Tag Archives: letter

Happy Birthday, Walt Whitman!

the birthday boy

Today is 192 years after Walt Whitman was born and 119 years after his death. In honor of those 72 years in between, I celebrate the great American writer’s life with a humble post. I got the idea from a new blog I’m enjoying called Letters of Note. Today, they published a letter written by contemporary and friend Mark Twain to Whitman for his 70th birthday.

In May of 1889, Twain wrote the following beautiful letter of congratulations to Walt Whitman, the indisputably influential poet behind, most notably, Leaves of Grass. The cause for celebration was Whitman’s upcoming birthday; the imminence of which saw Twain pen not just a birthday wish, but a stunning 4-page love letter to human endeavor, as seen during Whitman’s lifetime.

The images of the actual letter are courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and a transcript of the letter is copied below.

Hartford, May 24/89

To Walt Whitman:

You have lived just the seventy years which are greatest in the world’s history & richest in benefit & advancement to its peoples. These seventy years have done much more to widen the interval between man & the other animals than was accomplished by any five centuries which preceded them.

good ol' Sammy C

What great births you have witnessed! The steam press, the steamship, the steel ship, the railroad, the perfected cotton-gin, the telegraph, the phonograph, the photograph, photo-gravure, the electrotype, the gaslight, the electric light, the sewing machine, & the amazing, infinitely varied & innumerable products of coal tar, those latest & strangest marvels of a marvelous age. And you have seen even greater births than these; for you have seen the application of anesthesia to surgery-practice, whereby the ancient dominion of pain, which began with the first created life, came to an end in this earth forever; you have seen the slave set free, you have seen the monarchy banished from France, & reduced in England to a machine which makes an imposing show of diligence & attention to business, but isn’t connected with the works. Yes, you have indeed seen much — but tarry yet a while, for the greatest is yet to come. Wait thirty years, & then look out over the earth! You shall see marvels upon marvels added to these whose nativity you have witnessed; & conspicuous above them you shall see their formidable Result — Man at almost his full stature at last! — & still growing, visibly growing while you look. In that day, who that hath a throne, or a gilded privilege not attainable by his neighbor, let him procure his slippers & get ready to dance, for there is going to be music. Abide, & see these things! Thirty of us who honor & love you, offer the opportunity. We have among us 600 years, good & sound, left in the bank of life. Take 30 of them — the richest birth-day gift ever offered to poet in this world — & sit down & wait. Wait till you see that great figure appear, & catch the far glint of the sun upon his banner; then you may depart satisfied, as knowing you have seen him for whom the earth was made, & that he will proclaim that human wheat is worth more than human tares, & proceed to organize human values on that basis.

Mark Twain

How lovely. And so, as tribute to the recipient of this birthday letter, go forth and sound your barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world!

Postcards from Penguin

I sort of pride myself on my ability to find perfect Christmas presents for the people in my life – not always, not every time, but most Christmases and most people. Some friends are naturally going to be easier than others, but none is as breezy to buy for as my bookworm friend, simply because I know that if I like it and it is 1. beautiful, 2. cozy, 3. book-related, or 4. whiskey-related, she will like it too.

This year, I sent her a collection of Penguin postcards. There are 100 in the box, each printed with a different vintage Penguin UK book cover. Some of them I’ve never heard of and some of them are pure classics, but each of them is beautiful and endearing. It wasn’t 24 hours after I received her collection in the mail that I ordered one for myself as well. (Interestingly enough, they are no longer available from Amazon itself; however, they are offering purchases through other sellers from the Amazon page.)

Today, I received the first Penguin postcard from her – The Great Gatsby.

the box itself looks like a book; how clever!

