From Sherwood Anderson to his 17-year-old son John, 1926:
The best thing, I dare say, is first to learn something well so you can always make a living. Bob seems to be catching on at the newspaper business and has had another raise. He is getting a good training by working in a smaller city. As for the scientific fields, any of them require a long schooling and intense application. If you are made for it nothing could be better. In the long run you will have to come to your own conclusion.
The arts, which probably offer a man more satisfaction, are uncertain. It is difficult to make a living.
If I had my own life to lead over I presume I would still be a writer but I am sure I would give my first attention to learning how to do things directly with my hands. Nothing gives quite the satisfaction that doing things brings.
Above all avoid taking the advice of men who have no brains and do not know what they are talking about. Most small businessmen say simply — ‘Look at me.’ They fancy that if they have accumulated a little money and have got a position in a small circle they are competent to give advice to anyone.
Next to occupation is the building up of good taste. That is difficult, slow work. Few achieve it. It means all the difference in the world in the end.
I am constantly amazed at how little painters know about painting, writers about writing, merchants about business, manufacturers about manufacturing. Most men just drift.
There is a kind of shrewdness many men have that enables them to get money. It is the shrewdness of the fox after the chicken. A low order of mentality often goes with it.
Above all I would like you to see many kinds of men at first hand. That would help you more than anything. Just how it is to be accomplished I do not know. Perhaps a way may be found. Anyway, I’ll see you this summer. We begin to pack for the country this week.
[via Brain Pickings]
From F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 11-year-old daughter Scottie, while she was away at camp, 1933:
La Paix, Rodgers’ Forge Towson, Maryland
August 8, 1933
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,
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?
[via Letters of Note]
From Leo Tolstoy to his son Ilya, when the latter was preparing to marry, c. 1882:
Dear Friend Ilya:
There is always somebody or something that prevents me from answering your two letters, which are important and dear to me, especially the last. First it was Baturlin, then bad health, insomnia, then the arrival of D—-, the friend of H—- that I wrote you about. He is sitting at tea talking to the ladies, neither understanding the other; so I left them, and want to write what little I can of all that I think about you.
Even supposing that S—- A—- demands too much of you, there is no harm in waiting; especially from the point of view of fortifying your opinions, your faith. That is the one important thing. If you don’t, it is a fearful disaster to put off from one shore and not reach the other.
The one shore is an honest and good life, for your own delight and the profit of others. But there is a bad life, too — a life so sugared, so common to all, that if you follow it, you do not notice that it is a bad life, and suffer only in your conscience, if you have one; but if you leave it, and do not reach the real shore, you will be made miserable by solitude and by the reproach of having deserted your fellows, and you will be ashamed.
In short, I want to say that it is out of the question to want to be rather good; it is out of the question to jump into the water unless you know how to swim. One must be truthful and wish to be good with all one’s might, too. Do you feel this in you? The drift of what I say is that we all know what Princess Marya Alexevna’s verdict about your marriage would be: that if young people marry without a sufficient fortune, it means children, poverty, getting tired of each other in a year or two; in ten years, quarrels, want — hell. And in all this Princess Marya Alexevna is perfectly right and plays the true prophet, unless these young people who are getting married have another purpose, their one and only one, unknown to Princess Marya Alexevna, and that not a brainish purpose, not one recognized by the intellect, but one that gives life its color and the attainment of which is more moving than any other. If you have this, good; marry at once, and give the lie to Princess Marya Alexevna. If not, it is a hundred to one that your marriage will lead to nothing but misery.
I am speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. Receive my words into the bottom of yours, and weigh them well.
Besides love for you as a son, I have love for you also as a man standing at the cross-ways.
I kiss you and Lyolya and Noletchka and Seryozha, if he is back. We are all alive and well.
From John Steinbeck to his teenage son, Thom, who had written of his feelings for a girl at boarding school, 1958:
We had your letter this morning. I will answer it from my point of view and of course Elaine will from hers.
