Friday, 29 November 2013


In 1955, while attempting to find a name for their hugely anticipated new car, Ford decided to approach the most unlikely of people to assist in the matter: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Marianne Moore. Moore, who was known by the wife of one Robert Young, an employee in the car manufacturer's marketing research department, was soon contacted by letter; she agreed to help, and proceeded to supply them with a magnificent selection of words with which to brand their car. The entire chain of correspondence, from initial enquiry to baffling conclusion, can be read below.

As can be seen, all of Moore's delightful suggestions were ignored. The Ford "Edsel" was finally unveiled in 1957. It flopped spectacularly.

(Source: Letters from and to the Ford Motor Company; Images via here and here.)

October 19, 1955

Dear Miss Moore,

This is a morning we find ourselves with a problem which, strangely enough, is more in the field of words and the fragile meaning of words than in car making. And we just wonder whether you might be intrigued with it sufficiently to lend us a hand.

Our dilemma is a name for a rather important new series of cars.

We should like this name to be more than a label. Specifically, we should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself. To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design. A name, in short, that flashes a dramatically desirable picture in people's minds.

Over the past few weeks this office has confected a list of three hundred-odd candidates which, it pains me to relate, are characterized by an embarrassing pedestrianism. We are miles short of our ambition. And so we are seeking the help of one who knows more about this sort of magic than we.

As to how we might go about this matter, I have no idea. One possibility is that you might care to visit with us and muse with the new Wonder which now is in clay in our Advance Styling Studios. But, in any event, all would depend on whether you find this overture of some challenge and interest.

Should we be so fortunate as to have piqued your fancy, we will be pleased to write more fully. In summary, all we want is a colossal name (another "Thunderbird" would be fine). And, of course, it is expected that our relations will be on a fee basis of an impeccably dignified kind.

Robert B. Young
Marketing Research Department


October 21, 1955

Let me take it under advisement, Mr. Young. I am complimented to be recruited in this high matter.

I have seen and admired "Thunderbird" as a Ford designation. It would be hard to match, but let me, the coming week, talk with my brother who would bring ardor and imagination to bear on the quest.

Sincerely yours and your wife's,
Marianne Moore

October 27, 1955

Dear Mr. Young,

My brother thought most of the names I had considered suggesting to you for your new series too learned or too labored, but thinks I might ask if any of the following approximate the requirements:


This plant, of which the flower is a silver sword, I believe grows only in Tibet, and on the Hawaiian Island, Maui on Mount Háleákelá (House of the Sun); found at an altitude of from 9,500 to 10,000 feet. (The leaves—silver-white—surrounding the individual blossoms—have a pebbled texture that feels like Italian-twist backstitch all-over embroidery.)

My first thought was of a bird series—the swallow species—Hirundo, or, phonetically, Aërundo. (A species that takes its dinner on the wing—"swifts".) Malvina Hoffman is designing a device for the radiator of a made-to-order Cadillac, and said in her opinion the only term surpassing Thunderbird would be hurricane; and I thought Hurricane Hirundo might be the first of a series such as Hurricane Aquila (eagle), Hurricane Accipiter (hawk), and so on.

If these suggestions are not in character with the car, perhaps you could give me a sketch of its general appearance, or hint as to some of its exciting potentialities—though my brother reminds me that such information is highly confidential.

Sincerely yours,
Marianne Moore


November 4, 1955

Dear Miss Moore,

I'm delighted that your note implies that you are interested in helping us in our naming problem.

This being so, procedures in this rigorous business world dictate that we on this end at least document a formal arrangement with provision for a suitable fee or honorarium before pursuing the problem further.

One way might be for you to suggest a figure which could be considered for mutual acceptance. Once this is squared away, we will look forward to having you join us in the continuation of our fascinating search.

Sincerely yours,
Robert B. Young
Marketing Research Department


November 7, 1955

Dear Mr. Young,

It is handsome of you to consider renumeration for service merely enlisted. My fancy would be inhibited, however, by acknowledgement in advance of performance. If I could be of specific assistance, we could no doubt agree on some kind of honorarium for the service rendered.

I seem to exact participation; but if you could tell me how the suggestions submitted strayed—if obviously—from the ideal, I could then perhaps proceed more nearly in keeping with the Company's objective.

