Category Archives: Correspondence

Frye Alert: “Things I Wanna Show My Girlfriend”

One of the things the blogger at thingsiwannashowmygirlfriend is the Frye-Kemp correspondence. This paragraph from one of the letters from Frye to Helen in 1932 caught his attention:

Denied the supreme satisfaction of the bed-sheets, he sublimates himself in letter-sheets. I carried on this literary flirtation with you some years ago, in the first summer I was home and we corresponded. But since I have grown to love you so immeasurably more than I did then, or could then, the ideal lady at the other end of the postal service has become a part of myself, and when I write I am painfully conscious only of your absence. Hence these awkward, stammering, whining, almost illiterate letters.

Frye on Drinking

Photo from Macallan Scotch

Here’s a followup on Clayton’s earlier post on Victoria University’s Northrop Frye Gold Medal wines. One of Frye’s diary entries from 1950 recounts drinking at a dinner party with James Thurber that did not go well. On most days through a long working career, however, he liked to drink according to the accepted social standards of the time. Here are some of his observations on and accounts of drinking. (An earlier posting of his Canadian Forum editorial in support of the repeal of Sabbath drinking laws here.)

I knew an old man once who settled for drinking straight Scotch, and he said, “I find it agrees with me.” I find the same thing. (“Chatelaine’s Celebrity I.D.,” Chatelaine 55, no. 11 (November 1982), 43.

Claude Bissell had a few drinks ready for us afterwards before Clawson’s dinner. Very typical of Clawson that his dinner should come on a day when congratulations were being showered on Blissett & me.  I drank Scotch very hard & fast & was quite high until I had my dinner.  (Diaries, 11 April 1950)

There’s getting to be too damn much God in my life.  After lunch I went over to hear Crane’s paper on the history of ideas, but instead of staying for the discussion after tea I went off and had three Martinis—Carpenter doesn’t drink and I decided against giving him the handicap of a slug of Scotch, so it was the first drink I’d had in three days.  (Diaries, 23 February 1952)

We had dinner at Jean’s hotel and I went along with the two girls to the theatre: they had tickets to Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra but I couldn’t get one, as it was the last performance.  I waited until the man said it was a waste of time to wait longer, then went home and had a couple of Scotches & went to bed early. (12 April 1952)

Felt very sleepy after Woodhouse’s whisky & didn’t make much out of Vaughan or Traherne.  The kids didn’t cooperate either: the final Huxley lecture was brilliant—Freudian slip again—I meant to write wasn’t brilliant.  (Diaries, 15 March 1950)

So I sneaked off to collect Helen from some women’s meeting at Wymilwood, and we went down to the Oxford Press to a cocktail, or rather a whisky, party, given for Geoffrey Cumberlege.  I couldn’t get much charge out of Cumberlege, but enjoyed the party.  (Diaries, 17 May 1950)

In the evening the Macleans had a supper party for the Cranes, and a very good party it was.  (Very good of Ken too, as Crane wrote one of his typically slaughterous reviews of Ken’s book). The Grants, the Loves, the Ropers, and Ronald Williams (I suppose because of the Chicago connection) were there (I suppose Mrs. Williams is pregnant again).  Martinis to begin with, and whisky afterward, so what with a very late dinner I got sick again afterward.  My own damn fault.  I was well into my fifth drink before I realized that I’d had practically no lunch.  The party did a men-women split, unusual for the Macleans [MacLeans], and we gossiped about jobs and they about curtains.  We were, as I faintly remember, beginning to get slightly maudlin about Eliot and Auden just at the end.  Douglas Grant of course talked very well, and remained sober enough to drive us home.  I suppose a car, to say nothing of children and sitters and things, does make one very temperate.  Crane is a very charming man, but remains a most elusive one. (Diaries, 22 March 1952)

 

It is not hard to ridicule the fallacy of the distinctive essence, and to show that it is really a matter of looking for some trade mark in the content.  A satirical revue in Toronto some years ago known as Spring Thaw depicted a hero going in quest of a Canadian identity and emerging with a mounted policeman and a bottle of rye.  If he had been Australian, one realizes, he would have emerged with a kangaroo and a boomerang.  One needs to go deeper than ridicule, however, if one is to understand the subtlety of the self-deceptions involved. (“Criticism and Environment”)

I suppose they must have a disease for lies, as they have kleptomania for stealing.  This chap had “spent years in the South Seas”: rubber plantations and trading vessels were at the top of the whisky bottle, waving palm-trees and pounding surf around the middle, and island paradises and brown-eyed mistresses near the bottom.  It bored me a bit, I must say, and after we’d finished the whisky and he started looking inscrutable over a lighted cigar butt I thought I was in for some pretty involved brooding.  (opening paragraph, “Face to Face”) [Frye’s Conrad‑imitation phase]

