#1 August 1, 1928 (New York)
Wednesday Morning And My soul yearning for You!
It’s sad but the truth will always be sad. I did not receive the pictures, neither did I get the letter you sent with them. This is really an atrocity! You must have left out the number of the address, and here you are—calamity and woe. I don’t know whether anything can be done about it, but your duty at the present moment is obvious. You must buy a somewhat larger envelope, at the Post-Office presumably, put the picture and letter together. This letter will probably reach you Friday. You must send me the picture with the Sunday letter. Of course I expect you to have written me on Thursday, as per schedule. I am going to write you every Sunday and Thursday too—irrespective of whether I receive a letter of not.
I am awfully sorry to make this letter a short one, but I have an appointment with Dr. Grossman at 12:30. I still have to dress. The travelling will take me about 25 minutes. I promise to make my Sunday letter a very long one. Yesterday I went to the stadium concert. I heard Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, a marvelous piece. But that’s not the point. Something unusual happened to me there, something so beautiful and touching that I shall never forget it, something that can happen only in New York. I don’t dare to tell it to you in writing, because you are almost sure to misunderstand. However verbally I will.
I shall buy two tickets for the Strange Interlude. In case you don’t come I am going to burn your ticket publicly! If I were you I’d come here by train instead of taking the boat. There can be nothing nastier than the ocean in September. There is more blah-blah about the ocean than about anything else. It’s nothing but a lot of old water. If you do go by boat you’ll probably be sick the first day, and lose about five pounds.
Trusting in God, who has never failed to fool me in the past, I remain —
Your faithful lover,
P.S. I am going to move soon; I’ll let you know the new address. Meanwhile keep on writing to this address.
#2, August 16, 1928 (New York)
Yesterday I received your Sunday letter. So all the Savannah girls are escaping ennui and spinsterhood through a trip to New York, and, meanwhile, all the New York girls are trying to do the same thing by means of a trip to the country. I have discovered that the temperature of Savannah and New York are comparatively the same. It was 85 degrees yesterday. Yes, we are all suffering from the careless way God fashioned this world. I wonder whether he is conscious of my disapproval. I am surprised that the hurricane failed to sweep away that swinagogue on Montgomery and State streets; had God demolished that hovel of iniquity and Hebrew Education, he would have amply proven the vitality of his existence and the utility of his interference in things human . . .
Having purchased the tickets for the Strange Interlude, I expect you to make good your promise to be on the spot in time to witness the performance of that play on Friday, September 14. It is said to be a wonderful show, and all the women in the city flock to see it because it describes the domination that one woman had over three different men and also what she did to the poor things! I also hope that you are patching up on your stenography and typing, for it will be impossible for you to get a job unless you have mastered these esoteric arts. Life is rather unpleasant here during the summer. What with the concerts in the stadium and in the parks, the bathing, the “cool like in an ice-box” shows one manages to pass the time on the further side of dullness. The population of this metropolis is gradually being transformed into a sort of new human species, the machine man—half human and half machine. No, New York is by no means a paradise for all the people here who have to get up early in the morning and rush to work, and then get back home in the rush-hour, when trains are packed with wheezing, sweating human sardine. It is, however, fairly habitable for capitalists, Hebrew teachers, and other sorts of parasites . . .
We have fairly decided to let the matter of my mother’s coming to America rest for, at least, another few years. So there I am again the same little orphan on the lookout for artificial mammies. But here is one coming from the sunny South where women are men and men are neither. My friends simply cannot understand this sudden change in me, namely, my ignoring all our mutual girlfriends. They attribute it to my conscience, which, laden with numerous sins against the Holy Ghost, prefers to rest a bit in order to alleviate the wrath of the Gods. They believe that all my strength has been sapped in a series of rapes perpetrated upon the black mammies of the Baptist Belt. They know nothing about you, for I do not care to mix your name into the prevailing profanity of their “virile” conversation. They will soon find out
I expect to get busy looking for a job. September is the season for the capture of lucrative positions. It is then that the barter and marketing of the holy chattels grows into a regular trade. Dr. Grossman seems to be fairly out of this game; the Savannah experience seems to have been enough for him.
P.S. Don’t forget that my address is 2066 Fifth Avenue, and not Hewitt Place
#3, August 23, 1928 (New York)
I didn’t at all like your letter of last Thursday. It’s full of gruesome hints, unfounded pessimism and all sorts of nastiness—beginning from “things you won’t enjoy hearing,” and “I would spare myself a lot of unnecessary suffering . . . but I prefer telling it to you verbally.” Very nice of you. I have been worrying my head off since Monday, when I received your letter. Why did you do it? If you have something unpleasant to tell why not write it right now, so that I’d do my worrying and maybe try to find some remedy for it. On the other hand, if you “prefer to tell it to you verbally,” why not wait till you see me. This way I am already worrying without knowing what the hell I am worrying about. Since you spilled the beans, you must write what it’s all about.
I’ll try to change the tickets for “The Strange Interlude” but, honestly, I can’t see what the holidays have got to do with it. Are your relatives so religious? Must you stay with them because it’s Erev Rosh Hoshana? If I won’t be able to get the tickets changed, you’ll have to go. This is New York, and not Scnippishok!
You must forgive me, darling, if I sound a little snappish today, but I have got such a rotten headache, and I feel blue all over. It’s raining outside; it’s been raining for the longest kind of a time. I guess I need my little Georgia Mammy to cheer me up.
The other day I went to see a Negro show in my neighborhood. I am living very near to the Negro quarter. Well, let me tell you I have never seen such a peppy musical comedy in my life. Such life, such color, such vitality. They are marvelous dancers! The audience consisted of negroes exclusively, the theater is rather dingy, but the show! Ye Gods! The same actors, had they been white, would now be playing on Broadway. Being colored, they must rot in Harlem. There is one thing worse than being a jew, and that is being a negro.
It’s rather sad that your boat trip will be marred by a duplicate of the Alliance lizards. It looks like a children’s excursion. You must write me how we’ll meet in New York, and whether you want me to meet you on the pier.
#4, August 27, 1928 (New York)
My Darling Sweetheart,
I am sorry not to have written yesterday, but I was too busy. I had a number of appointments in regards to a position, and I am disgusted with it all. This is probably one of the most critical periods in my life. I am on the threshold of new events, of a new orientation towards things. The people here got wise, and they offer such ridiculously low salaries, thirty dollars a week, etc. They refuse to pay a teacher during the summer; they seem to think that since they have no children during the summer, the teacher is not entitled to pay. It seems as though only an out-of-town position pays. All the rest is buncombe (?). On top of it all I am tempted by a very nice offer from Portland, Oregon. They offer $50 a week, a month’s vacation, and other advantageous points. I am in a quandary, and really can’t decide what to do. At this moment I need you at my side more than any time before. You could help me decide.
That isn’t all. There is the matter of my wish to enter the university. Most of my friends advise me against it. They say that I can’t learn anything there that I don’t know: that the degree will be of no avail to me in a literary career, that both attending school and teaching Hebrew would take all my time away and I would have no time left to write. They think that these four-five years of endeavor at academic studies directed towards literary ends would avail me much more. These things all affect me, and I am palpitating between decision and indecision
So you are packing already, I presume. I am eagerly awaiting your next letter so that I can hear what it is that “I won’t enjoy hearing.” I wonder whether you would stick to me if I decided to leave New York? I wonder whether you still love me as much as before, or whether absence has dulled the edge of your feelings?
for a happy turn of events, I remain
#5, September 5, 1928 (New York)
Again we made up. It seems to be our fate always to quarrel, and then to make up. You have such a knack of hurting me. Always you say “I’ll never hurt you again” and then you go ahead and do the same thing all over again. I must, indeed, be very much in love with you if I could stand that insulting letter without breaking off with you. Were my friends to know about it, they would say that under such circumstances I would not have answered at all. It was beneath me to try to refute such a preposterous charge. What reason have I to say that I love you if I don’t. I mean what I saw, but you don’t seem to think so. By doubting me you are really insulting yourself more that you insult me. You imply that you are not worth my love. No, darling, to me you are the sweetest girl in the world, and I don’t mean maybe either. I am not demonstrative by nature. I am rather reticent and sparing in the giving expression to my emotions. That aloofness and sense of measure can be attributed to my temperament, which, essentially, is that of an artist; and an artist ought to have that aloofness and sense of measure, otherwise his work is junk.
I am disappointed that you put off your trip. Even a few days count. Try to see me as soon as you get to New York. Tel: Harlem 6120.
#6, October 15, 1928 (Portland)
I have received nothing from you for quite a long while. I hope everything is as it should be, and that no untoward circumstances have prevented you from writing. May I express my hope that the cause of your silence is merely your youthful conceit, no more and no less.