Sincerely yours,
Marianne Moore


November 11, 1955

Dear Miss Moore,

Our office philodendron has just benefitted from an extra measure of water as, pacing about, I have sought words to respond to your recent generous note. Let me state my quandary thus. It is unspeakably contrary to procedure to accept counsel—even needed counsel—without a firm prior agreement of conditions (and, indeed, to follow the letter of things, without a Purchase Notice in quadruplicate and three Competitive Bids). But then, seldom has the auto business had occasion to indulge in so ethereal a matter as this. So, if you will risk a mutually satisfactory outcome with us, we should like to honor your wish for a fancy unencumbered.

As to wherein your earlier suggestions may have "strayed," as you put it—they did not at all. Shipment No. 1 was fine, and we would like to luxuriate in more of the same—even thosle your brother regarded as overlearned or labored. For us to impose an ideal on your efforts would, I fear, merely defeat our purpose. We have sought your help to get an approach quite different from our own. In short, we should like suggestions that we ourselves would not have arrived at. And, in sober fact, have not.

Now we on this end must help you by sending some tangible representation of what we are talking about. Perhaps the enclosed sketches will serve the purpose. They are not it, but they convey the feeling. At the very least, they may give you a sense of participation should your friend, Malvina Hoffman, break into brisk conversation on radiator caps.

Sincerely yours,
Robert B. Young
Marketing Research Department


November 13, 1955

Dear Mr. Young,

The sketches. They are indeed exciting; they have quality, and the toucan tones lend tremendous allure—confirmed by the wheels. Half the magic, sustaining effects of this kind. Looked at upside down, furthermore, there is a sense of fish buoyancy. Immediately your word "impeccable" sprang to mind. Might it be a possibility? The Impeccable. In any case, the baguette lapidary glamor you have achieved certainly spurs the imganation. Car innovation is like launching a ship—"drama."

I am by no means sure that I can help you do the right thing, but performance with elegance casts a spell. Let me do some thinking in the direction of impeccable, symmecromatic, thunder blender... (The exotics, if I can shape them a little.) Dearborn might come into one.

If the sketches should be returned at once, let me know. Otherwise, let me dwell on them for a time. I am, may I say, a trusty confidant.

I thank you for realizing that under contract esprit could not flower. You owe me nothing, specific or moral.

Sincerely yours,
Marianne Moore

November 19, 1955

Some other suggestions, Mr. Young, for the phenomenon:

or Intelligent Bullet
or Bullet Cloisoné or Bullet Lavolta

(I have always had a fancy for THE INTELLIGENT WHALE—the little first Navy submarine, shaped like a sweet potato; on view in our Brooklyn Yard.)

(That there is also a perfume Fabergé seems to me to do no harm, for here allusion is to the original silversmith.)

THE ARC-en-CIEL (the rainbow)

Please do not feel that memoranda from me need acknowledgement. I am not working day and night for you; I feel that etymological hits are partially accidental.

The bullet idea has possibilities, it seems to me, in connection with Mercury (with Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus) and magic (white magic).

Sincerely yours,
Marianne Moore

November 28, 1955

Dear Mr. Young,

REGNA RACER (couronne à couronne) sovereign to sovereign
Fée Rapide (Aerofée, Aero Faire, Fée Aiglette, Magi-Faire) Comme II Faire
Tonnèrre Alifère (winged thunder)
Aliforme Alifère (wing-slender, a-wing)
TURBOTORC (used as an adjective by Plymouth)
THUNDERBIRD allié (Cousin Thunderbird)

I shall be returning the sketches very soon.


December 6, 1955

Dear Mr. Young,

Taper Racer
Taper Acer
Varsity Stroke
Tir à l'arc (bull's eye)
Cresta Lark
Triskelion (three legs running)
Pluma Piluma (hairfine, feather foot)
Andante con Moto (description of a good motor?)

My findings thin, so I terminate them and am returning the sketches—two pastels, two photos: from Mr. M. H. Lieblich.

Two principles I have not been able to capture: 1. The topknot of the peacock and topnotcher of speed. 2. The swivel-axis (emphasized elsewhere)—like the Captain's bed on the whale ship, Charles Morgan—balanced so that it leveled, whatever the slant of the ship.