First — if you are in love — that’s a good thing — that’s about the best thing that can happen to anyone. Don’t let anyone make it small or light to you.
Second — There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.
You say this is not puppy love. If you feel so deeply — of course it isn’t puppy love.
But I don’t think you were asking me what you feel. You know better than anyone. What you wanted me to help you with is what to do about it — and that I can tell you.
Glory in it for one thing and be very glad and grateful for it.
The object of love is the best and most beautiful. Try to live up to it.
If you love someone — there is no possible harm in saying so — only you must remember that some people are very shy and sometimes the saying must take that shyness into consideration.
Girls have a way of knowing or feeling what you feel, but they usually like to hear it also.
It sometimes happens that what you feel is not returned for one reason or another — but that does not make your feeling less valuable and good.
Lastly, I know your feeling because I have it and I’m glad you have it.
We will be glad to meet Susan. She will be very welcome. But Elaine will make all such arrangements because that is her province and she will be very glad to. She knows about love too and maybe she can give you more help than I can.
And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
[via Brain Pickings]
From J.R.R. Tolkien (masquerading as Father Christmas), to his sons, 1925:
Cliff House Top of the World Near the North Pole
My dear boys,
I am dreadfully busy this year — it makes my hand more shaky than ever when I think of it — and not very rich. In fact, awful things have been happening, and some of the presents have got spoilt and I haven’t got the North Polar Bear to help me and I have had to move house just before Christmas, so you can imagine what a state everything is in, and you will see why I have a new address, and why I can only write one letter between you both. It all happened like this: one very windy day last November my hood blew off and went and stuck on the top of the North Pole. I told him not to, but the N.P.Bear climbed up to the thin top to get it down — and he did. The pole broke in the middle and fell on the roof of my house, and the N.P.Bear fell through the hole it made into the dining room with my hood over his nose, and all the snow fell off the roof into the house and melted and put out all the fires and ran down into the cellars where I was collecting this year’s presents, and the N.P.Bear’s leg got broken. He is well again now, but I was so cross with him that he says he won’t try to help me again. I expect his temper is hurt, and will be mended by next Christmas. I send you a picture of the accident, and of my new house on the cliffs above the N.P. (with beautiful cellars in the cliffs). If John can’t read my old shaky writing (1925 years old) he must get his father to. When is Michael going to learn to read, and write his own letters to me? Lots of love to you both and Christopher, whose name is rather like mine.
That’s all. Goodbye.
[via Letters of Note, where you can also see the delightfully penned original letter]
From Anne Sexton to her 15-year-old daughter Linda, 1969:
Wed — 2:45 P.M.
I am in the middle of a flight to St. Louis to give a reading. I was reading a New Yorker story that made me think of my mother and all alone in the seat I whispered to her “I know, Mother, I know.” (Found a pen!) And I thought of you — someday flying somewhere all alone and me dead perhaps and you wishing to speak to me.
And I want to speak back. (Linda, maybe it won’t be flying, maybe it will be at your own kitchen table drinking tea some afternoon when you are 40. Anytime.) — I want to say back.
1st, I love you.
2. You never let me down
3. I know. I was there once. I too, was 40 and with a dead mother who I needed still.
This is my message to the 40-year-old Linda. No matter what happens you were always my bobolink, my special Linda Gray. Life is not easy. It is awfully lonely. I know that. Now you too know it — wherever you are, Linda, talking to me. But I’ve had a good life — I wrote unhappy — but I lived to the hilt. You too, Linda — Live to the HILT! To the top. I love you, 40-year old Linda, and I love what you do, what you find, what you are! — Be your own woman. Belong to those you love. Talk to my poems, and talk to your heart — I’m in both: if you need me. I lied, Linda. I did love my mother and she loved me. She never held me but I miss her, so that I have to deny I ever loved her — or she me! Silly Anne! So there!