Two weeks have passed since I made my entrance into this city, an unobtrusive modest entrance truly, but charged with brilliant possibilities. I am now completely acclimatized. I think that I am managing to adjust myself rather carefully both to the Hebrew school and to the College. It is not difficult at all to get along in the College. I rarely find it necessary to devote any time to my lessons. Sometimes I feel like telling the instructor a thing or two, especially our English teacher, who is an exasperating, blundering sea ass of the first order. (The distinction between a sea ass and a common, ordinary land ass is very profound). I am bored stiff in there, but I got to stand it. I now realize how utterly impossible it would have been for me to repeat the same performance in New York. Going to College and teaching in the Hebrew School here takes up all my time till nine o’clock in the evening. In New York two hours of travelling would be added to the score. Such a feat would have been beyond my strength.
I am living in a very beautiful room, in fact the nicest room I ever had, and quite cheaply at that. In odd moments I find time to read a good book. At present I am reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. Try to get his books in the library. They are very vital literature.
Ah Ethel, How lonely I am for you. More and more I realize my misery. Is there no way out? Must we be separated? Of course I realize that in a year or two we shall have each other all over again, but even at that it is too hard to bear.
At night, in those dark heavy hours of sleepless brooding, when I think of you and review our case before the ultimate judge of my conscience, I recall all the tender blissful moments we had together. At the time of our experiencing them they seemed so slight, unimportant, and obvious. We could not even begin to gauge their sweetness. I remember the evening when I first asked you to kiss me, and the gleam in your eyes, that charming hesitation, the moment of suspense before the leap.
Those everlasting kisses, those hours of blissful intimacy, pregnant with tenderness and supreme understanding. Don’t you think that all those joyful evenings are a proper foundation for our future?
Please write much and with good grace.
P.S. I am sending you the letters by air mail. They are so much faster, half of the time I believe, and it only costs three cents more. I have something for you which I will send next month. It will be late but you will forgive me, I am sure. Write every other day. Don’t wait for an answer. Do as I do. I write anyhow.
#7, October 20, 1928 (Portland)
Have just received your letter, and I am so relieved to find that there is nothing amiss. Your letter took five days to reach me, in spite of its being air mail. An ordinary letter would have taken ten. So I think it is best for us to continue corresponding through air mail. I was glad to read of your pleasant trip. As to Savannah, simply ignore it. I am still—and always will be—ready for you, and I want you to come to Portland even more than in New York. You know, I am so busy that I haven’t got very much time to brood and to muse, but, nevertheless, I find every spare moment burdensome and agonizing. All on account of your not being here. My blood calls for you. You have permeated my being like some subtle elixir, some rare alchemy of yore! Don’t giggle, and don’t smile one of your cynical little smiles, for I am sincere. I was never so sincere in my life. Perhaps I was a little insincere the first few months I knew you, but ever since February you meant a lot to me.
You must excuse this scribble, but I cannot use my typewriter today, since it is Saturday, and my pen does not render such good service, you know.
Ah, if I could only foretell the future. I brood in the womb of the present, my soul clumsily climbs towards the hidden light, just a neophyte’s dark ardor groping in the matrix of time. Yet I strain in the leash, vainly, I, the mean and corruptible one. I have so many desires, so many ambitions, so many interests, failings, faults, abilities; they all crowed upon one another in mad chaos; incoherent, incongruous, confusing. My ambition has not yet been molded into its last definite form. I want to be everything, see everything, write everything, rule everything. Ah, the vain and sublime stature of youth’s desire, the blood coursing one’s veins like a rare wine, replete with sweetness.
It’s good to be busy, to work hard, to grapple with the pupils, trying to break with the mold, to evade the discipline. Then, on Fridays and Sundays to lie in bed, smoking cigarettes and reading beautiful books, think, recollect all the manifold experiences of my young but strenuous life. One thinks of all the cities one has seen, of all the people, mad in one form or another, which one has encountered and, then, one hopes for further experience, for further adventures.
But you are so far away, and I all alone. Nobody’s company can compensate for you. You are alone, I have put you on a pedestal, and if I believed in God, I’d pray fervently to him and ask him that you should always remain on that pedestal, so pure, lovely, and ravishing.
#8, October 28, 1928 (Portland)
who is she who is fragrant and desirable?
From a recent work of genius!
We are so far from each other, far in all-annihilating space, bit it can never annihilate our love. And yet what is love? A question that, I am afraid, will never be solved. It’s intangible, incoherent, erring, contradictory. Nevertheless it is a force, a power sprung from the matrix of man’s primeval composition, an all-pervading power which cannot be denied. Yes, darling, we are in the grip of life, and I am so glad .
It is fearfully lonesome sometimes, my fingers like candles, lit candles, stretch out into space to touch you, my beloved, to touch you quaveringly, yet firmly, to envelop you in the embrace that seeks to merge, to become one! But you are far away, and you will not come. Maybe you are making the greatest mistake of your life, it may well be that we both stand to lose the chance of happiness. And such chances are so infinitely rare, as rare as a well of sweet water in the desert. You hesitate, you are afraid, but life is ruthless, life is cruel. Life does not wait.
I am very busy, and tired after working, so won’t you forgive me for not writing sometimes, for missing a letter or two.
#9, November 20, 1928 (Portland)
I have decided to make up in bulk what I miss in frequency. You write “surely amidst your numerous duties you can spare a little time for me.” Of course I can, but enough to make my letters worthwhile reading. I hate to write sloppy, little scribblings, asserting over and over again the same commonplace details; therefore, I think it is best to write less frequently, but to write a great deal while doing it. I am cutting a class in Sociology in order to write to you. At two o’clock I have to attend a teacher’s meeting and it is a quarter to one now. There are all sorts of complications in regards to my relations with the other teachers, and I often have to tread on slippery ground. Nevertheless, I am determined to advance my own interests. You see, my dear, any advance in my interest must necessarily be in detriment to his own best policies. The principal seems to favor me, and the other teacher will probably not stay here more than this year.
Work, Work, Work, Work
I am taking care of four classes instead of three. With the progress of time there is also progress in the bulk and magnitude of my work in the University. I am taking more courses, and the darling profs expect more from me than from the other students. I don’t know why I am sure. The results are lamentable. I have no time left at all. I mean to make up for it next year. I shall take care to provide myself with a lot of leisure. However, constant labor has one great advantage over idleness. You save money. Having no time to spend money you save it. I haven’t even got time to buy the most necessary things. Such a state of affairs is beneficial to one’s financial status. I intend to move out from my present location—I am a chronic mover, you know—for my present landlady thinks I am making too much money and conceives it her sublime duty to relieve me of it. I don’t know where I am going to move; at present I am trying to bolster up enough courage to face this dragon of a landlady and give her notice.
That Earthly Paradise
So Savannah got all excited over a football game. Here in Portland we have big football games every other Saturday, but the town preserves its aspect of serene indifference towards the destinies of collegiate ambitions. Armistice day passed quietly, completely devoid of fireworks, oratory and otherwise. So you have become quite a party addict. What’s the matter with Sarah? Has she decided to go out and get her men. Tell her there are not enough Jewish boys in Savannah to go around; there aren’t enough both for Yona and herself. Let her not dare to compete with that female of superlative charm! Every day I expect you to inform that Yona has at last celebrated her engagement to Dr. Levenson, if I recall the name right. What else do you do with yourself in that Baptist wilderness. Any boy-friends, who drive cars into sheltered nooks on lonely roads, dirt roads preferred? The same old thing doing here. The pavement Arabs drive their Ford coupes into the rickety hours of dawn. Necking, dancing is the dominant amusement in this grand and glorious country. Every city in the State is an exact reproduction of the rest, whether East, west, North, or South. Hos is the Hebrew School doing? I suppose by now it is completely seduced?
I liked the passage in your letter in regards to your coming to Portland. As soon as the summer comes, around May, I suppose—I shall know definitely whether I am going to stay here for next year. If I am going to stay I shall have you come here without further delay. It is the very acme of foolishness to waste our youth in separation from each other. Now, what will be your parents’ stand on this matter. Let’s get down to earth. It’s time we did.
I get such a feeling of well-being when I read those precious words at the end of your letters—Your faithful sweetheart. It makes me feel good all day, and so superior . . . . . Because very few men have such pretty and sweet girls for sweethearts, and if they would only be faithful, why . . . . .
Now, little girl, you must not imitate me. Please write more often.
#10, December 4, 1928 (Portland)
My Dearest Sweetheart,
You are always blaming me for not writing regularly while you yourself are doing the same—out of revenge, I suppose. For the last month I have been writing you, at the least, one letter a week. You have been doing the same mean thing. For every letter I have written, I have received a letter in return. But, perhaps, I should be glad of that, too. Who am I to complain? While you are afraid that I am forgetting you, I am afraid that you are forgetting me! After all there is really nothing rare about me, and young pretty girls forget so quickly nowadays.
I hope you liked my last letter. I was attempting to analyze for you the new friendships acquired in this my new haven. It was mainly hostile, but, as you know me, I am not easily pleased, and something of a snob, at least, culturally. I shall continue with that analysis in some other letter. Right now I would like to have you sitting on my knees, perched up right close to me, with a sweet final closeness. I would live to stroke your hair, kiss you, and tell each other sweet meaningless things. What a dream of enchantment! The less I see of you, the more distant I am from you, the more I appreciate you. I am so outrageously young, but, nevertheless, I am glad that I found you in the youth of my life, so that we might go through life together, sustained and nourished by the blessed dew of early, romantic love—not the love of later years, which is nothing but the very dregs of the immortal cup!
