiastic "Well done, bucko!"

Scientifically yours,

(Signed, 'DR. BUNSEN HONEYDEW PHD ESQ.')

DR. BUNSEN HONEYDEW

PS: If you continue to have difficulties with the Spirit Rover, my assistant Beaker is happy to offer free roadside assistance on Mars, utilizing our new, thoroughly untested Interplanetary Coil-Powered Catapult...or as we at MULMET like to call it "The Spring Fling".

PPS: Meep-meep-meep-meep-MEEP-MEEP-MEEP-MEEP!!!!!! NOT!

(Signed, 'BEAKER')

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Remember the Ladies

As you read the following letter, in which Abigail Adams boldly asks her husband — future U.S. President, John Adams — to "remember the ladies" when drafting new laws or else fear rebellion from the female population, bear in mind that it was sent over 200 years ago, at the start of the American Revolutionary War — a time when women had very few rights to speak of.

At the time of writing, John Adams was away from home working as the Massachusetts representative to the Continental Congress; a few months later the Declaration of Independence would be adopted, due in no small part to his efforts. His 31-year-old wife, meanwhile, was at home caring for their four children.

Full transcript follows.

(Source: PBS; Image of the letter's first page via the MFA.)



Transcript
Braintree, March 31, 1776

I wish you would ever write me a Letter half as long as I write you; and tell me if you may where your Fleet are gone? What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people.

I am willing to allow the Colony great merrit for having produced a Washington but they have been shamefully duped by a Dunmore.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.

Do not you want to see Boston; I am fearfull of the small pox, or I should have been in before this time. I got Mr. Crane to go to our House and see what state it was in. I find it has been occupied by one of the Doctors of a Regiment, very dirty, but no other damage has been done to it. The few things which were left in it are all gone. Crane has the key which he never deliverd up. I have wrote to him for it and am determined to get it cleand as soon as possible and shut it up. I look upon it a new acquisition of property, a property which one month ago I did not value at a single Shilling, and could with pleasure have seen it in flames.

The Town in General is left in a better state than we expected, more oweing to a percipitate flight than any Regard to the inhabitants, tho some individuals discoverd a sense of honour and justice and have left the rent of the Houses in which they were, for the owners and the furniture unhurt, or if damaged sufficent to make it good.

Others have committed abominable Ravages. The Mansion House of your President is safe and the furniture unhurt whilst both the House and Furniture of the Solisiter General have fallen a prey to their own merciless party. Surely the very Fiends feel a Reverential awe for Virtue and patriotism, whilst they Detest the paricide and traitor.

I feel very differently at the approach of spring to what I did a month ago. We knew not then whether we could plant or sow with safety, whether when we had toild we could reap the fruits of our own industery, whether we could rest in our own Cottages, or whether we should not be driven from the sea coasts to seek shelter in the wilderness, but now we feel as if we might sit under our own vine and eat the good of the land.

I feel a gaieti de Coar to which before I was a stranger. I think the Sun looks brighter, the Birds sing more melodiously, and Nature puts on a more chearfull countanance. We feel a temporary peace, and the poor fugitives are returning to their deserted habitations.

Tho we felicitate ourselves, we sympathize with those who are trembling least the Lot of Boston should be theirs. But they cannot be in similar circumstances unless pusilanimity and cowardise should take possession of them. They have time and warning given them to see the Evil and shun it.—I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend. Why then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the Lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity. Men of Sense in all Ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your Sex. Regard us then as Beings placed by providence under your protection and in immitation of the Supreem Being make use of that power only for our happiness.

April 5

Not having an opportunity of sending this I shall add a few lines more; tho not with a heart so gay. I have been attending the sick chamber of our Neighbour Trot whose affliction I most sensibly feel but cannot discribe, striped of two lovely children in one week. Gorge the Eldest died on wednesday and Billy the youngest on fryday, with the Canker fever, a terible disorder so much like the throat distemper, that it differs but little from it. Betsy Cranch has been very bad, but upon the recovery. Becky Peck they do not expect will live out the day. Many grown person are now sick with it, in this street 5. It rages much in other Towns. The Mumps too are very frequent. Isaac is now confined with it. Our own little flock are yet well. My Heart trembles with anxiety for them. God preserve them.