If I stumble on a hit, you shall have it. Anything so far has been a pastime. Do not ponder appreciation, Mr. Wallace. That was embodied in the sketches.


I cannot resist the temptation to disobey my brother and submit:

TURCOTINGA (turquoise cotinga—the cotinga being a solid indigo South American finch or sparrow)

(I have a three-volume treatise on flowers that might produce something, but the impression given should certainly be unlabored.)


December 8, 1955

Mr. Young,

May I submit UTOPIAN TURTLETOP? Do not trouble to answer unless you like it.

Marianne Moore


[Message sent to Moore with a bouquet of roses, eucalyptus and white pine.]

December 23, 1955

Merry Christmas to our favorite Turtletopper.


December 26, 1955

Dear Mr. Young:

An aspiring turtle is certain to glory in spiral eucalyptus, white pine straight from the forest, and innumerable scarlet roses almost too tall for close inspection. Of a temperament susceptible to shock though one may be, to be treated like royalty could not but induce sensations unprecedented august.

Please know that a carfancyer's allegiance to the Ford automotive turtle—extending from the Model T Dynasty to the Young Utopian Dynasty—can never waver; impersonal gratitude surely becoming infinite when made personal. Gratitude to unmiserly Mr. Young and his idealistic associates.

Sincerely yours,
Marianne Moore


November 8, 1956

Dear Miss Moore,

Because you were so kind to us in our early and hopeful days of looking for a suitable name, I feel a deep obligation to report on events that have ensued.

And I feel I must do so before the public announcement of same come Monday, November 19.

We have chosen a name out of the more than six thousand-odd candidates that we gathered. It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that's what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is—Edsel.

I know you will share your sympathies with us.

David Wallace, Manager
Marketing Research

P.S. Our Mr. Robert Young, who corresponded with you earlier, is now and temporarily, we hope, in the services of our glorious U.S. Coast Guard. I know he would send his best.

Friday, 22 November 2013


LETTERS LIVE returns to London for its most ambitious season yet, with Benedict Cumberbatch & Louise Brealey in starring roles.

Five unique shows at London’s Freemasons’ Hall (Covent Garden), from Tuesday 31st March until Saturday 4th April.

Following its great successes in 2013 and 2014, LETTERS LIVE present its first season of shows in 2015 at the iconic Freemasons’ Hall, one of the finest Art Deco buildings in Britain. Inspired by Letters of Note, the bestselling anthology compiled by Shaun Usher, and To the Letter by Simon Garfield, LETTERS LIVE is a series of curated, live events that celebrate the enduring power of literary correspondence.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Louise Brealey will take to the stage for every night of the Freemasons’ Hall run, reading letters alongside a diverse array of world class performers each evening, including Joss Ackland, Matt Berry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Samantha Bond, Russell Brand, Simon Callow, Olivia Colman, Sally Hawkins, Richard Holloway, Toby Jones, Sir Ben Kingsley, Allen Leech, Sir Ian McKellen, Caitlin Moran, Tom Odell, Andrew O’Hagan, Sophie Okenedo, Geoffrey Palmer, Clarke Peters, Jonathan Ross, Alan Rusbridger, Colin Salmon, Andrew Scott, Juliet Stevenson, Tom Sturridge, Ashley Walters, Dominic West, and more.

'LETTERS LIVE makes us pause and imagine the lives behind the letters read and the circumstances of their origin. The relationship between the audience, reader and writer on a LETTERS LIVE night helps deepen our understanding of these inspiring artefacts of the human condition. They are windows into the love, beauty, pain, and humor of their creators and recipients. It’s a privilege to read this most ancient of communications live to an audience.’
Benedict Cumberbatch, March 2015