Marked a few essays & took Helen, who had just finished writing an article for the Star Weekly, out for a cocktail.  I had a sidecar, which, I’ve been told, works on the backfire principle: you swallow down one lemonade after another trying to get a faint alcoholic taste in your mouth, when suddenly there’s a dull boom in your stomach, a sudden ringing in the ears, crimson clouds before the eyes, & there you are as drunk as a coot.  I had only one, so I don’t know.  A businessmen’s dinner was in the dining room, and as I came out I heard the hostess say to the waiter, “How are they getting along with eleven bottles among twelve men?” (Diaries, 5 January 1949)

Ran into Ned [Pratt] & told him my woes.  He says Markowitz tells him that evening drinking is the best way to ward off heart disease.  He went to the liquor store with me & bought me a bottle of rye.  Promised him faithfully I would not have a heart attack in ten years.  (Diaries, 11 January 1949)

On the way back [from the library at Harvard] I stopped at a liquor store & asked if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash.  Even so I didn’t know what to buy, and Canadian rye is $5.75 a bottle—though I think a larger bottle than what we’re allowed to buy.  I got a cheaper rye for $3.75, a Corby’s.  I must investigate California wines.  We came home & had dinner in, after speculating about going out & deciding to renounce the gesture. (Diaries, 14 July 1950––Frye’s 38th birthday)

[Frye tells this story in several places]:  In the year of his retirement he [Ned Pratt] turned up unexpectedly at a meeting of the Graduate Department of English (he hated graduate teaching), and sat through three hours and a half of petitions and what not, and then, under “further business,” announced that this was undoubtedly his last meeting of the Graduate Department, and therefore–at which point he produced a bottle of rye. It was a typical gesture, but he was also reminding us of a certain sense of proportion. (“A Poet and a Legend”)

Frye’s References to McLuhan in the Correspondence

From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.

 

Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

More Frye on Becket

Becket’s shrine

Further to the earlier post on Thomas Becket, here’s Frye writing to Helen Kemp from London, 30 December 1936

On Boxing Day Elizabeth [Fraser] came down—she was getting a bit fed up in Oxford—and we went out to dinner and went to see Murder in the Cathedral but Elizabeth got sick, almost fainted and had to be brought home in a taxi and sent to bed with a hot water bottle. Sunday she was all right, but we didn’t do much except go to Soho for dinner, which I didn’t like much. . . . .Well, anyway, Tuesday we went to see Murder in the Cathedral again. It’s a wonderful play all right—read it sometime. It will probably come to Toronto anyway. The chorus of women was full of the loveliest poetry, and as a play it came off very well. I had reserved tickets for this performance, but through a very fortunate error (at least I assume it was an error) we got seats in the front row of the dress circle, where we were practically breathing down the actor’s necks. The female functionary who had fluttered around Elizabeth Saturday evening and offered her peppermint lozenges came up in the intermission and said “Are you feeling better now, dear?” Elizabeth left early to get the last train back to Oxford, which leaves at eleven and is called the “Fornicator” by the Oxford students.

Previously Unpublished Correspondence: Rewriting “Fearful Symmetry”


The praise and international recognition that Fearful Symmetry brought Frye did not come easily. Frye told David Cayley that the book went through “five complete rewritings of which the third and fourth were half again as long as the published book” (CW 24, 924).  He reported the same thing in interviews with Art Cuthbert, Valerie Schatzker, and Andrew Kaufman (ibid. 413, 595, 671).  Then there was the major rewriting called for by Carlos Baker, one of the readers for Princeton University Press.  Part of Baker’s report on Frye’s 658‑page manuscript can be found in Ian Singer’s introduction to the Collected Works edition of Fearful Symmetry (CW 24, xxxv).  Other parts are recorded by John Ayre (Northrop Frye: A Biography (192–3), who has a full account of Baker’s judgments about the strengths and weaknesses of the book.  Frye’s response to Princeton was to undertake another rewriting.  Once he had completed this large task, Baker reread the report and sent the memorandum below to Datus C. Smith, Jr., the director of Princeton University Press.

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY

Inter‑Office Correspondence

Department of English

To: Datus C. Smith, Jr.

From: Carlos Baker

Subject: MS. of Frye’s Book on Blake

September 10, 1945.

I have reread this MS. with particular interest and care in order to discover just how complete the revision was.  I find that he has done the job with great attention and thoroughness.