Getting my long-distance friend’s postcard in the mail absolutely made my day. I immediately sat down to my desk to write a response on the Gatsby postcard from my collection. However, I’ve been having some trouble rationalizing parting with these delightful things. I know that the purpose is to send them away, but the moment I got them, literary decorating ideas popped into my head. And what do you know(!); I’m not the only one. Look at what this lovely designer did to show off her postcards:

great minds think alike

I think I’ll probably do a little of both.

such colors

A Letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to His Daughter at Boarding School

f. scotty

I don’t really know why, but today I was reminded of a line of prose… no, not just reminded.  I was haunted by it.  It may have been the lovely cool fall weather that we’re having and the fact that my first real Fitzgerald season of life was a fall not too many years previous.  It could have been other ideas I had today that guided my thoughts to an old friend who loved Daisy, and particularly these words, so much.  Whatever it was, I found the phrases rolling around in my brain all day… like a song I knew a long time ago and can’t quite remember.  So I looked them up:

“‘Ah,’ she cried, ‘you look so cool.’
Their eyes met, and they stared together at each other, alone in space. With an effort she glanced down at the table.
‘You always look so cool,’ she repeated.
She had told him that she loved him, and Tom Buchanan saw.”

– Chapter 7, The Great Gatsby

Spending only a few brief moments flipping through such an old favorite is truly an impossibility.  I used up an hour at least skimming and remembering, going back and forth, reading text as well as my annotations in the margins.  I was probably 15 when I made them.

As I was putting the book down, the pages settled on one where I glanced another quote that always drew me to it as well.  Daisy, again.

“I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

– Chapter 1, The Great Gatsby

Of course, beyond these few lines, there are a thousand reasons that Fitzgerald resonates with me… the poise of his language, his sharp, observant storytelling, the lovely characters in his works as memorable as real people and sometimes more so.  I was one of those that was happy to read his novels for senior English class, as they were on my own reading list.  I wrote two separate research papers on various aspects of his work.  I was drawn to the “Lost Generation” Jazz Age era anyway.  I loved discussing his poignancy in symbolism, the themes of youth and despair, acting out scenes we’d watched in the Redford/Farrow movie version.  But one bit of our studies stands out as more significant in my memory than the rest.  It was a letter… pieces of which were reprinted in our American literature books… a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter in boarding school.  I have copied here what I transcribed from my textbook back in high school:

These lines of advice are listed in a letter dated August 8, 1933.

“…halfwit, I will conclude with things to worry about: worry about courage, worry about cleanliness, worry about efficiency, worry about horsemanship….

“things not to worry about: don’t worry about public 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 trying to get along with them?, and c) am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?”

I just love that although this letter was written almost seventy years ago, all of its advice is still so relevant and appropriate for our lives.  I love FSF’s mix of silly and important, and his categorization of things that matter and things that don’t.  I need this posted in front of my desk, not buried in some ancient book of quotes and poetry.  I need to heed its sage words as much as his own daughter, it seems.

Elsewhere, in my short internet researches of the man himself, I found a few unrelated but interesting bits I’d also like to include:

an excerpt from Gatsby in Fitzgerald's own hand

The above section (click to enlarge) can be found just a page or two beyond the first quote I mentioned…, also in Chapter 7.  Below is Fitzgerald’s silver hip flask.

Zelda was of course to become his wife

The inscription says,

“To 1st Lt. F. Scott Fitzgerald
65th Infantry
Camp Sheridan

Montgomery, Ala.”

And last, a photograph of Zelda and Scott’s grave in Rockville, Maryland, inscribed with the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

died at age 44

I, of course, highly recommend Fitzgerald’s novels as well as his abundant short stories, which for the most part are gathered conveniently into collections like Flappers and PhilosophersTales of the Jazz Age and Babylon Revisited and Other Stories.  Such fantastic classic works… do yourself a favor.

In A Letter From My Father

I was cleaning out my filing cabinet late last night in preparation for my last ever semester of college (which begins today), when I stumbled across a pages-long letter from my dad that he stowed in my backpack the day I left for college.  Every time I read it, I discover some other bit of advice both brilliantly eloquent and uncommonly wise.  However, there is one paragraph that always strikes me straight to the core.  I’ll copy it here (with a few slight paraphrasings):

First and foremost, you were designed and made to function best in life in collaboration with a mate. [… However,] don’t be too quick to give of yourself to anyone. […] You must be certain of his ability to commit himself to worthy pursuits in general, and to you, in particular. […] Don’t rush it.  Learning to know someone – really know him – takes time.  But when you’re sure you’ve found a man worthy of your devotion, pour yourself into the relationship.  It can be the source of your life’s greatest joy, and it can also be the cause of your greatest sorrows.

I am the luckiest girl in the world.

my dad, and some columbia u building