‘For me LETTERS LIVE celebrates connection. I love letters. I can never bear to throw them away. I have a big tin in my attic: the billets doux I used to fly down to my pigeonhole at college every morning to read and reread; postcards from my French pen-friend who wrote passionately of his feelings for Australian pop sensation Killy Minnow; a post-it note in a padded envelope of motley biros signed ‘A selection of pens. Luv Mum’. And, most precious now, a sheaf of letters that begin “Dear Louisey”, from my friend who died two years ago; the ones from her last months in strangers’ hand-writing because she’d dictated them to a series of carers, but still irrepressibly her. Some of the letters we read out on the night ache with longing, rage, love, or the hope that we are not alone. Some are just brilliantly funny or profane. Standing up there and speaking words written during the Second World War by Bessie Moore - words that were not meant to be spoken aloud even to her lover - is an electrifying privilege. It doesn’t feel like acting, you have to try to get out of the way; I have rarely felt so close to someone I’ve never met.’
Louise Brealey, March 2015

From Virginia Woolf’s heart-breaking suicide letter to the recipe for drop scones sent by Queen Elizabeth II to President Eisenhower; from Elvis Presley’s crazed letter to President Nixon to Gandhi’s appeal to Hitler for calm on the eve of World War II; and from Iggy Pop’s beautiful letter of advice to a troubled young fan to a remarkable job application from Leonardo da Vinci, LETTERS LIVE captures the humour, seriousness, sadness and brilliance that infect all our lives.

The diverse selections of memorable letters selected for each event are read by high profile talent from various fields: actors, comedians, musicians, artists and authors. Using the world's most entertaining, inspiring and unusual letters, with immense cross-over into the worlds of film, literature, fashion, art and music. The quality of the events to date already makes LETTERS LIVE a unique experience for all, a destination that people want to go to, and an occasion that contributors want to be part of.

We don't just programme a series of readings, we curate performances taking into consideration the content of the letter, its style, the person who reads it and where, ensuring each event is unique and intimate.

For further details visit the official LETTERS LIVE website.

To purchase tickets, visit Ticketmaster.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Dame of what?

In 2007, when informed by reporters outside her home that she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, novelist Doris Lessing famously reacted with an endearing indifference that has since been replayed by thousands. Indeed, she later called winning the award a "bloody disaster." 15 years before that, in 1992, she was offered the chance to become a Dame—an opportunity Lessing, who was brought up in Southern Rhodesia, rejected with the letter below, sent to then-Prime Minister John Major's Principal Private Secretary, Alex Allan.

(Source: University of East Anglia; Image: Doris Lessing, via.)

24th November, 1992

Dear Alex Allan,

I am sorry I did not reply earlier, but I was in the States.

Thank you for offering me this honour: I am very pleased. But for some time now I have been wondering, "But where is this British Empire?" Surely, there isn't one. And now I see that I am not the only one saying the same.

There is something ruritannical about honours given in the name of a non-existent Empire.

And there is another thing. When young I did my best to undo that bit of the British Empire I found myself in: that is, old Southern Rhodesia.

And surely there is something unlikeable about a person, when old, accepting honours from a institution she attacked when young?

And pleasant to be a dame! I would adore it. Dame of what?

Dame of Britain? Dame of the British Islands? Dame of the British Commonwealth? Dame of ....? Never mind.

Please forgive my churlishness. I am sorry, I really am.

Yours sincerely,

Doris Lessing

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Your Loving Mother

On January 22nd of 1919, during her freshman year at college, 19-year-old Margaret Mitchell received word that her mother had fallen ill as a result of a deadly flu pandemic that was sweeping the globe, along with instructions from her father to return home. A few days later, she did just that, only to be greeted at the train station by her brother with the tragic news that their mother had succumbed to pneumonia the day before. As they travelled home from the station, he passed her the following letter.

Margaret Mitchell's classic novel, Gone with the Wind, was published 17 years later.

(Source: Scarlett's Buried Secret; Image: Margaret Mitchell, via PBS.)

January 23, 1919

Dear Margaret,

I have been thinking of you all day long. Yesterday you received a letter saying I am sick. I expect your father drew the situation with a strong hand and dark colors and I hope I am not as sick as he thought. I have pneumonia in one lung and were it not for flu complications, I would have had more than a fair chance of recovery. But Mrs. Riley had pneumonia in both lungs and is now well and strong. We shall hope for the best but remember, dear, that if I go now it is the best time for me to go.