You know it feels so safe, to have somebody love you and to love in return. Somehow the awareness of such an attachment is a real aid in the pursuance of one’s worldly career, in that mad routine of selfish endeavor. To have someone to put apart from the herds of women, someone who has both a soul and a body.
#11, December 12, 1928 (Portland)
My Darling Ethel,
Yesterday I received a very gloomy letter from you. I wish you would carry out that threat of yours, and remove yourself to New York. You are always contemplating to carry out that valorous decision to abandon the roost and try your wings, but somehow you always fall short of the required amount of decision and initiative. What is the cause of this new clash between your parents and yourself? Can it be that again I am the stone of dissention? I hope not. I thought that now that I am not there to want to take you out, your parents would be satisfied to leave you alone for a while. Anyhow, I sympathize with you, and I can only advise you to leave. Family ties are ephemeral and worthless, inasmuch as they were not made by our own choice, but by chance conglomeration of circumstances
I, who have never done a single thing that my parents wanted me to do, feel no cause for regret. On the contrary, I am delighted. For I know that had I fulfilled their wishes I would now be poorer in many things
Your account of the Savannah sheiks is very entertaining. Jack Backen (oh, Blessed Shades!). A pack of nincompoops. I am sure that no intelligent girl can find any interest in such tail-ends. And Yona has fallen from the pedestal. (Oi, Vai, Mame). Savannah seems to be going to the dogs! Let’s pray, perhaps we can help avert the wrath of Jehovah!
These are the years of trial for me. The crisis of my young manhood. I must succeed, but there are so many temptations on the way, so many obstacles. Life is evil, thoroughly so. There are so many problems to be faced, so many enemies to placate.
P.S. I am enclosing a little farcical piece of profane poetry
#12, December 21, 1928 (Portland)
My Darling Ethel,
At last my Christmas vacation has arrived. (Oh, Blessed Father in Heaven) Of course, I shall have to teach but I won’t have to get up at 7:30 in the morning. I shall be enabled to rest my weary bones and do a bit of writing in which I intend you to figure quite prominently. I liked your last letter—it was so tender. Gosh, but I am getting awfully sentimental in regards to yourself; otherwise I am quite hard boiled. Most people even find me brutal in my opinions and in my actions. Now I am all a-tingle with the thought that next year I may be able to quit teaching Hebrew and devote myself to an occupation that will bring me in contact with all sorts of people, that will enrich my knowledge of men and enable me to gain new and more varied experiences. Ultimately, however, I look forward to the day when I shall feel myself competent enough to take up writing alone and devote all my efforts to reproducing my experiences through the medium of the written word. I shall then be able to write about life, not as a novice, but as a man who has done many things and seen many things.
I shall continue for your amusement my cataloguing of Portland people with whom I come in contact more or less. I would like you to preserve these letters because I myself do not leave a copy for myself, and if you will keep a copy I shall be able again to come in contact with these people someday. I shall begin with one whom I will call:
The Hapless Virgin
So all men as they pass, mastered by desire, shoot an Alluring arrow of the eye at the delicate beauty of virgins. Aeschylus in “The Suppliant Maidens”
Her name is Sylvia Allen. Looks to be about 28, but her own statements are evasive as to the number of summers she has spent on this our planet. She is still a virgin—that is as far as one can be certain about such things. Some men, for instance, cherish the belief that no woman is a virgin after she has passed the age of sixteen. Miss Allen, however, seems to be one, for she regards it as her only stock in trade. (Ah, me.) I met her at a dance, and she laughed at every wisecrack I made. So, just to be contrary, I decided not to take her out. However, wherever I go I bump into her. Portland does not seem big enough for both of us. She is a rather large female with a Victorian shape, supported by a corset that helps a lot. Her eyes are large, rotund, and blue. Her nose is small and saucy. Her lips are not like a red carnation. Neither is her Coiffure such as to send a sheik of 1929 into transports. She regards herself as a highbrow, and the only intelligent young lady in South Portland. As she came here from Russia seven years ago, she affects to speak Russian with her mother whenever visitors cross the sacred threshold of her abode. Once she asked me whether I didn’t think that marriage was an ideal for two intelligent young people? Upon which I made a grimace and replied: “Marriage, according to the Comte de Talleyrand, is a state of two bad tempers during the day and two bad smells during the night.” This seemed to stagger her and her only answer was a vacant stare.
Farewell, Oh Blessed Virgin, and May the Lord Preserve thy Anatomical integrity even unto the Last Day of Judgment
The Red-Haired Instructor
In the University I am attending two classes where Mr. Worthington teaches Literature and History. He is a small, red-haired Nordic with a pair of ferrety little eyes, an oblique mouth and a nasal voice. His is the task of teaching us the beauties of English verse. He regards me rather with a favorable eye as one who seems to understand what he is talking about. Whenever he makes a statement he looks in my direction and challenges me to contradict him. Sometimes I take up the bludgeon and dare to step upon his favorite Nordic prejudices. Most of the time I fail to take up the challenge and agree with him very tactfully. During every study period he brings me all sorts of magazines and books and asks me to read them. “Isn’t this a splendid article?” I do not bother to read them but always give him the same answer when he asks for my verdict. “It’s marvelous, such splendid ideas.” After class he sometimes becomes confidential and discusses pornographic books with me. “Of course, I would never advise any of the students to read such books, but you . . . “ Such is the epic of Mr. Worthington, instructor of Literature and History.
A Flare for Mathematics
I have always detested Mathematics, but this year I have suddenly developed a liking for it. The source of this newly born fondness must lie at the door of my clear, orderly thinking. In the class, where an old professor instructs us in the mysteries of planes and solids, I happen to be the only Jew. He loves to send me to the board to prove all sorts of theorems, and whenever he leaves the room he says: “Now, Greenberg, you can go on with the proofs till I come back.” Whenever the students seem to have some difficulties at catching up he says: “Greenberg seems to have no difficulty at all; but you must understand that he is a member of a race that was civilized two thousand years ago, while our ancestors were still savages. And that’s why he is so much ahead of us.” What do you think of such flattery?
Mr. Worthington also tells me that his best friends are Jews, and he always wants to know why Jewish boys like to go out with gentile girls to do all the things they shouldn’t do, while when they go out with Jewish girls they are more or less respectable?
Yes, the majority of the students in American colleges are such weak-brained young sheiks that it is quite easy for one to run away with all the academic honors. But I am not proud of it. It’s a stale affair, altogether.
Well, some more next time, my darling. I want to recommend to you a marvelous novel I read recently: The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. You can reserve it at the library.
Your devoted sweetheart,
#13, December 27, 1928 (Portland)
My vacation is over, and I am faced with the bold starkness of a long and dreary stretch of vacation-less time. Yes, I must take another long breath and wait until Passover. Xmas in Portland is almost a national holiday. Everybody is concerned with it. For weeks and weeks in advance the public mind was occupied with nothing but the coming holy of holies, and an overcharging of one’s accounts, I suppose. This general ballyhoo about Xmas here is due largely to the absence of foreigners and Jews who tone down the holiday in the East
I reviewed your letter yesterday and read your ecstatic avowals to go to New York with a wee bit of skepticism. Wouldn’t it be better to wait till the Summer? As to a place to stay, I would urge you to forget your relatives—that would be merely leaving one intimate yoke for a less intimate one. Cease relying upon relatives and family. They are all selfish and full of bunk. If you knew Hebrew I’d quote to you the sayings of a certain Rabbi Hillel concerning reliance upon others. He was a clever old chap—Hillel was. I always liked the old son of a gun. The only one you can rely on is myself, your humble servant.
The girls here in Portland are the toughest lot of females I have ever encountered in my life. This is due to the super-abundance of boyfriends in town. All the Jewish girls go out with gentile boys, and nobody dares to protest. It’s the Western atmosphere, I suppose. The Jewish boys languish in long sustained grief, but finally I find consolation in taking out “shiksas.” Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. In short, it is the typical vacuous American life, a petty round of toil, girl-grabbing, necking, etc. . . . A low form of civilization, my dear, devoid of all grace and charm.
Everybody here is sick, colds, flus, influenza. It rains constantly. Yesterday it snowed here for the first time this winter. I have become a very sad, determined young man with a superiority complex, like a hard crust, covering all of my inner self protecting me from the wiles of females and the selfish designs of colleagues and fellow students; a young man determined not to have a good time, to save money, to study, to write, to make one’s way in the world—in short, to bite deep into the juicy heart of this mysterious ordeal called life.
I love you,
#14, December 31, 1928 (Portland)
It does seem a shame that the holidays are to be over so soon—but all things come to an end, especially good things. With the passing of New Year’s all this syrup well-wishing and simulated geniality will also come to an end, giving way to grim flow of that mighty current—time.