1)      The length is lessened by about 20% with, I should say, a 20% gain in intensity and interest.

2)      He has either eliminated or completely reworked all the allusions to other major poems than those of Blake about which I originally felt quarrelsome.  What is left seems to me right and just, and his method of handling these matters at the heads of chapters seems to me preferable to the method I suggested: viz. separating them off into one section of the book by themselves.

3)      He has been liberal and helpful in inserting signposts of the reader’s self‑orientation.  But nota bene: if you decide to print the book, you ought still to insist on a prefatory page where the Blakean canon is listed.  Or this could appear as a one‑page appendix.

4)      In short the book is now definitely publishable, is the best book of Blake that I know, and I should describe it as brilliant, sensitive, witty, and eminently original.  It should do much to make better known and more respected a poet who might have been more so at an earlier date but for a series of accidents of which he himself was one of the most conspicuous.

5)      With carefully chosen and strategically placed reproductions of Blake’s own pictures, it should make a handsome book.  Both because of the size of the Blake cult and the originality of these utterances, the book might create something of a stir, especially in Academia but also outside.

I find in the revision a crack not there before, anent Blake’s use of Rahab, the Apocalyptic Whore of Babylon.  Says Frye slyly: The Joyce of Finnegans Wake might have referred to her as The Last Strumpet or The Great Whorn.

Edith Sitwell and “Fearful Symmetry”

On this date in 1964 Edith Sitwell died (born 1887).

Sitwell provided an enthusiastic review of Fearful Symmetry in the Spectator (10 March 1947) where she observed: “To say it is a magnificent, extraordinary book is to praise it as it should be praised, but in doing so one gives little idea of the huge scope of the book and its fiery understanding.”

Here’s Frye in his letter of thanks to Sitwell on January 7, 1948:

Dear Miss Sitwell:

Ever since I read your review of Fearful Symmetry in the Spectator I have been wanting to write you and wondering what to say.  I have finally decided that the best thing to say is thank you.  (Denham, Selected Letters, 24-5)

After the jump, a much longer letter to Sitwell written on April 12th of that same year.  Headnote and footnotes courtesy of Bob Denham.

Continue reading

More on Mussolini

Further to Michael’s earlier post.

Frye writing to Helen Kemp, 22 June 1935, from Chicago, where he had visited the World’s Fair:

I have seen some more of the Fair.  The Italian exhibit is typical of a Fascist government.  You go into a big round hall with nothing in it but posters around the walls, commemorating various aspects of modern Italian industrialism.  One has a complete speech of Mussolini’s disfiguring the slate‑blue background.  Below the posters are some enormous snapshots of the Forum and similar views in Rome.  Back of this hall is a novelty shop full of cheap jewelry and pestiferous salesmen.  Some of the work‑‑mosaics and such‑‑is finely done, or appeared so before I retreated from importunate idiots behind the counters, but a trip through any of the big department stores in the Loop would be infinitely more rewarding.  I am told they have a good scientific exhibit in the Hall of Science.  But Italy!  Roma Caput Mundi, as one of their own posters said!  And cheap brooches!  God!

Then on 24 March 1937, Frye writes to Kemp:

We’re leaving the Vatican until after Easter. I don’t like Rome much—everything is the biggest and loudest in the world, and the Mussolini mentality is stampeding everything. I  wish I hadn’t come to Rome—I’d sooner have stayed in North Italy. Still, it’s all very good for me.  Of course Mussolini came back from Libya the day we arrived and Rome was a riot of flags and soldiers, which may have prejudiced me [Mussolini had paid a twelve‑day visit in March 1937 to Libya, where he had opened a new coastal highway to the Egyptian frontier].  Still, the same sort of mind put up the Colosseum and St. Peter’s.  And even Rome wasn’t as patriotic as Siena, which must have had at least a thousand pictures of his ugly mug on the walls.

Then on 5 April 1937 he writes to Kemp:

I forget exactly when or what I wrote last, but I was doubtless in Rome, registering dislike. Rome is horrible. I wasn’t quite prepared for the national monument to Victor Emmanuel II, but after I’d seen it it fitted in. Rome built that Colosseum barn, Rome built St. Peter’s with its altar canopy a hundred feet high and its elephantine Cupids in the holy‑water basin, Rome built that ghastly abortion already referred to, Rome produced a long line of tough dictators and brutal army leaders and imbecile Caesars and Mussolini. What Prussia is to Germany, what Scotland is to Britain, that Rome is to Italy—sterile as an egg and proud of it. Romans.  Romans stare and peer at you hostilely and sulkily in the streets where north Italians are merely interested in you; Rome is full of Germans where Florence is full of English and Americans; Rome gave me a disease that felt like the seven‑year itch but is gradually wearing off; Rome stunk; Romans gyp you; Romans break out in a rash of flags the day you arrive and welcome the return of their prodigal son Mussolini.