I should have liked a few more years of life, but if I had had those it may have been that I should have lived too long. Waste no sympathy on me. However little it seems to you I got out of life, I have held in my hands all that the world can give. I have had a happy childhood and married the man I wanted. I had children who loved me, as I have loved them. I have been able to give what will put them on the high road to mental, moral, and perhaps financial success, were I going to give them nothing else.

I expect to see you again, but if I do not I must warn you of one mistake a woman of your temperament might fall into. Give of yourself with both hands and overflowing heart, but give only the excess after you have lived your own life. This is badly put. What I mean is that your life and energies belong first to yourself, your husband and your children. Anything left over after you have served these, give and give generously, but be sure there is no stinting of attention at home. Your father loves you dearly, but do not let the thought of being with him keep you from marrying if you wish to do so. He has lived his life; live yours as best you can. Both of my children have loved me so much that there is no need to dwell on it. You have done all you can for me and have given me the greatest love that children can give to parents. Care for your father when he is old, as I cared for my mother. But never let his or anyone else's life interfere with your real life. Goodbye, darling, and if you see me no more then it may be best that you remember me as I was in New York.

Your Loving Mother

Monday, 11 November 2013

You are a true man

In 1876, the great Walt Whitman received a letter from a fan who, like so many others before him, had fallen in love with his controversial, groundbreaking collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass, and was keen to connect with its creator. In fact, that young government clerk was Bram Stoker, future author of Dracula—an immeasurably influential horror novel published 25 years later that needs no introduction. Included with Stoker's letter was another missive—a far lengthier, surprisingly honest piece that begins with an invitation to burn the letter itself—that was written four years previous in draft form, but which he had failed to send. Both can be read below, as can Whitman's reply.

Much to Stoker's delight, the pair met in 1884, and twice more before Whitman passed away.

(Source: The Walt Whitman Archive; Images: Walt Whitman (left, via) & Bram Stoker (right, via.))

Dublin, Feb. 14, 1876.

My dear Mr. Whitman.

I hope you will not consider this letter from an utter stranger a liberty. Indeed, I hardly feel a stranger to you, nor is this the first letter that I have written to you. My friend Edward Dowden has told me often that you like new acquaintances or I should rather say friends. And as an old friend I send you an enclosure which may interest you. Four years ago I wrote the enclosed draft of a letter which I intended to copy out and send to you—it has lain in my desk since then—when I heard that you were addressed as Mr. Whitman. It speaks for itself and needs no comment. It is as truly what I wanted to say as that light is light.

The four years which have elapsed have made me love your work fourfold, and I can truly say that I have ever spoken as your friend. You know what hostile criticism your work sometimes evokes here, and I wage a perpetual war with many friends on your behalf. But I am glad to say that I have been the means of making your work known to many who were scoffers at first. The years which have passed have not been uneventful to me, and I have felt and thought and suffered much in them, and I can truly say that from you I have had much pleasure and much consolation—and I do believe that your open earnest speech has not been thrown away on me or that my life and thought fail to be marked with its impress. I write this openly because I feel that with you one must be open. We have just had tonight a hot debate on your genius at the Fortnightly Club in which I had the privilege of putting forward my views—I think with success.

Do not think me cheeky for writing this. I only hope we may sometime meet and I shall be able perhaps to say what I cannot write. Dowden promised to get me a copy of your new edition and I hope that for any other work which you may have you will let me always be an early subscriber. I am sorry that you're not strong. Many of us are hoping to see you in Ireland. We had arranged to have a meeting for you. I do not know if you like getting letters. If you do I shall only be too happy to send you news of how thought goes among the men I know. With truest wishes for your health and happiness believe me,

Your friend

Bram Stoker


Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 18, 1872.

If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don't care whether you like it or not and only ask you to put it into the fire without reading any farther. But I believe you will like it. I don't think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn't like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world—a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose—is that you will in some manner let me know that my words have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like—but if you do you will miss the pleasure of this next sentence, which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse.

A man who is uncertain of his own strength might try to encourage himself by a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of mortal man—a man to whose candor Rousseau's Confessions is reticence—can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call you Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become a second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to "give up all else" so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet.