It’s raining and cold all this month, and one sort of wishes oneself to be away in some South Sea island with masses of coconuts and palms and turtles . . . Some apocalyptic island kingdom full of golden-limbed girls, resonant with music, where one could throw into the discard all worries about the future, forever, unknown with the exception of one lamentable certainty, the wide-gaping grave. (Don’t let me frighten you, girlie, with this show of noble pessimism; it is merely in the heat of writing.) Days come and go, almost identical with each other, and yet not quite the same. The leaves of a tree seem all the same to the vacuous eye, but in reality there are not two leaves of exact similarity in the world—just as no two human faces are ever the same. There are all sorts of days, days of nauseating weariness, days of serene resignation, days of awakening passion, days of good-humor, days of savage hatred, etc. But when, oh when, will come that perfect day when again I shall behold you, my beloved?
I have recently developed a difference with my older brother, the estimable Selig. By the way, he is going to Palestine this coming June for an extended visit. This funny fellow easily loses his temper, and I simply love to goad him into maddening rage. Arising from intellectual disagreement, the argument easily degenerates into subtle sarcasm, abuse, and endless curses. For your amusement I am enclosing some choice extracts from his and my letters. What do think of the style?
I am working hard in the Hebrew School, and the principal, Mr. Treiger, is quite satisfied with the results. He is just the opposite of Dr. Grossman, that apostle of the yokels. Mr. Treiger’s heart and soul is with the school. His enthusiasm is limitless, and his abilities on that field are really exceptional. I declare, the sight of a Hebrew School causes an erection with him. He is a monster, my dear, some sort of maniac, I forget which.
Regards to Sadie and the rest of the brood
P.S. My friend Mr. Jaffe says that you are a “nice mamma.” Your picture was the cause of this pious exclamation.
#15, January 7, 1929 (Portland)
I had almost imagined that you finally determine to relegate me to the limbo of forgotten sweethearts when your gracious letter arrived, relieving me from the burden of worry and care. Well, maybe I am not much better, so I won’t complain. Etiam sic, domine, etiam sic! [Even so, Lord, even so]
Savannah seems to be swamped with lecturers on Jewish subject, a veritable renascence of Jehovah and the seven spheres of grace. We, on the other hand, remote as we are from the New Jerusalem (New York) never so much as hear anybody who is competent to instruct us in the lore of Judaism. Assimilation here is rife; intermarriage is common. There is almost no Jewish life. The Rabbis merely get a salary, leaving all other affairs to the care of Yahveh, the most supreme of all deities. It’s a sad state of affairs, but in the long run concerns me but little, so I am not losing any sleep over it. Poison and orthodox Judaism are the same to me, with the result that I shall probably be rewarded in the next world. Ah, what dire prophecies are these.
So Mrs. Perski was sick with the flu. Well it seems sort of natural for her to have any sort of illness that happens to infest mankind. I was not surprised. The expected has happened. She didn’t speak about me, but she did hint! What was the nature of these hints? And other people, do they ever hint about me?
Tell me, have they repented for driving Dr. Grossman out. Or perhaps he has already grown into some exotic myth, with which the ears of youngsters are ravished! Are they satisfied with Yona?
You seem to misunderstand that little business proposition I mentioned to you. I have no partner as yet. That fellow is merely a friend who is always urging me to go into business with him. He has a profound respect for me, and in spite of his experience, I feel sure that I could always wind him around my little finger. He may know the price of shirts, but I know exactly the way his mind works, a rather average mind. I am concluding no partnership with him as yet. I shall do nothing definite till the summer. This fellow is about 30 years old and dying to get married, but no pretty, smart girl will have him and he won’t have any other. The reason for his backwardness in this respect is his faulty English. He has been in this country about 4 years; while his accent is correct, his vocabulary is very limited, not more than 4 or 5 hundred words. You can imagine how well he expresses himself! I once told him about your sister, and he is always bothering me to introduce him to her by mail. He admires my taste and is convinced that she must be a nice girl. Perhaps? …………………………………..(Laugh, clown, Laugh)
You don’t know and you can’t imagine how I long to see you again, darling. It’s getting unbearable. Well, the year is passing by, and we shall surely see each other in the summer. I can hardly wait.
#16, January 16, 1929 (Portland)
Everybody has to have a cold at least once a year. I myself had one a few weeks ago, and it was one of the real cyclone variety. I only hope that your cold does not develop into something worse. But let us be done with such nonsense. In regards to Mr. Jaffe I gave you a description of him in one of long letters. He is fellow who consults a book once a year, and even then it’s only the “Sidur”—on Yom Kipur. He is that utterly animal man, the man who lives by bread alone.
Things are rather quiet at this time of year. Christmas is over, and now we are all set for Spring, and the roses that bloom in May. Yes, I am yearning for the coming of Spring, when I can put away my old overcoat. Still working hard, and making plans for next year. I am quite determined to attend law-school, and this summer I shall have some leisure to do a little writing. Everything is so banal now. No more love scenes. No more “dates”—and cream. Business, work, sleep. Kosher food—sometimes, and dreams of you. Without doubt or vacillation I pursue my charted course, like some planet in the skies. Forgotten are the charms of dallying by the wayside admiring the flowers and the trees. I am getting old now; I shall be twenty one soon. I never even dare to tell my real age to anybody. They would only brand me as a liar. The least I can do is 23, and even then they still doubt my veracity. But it is rather good to put something over on other people. No more sirens. I did not have a date for the last 2 months. Such abstinence will surely be rewarded in the next world.
And as for you, you seem to be leading the same kind of life you led last year—only minus myself. How can you stand such utter lack of variety. The only thing about Savannah that still pleases me is the climate during the winter. Here it either rains or it’s cold. In the summer, however, we have wonderful weather.
The Movies are the only places of amusement we have here. We have some magnificent movie palaces and all for fifty cents. The show that costs you $2 in New York costs you fifty cents here. This is only one example of the enormous expenses that living in New York entails. And the horrible temptations, my dear, let us not forget the manifold temptations. No virtuous person should ever venture within the boundaries of that human maelstrom, New York. Nevertheless, I think I shall go back there within the next two years. It’s perversity, my darling, perversity. It runs in the family, I suppose.
#17, January 21, 1929 (Portland)
Please excuse the scribbling, but I am writing in school where there is no pen and ink. I received you letter yesterday, and was pleased to hear that Dr. Grossman’s deeds still live after him, and the name of forger has been added to that of blasphemer! And the Rabbitzen is to be deposed soon. What dire events are these, what untoward happenings. And no wedding either. After all, of all the three of us, she has fared worse. She thought she had beaten us to it, because she stayed in Savannah. She didn’t have imagination enough to realize the dreary course she had chosen to follow.
Dr. Grossman is no rising to an excelled preeminence as a writer. Read his article in the February—forthcoming—issue of the Menorah Journal; also his article in the January issue. He is on his way to fame. Now, if Yona had just had sense enough to marry him. But she measures people with a Savannah yardstick because she is essentially small and mean. The Stigma Diabolicum (the seal of the Devil) is upon her, accursed witch that she is!
And Mr. Weitz—the most supreme, most excellent, most mighty, most omnipotent, most merciless and most just president of the B.B. Jacob constipation is sick. Another calamity comparable to the Florida hurricane. Is he still backing Yona because she has swelling breasts. Oh, that sinful motives should inspire the servants of Jehovah even in the very Citadel of righteousness, the Lord’s temple. How are the Alliance dances? Have they got some new sheiks, or are the old ones still potent?
Here in Portland we have public dance halls, where for fifty cents any man or woman is granted admission and invited to dance to his heart’s desire. It is customary in the West not to refuse a with stranger. Nice girls are not supposed to visit such place, but they usually do visit them furtively and with a great show of innocence. When they go there it is for the purpose of having a gentile boy take them home and make a date with them. It is a common matter here for Jewish girls to go out with gentile boys, and vice versa. The parents who are so used to it that they regard it as a matter of course. Now wouldn’t you Savannah dames be delighted to enjoy such a privilege? Of course, everybody knows that those girls who go out with gentile, especially those they pick up in the dance halls, are no better than whores, since no “shegetz” ever takes out a girl except for a certain definite purpose. The Jewish boys are on strike as far as the Jewish girls are concerned. They regard it as an insult that the girls should deny them what they grant to every lousy “shegetz.” Such is the situation in the far West. A serious situation, eh?
As Saint Paul said in his epistle to the Corinthians, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord’s table and of the table of the devils.” If they want gentiles, they shall never find grace in the eyes of Jewish young men. Such indignities cannot be suffered—from the arms of Esau into the arms of Jacob.
Last Sunday I was invited to a party of young people. I met two girls, supposed to be of Portland Jewry’s smart set. They had to charm me with kindnesses, like the basilisk, which entices its victims with sweet singing. I resisted successfully. I am secure, but, security, once achieved, brings a nemesis of ennui. Oh, gosh, I wish you were here, but goddam it, why the hell doesn’t the winter pass? How I yearn for the summer to see you and be rid of teaching Hebrew. Every year in my life brings something new. I am hungry for change, for life, for motion, for you.