I want to hear much oftener from you than I do. March 8 was the last date of any that I have yet had.—You inquire of whether I am making Salt peter. I have not yet attempted it, but after Soap making believe I shall make the experiment. I find as much as I can do to manufacture cloathing for my family which would else be Naked. I know of but one person in this part of the Town who has made any, that is Mr. Tertias Bass as he is calld who has got very near an hundred weight which has been found to be very good. I have heard of some others in the other parishes. Mr. Reed of Weymouth has been applied to, to go to Andover to the mills which are now at work, and has gone. I have lately seen a small Manuscrip decribing the proportions for the various sorts of powder, fit for cannon, small arms and pistols. If it would be of any Service your way I will get it transcribed and send it to you.—Every one of your Friend send their Regards, and all the little ones. Your Brothers youngest child lies bad with convulsion fitts. Adieu.

I need not say how much I am

Your ever faithfull Friend.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

I have no ancestors of that gifted people



In 1938, some months after the initial publication of The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien and his British publisher, Stanley Unwin, opened talks with Rütten & Loening, a Berlin-based publishing house who were keen to translate the novel for the German market. All was going well until, in July, they wrote to Tolkien and asked for proof of his Aryan descent. Tolkien was furious, and forwarded their letter to his publisher along with two possible replies — one in which their question was delicately side-stepped, and one, seen below, in which Tolkien made his displeasure known with considerable style.

It is unknown which reply was sent.

(Source: The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; Image: Tolkien in 1955, via; Thanks to William Vodrey.)

25 July 1938
20 Northmoor Road, Oxford

Dear Sirs,

Thank you for your letter. I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by arisch. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany: the main part of my descent is therefore purely English, and I am an English subject — which should be sufficient. I have been accustomed, nonetheless, to regard my German name with pride, and continued to do so throughout the period of the late regrettable war, in which I served in the English army. I cannot, however, forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer be a source of pride.

Your enquiry is doubtless made in order to comply with the laws of your own country, but that this should be held to apply to the subjects of another state would be improper, even if it had (as it has not) any bearing whatsoever on the merits of my work or its sustainability for publication, of which you appear to have satisfied yourselves without reference to my Abstammung.

I trust you will find this reply satisfactory, and

remain yours faithfully,

J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

1984 v. Brave New World



In October of 1949, a few months after publication of George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four, he received a letter from fellow author Aldous Huxley, a man who, 17 years previous, had seen his own nightmarish vision of society published in the form of Brave New World, a book also now considered a classic. Having recently finished reading Orwell’s novel, Huxley had a few words to say. What begins as a letter of praise soon becomes a brief comparison of the two novels, and an explanation as to why Huxley believes his own, earlier work to be a more realistic prediction.

Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote this letter, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.

Letter taken from the More Letters of Note book. More info here.

(Image: George Orwell (via) & Aldous Huxley (via.)



Transcript
Wrightwood. Cal.
21 October, 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals --- the ultimate revolution? The first hints of a philosophy of the ultimate revolution --- the revolution which lies beyond politics and economics, and which aims at total subversion of the individual's psychology and physiology --- are to be found in the Marquis de Sade, who regarded himself as the continuator, the consummator, of Robespierre and Babeuf. The philosophy of the ruling minority in Nineteen Eighty-Four is a sadism which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it. Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World. I have had occasion recently to look into the history of animal magnetism and hypnotism, and have been greatly struck by the way in which, for a hundred and fifty years, the world has refused to take serious cognizance of the discoveries of Mesmer, Braid, Esdaile, and the rest.