28 April 1937, from Florence:

It was hard to get out of Florence, though not so hard after the stinkers arrived. I believe they refer to themselves as Alpini—a regiment of Alpine soldiers, mostly war veterans, who came to Florence to get drunk. Still, they were harmless enough. We went out with a girl in our pensione who spoke English very well and met one of them in the Boboli Gardens. They sell these huge bronze plaques in Florentine art stores—you can buy one of the Pope for 3 lire, one of Jesus Christ for 5 lire, and one of Mussolini for 10 lire. This man had one of Dante. She asked him if he liked Dante and he said no, he’d never heard of Dante, but he had to have some souvenir to take back from Florence. . . . The rapprochement between Italy & Germany is being played up for all it’s worth—you see pictures of Hitler everywhere, Italian & German flags beside each other in posters, and anti‑Semitic books in bookstores. Of course the Italians made a great fuss over their Empire—Mussolini’s title is now “Fondatore dell’Impero,” the King is the King‑Emperor, and they’re frantically jealous of countries with bigger empires. There’s a comic newspaper that had a big front‑page cartoon showing a Union Jack over the Houses of Parliament with a big knot tied in one end. Now I’ve run out of paper and am going to the back of page one—the one that starts off with sweetheart—A spectator says, “What’s the idea of the knot?” and his friend says “Oh, that’s just to remind her of her great colonial empire.” Every cat in Italy is pregnant. Well, maybe every other cat—there are an awful lot of cats. They’re more loyal to Mussolini than the humans are—Mussolini announced in one of his speeches that Italians should drink more wine because it stimulates the begetting of children. Wonder why, if he’s always having parades, he doesn’t have one of pregnant women? When I got back to France, where Mussolini was allowed to have a mistress, who shot somebody else for some reason, the mistress was said to have had three hundred pictures of Mussolini in her room. She not only loved Mussolini, she understood him. [The mistress was the French actress, Mlle. Fontanges, whose real name was Magda Coraboeuf.  After she revealed her affair with Mussolini to the press, he forbade her to come to Rome; she thereupon shot and wounded the French ambassador, whom she thought was somehow responsible for her predicament, and served a year in prison as a consequence.]

Frye-Welch Correspondence, 1968-1970

We have posted in the library letters written by Frye to Jane Welch (later Widdicombe) at the beginning of her long tenure as his devoted secretary: she began working for Frye in 1968. Frye’s travels during these three years took him to Ireland and London; Berkeley; Bellagio, Italy; Islamabad, Pakistan; and Merton College, Oxford.  During this time he was working on The Critical Path, which, he tells Jane Welch in one of his letters from Merton College, “is the first book since the Anatomy of Criticism that I’ve actually written, i.e., that hasn’t been a series of public lectures.  It’s also a very important book.  I probably won’t live to see it recognized as such, but you may” (no. 16).  Then there are the usual Frye quips, such as “I’m not all that anxious to read the Blake Newsletter, and I never believe anything I see in such things anyway, as a matter of principle” (no. 11), and “A big research library is wasted on me, too bad I never learned to read, and I’m getting itchy feet again” (no. 17).

You can read them all here.

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Duck Soup”

Given the state of our politics these days, this may be the perfect film to watch on this particular Saturday night. (Video not embedded: click on the image and then hit the YouTube link.)

The 24 year old Frye in a letter from Oxford to Helen Kemp relates a story involving a classmate, a somewhat addled aristocrat, and the Marx Brothers’ 1933 classic, Duck Soup:

The other night in the lodge our only sprig of nobility, the Honourable David St. Clair Erskine (one of our tame homosexuals as well) came in from the Dramatic Society’s performance of Macbeth and met Baine, who had just come in from seeing the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup.  The Honourable David St. Clair Erskine was tanked up just enough to be affable to anybody–when he woke up the next morning and realized that he had spoken to an American Freshman Rhodes Scholar to whom he hadn’t been introduced he probably went on the water wagon for life.  He said: “I enjoyed the show (meaning Macbeth) very much, didn’t you?”  Baine: “Very much (meaning Duck Soup).  “I remembered that I had seen it before, but I enjoyed it very well the second time anyway.” The Honourable D. St. C.E. (somewhat staggered): “I — I understand they didn’t get it all rehearsed in time, and are adding a few scenes at each performance.”  Baine: “Yes, I noticed it had been cut a good deal, but thought it had been censored.”  The Honourable Et Cetera: “I like the leading lady — she’s new to Oxford, but she did very well.”  By this time, there being no leading lady in the Marx Brothers picture, the first faint roseate blush of dawn began to appear in Baine’s mind, but he wisely decided the situation would be too much for the H. D. St. C. E.’s  bewildered brain to cope with at that point.  (CW 2, 702-3)