#18, February 2, 1929 (Portland)
My Dearest Sweetheart,
It is Saturday night. But what of it?, as Ring Lardner says. On account of the terrible snowfall we had this week we had to call off services; consequently I had the whole day for myself. Did nothing all day but study my Anthropology; a fascinating subject, by the way. If I did not have other predetermined interests, I would surely like to devote all my time to study and research work in some such science, Anthropology or Sociology. I read no novels now. Simply haven’t got the time to bother with them.
Good ones are so few, anyhow. Hardly more than five worthwhile novels are published each year in the English language. But think of all the rubbish, the thousands of romances, detective stories etc, which the publishers turn out day by day. My reading is very heavy, loaded with scientific matter. That sort of reading annihilates one’s romantic leanings and lyrical bias. Life becomes a banal cold fact; all things appear commonplace when their inner reason is discovered. However, I am not sorry to lose some more of my few illusions. Illusions may make life easier for one, but they are not flattering. It surely tickles one’s vanity to know oneself to be a bold, bad man, devoid of illusions concerning love, nature, and men. What is nature in reality—merely the aggregate sum of frogs’ eggs, briny seas, and a lot of dirt known as the soil. Man is not the supreme being he imagines himself to be; he is a mammal belonging to the Primate order of the animal kingdom; a low creature of base passions with an immense vanity with which he plays football. “Spiders or flies—we are mostly one or the other,” as the poet Robinson says somewhere in one of his dismal effusions. Even poetry is not what it used to be in the good old days of simple faith—it is not “rhythmical creation of beauty” as Poe defined it; now it is a tortuous, obscure maze of soulless words, laden with ire, with anger, with impotence. One only has to read the poetry appearing in the Dial, in “Poetry” magazine, in Palms, etc. to come to the conclusion that there are no eagles any more, only men with black thoughts, feelings, no rapture. This is the “corset” civilization of Puritanism wedded to the ideal of mass production and more and better motor cars. This is the sort of vegetative existence one is fated to live when one happens to belong to the wage earning class in modern times. It is different when one enjoys the possession of independent means; then one is free to do as one pleases, without regard to place or time. I loathe all these restrictions which the necessity for saving money places upon one like a black mantle of mourning and resignation.
No, my darling, let us not indulge too much in these flights towards the eternal tragic! If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind? One has to cheer oneself up, because there is nobody else to do it. Alone in the middle of the universe, determined to exploit the globe. Such am I, a man suffering from too much ambition, with a seething brain, and a sensitive soul.
Moreover, I have your love, but you are so far away, so far away. Distance, both of time and of space, matters profoundly in this world. A day is a day, and a month is a month. Why not come here soon, real soon. Please tell me what you think? Your real thoughts, not the conventional proper phrases
#19, February 19, 1928 (Portland)
Have received your letter yesterday. Also another letter from Savannah, from that old admirer of mine, Esther Persky. She writes very beautifully and gracefully. She described to me Yona’s social triumphs in very glowing terms. I imagine she must be awfully envious of her, an interloper without position who had so easily outstripped her in social standing and prestige. Poor Esther, I am quite sure she could have led a very colorful life if her face was not such a discouraging facsimile of her lively mind. Which is all very sad, and in the nature of a moral reflection on the superiority of looks over real content. In a larger city a woman like Esther could very easily be seduced. In Savannah, however, space circumscribes the natural ambitions of lustful young men.
Why so cynical, you ask. Why not? My cynicism is in the nature of an irate protest against the exigencies of space and time which rob my life of most of its good things. At least, for the present. Carlyle said once that manhood begins when we have in any way made truce with necessity. I do not believe it. I choose to discard such a slavish and timid philosophy. I assert that manhood begins when we have in all ways determined to destroy those old necessities and mold our environment to suit our desires. Let us not be timid. Let us in no way identify ourselves with the herd, who are forever satisfied with munching the stale grass of yesteryear. If we can only be courageous enough to rebel, to protest, and above all to hate—then surely the thin walls of our impotence in regards to the unfavorable circumstances will crumble into nothingness. If one’s ambitions are sky high, then one must always be charged with electric hatred of the low grazing lands to which one is temporarily confined in company with the herds of sheep; then perhaps the divine power of hatred will help us to crash through into the company of better friends. By all means, let us not let ourselves slip downwards; let us hold on and ride the wave of superior emotion, of superior desires—let us never be satisfied.
I am rapturously drunk with newly acknowledged knowledge, with the consciousness of ascending intellectual powers; I feel fit and capable to tackle those thorny problems of life which every young man must face and solve for himself. I have never before experienced such a keenness of perception, such a raciness in my thinking. I anticipate a period of creative effort which I intend to utilize very soon, in a few months—when I shall be through with College. With the maturing of my mind, I also am realizing a profounder determination to persevere in the course I have mapped for myself, a course that my lead to fame or to ignominy.
February is a sort of funny month. It forms a crucial period in the year as far as my work in the Hebrew School is concerned. With this month packed away, I shall feel almost like the whole year is over. Next we shall have the Passover holidays, and then the Summer which is really a sort of semi-holiday. Next year I shall venture upon new ground. Let us be done with pedagogy. The din of battle grows loud in my ears. Life is calling.
#20, February 26, 1929 (Portland)
My Darling Sweetheart,
It does seem a long time since I have written you. Yes, we have been writing to each other for a long time now, and it’s about high time and it’s about high time for us to quit writing and really come together. I am so impatient, so wearied by this helplessness of ours in the face of these untoward circumstances. Of course, I realize that a good deal of the solution to this problem depends on me, but, as my situation for next year is still a dark mystery to me, I cannot commit myself one way or the other. In the summer I shall know my way, and I shall be able to make a few final decisions.
Are you really going to New York in the near future? It would be much better for both of us if you went there. A great deal of the solution to our problem would be realized by this first move.
This year I am alone against the world. Nobody to tell of my griefs or of my exaltations, no one to confide in; no one to console or be consoled. Last year—how different. Loneliness, immense solitude, such is our fate, however, let us be sure and hold on to our mutual determination to wait for that not-too-distant day when again our hearts shall beat like one. My temperament is entirely unsuited to the effusion of affectionate sentimentalities—but you know what I mean, don’t you, sweet girl
I love you,
P.S. Will write you a very long letter soon.
#21, March 2, 1929 (Portland)
My Sweet Girl,
Am feeling rather blue today. I have become so accustomed to a constant labor that when Saturday comes, I find the leisure hours entirely too long and oddly disturbing my equilibrium.
Have been thinking of you all morning, and my blues can be easily traced back to an overwhelming nostalgia for you—such a yearning to kiss your lips, your eyes, your hands, to press you close to my heart and hold you there forever and ever . . . I know not why and wherefore, but these dreary months of absence have not altered the state of my feelings towards you. I recently read a book by Paul Valery, where I came upon a beautiful sentence, beautiful and true: “Adonis, being unhappy, was on the point of becoming intelligent.” And here am I, a poor wretched, amateurish little Adonis, at last becoming intelligent. I realize how unappreciative I have been of you, how poorly I have treated you, my darling. Yes, being unhappy makes one a little intelligent. Something inexplicably fine about you, something immediately proper binds us together. I have tended to assume that I deserve your love, that I am all that you desire. I can be eloquent at times, but I find it increasingly difficult to go on expressing my emotion through the medium of the written page. I only want you to know that I love you with a deeper and greater love, love that had been tried out in the ordeal of absence and remoteness
I would like you to hurry up and come here in June, instead of going to New York. How about it. We must make an end to this separation. Tell me of your plans, and of the real prospects for a speedy re-union.
All my love,
#22, March 23, 1929 (Portland)
My sweet girl, your letters are “like pain dipped in honey.” It’s you, but not really you. It is good to read, but my! How much better to have you here and to speak to you, to kiss you and to caress you.
I have not written for some time for a very simple reason. I am at a loss. You asked of me something which cannot be answered quickly. After all, this is a matter of the gravest importance. You simply ignore my questions: Shall I do the same? Shall we let ourselves drift into gradual but final separation?
I want you to come to Portland. You want me to come to New York. There are too many silences between us, dearest; too many important matters we simply let alone because we are afraid of what would happen if we decided to thrash them out.
There is so much on my mind, darling. So many things that have to be analyzed before I can seriously contemplate joining you in the near future, say after July, I shall definitely know what I am going to do. And now I must pray for patience and luck. As for you . . . what are you praying for? Or am I too impertinent? But everything that matters is well hidden.
As Mencken said, “Men, too, sometimes have brains.” So let us wait awhile, and maybe some bright idea will enter my thick skull to illuminate the darkness we have been groping in for such a long time.
#23, April 3, 1929 (Portland)
My Sweet Girl,
You can’t realize how glad I was to receive your letter, after not having received a word from you for more than two weeks. If I remember right, I was also guilty of the same crime. Both of us ought to be spanked!
Yes, you certainly are a believer in “lex talionis”—the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But you have less of an excuse than I have. It may seem like boasting, but I must tell you, Ethel, that I am now undergoing the most strenuous period of my life. Not strenuous with good times and pleasure bouts, but with hard work and diligence. I am busy all day. I go out 8:00 A.M. and come back 9 P.M. I am now planning and carrying out my plans for next year.