Partly because of the prevailing materialism and partly because of prevailing respectability, nineteenth-century philosophers and men of science were not willing to investigate the odder facts of psychology for practical men, such as politicians, soldiers and policemen, to apply in the field of government. Thanks to the voluntary ignorance of our fathers, the advent of the ultimate revolution was delayed for five or six generations. Another lucky accident was Freud's inability to hypnotize successfully and his consequent disparagement of hypnotism. This delayed the general application of hypnotism to psychiatry for at least forty years. But now psycho-analysis is being combined with hypnosis; and hypnosis has been made easy and indefinitely extensible through the use of barbiturates, which induce a hypnoid and suggestible state in even the most recalcitrant subjects.

Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience. In other words, I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World. The change will be brought about as a result of a felt need for increased efficiency. Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large-scale biological and atomic war --- in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley

Monday, 5 March 2012

The Empire State Building



Early-1932, after seeing a photograph in the New York Times of the great Helen Keller at the top of the newly-opened Empire State Building, Dr. John Finley wrote to her and asked what she really "saw" from that height. Keller — famously both deaf and blind from a very early age — responded with the incredible letter seen below, within which lies one of the greatest, most evocative descriptions of the skyscraper and its surroundings ever to have been written.

A truly beautiful letter.

(Source: AFB; Image: Helen Keller in 1956, via.)

January 13, 1932

Dear Dr. Finley:

After many days and many tribulations which are inseparable from existence here below, I sit down to the pleasure of writing to you and answering your delightful question, "What Did You Think 'of the Sight' When You Were on the Top of the Empire Building?"

Frankly, I was so entranced "seeing" that I did not think about the sight. If there was a subconscious thought of it, it was in the nature of gratitude to God for having given the blind seeing minds. As I now recall the view I had from the Empire Tower, I am convinced that, until we have looked into darkness, we cannot know what a divine thing vision is.

Perhaps I beheld a brighter prospect than my companions with two good eyes. Anyway, a blind friend gave me the best description I had of the Empire Building until I saw it myself.

Do I hear you reply, "I suppose to you it is a reasonable thesis that the universe is all a dream, and that the blind only are awake?" Yes – no doubt I shall be left at the Last Day on the other bank defending the incredible prodigies of the unseen world, and, more incredible still, the strange grass and skies the blind behold are greener grass and bluer skies than ordinary eyes see. I will concede that my guides saw a thousand things that escaped me from the top of the Empire Building, but I am not envious. For imagination creates distances and horizons that reach to the end of the world. It is as easy for the mind to think in stars as in cobble-stones. Sightless Milton dreamed visions no one else could see. Radiant with an inward light, he send forth rays by which mankind beholds the realms of Paradise.

But what of the Empire Building? It was a thrilling experience to be whizzed in a "lift" a quarter of a mile heavenward, and to see New York spread out like a marvellous tapestry beneath us.

There was the Hudson – more like the flash of a sword-blade than a noble river. The little island of Manhattan, set like a jewel in its nest of rainbow waters, stared up into my face, and the solar system circled about my head! Why, I thought, the sun and the stars are suburbs of New York, and I never knew it! I had a sort of wild desire to invest in a bit of real estate on one of the planets. All sense of depression and hard times vanished, I felt like being frivolous with the stars. But that was only for a moment. I am too static to feel quite natural in a Star View cottage on the Milky Way, which must be something of a merry-go-round even on quiet days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the Empire Building so poetical. From every one except my blind friend I had received an impression of sordid materialism – the piling up of one steel honeycomb upon another with no real purpose but to satisfy the American craving for the superlative in everything. A Frenchman has said, in his exalted moments the American fancies himself a demigod, nay, a god; for only gods never tire of the prodigious. The highest, the largest, the most costly is the breath of his vanity.

Well, I see in the Empire Building something else – passionate skill, arduous and fearless idealism. The tallest building is a victory of imagination. Instead of crouching close to earth like a beast, the spirit of man soars to higher regions, and from this new point of vantage he looks upon the impossible with fortified courage and dreams yet more magnificent enterprises.

What did I "see and hear" from the Empire Tower? As I stood there 'twixt earth and sky, I saw a romantic structure wrought by human brains and hands that is to the burning eye of the sun a rival luminary. I saw it stand erect and serene in the midst of storm and the tumult of elemental commotion. I heard the hammer of Thor ring when the shaft began to rise upward. I saw the unconquerable steel, the flash of testing flames, the sword-like rivets. I heard the steam drills in pandemonium. I saw countless skilled workers welding together that mighty symmetry. I looked upon the marvel of frail, yet indomitable hands that lifted the tower to its dominating height.