[via Letters of Note]
From Edgar Rice Burroughs to his daughter Joan, 1941:
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzana, California
1298 Kapiolani Boulevard Honolulu T H
January 24 1941
Your letter of the 14th was very welcome, as are all your letters. Although you sent it via air mail, it must have come by boat; as it was eight days getting here, and there has been no Clipper in for about a week. We were supposed to have had one this morning, but the morning paper now says it will arrive tomorrow; so I am sure your letter wasn’t on it. Quick, Watson, the needle!
Am glad that you liked THE DEPUTY SHERIFF. I wrote it in the summer of 1930, and we peddled it around to every magazine in the United States, with no buyers. I think Ralph did finally get rid of it to some magazine; I’ve forgotten which one now. I always liked it, and couldn’t understand why it didn’t sell readily. I guess the trouble was that all they wish from me is highly imaginative stuff. If anyone says a kind word about my work nowadays, as you did, I nearly break down and cry. I have had so many refusals lately and had my classics so gratuitously insulted over here that I have lost confidence in myself. I am getting damned sick of hearing people apologize to me for reading my stories, or pretend to grouse because they have had to read them to their children, or say that they used to read them while they were in kindergarten but have not read any for years and years. It used to amuse me, but I guess I must be losing my sense of humor. I think I shall come right back at the next one with a retort courteous, such as: “Well, you homely looking abortion, if you had the brains of a cross-eyed titmouse you’d keep your fool mouth shut instead of knocking inspired literature that has entertained a hundred million people for over a quarter of a century !!!” Do you think that would stop ’em? or is it too courteous?
Am just starting another goofy Venus story, THE WIZARD OF VENUS. This guy is something of a hypnotist, and he has every one in his valley buffaloed into believing that he has turned all their friends and relatives into zandars (Amtorian pigs). One family keeps their daughter in a pen back of the castle. All with apologies to Merlin, the Arthurian legend, and Mark Twain.
There is something in your letter that I do not understand – Oh! I just got it. “M.A.S.” – Mutual Admiration Society. It had me guessing for a while. It has been a long time since I heard it. I, too, wish that I were back where I could see you children often. Am sure that I still have a few laughs left under my belt that the weird Burroughs wit would bring out.
Are you getting any more movie work? and did Jim get the flying instructor job? I certainly hope so. Wish Hulbert would do something with his singing. The first thing he knows he’ll have a long, white beard and have to be pushed onto the stage in a wheel chair; and I understand that there have been very few successes under such circumstances. There would always be the danger that, when he took a high note, his upper plate would fall out and get lost in his beard.
Yes, the Pacific is some puddle, and at the present writing I am no puddle jumper.
I will now terminate this foolishness. Lots of love, darling; give my best to Jim and kiss the children for me.
Head Janitor, M.A.S.
Another writer posing as Santa Claus — Mark Twain’s letter to his 3-year-old daughter Susie, 1975:
Palace of St. Nicholas. In the Moon. Christmas Morning.
My dear Susie Clemens:
I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother and your nurses; I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown peoples’ alphabet, you used the characters that all children in all lands on earth and in the twinkling stars use; and as all my subjects in the moon are children and use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself — and kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice mannered, and about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letter which you dictated there were some words which I could not make out for certain, and one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls has just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star away up, in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star and you will say: “Little Snow Flake,” (for that is the child’s name) “I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.” That is, you must write that, with your own hand, and Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light and thin, for the distance is great and the postage very heavy.
There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be “trunk full of doll’s clothes.” Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody and I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen doorbell rings, George must be blindfolded and sent to open the door. Then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet and take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tiptoe and not speak — otherwise he will die someday. Then you must go up to the nursery and stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed and put your ear to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen and when I whistle through it you must speak in the tube and say, “Welcome, Santa Claus!” Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not. If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color and then you must tell me every single thing in detail which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say “Good bye and a merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens,” you must say “Good bye, good old Santa Claus, I thank you very much and please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star tonight and she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay window; and every fine night I will look at her star and say, ‘I know somebody up there and like her, too.'” Then you must go down into the library and make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, and everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon and get those things and in a few minutes I will come down the chimney that belongs to the fireplace that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want — because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery chimney, you know.