I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all—and I have chosen the latter course. I don't know whether it is usual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you—for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

If you care to know who it is that writes this, my name is Abraham Stoker (Junior). My friends call me Bram. I live at 43 Harcourt St., Dublin. I am a clerk in the service of the Crown on a small salary. I am twenty-four years old. Have been champion at our athletic sports (Trinity College, Dublin) and have won about a dozen cups. I have also been President of the College Philosophical Society and an art and theatrical critic of a daily paper. I am six feet two inches high and twelve stone weight naked and used to be forty-one or forty-two inches round the chest. I am ugly but strong and determined and have a large bump over my eyebrows. I have a heavy jaw and a big mouth and thick lips—sensitive nostrils—a snubnose and straight hair. I am equal in temper and cool in disposition and have a large amount of self control and am naturally secretive to the world. I take a delight in letting people I don't like—people of mean or cruel or sneaking or cowardly disposition—see the worst side of me. I have a large number of acquaintances and some five or six friends—all of which latter body care much for me.

Now I have told you all I know about myself. I know you from your works and your photograph, and if I know anything about you I think you would like to know of the personal appearance of your correspondents. You are I know a keen physiognomist. I am a believer of the science myself and am in an humble way a practicer of it. I was not disappointed when I saw your photograph—your late one especially. The way I came to like you was this. A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in the Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among my friends. I say it to my own shame but not to my regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out—without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti's edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read it far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night, and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book lying open before me.

I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer's day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti's edition (for Rossetti is all I have got till I get the complete set of your works which I have ordered from America). One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—"the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports," you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your own land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this, Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

It is vain for me to try to quote any instances of what thoughts of yours I like best—for I like them all and you must feel that you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you—have said more about myself to you than I have ever said to any one before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was with no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you ever would care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman's eyes and a child's wishes to feel that he can speak so to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul.

I don't think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.

Bram Stoker


March 6, '76.

My dear young man,

Your letters have been most welcome to me—welcome to me as Person and as Author—I don't know which most—You did well to write me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and so affectionately, too. I too hope (though it is not probable) that we shall one day meet each other. Meantime I send you my friendship and thanks.

Edward Dowden's letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been received. I shall send the books very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written E. D.

My physique is entirely shattered—doubtless permanently, from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dressed, and get out every day a little. Live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.

Write to me again.

Walt Whitman

Thursday, 7 November 2013

I embrace you with all my heart

On November 7th 1913, in French Algeria, author Albert Camus was born. The second son of Lucien and Catherine Camus, he was just 11-months-old when his father was killed in action during The Battle of the Marne; his mother, partially deaf and illiterate, then raised her boys in extreme poverty with the help of his heavy-handed grandmother. It was in school that Camus shone, due in no small part to the encouragement offered by his beloved teacher, Louis Germain, a man who fostered the potential he saw and steered young Camus on a path that would eventually see him write some hugely respected, award-winning novels and essays.

In 1957, Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for his important literary production, which with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times." Shortly after the occasion, he wrote to his former teacher. Germain soon replied.

(Letter taken from the More Letters of Note book. For more info and to read reviews of that book, go here. Image: Albert Camus, via.)

19 November 1957

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus


My dear child,

I do not know how to express the delight you gave me with your gracious act nor how to thank you for it. If it were possible, I would give a great hug to the big boy you have become who for me will always be "my little Camus."

Who is Camus? I have the impression that those who try to penetrate your nature do not quite succeed. You have always shown an instinctive reticence about revealing your nature, your feelings. You succeed all the more for being unaffected, direct. And good on top of that! I got these impressions of you in class. The pedagogue who does his job conscientiously overlooks no opportunity to know his pupils, his children, and these occur all the time. An answer, a gesture, a stance are amply revealing. So I think I well know the nice little fellow you were, and very often the child contains the seed of the man he will become. Your pleasure at being in school burst out all over. Your face showed optimism. And I never suspected the actual situation of your family from studying you. I only had a glimpse when your mother came to see me about your being listed among the candidates for the scholarship. Anyway, that happened when you were about to leave me. But until then you seemed to me to be in the same position as your classmates. You always had what you needed. Like your brother, you were nicely dressed. I don't think I can find a greater compliment to your mother.

It gives me very great satisfaction to see that your fame has not gone to your head. You have remained Camus: bravo. I have followed with interest the many vicissitudes of the play you adapted and also staged: The Possessed. I love you too much not to wish you the greatest success: it is what you deserve.