The rest of the film after the jump.  This is the Marx Brothers at their very best.  Many will no doubt be amazed just how many of the classic Marx Brothers scenes come from this one movie.  About the best way I can think of to spend 80 minutes.  As a bonus, this is also a pristine, high definition version of the film.  Enjoy.

Continue reading

Northrop Frye: “There are bigger fools in the world”

norrie&helen

Frye and Helen: the expression on his face is sweetly suggestive of his impassioned letters to her during the 1930s

Today is Frye’s birthday (1912-1991) and an opportune moment to hear what Frye has to say about himself.

His intermittent diaries between 1942 and 1955 contain just two birthday entries.

From his 1942 diary:

Thirty today.  Many good resolutions, most broken already.  (CW 8, 6)

From his 1950 diary while staying at Harvard and writing his seminal “Archetypes of Literature“:

Today was my thirty-eighth birthday.  Helen & I went down to the Harvard Co-operative Store (they call & pronounce it the “Harvard Coop”) & got me a summer suit & a lot of miscellaneous things, socks & tie & so on . . . On the way back I stopped at a liquor store & asked if if there were any formalities about purchasing liquor.  He said the formality consisted only in the possession of cash…

It’s important for me to get along on a concentrated job as soon as possible, because travel, which is said to broaden the mind, only flattens mine.  The exposure of my naturally introverted mind to a whole lot of new impressions confuses me, because I’m more at home with ideas, I’m not naturally observant, and what impressions I do get are random & badly selected.  Also they’re compared with the more familiar environment back home and, as I don’t know the new environment, the comparison is all out of focus. (ibid., 406)

We get much more of this sort of autobiographical detail in his letters, written between the ages of 19 and 24, to Helen Kemp.

Postmarked 14 June 1932:

The Muse is still stubborn.  I have a good idea but no technique.  I have a conception for a really good poem, I am pretty sure, but what I put down is as flat and dry as the the Great Sahara.  I guess I’m essentially prosaic.  I can work myself up into a state of maudlin sentimentality, put down about ten lines of the most villainous doggerel imaginable, and then kick myself and tear the filthy thing up.  However, I got out the book of twentieth-century American poetry from the library and that cheered me up.  There are bigger fools in the world.  (CW 1, 19-20)

Postmarked 25 August 1932:

What I am worried about is my own personal cowardice.  I am easily disheartened by failure, badly upset by slights, retiring and sensitive — a sissy, in short.  Sissies are very harmless and usually agreeable people, but they are not leaders or fighters.  I would make a very graceful shadow boxer, but little more.  I haven’t the grit to look the Wedding Guest in the eye.  “Put on the armor of God,” said a minister unctuously to me when I told him this.  Good advice, but without wishing to seem flippant, I don’t want armour, divine or otherwise — snails and mud-turtles are encased in armour — what I want is a thick skin.  (ibid., 63)

11 October 1933:

You say I am necessary to your existence.  Does that mean:

a) That I am 135 pounds of mashed turnip; something necessary in the way of companionship — somebody to tell one’s troubles to — somebody who will pet you and spoil you and cuddle up to you when things go wrong?

b) That I am a condiment, bringing a sharp tang and new zest to existence, reminding you of the world, the flesh and the devil, and so humanizing you?

c) That I am a stimulant, helping to correlate your activities, encouraging your talents and spanking you for your weaknesses?

d) Or, that I am a narcotic, a drug, very powerful, to be taken, as you say, in small doses, temporarily relieving you, like a headache powder, from your ethereal worries by plunging you into an orgy of physical excitement which leaves you exhausted and silenced?

e) Or that I am an insufferable bore who stays too late?

f) Or a combination of the above?

You see, being a man, I’m so densely stupid.  I haven’t any sort of intuitive tact.  I am your typical male — whenever you get depressed I don’t know anything except what I personally want to do — that is, take you in my arms and strike solicitous and protective attitudes.  If there’s any crying to be done, I want it done on my shoulder.  I want to be present and look helpful whenever you are in difficulties.  (ibid., 90)

Continue reading