People may talk if they want, until they hear my footsteps in the hall. Then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my footsteps at all — so you may go now and then and peep through the dining-room doors, and by and by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room-for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die someday. You must watch George and not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holystone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; and whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty and somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little sweetheart?
Goodbye for a few minutes, till I come down to the world and ring the kitchen door-bell.
Whom people sometimes call “The Man in the Moon”
[via Letters of Note]
From Kurt Vonnegut to his daughter Nanny, 1972:
Dear Nanno —
You should know that I as a college student didn’t write my parents much. You said all that really matters in your first letter from out there (unless you get in a jam) — that you love me a lot. Mark wrote me the same thing recently. That helps, and it lasts for years. I think I withheld that message from my parents. Either that, or I said it so often that it became meaningless. Same thing, either way.
I promise to take your advice, to try painting again. I quite when the slightly talented ghost who had borrowed my hands decided to take his business elsewhere. Everything was coming together before my eyes for a little while. After that came kindergarten smears.
Most letters from a parent contain a parent’s own lost dreams disguised as good advice. My good advice to you is to pay somebody to teach you to speak some foreign language, to meet with you two or three times a week and talk. Also: get somebody to teach you to play a musical instrument. What makes this advice especially hollow and pious is that I am not dead yet. If it were any good, I could easily take it myself.
One of the most startling things that ever happened to me when I was your age had to do with a woman who was my age now. She didn’t know what to do with her life, and I told her that the least she could do was to learn to play the piano. But my apartment isn’t big enough for a piano, and I’m too lazy to move. Edith has the right idea for lazy people: marry somebody with energy to burn.
I’m going to England for a week next month — to go to college-town openings there of [the movie of] Slaughterhouse-Five. I will think of you, and I will remember with pleasure how shy we were, how sort of gummed-up we were. That was appropriate. It would have been hateful if we had been hilarious, like a father and daughter in a TV show.
Don’t answer this letter for years. Remember me fondly. Love — K
[via the excellent Kurt Vonnegut: Letters ]
From Ted Hughes to his 24-year-old son Nicholas, 23 years after his mother Sylvia Plath’s death, 1986:
I hope things are clearing. It did cross my mind, last summer, that you were under strains of an odd sort. I expect, like many another, you’ll spend your life oscillating between fierce relationships that become tunnel traps, and sudden escapes into wide freedom when the whole world seems to be just there for the taking. Nobody’s solved it. You solve it as you get older, when you reach the point where you’ve tasted so much that you can somehow sacrifice certain things more easily, and you have a more tolerant view of things like possessiveness (your own) and a broader acceptance of the pains and the losses. I came to America, when I was 27, and lived there three years as if I were living inside a damart sock ��� I lived in there with your mother. We made hardly any friends, no close ones, and neither of us ever did anything the other didn’t want wholeheartedly to do. (It meant, Nicholas, that meeting any female between 17 and 39 was out. Your mother banished all her old friends, girl friends, in case one of them set eyes on me — presumably. And if she saw me talking with a girl student, I was in court. Foolish of her, and foolish of me to encourage her to think her laws were reasonable. But most people are the same. I was quite happy to live like that, for some years.) Since the only thing we both wanted to do was write, our lives disappeared into the blank page. My three years in America disappeared like a Rip Van Winkle snooze. Why didn’t I explore America then? I wanted to. I knew it was there. Ten years later we could have done it, because by then we would have learned, maybe, that one person cannot live within another’s magic circle, as an enchanted prisoner.
