Great Authors’ Letters to Their Long-Suffering Moms
The literary men of the canon weren't always the best sons
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The letters and biographical ephemera of the (dead white male) stars of the canon are like Us Weekly for English majors. Literary stars: they’re just like us!. They forget to pay bills! They need to figure out how the laundry is going to get done and how to deal with the annoying sister who never reads any of their work! They also kind of suck at dealing with their moms!
Listen, it brings us no joy to tell you this. (Well, maybe a little joy.) Originally, when we set out to find letters written by authors to their moms, we hoped the literary greats could teach us how to express our inexpressible love (and maybe guilt) on holidays that demand those kinds of things from us. What we found instead was a series of letters from authors who were snarky, groveling, bored, and a whole host of other feelings towards their mothers.
While the letters we’ve excerpted here are not, exactly, ideal sentiments for your Mother’s Day card, they do provide further proof that a) the Dead White Males of the canon are, indeed, Just Like Us and b) moms put up with a lot of shit. Let’s be grateful for them today and always.
Edgar Allan Poe apologizes for not measuring up
In a letter to his mother-in-law/aunt “Muddy” (remember he “muddied” that line when he married his cousin), E.A. Poe first explains how much he loves her by way of imagining something horrible has happened to her, and then apologizes for being poor:
May God grand that this letter, so long delayed, may find you well—I ask no more—for I have been tortured, almost to death, by horrible dreams, in which I fancied that you were ill and helpless and I so far away from you. Oh, my dear, dear, good Muddy, I never knew the depth of my affection for you until this long and terrible separation. If you could but know my bitter, bitter grief at not being able to send you any money. But you know your Eddy’s heart, darling Muddy, and you feel that I would send it if I could get it in any way in the world.
Mark Twain is passive-aggressive with his mom
Mark Twain’s mother had a tendency to write letters to him on a series of scraps of paper. In one letter he admonishes her “Ma, write on whole letter sheets—is paper scarce in St. Louis?” But Ma goes on, doing as she damn well pleases. So Twain decides to give her a taste of her own medicine and write a letter on a series of nine scraps of paper, torn from other letters he had received. He goes above and beyond. Scholars at Berkeley have digitized them and you can read the full text here. But here’s Twain, at the end of the letter, gamely pretending that this work of metatextual snark is actually intended as an intellectual conversation:
Ma, I think it likely that some men are so constituted that they will, under certain circumstances of an irregular nature, manifest idiosyncrasies of an irrefragable and even pragmatic and latitudinarian character, but otherwise and differently situated the reverse is too often the case. How does it strike you?
Ernest Hemingway is kind of an ass to his mom
While we know that Hemingway didn’t attend his mother’s funeral and his parents weren’t totally on board with his career as an author (they returned his books to his publisher when they were sent to them), the letters acquired by Penn State over a decade ago add more dimension to that relationship. In short: Ernest might have kinda started it. After his father died, Hemingway, while living abroad, became the “head of the household,” and was managing finances for his mother. His mother was apparently not keen on the role reversal, and was resisting some of his advice. Hemingway mansplains:
Praying for advice and guidance is an excellent thing but advice and guidance even though unprayed for when accompanied by cash can be an excellent thing too.
Proust throws a tantrum and apologizes
Proust’s mom wanted to advise him on everything, if her letters are a suggestion of anything. As Colm Toibin noted in an exhibition at the Morgan Library some years ago, Proust’s mother once wrote him to ask what time he got up and what time he went to bed, leaving blanks next to each question so he could fill them in and return them to her. But as Michael Wood notes in the London Review of Books, Proust wasn’t always willing to conform to her instruction. Believed to be around 1897 (when he was 26 years old), Proust flipped out after a particularly bad fight, slamming the door behind him. The glass panes in the door shattered. While his apology has been lost, his mother’s response hasn’t been:
My dear little one
Your letter did me good—your father and I were left with a very painful sense of things…Let’s think no more and talk no more about it. The broken glass will merely be what it is in the temple—the symbol of an indissoluble union.
Your father wishes you a good night and I kiss you tenderly.
I do however have to return to the subject in order to recommend that you don’t walk without shoes in the dining room because of the glass.
Thoreau tells his mom New York is going SO GREAT, really
In 1843, Henry David Thoreau, in an attempt to establish his individualism by way of financial independence, set off for New York, where Ralph Waldo Emerson got him a couple tutoring gigs so he could have time to write. It went well excerpt for the part where he was supposed to make more money writing, which he didn’t really. In a letter home to his Mother, he explains:
I hold together remarkably well as yet, speaking of my outward linen and woolen man, no holes more than I brought away, and no stitches needed yet. It is marvellous. I think the Fates must be on my side, for there is less than a plank between me and—Time, to say the least. As for Eldorado that is far off yet. My bait will not tempt the rats; they are too well fed. The Democratic Review is poor, and can only afford half or quarter pay—which it will do—and they say there is a Ldy’s [sic] Companion that pays—but I could not write anything companionable. However, speculate as we will, it is quite gratuitous, for life never the less, and never the more, goes steadily on, well or ill fed and clothed, somehow, and “honor bright” withal. It is very gratifying to live in the prospect of great successes always, and for that purpose, we must leave a sufficient foreground to see them through.
Ezra Pound can’t be bothered explaining why his mom knows nothing about art
Pound is nothing if not concise. In one short letter, he figures out how to insult his mother’s artistic tastes, suggest the inconvenience of writing a letter to her at all, pat himself on the back for being a good poet, and insult America (even though she was the one who took him to Europe for the first time), all in just a few lines:
Dear Mother: It is rather late in the day to go into the whole question of realism in art. I am profoundly pained to hear that you prefer Marie Corelli to Stendhal, but I can not help it.
As for Tagore, you may comfort yourself with the reflection that it was Tagore who poked my ‘Contemporania’ down the Chicago gullet. Or at least read it aloud to that board of imbeciles on Poetry and told ’em how good the stuff was.
I do not wish to be mayor of Cincinnati nor of Dayton, Ohio. I do very well where I am. London may not be the Paradiso Terrestre, but it is at least some centuries nearer it than is St. Louis.
T.S. Eliot is forced to tell his mom how great he is
In 1988, The New York Times printed a selection of T.S. Eliot’s letters. Eliot loved his mom. He was not afraid to express how much he needed her as he’s careful to mention in a letter shortly after his father died: “’I do long for you. I wanted you more for my sake than yours – to sing the Little Tailor to me.” Ever the child, in one particular letter, he is forced to be the one to tell her how great he is:
I only write what I want to—now—and everyone knows that anything I do write is good … There is a small and select public which regards me as the best living critic, as well as the best living poet, in England … I really think that I have far more influence on English letters than any other American has ever had, unless it be Henry James … All this sounds very conceited, but I am sure it is true, and as there is no outsider from whom you would hear it, and America really knows very little of what goes on in London, I must say it myself.
Roald Dahl is just right
There are plenty of well-founded criticisms to make about Roald Dahl as a person (mostly the antisemitism), but the beloved children’s author knew from an early age how to talk to his mom. As recorded in Love From Boy, the collection of Dahl’s letters to his mother, Roald Dahl took to writing his mother every week from the age of nine years old through the next twenty-plus years. In the first letter from the book, Roald Dahl, nine years old, is careful to cover all his bases: apologies first, justifications next, concern for the family, and then, the real ask, which is still careful to be conservative:
Please could you send me some conkers as quick as you can, but don’t send to meny [sic]. Just send them in a tin and wrap it up in paper