To the original Letters of Note page.
February 11, 1951
Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing. For a couple of years after the War I was a graduate student in the Anthropology Department at the University of Chicago. At the instigation of a bright and neurotic instructor named Slotkin, I got interested in the notion of the school (I’m going to explain what I mean in a minute), and decided to do a thesis on the subject. I did about 40 pages of the thing, based on the Cubist School in Paris, and then got told by the faculty that I’d better pick something more strictly anthropological. They suggested rather firmly (with Slotkin abstaining) that I interest myself in the Indian Ghost Dance of 1894. Shortly thereafter I ran out of money and signed on with G-E, and I never did get past the note-taking stage on the Ghost Dance business (albeit damn interesting).
But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me, and it now seems pertinent to you, me, Knox, McQuade, and anybody else whose literary fortunes we take a personal interest in. What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name.
If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.
The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance. (My reporting what Slotkin said four years ago is pretty subjective—so let’s say Vonnegut, a Slotkin derivative, is saying this.) About this one-sidedness: I’m convinced that no one can amount to a damn in the arts if he becomes sweetly reasonable, seeing all sides of a picture, forgiving all sins.
Slotkin also said a person in the arts can’t help but belong to some school—good or bad. I don’t know what school you belong to. My school is presently comprised of Littauer & Wilkenson (my agents), and Burger, and nobody else. For want of support from any other quarter, I write for them—high grade, slick bombast.
I’ve been on my own for five weeks now. I’ve rewritten a novelette, and turned out a short-short and a couple of 5,000-worders. Some of them will sell, probably. This is Sunday, and the question arises, what’ll I start tomorrow? I already know what the answer is. I also know it’s the wrong answer. I’ll start something to please L&W, Inc., and Burger, and, please, God, MGM.
The obvious alternative is, of course, something to please the Atlantic, Harpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.
So, having said that much, where am I? In Alplaus, New York, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. As Slotkin said, these things are group products. It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah, but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.
If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.
If Slotkin’s right, maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.
This letter is sententious crap, shot full of self-pity. But it’s the kind of letter writers seem to write; and since I quit G-E, if I’m not a writer then I’m nothing.
My first inclination, and probably yours too, is not to read this, because it’s a big wall of text and there aren’t any pictures so what’s the damn point anyway. Although there’s the allure of some piece of wisdom from Kurt Vonnegut, it probably only extends to a brief glance.
But here is sixty years ago Kurt Vonnegut giving voice to something that was scary and somewhat true and even now is still scary and somewhat true: “maybe the death of the institution of friendship is the death of innovation in the arts.”
We see correspondence between the greats not because all famous people know each other (although, yes that does seem to be true), but because they are iron sharpening iron. Whether it’s Fitzgerald to Hemingway or Wallace to Franzen (or just about anyone you care to name, says Vonnegut), these people are breaking brutal ground with one another to unearth something richer and more worthy than what is or has come before. They aren’t legends because they wrote, they’re legends because they never stopped trying to write better.
People have been writing about the death of friendship for a long time, but we all know that your Facebook list doesn’t make you closer to anyone and if anything the internet has helped us forget what constructive criticism actually is. Friends provide criticism, to strengthen your work. Not your ego, not your self, your work, because that’s all you really want when you put down the pen or stop typing or hit print: some goddamn semblance of meaning and worth in what you’re putting out. We can’t do it alone, because in our head everything is either shit or brilliance, and we can’t see the lines or the holes or the fair value of anything. That’s where the friends come in.
So, having said that much, where am I? In Los Angeles, California, I guess, wishing I could pick up some fire and confidence and originality and fresh prejudices from somewhere. Even if it’s from a sixty year old letter.
I love the second letter just as much as the first and that is truly saying something. Man do I love this: “If this sort of thing is going on somewhere (not in Paris, says Tennessee Williams), I’d love to get in on it. I’d give my right arm to be enthusiastic. God knows there’s plenty to write about—more now than ever before, certainly. You’re defaulting, I’m defaulting, everyone’s defaulting, seems to me.”