So take this new opportunity to look about and fill your lungs with that fantastic land, while it and you are still there. That was a most curious and interesting remark you made about feeling, occasionally, very childish, in certain situations. Nicholas, don’t you know about people this first and most crucial fact: every single one is, and is painfully every moment aware of it, still a child. To get beyond the age of about eight is not permitted to this primate — except in a very special way, which I’ll try to explain. When I came to Lake Victoria, it was quite obvious to me that in some of the most important ways you are much more mature than I am. And your self-reliance, your Independence, your general boldness in exposing yourself to new and to-most-people-very-alarming situations, and your phenomenal ability to carry through your plans to the last practical detail (I know it probably doesn’t feel like that to you, but that’s how it looks to the rest of us, who simply look on in envy), is the sort of real maturity that not one in a thousand ever come near. As you know. But in many other ways obviously you are still childish — how could you not be, you alone among mankind? It’s something people don’t discuss, because it’s something most people are aware of only as a general crisis of sense of inadequacy, or helpless dependence, or pointless loneliness, or a sense of not having a strong enough ego to meet and master inner storms that come from an unexpected angle. But not many people realise that it is, in fact, the suffering of the child inside them. Everybody tries to protect this vulnerable two three four five six seven eight year old inside, and to acquire skills and aptitudes for dealing with the situations that threaten to overwhelm it. So everybody develops a whole armour of secondary self, the artificially constructed being that deals with the outer world, and the crush of circumstances. And when we meet people this is what we usually meet. And if this is the only part of them we meet we’re likely to get a rough time, and to end up making “no contact.” But when you develop a strong divining sense for the child behind that armour, and you make your dealings and negotiations only with that child, you find that everybody becomes, in a way, like your own child. It’s an intangible thing. But they too sense when that is what you are appealing to, and they respond with an impulse of real life, you get a little flash of the essential person, which is the child. Usually, that child is a wretchedly isolated undeveloped little being. It’s been protected by the efficient armour, it’s never participated in life, it’s never been exposed to living and to managing the person’s affairs, it’s never been given responsibility for taking the brunt. And it’s never properly lived. That’s how it is in almost everybody. And that little creature is sitting there, behind the armour, peering through the slits. And in its own self, it is still unprotected, incapable, inexperienced. Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality, the one that can’t understand why it was born and that knows it will have to die, in no matter how crowded a place, quite on its own. That’s the carrier of all the living qualities. It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool—for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful. So there it is. And the sense of itself, in that little being, at its core, is what it always was. But since that artificial secondary self took over the control of life around the age of eight, and relegated the real, vulnerable, supersensitive, suffering self back into its nursery, it has lacked training, this inner prisoner. And so, wherever life takes it by surprise, and suddenly the artificial self of adaptations proves inadequate, and fails to ward off the invasion of raw experience, that inner self is thrown into the front line — unprepared, with all its childhood terrors round its ears. And yet that’s the moment it wants. That’s where it comes alive — even if only to be overwhelmed and bewildered and hurt. And that’s where it calls up its own resources — not artificial aids, picked up outside, but real inner resources, real biological ability to cope, and to turn to account, and to enjoy. That’s the paradox: the only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells — he becomes one of the walking dead, a monster. So when you realise you’ve gone a few weeks and haven’t felt that awful struggle of your childish self — struggling to lift itself out of its inadequacy and incompetence — you’ll know you’ve gone some weeks without meeting new challenge, and without growing, and that you’ve gone some weeks towards losing touch with yourself. The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all. It was a saying about noble figures in old Irish poems — he would give his hawk to any man that asked for it, yet he loved his hawk better than men nowadays love their bride of tomorrow. He would mourn a dog with more grief than men nowadays mourn their fathers.
And that’s how we measure out our real respect for people — by the degree of feeling they can register, the voltage of life they can carry and tolerate — and enjoy. End of sermon. As Buddha says: live like a mighty river. And as the old Greeks said: live as though all your ancestors were living again through you.
[via Letters of Note]