Last Monday my partner and I went out and bought a car—a new 6 cylinder Nash for $1100. It’s a good buy. We shall need for our business adventure upon which we are embarking on July 15th of this year. Meanwhile we are going to learn how to take care of it till the time for really using it comes. Of course we shall meanwhile be able to go out in it, especially during the summer months, when cities are deserted or Sundays for better climates! But the main thing is the business point of it. I am now learning how to drive it, and having an interesting time doing so. I love the feeling of power that the control of a perfect mechanism gives to a man.
Then every evening after I am through with the Hebrew school there follow long conferences with my partner, Mr. Jaffe (you will find a description of him in one of early letters). He is a real lowbrow, but very cunning in business. Just the sort I need to make me a little more practical.
In college I am having a hard time, because my time for studying is so limited. I am still good in Mathematics, but rather lame in Biology.
If I ever go out to parties or any other sort of social gatherings, it is simply because it is impossible sometimes to refuse some people. One can’t afford to be rude to everybody!
I am busy, I am living, I am working, but I always have time for you, my darling. Always.
Yours ever so much,
#24, April 15, 1929 (Portland)
My Darling Ethel,
You must have been wondering what has become of me, and whether I am still living or have been killed in a car accident. Well, it’s too bad, but I am still living and am driving my car already through traffic. My nerves are rather good, in spite of all the Hebrew teaching I have done in this country.
I was awfully sorry to hear about your mother. You must not let this condition continue. I suppose that you are doing all you can to prevent the further development of this mysterious malady. Now your plans for leaving are all wrecked, I suppose. After all, you have plenty of time, and you can afford to wait a month or two.
In regards to myself, I must say that I don’t figure on leaving Portland very soon. If my business venture fails, I shall probably go back East, but meanwhile I am making the Northwest the scene of my operation. You are bent on going to New York, and you don’t want to hear anything about coming here. You expect me to come for you, but that is ridiculous. A trip to the East—to say nothing of the time—would easily run up to the $500 mark. At the present situation, when every cent I have is either invested or going to be within a short period, such a step would be utterly foolish.
The fact is you don’t trust me enough, and you consider me somewhat irresponsible. What sort of commitments do you expect other than those I have given you in New York.
Aside from our relationship, New York would be an ideal place for you. There you would develop and really live. A girl like you is not found every day, and even in a big city are seldom met. You can have plenty of chances. But as for me . . .
Love and kisses,
#25, May 19, 1929 (Portland)
My Darling Sweetheart,
It is twilight now, twilight as I sit here by my writing table, I am thinking the same old thoughts all over again. I am as dreadfully miserable, so agonizingly lonesome for you, sweetheart! You, who are so far away from me, separated by an immeasurable distance, are always close to me,—in my thoughts and in my dreams.
Now that you are in New York you will at last be able to prove to yourself whether or not you really love me, whether or not you really need me and wish to form that lasting tie of which so many people are later sorry. You see, in a place like Savannah where you were always bored and where I almost had no rivals—you could not really judge.
As for me, after all these months of separation, and living in a place where I have loads of opportunities to meet and go out with—literally dozens of girls, Jewish and gentile, of all sorts and of all classes—I have at last come to the definite conclusion that I really and truly love you, Ethel, and that you it is that I want more than anything else in the whole wide world
With all these women around, I have not formed even one lasting friendship. They all regard me as a frightful Don Juan (Ye Gods!) one simply cannot rely on for more than 3 or 4 dates. Therefore, contrary to my experience in Savannah, I am always invited out to parties and dances. The reward of an unattached, independent male, I suppose
In spite of all this social success, I am always longing for you, dearest—for the one being in the world whom I love; why don’t you come? If things turn out so that I shall have to stay here next year, you must promise to come here. I shall know everything by July or August. Please answer me immediately about this, and forget all petty matters.
How do you like New York now? How is the job coming along. Above all, don’t get downhearted.
#26, June 3, 1929 (Portland)
My Sweet Girl,
Have been awful with my final exams and haven’t had an hour for myself. What with the car and other various impediments, time flies on record time. There is nothing left but the ashes of yesterdays fleeing into oblivion. My situation is so complicated that I haven’t got the least idea as to my fate during the next year. We shall have to stand by and wait.
In regards to coming to New York, I really am at a loss to say anything. You must understand the various connections which bind me here. In New York I would have to look for another Hebrew teaching job, without any visible hope of concrete progress
I hope that you landed a job already. New York is hell in the summer and I don’t envy you your sojourn there at all. But Savannah is even worse.
My brother is already on his way to Palestine. Just imagine the excitement back home.
#27, July 2, 1929 (Portland)
My Sweet Girl,
Well, the summer is here, and we are all busy deploring the hot weather. At last something to do for all of us. It’s six o’clock now, and I am going out tonight. A friend of mine, Frank Robinson, and myself with two interior decorators from the biggest department store in the city. They are pretty girls, but awfully crude. Oh, these dates do give me a pain, Ethel; they are such ridiculous rituals, shall I call them. But what can you do when you have a brand new car and the nights are beautiful. I never feel any more that curious exaltation that I used to feel when I sent to meet you on the street corner near the furniture store. You remember, darling, those furtive short meetings for an hour or two. What a thrill we used to get out of them. That was It, sweetheart. We walked, we had no place to go, and yet we were so supremely satisfied. An experience like that does mean something, it does show something. Now I ride, and the girl-friends are willing to stay out till three o’clock in the morning, with no irate mother worrying about us, but just the same I feel a sort of nauseating vacuity in it all, a supreme futility. I come home weary and sad, cursing my fate and the circumstances that keep us apart.
I get my vacation on the nineteenth, and that’s when I am supposed to begin that business activity I wrote you about. I’ll write you how to reach me during that internal. Tell my vacation is over I won’t know a thing about next year.
I was very glad to hear about your new job. Try and stick to it till the winter comes, and then you can start looking for something more substantial. But of course by that time we shall be together again.
#28, August 1, 1929 (Portland)
My Sweet Girl
Sorry to keep you waiting so long for an answer to your two letters, but I just returned from a trip to Northern California. You can imagine my state of mind when I found your letters waiting for me, insomuch as I realize how much it hurts when one has to wait long for an answer to one’s letters. Believe me, darling, you are the last person on earth whom I would wish to neglect. Is there any single force in the universe as helpful in forgetting one’s general isolation in a hostile world as well as the greater futility of life as a whole more so than the presence of a beloved being upon whom one can lavish one’s accumulated store of love and desire. However, when the beloved is far away, removed from one’s environment with the acid distance of physical space, unapproachable and unpossessable, then, my dear, then life is indeed an extended frustration, a constant nibbling at the outer crust without every biting into the real stuff so artfully embedded and hidden.
I speak through symbols, but I am certain that you will understand. I know you will say why don’t you make a real endeavor to end this ghastly separation? A seemingly logical question. Nevertheless savagely illogical because impossible to answer directly and adequately. Paul Valery* once said that all points of view are false, and I agree with him. Therefore it would be both cruel and useless for me to re-iterate my point of view. A situation as complicated as this one needs intuitive handling, not merely verbal or written explanations.
A Malicious Dive into Reasoning
You know, sweetheart, one can’t live on love. Not yet, of course. Maybe in some future state of blessedness, but at present life is a physical reality. One must also have money. One also has his career to attend to. Sometimes he or she are very young, and they have their own respective families which happen to be in utter discord with his or her natural inclinations. The practical states of mind of these lamentable families teach them to disregard the romantic tendencies on the part of their progeny as extremely foolish and latent with dangerous eventualities.
A Minor ULYSSES goes A-journeying
My vacation began on the 19th of last month, and immediately my partner and I motored down to “Frisco,” a distance of seven hundred miles. We stayed there for a week, and had an interesting time. California somewhat disappointed me. Like everything else in this barbaric country, California is over-boosted and in great need of expert debunking. San Francisco is supposed to be a hell of a town, a sort of second Chicago, but in reality it is a very commonplace city, a sort of Savannah with half a million inhabitants. Dirty, but in an unclean way, for, you know, there are several brands of dirt. The soil is also dirty in a way, and nevertheless we all love it. There is the clean cut, exciting, tragic dirt of a city like Marseilles, and there is the banal routine butter-and-egg man** variety of dirt of a town like “Frisco.” Aberrations without madness, and laughter without tears.
Of course you understand that this trip was not merely for pleasure, but also for business. We bought stock there and are now going to sell it in Portland. On my return I found the board at the Hebrew School ready to give me another contract for a year with a substantial raise in addition. Since business is very quiet here, and it would be taking a very great chance for me to give up my job definitively, I think I shall stay here next year, especially since I am very well liked here.
Scaling the Mountain
This year I shall finally make the greatest effort, the initial and perhaps the final drive of my life. I must see whether my literary ambitions have in them the real breath of life, or whether they are a mere bubble of my egocentric impulses. I shall devote all my time up to October 1930 to experimental writing. If I succeed, I shall know my way and shall follow it unflinchingly. If I fail—why then I will return to the humble common life of my brethren, and become a decent American citizen, driving myself mercilessly in the mad rush towards the temple of moneytheism.