Know that, even when I do not write, I often think of all of you.

Madame Germain and I warmly embrace all four of you.

Affectionately yours.
Louis Germain

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

One of the most original thinkers I have ever met

In November of 1911, two of the world's most revered scientists, Henri Poincaré and Marie Curie, were asked to write letters of recommendation for a 32-year-old man who was looking to become a professor of theoretical physics at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), and who, 6 years previous, had authored a renowned set of groundbreaking scientific papers. That man was Albert Einstein. Then a respected professor at Prague's Charles-Ferdinand University, Einstein was keen to return to his alma mater in Switzerland to teach; however, certain local officials in Zurich weren't convinced of his suitability.

These invaluable letters soon arrived. Einstein moved to Zurich some months later.

(Sources: Poincare's translated letter via Solvay Conferences on Physics: Aspects of the Development of Physics Since 1911, Curie's translated and supplied by Jeremy Harding; Image: Albert Einstein, via.)

From Henri Poincaré:

Nov. 1911

My dear colleague,

Mr Einstein is one of the most original thinkers I have ever met. In spite of his youth, he has already achieved a very honourable place among the leading savants of his age. What one has to admire in him above all is the facility with which he adapts himself to new concepts and knows how to draw from them every possible conclusion. He has not remained attached to classical principles, and when faced with a problem of physics he is prompt in envisaging all its possibilities. A problem which enters his mind unfolds itself into the anticipation of new phenomena which may one day be verified by experiment. I do not mean to say that all these anticipations will withstand the test of experiment on the day such a test would become possible. Since he seeks in all directions one must, on the contrary, expect most of the trails which he pursues to be blind alleys. But one must hope at the same time that one of the directions he has indicated may be the right one, and that is enough. This is indeed how one should proceed. The role of mathematical physics is to ask the right questions, and experiment alone can resolve them.

The future will show more and more the worth of Mr Einstein, and the university intelligent enough to attract this young master is certain to reap great honour.

Your most devoted colleague,



From Marie Curie:

Paris, November 17, 1911

Dear Sir,

I have just received your letter, in which you asked for my personal impression of Mr. Einstein, whom I recently had the pleasure to meet. You also say that Mr. Einstein wishes very much to return to Zurich and could soon have the opportunity to do so.

I have often admired the papers published by Mr. Einstein on issues dealing with modern theoretical physics. Moreover, I believe that theoretical physicists agree that these papers are of the highest order. In Brussels, where I participated in a scientific conference in which Mr. Einstein also took part, I was able to appreciate the clarity of his mind, the extent of his documentation and the depth of his knowledge. If we consider that Mr. Einstein is still very young, we are right to have great hope in him, and to see him as one of the leading theoreticians of the future. I think that the scientific institution willing to give Mr. Einstein the work he desires, either by appointing him an existing chair or by creating for him the chair in the conditions he deserves, could be greatly honored by such a decision and would certainly be providing a great service to science.

If, by offering my opinion, I could by a small measure contribute to the solution desired by Mr. Einstein, I would be extremely pleased.

Accept, I beg of you, dear Sir, the assurance of my best wishes.

M. Curie

Faculty of Sciences, Paris
(General Physics Laboratory)

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The Matchbox

Born in 1893, English author and poet Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote seven novels in her lifetime beginning with Lolly Willowes – the quirky tale of a lady who moves away from home following the death of her father and, as is often the case, takes up witchcraft – the book for which she is now remembered by too few people; in fact, she found more success in the U.S. where she was celebrated by many and frequently wrote for The New Yorker magazine. Away from public life, Townsend Warner also had an unrivalled knack for writing entertaining letters, and in 1946 penned this exquisite example to friend and fellow writer, Alyse Gregory, in response to a Christmas gift which, if given to anyone else, would have elicited little more than a blank expression.

(This letter features in the More Letters of Note book alongside many other fascinating pieces of correspondence -- more info at Books of Note.)

Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor's wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan't go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.


P.S. There is still so much to say...carried away by my delight in form and texture I forgot to praise the picture on the back. I have never seen such an agreeable likeness of a hedgehog, and the volcano in the background is magnificent.