Let cynics and supersensitive souls say what they will about American materialism and machine civilization. Beneath the surface are poetry, mysticism and inspiration that the Empire Building somehow symbolizes. In that giant shaft I see a groping toward beauty and spiritual vision. I am one of those who see and yet believe.

I hope I have not wearied you with my "screed" about sight and seeing. The length of this letter is a sign of long, long thoughts that bring me happiness. I am, with every good wish for the New Year,

Sincerely yours,

Helen Keller

Friday, 2 March 2012

No Ovaries Removed



On April 28th of 1952, medical staff at the Cedars of Lebanon hospital in L.A. wheeled an extremely nervous Marilyn Monroe to surgery where she was to have her appendix removed. Some time later, with Monroe unconscious and the procedure about to begin, doctors pulled back her gown to find the following note taped to her stomach. It was addressed to her surgeon, Dr. Marcus Rabwin.

Transcript follows.

(Source: MM-Personal: From the Private Archive of Marilyn Monroe; Image of Monroe in 1952, post-appendectomy, via.)



Transcript
Dear Dr. Rabwin,

cut as little as possible I know it seems vain but that doesn't really enter in to it. The fact I'm a woman is important and means much to me.

Save please (I can't ask enough) what you can – I'm in your hands. You have children and you must know what it means – please Dr Rabwin – I know somehow you will!

thank youthank youthank you – For God's sakes Dear Doctor no ovaries removed – please again do whatever you can to prevent large scars.

Thanking you with all my heart.

Marilyn Monroe

Thursday, 1 March 2012

You will then know how to talke to me



In September of 1864, as the American Civil War approached its conclusion, a slave-turned-soldier named Spotswood Rice wrote the following furious letter to his former owner, Katherine Diggs, and sternly warned her that she would soon be seeing him again: he was returning to Missouri, together with a thousand-strong army of black soldiers, to rescue his still-enslaved children. His anger is almost palpable.

Indeed, Spotswood Rice was reunited with his family some months later, although it's unknown whether a showdown with Diggs occurred. Interestingly, Mary, the daughter mentioned in the letter, was interviewed as part of the Federal Writers' Project in 1937.

Transcript follows.

(Source: National Archives, via Jeremy Higgins — click on the images below for larger versions; Image above, of Company E, 4th United States Colored Infantry in 1864, via Wikipedia.)




Transcript
September 3, 1864

Spotswood Rice to Kittey Diggs

I received a leteter from Cariline telling me that you say I tried to steal to plunder my child away from you now I want you to understand that mary is my Child and she is a God given rite of my own and you may hold on to hear as long as you can but I want you to remembor this one thing that the longor you keep my Child from me the longor you will have to burn in hell and the qwicer youll get their for we are now makeing up a bout one thoughsand blacke troops to Come up tharough and wont to come through Glasgow and when we come wo be to Copperhood rabbels and to the Slaveholding rebbels for we dont expect to leave them there root near branch but we thinke how ever that we that have Children in the hands of you devels we will trie your vertues the day that we enter Glasgow I want you to understand kittey diggs that where ever you and I meets we are enmays to each orthere I offered once to pay you forty dollers for my own Child but I am glad now that you did not accept it Just hold on now as long as you can and the worse it will be for you you never in you life befor I came down hear did you give Children any thing not eny thing whatever not even a dollers worth of expencs now you call my children your pro[per]ty not so with me my Children is my own and I expect to get them and when I get ready to come after mary I will have bout a powrer and autherity to bring hear away and to exacute vengencens on them that holds my Child you will then know how to talke to me I will assure that and you will know how to talk rite too I want you now to just hold on to hear if you want to iff your conchosence tells thats the road go that road and what it will brig you to kittey diggs I have no fears about geting mary out of your hands this whole Government gives chear to me and you cannot help your self