In case of failure my life won’t be worth much to me any longer. I suppose I shall be able to endure the disappointment, but it will be so damn hard to get used to the lack of a transcendental ambition, an ambition which quite naturally and smoothly elevates one into the realm of exalted perception of one’s environment and of one’s relative importance in a world which so mutely begs description and sensitive reaction. Then, I suppose, I shall need even more than now the companionship of a beloved woman. Now I need her to soothe my tempestuous impulses, to allay my idle wandering from idea to idea, to concentrate and re-fuel my ambitions; then I shall need her as a sort of compensation for my lost pride; also to act as an objective for my objectless ardor.
But you are in New York, removed, distant, cold. For me to come to New York would be utter madness. I cannot live shabbily. I cannot write when my mind is filled with financial worries. Your coming here, however, would be a different thing altogether. Why be so Victorian, so old fashioned and timorous in one’s attitude to the necessities and burdens (sometimes joyful) which one’s love imposes upon one.
A Professor by the Grace of God
I haven’t heard from Grossman for months. His escapades with you certainly please me. It may well be that he had cherished a hidden affection for you even in Savannah. (Intellectual giants are usually emotional dwarfs). You seem to be having a good time. There is no end of men in New York, eh?
Even I, Poor Sinner
As for myself, I also am not fasting. Both by nature and by principle I am opposed to any sort of negative attitude toward sex. I go out quite a lot, and am having all sorts of times. There are all sorts of girlfriends. I won’t go into details, for they would be completely irrelevant, but I’ll have many amusing incidents to relate when we meet again.
P.S. Am moving out. Will write you my new address next week.
#29, December 5, 1930 (Portland)
My Dear Ethel—
You will be surprised to receive this letter, but so am I in writing it. I am wholly ignorant of your whereabouts and your present condition; you may be in Savannah—but that is rather unlikely. Anyhow, I am writing to Savannah because I know no other address, hoping that your folks will forward this letter to wherever you may be found.
not hesitate to answer, no matter what conditions are yours at present. You may be married, for all I know. We have probably both changed far more than we are really aware ourselves. Yet I would just love to know how you are getting along. It is true: we have drifted apart, and most unexpectedly and accidentally at that, but life is like that—a congeries of accidents and incidental events.
You will probably be amazed to learn that I am still living here, in Portland. Yes, you see when I came here I was rather fed up with the life of perpetual wandering which was my lot (and perhaps also my privilege). So I felt a strong urge to stick it out in one place for good and all. I am not teaching Hebrew anymore; I am now working for a newspaper here in town—a weekly—and also attending Reed College. This year, however, I am already animated by longings for new wanderings, so I have decided to move to San Francisco in the summer—in August to be precise. There I shall switch my studies from a general course to Law. It is a bigger town, rather cosmopolitan, and climatically impeccable; and I know it well, as I have spent my last two vacations there. Also, during this long time of lack of communication between us, I have succeeded to break into print, but in a very modest fashion. Just a little poetry and a few short esoteric and experimental periodicals.
I have not written for such a long time because—but why give reasons. The fact is I don’t know myself; in many respects my life here has been intellectually most fertile and potent, but emotionally and from the point of view of pure humanness, rather muddled and patchy. However, I do hope you will answer, if only to tell what kind of patter our life has taken on.
P.S. A letter from you for Christmas will make me yell: There is a Santa Claus.
#30, December 19, 1930 (Portland)
Your prompt reply was very welcome; in fact, the reading of it proved to be evocative of a twilight mood of reminiscence, opening a magic portal to a re-entrance into the realm of past joys and sorrows, but this time re-lived calmly and with due appreciation. In the long run things and events are intrinsically valuable because they furnish our minds with the necessary substance upon which the memory feeds in subsequent years. There, within the context of a situation freed from the extravagant and painful control of unpredictable circumstances, the history of our experiences unfolds itself in the soft, yet incandescent light of our mental scrutiny; through the gaining of perspective, and by virtue of the additional insight granted to us by the solutions which time provides, this reliving of events and experiences through the medium of the memory transforms itself into an intellectual liberty of the first order. And, after all, our relationship has been a by no means negligible quantity in the molding of both our destinies. From your letter I could divine already that my hesitant conjectures concerning your present condition were absolutely correct. You have succeeded in escaping the miasma of a kosher, lambish, small town, respectable existence, striking out for yourself instead—with the result that you are now somebody—a self-supporting (both materially and mentally) young woman whose knowledge of life has not been acquired through a surreptitious perusal of novels, but through first-hand contact with life in the raw, amidst the ‘maelstrom’ and cataclysmic swirl of a Manhattan environment. I am proud to think (or maybe I flatter myself) that I had something to do with your decision to quit Savannah. It was I who gave you that initial impetus, that will to change and to dare, which first deflected your thoughts to the contemplation of that seemingly appalling step: the quitting of the parental featherbed.
I was immensely interested to read your rendition of life among the artists. I, too, have undergone such experiences with these incorrigible bohemians and futilarians. My advice is: keep away from there. Here too (this town isn’t quite as commonplace and babbitized as it may seem from the steep vistas of Gotham sophistication; the emancipation fever is very contagious and flies by night) there exists a circle of so-called sophisticates and decadents whose career revolves around the orbit of a certain young poetess’s apartment. Her name is Dawn Lovelace. There you will find, night in night out, a group of disheveled phrase-mongers and typewriter-swells sipping coffee and burning cigarettes by the carload. To me goes the honor of christening the place: “Dawn’s Coffee and Cigarette Circus”, and the name has stuck.
What kind of work are doing now? Your address bears with it the umistakable flavor of prosperity. How can you afford to live in such a bourgeois district? You must be the original of the girl who made good. Well, I hope your luck will last; once you have grabbed it by its tail—hold on, dear girl, hold on, for sweet life.
There are a million things and one I’d like to know about you. Your intellectual development, your career in amour, your family’s plight (how is Sadie and where), some information about the Savannah outfit, Pinsker, Persky, Yona, et al. You must write about all this. Of course, you are wondering whence this sudden eruption of good will and interest on my part. I am afraid I shall largely evade the issue, although one may venture a few futile passes at it. Reasons are superfluous; (who can trace the shadowy ramifications of the unconscious mental processes and its unpredictable motivations)? If you are willing to correspond, to confide, to seek communion and to receive it, you will find a willing partner. There is this to go on: that we have a multitude of things in common. As to the love that existed between us, to the passion (and that was indeed very, very vital and real), it would be both irreverent and irrelevant to drag it into this mélange. Yet, if I want to go on, I must define my attitude to it. I know that it is rather cruel to perform such an autopsy, but I cannot spare myself, because I value candor above all things. So here goes:
I believe that it is a great pity that we let all of our ecstasy and absolute “made-for-each-otherness” run waste and be lost in the arid ground of indifference. This indifference was doubtless made easier to achieve through the pressure of more immediate and concrete preoccupations and interests. I guess I was much too young to be willing to face the responsibility of the marital state. And then, above everything, I was poor, with no prospect of financial security in the near future. I thought it would be best to let things drift. You were so far away from me, and I was so uproariously human and a glutton for temptations and the yielding to temptations, that I soon lost hold of the helm, and soon enough you became a stranger without an address. Our love was fine, vital, stimulating, in short, lovely—but none the less it was wrecked on the reefs of inexorable circumstance. If I had gone back to New York and we had gotten married, we’d now probably be very unhappy, mainly because of financial difficulties. I happen to be an insanely sensitive man, especially where money is concerned, and the mere thought that I am unable to provide for my wife, that I am unable to give the things that she wants, and which other men could and would give her, would make married life a hell on earth for me. Of course, you would have insisted on helping by going to work, but I am so constituted—or maybe just old-fashioned—that I cannot think of my wife working without an acute feeling of distaste and quite a good stiff dose of shame. It isn’t fair to the woman. Now, however, I feel that enough time has elapsed—and also a certain definite cycle of oats-sowing youth has been completed—for us to be able to regain the abandoned position and try to build up a relationship based on the precious common background; a relationship in the main intellectual, yet tinged with enough personal affection to make it interesting. And maybe we shall see each other in the near future. Maybe . . .
This letter, by the way, is getting too long, too complicated, too Proustian—in fact, too everything. But as I am already committed, so I might as well go on.
As to myself, the changes that time has wrought in me you can try to comprehend through the altered texture of my mentality as revealed to you through my letters. I myself think that although still an extremely young “young man” (will be 23 in February 1931), I am already on the other bank of my adolescence, in spite of the fact that the mud and gravel of the crossing is still clinging to my boots, and a few stray straws can still be found in my hair. The fact is that I had an early start; at the age of sixteen I was already occupying the position that an American intellectual reaches at twenty, (that early start is due, no doubt, to the old-world cultivation of my sensibilities).
My present work, though much more bearable than the expounding of anthropomorphic myths to future junk-peddler’s and two-bit crooks, is still not on a par with my actual desires. The editing of tenth rate poetry about sunset-sunrise, frost-snow, night-day, and the whole goddam peripheral naturalis, the writing of stale tidbits concerning Mrs. Smith’s latest orgy, is far from a satisfying occupation. But my plans are definite, and if I stick to them and allow nothing to divert me, I shall be through with Portland by August—then Frisco, law-school, some business with no boss over me (my temperament is absolutely unadaptable to the overbearing strutfullness of employers) and a chance to write what I want to write. You see, I am going to become a lawyer because my incapacity to confirm to the popular magazine standard of writing is chronic, so that I will never be able to make a living from writing. The solution obviously lies in learning or acquiring a decent profession that can offer one a modicum of stimulation in its own right, and above all else, financial security—then I can go on writing my own probably good for nothing stories and essays. Literature ad a side line—that’s the latest gaff.
Selig is till in Providence, sweethearting around with a “gorgeous creature” (authentic quotation from his own effusive epistles from New York. Father is with him, and mother is still clinging to the family hearth in Palestine. Their situation is very complicated, and I will not weary you with details. Why bother our heads with our elders’ follies, when our own are growing apace. The heroics of their Zionist ardor leave me cold. Mother’s part in it I regard as a sublimation of her repressed sexuality—that’s what comes from marrying a man one does not love. The youngest of the family, good-looking David, (who is eighteen), has joined a communistic kvutah in the Emek, and working away for the sake of his impossible ideals. He is having the time of his life into the bargain. Good for him.
#31, January 8, 1931 (Portland)
No, I am not alarmed by your flirtation with the communist faith (or brethren, which is it?). On the contrary, were you to write me that you had turned Communist, and taken to assaulting policemen on the public thoroughfares, I would utter a loud hosanna in praise of your courage and high gravity. To tell you the truth, I myself am a communist for a good many years already—a communist in the sense of being intellectually in accord with the main tenets of the present day communist programme, and also in the sense that I regard Soviet Russia as the one bright point in a world black and scabrous with corruption, hypocrisy, and cruelly. It is the existence of Soviet Russia (Is it really possible that such a state actually exists?) that precludes me from indulging in that final acceptance of ennui and purposelessness which is at the bottom of the general spinelessness of the present intellectual generation. However, I am not a party member, nor do I ever intend to be; to make sacrifices for the movement somehow never occurs to me. Such an attitude seemingly strikes one as peculiarly pusillanimous. And perhaps it is. But don’t judge me too harshly. After all, the mere fact that I am not a member of the working class would suffice to prevent me from ever taking an active part in the movement—and such rationalization is really in full accord with the Marxian-Materialist world-view. Whereas my own immediate economic interests are not included in this foray, it is inevitable that I should shirk the responsibility of active participation. Furthermore, there are a number of points on which I differ with the orthodox communists. I am not a Marxian in the full sense of that term. I do not accept the supposition that the economic interpretation of history is the only valid one; and then I differ with them as to the need for a thorough proletarization of the arts and literature. That’s going too strong for me. There is no sense in idealizing the proletariat, just as there is no sense in the idealization of any other group. The proletariat is, in the main, stupid, selfish, and blind to its own interests. One cannot rely on it to help itself. One must adhere to the opinion that revolutions are made by the minority who, by and large, are the intellectuals. (Of course, at the right moment, when a country is on the verge of collapse—following a war, for example—the proletariat can be induced to support the militant minority. Such a situation is the one and only hope of the Communist party). But the noontide of the revolution is till remote—too, too remote—in this blessed country of ours. As far as the realization that the present economic system is absolutely worthless is concerned, we are still about twenty years behind Europe. Yet, we must not despair. There is a big difference between 1930 and 1920.
In regards to your friend’s aversion to any movement that involves the loss of human life, I would like to say that such an attitude betrays a total lack of virile, fact-facing thought. Such an attitude fits a man like Thornton Wilder, but not anyone who claims to possess a cerebral apparatus functioning more or less normally. Just think, is birth, the process of giving birth to a new life, a sweet, delicate, immaculate process? Is death? Is anything? NO! Violence is indispensable, because violence exists already: the Capitalist system is the incarnation of brute force and unlimited, unremitting coercion. Do you ever for a moment believe that these high and mighty money-grubbers will lay down their fine privileges without a murmur of protest. No, sweet child, they will and are defending their privileges with the whip and the machine-gun. And the only way to fight them is WITH THE MACHINE GUN.
There once was a lunatic called Jesus. He dreamed of a mankind sweetly lovable and absolutely preened of all its animal background. Naturally, he died on the cross. And then humanity accepted him; he became the God. Yes, but what happened to his ideas about love and the kingdom of heaven? Is there any need to dwell upon the point. You know what the Christian Church is today. The very embodiment of hypocrisy—a shield for the exploiters. All those castrated pseudo-ethical theories which seem to dominate so many members of our intellegenzia are merely smoke-screens behind which they are endeavoring to hide their timidity and fear of the oncoming change. They prefer the present murderous system; hence their mush talk about the sacredness of human life. Human life is no more sacred than the life of any other zoological species . . . TO HELL WITH THE SOCIALISTS, THE LIBERALS, AND ALL OTHER INHABITANTS OF THE JELLY-SWAMP. LONG LIVE THE U.S.S.R.
#32, April 25, 1931 (Portland)
Your letter was an extreme surprise to me—after I had almost arrived at the conclusion that my communist ardor had completely alienated your interest in an old sweetheart. There are so many people in the world nowadays who think there is something vulgar about having definite convictions; our so-called sophisticates (of the above-mentioned type) are surely the most despicable lot of shirkers on the face of the earth. The only thing they dare to agree about is prohibition; they all believe that it’s a bad law, but anything else, any other cause that requires some guts, some courage, and maybe a little sacrificing—NO!
I am certainly glad that you don’t belong to that type. From your letters I gather you have done quite a bit for yourself since leaving Savannah, and I want to congratulate you upon your success. Surely your relationship with me helped you to find yourself and to escape the provincial pit—and over that I am fond of gloating time and again.
I was surprised to learn that Yona is still in Savannah. Do you mean to tell me that she has kept the old job all these years? She would be capable of such a dastardly outrage, the old whore! And poor Pinsker, at last removed by the decree of a rabbi. RABBI. It seems as if the old firm of Israel & Jehovah, Inc. is still doing a flourishing business. As to old lady Persky, she must be still dreaming about a nice slice of adultery to compensate for the dreariness of living with that milky man, Nathan Persky, the vice-president (!!) of the Board of Education of the Savannah Hebrew School.
By the way, what happened to Grossman? I have wanted to ask you every time I wrote to you, but somehow it always eluded me. Surely you must have some information about him. Please oblige: an old friend, you know.
I may perhaps come to New York in the autumn, that is, if certain things happen the right way. Otherwise it will be California or perhaps another round of Portland. I am doing quite a bit of writing nowadays, mostly modern poetry. The name I write under is Philip Grann (you see if I were to publish my radical tirades under the name of Greenberg, it might cost me my job.) I am pinning my hopes on a new radical quarterly called THE LEFT, that has already published some of my stuff. I am enclosing the blurb for the first issue of the periodical. Do you ever read the expatriate magazine THIS QUARTERLY? I am now corresponding with its editor concerning some poetry of mine, and I am about sure that I am going to get a break with him.
Well, that’s the way things have turned out for us two. I never would have believed it had they told me that I would spend so many years in Portland. Yet, it isn’t a bad town at all. (That is, if you keep away from the Jews!) As to you—I still think of you as of someone very dear and near to me.
Please excuse the general sloppiness of this letter. You see, it’s Saturday afternoon, and I am already a little plastered. Not that it happens often though
Be sure and write.
#33, December 11, 1931 (San Francisco)
Dear Ethel, –Forgive me my long silence. I have been moving around California too damn fast lately to pay any attention to correspondence or even to have a regular address. Left Portland August 1, and since then have lived in Los Angeles, San Diego, and off and on in Frisco. No, I have not become a traveling salesman: though with a little encouragement I may. At present am staying here, where it would be best to stick—though there is every possibility that I will leave for New York within a few months. Have worked steady in Portland for a period of three years, easily living off half of my earnings, and now am taking a long vacation, devoting all of my time to writing. A stupid thing to do, no doubt, but still something I have wanted to do for a long time. Perhaps I shall even succeed in writing that monstrum par excessum, the GREAT American Novel! Who knows? There have been no miracles for two thousand years now, but Jehovah might relent any time.
My brother Selig got married recently. May his bones rest in peace. Ah, marriage, marriage! At all costs to make another human being unhappy. To lose oneself in the arms of a woman. To lie between her legs, hours and hours, hours and hours, throughout the nights (and some days), winter and summer, spring and autumn.
It is a long time since I have seen New York, and somehow, I must confess I feel something of a nostalgia for the hurry and bustle of that big city. One also wants to see a few good plays, to hear some new music. Hence, inasmuch as there is really nothing very tangible to hold me here, I believe I will soon say goodbye to sunny California and all aboard for Manhattan. –Probably never to leave it again.
Have lost your address, so am writing to the firm. And now, Ethel–, if you want to be a real pal you will answer this letter immediately, so that I might know where to find you when I get there (that is, if you are still available and not absconded to Savannah or Jersey City.