In 1906, Winston Churchill was a mere Undersecretary of State for the Colonies. By that point, the 32-year-old had already been taken prisoner as a journalist during the Boer War and published four of the books that would later win him the Nobel Prize in Literature.
That year, the future Prime Minister gave a speech in Glasgow where he laid out a philosophy of what liberal government means.
We want to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labor, yet above which they may compete with all the strength of their manhood. We want to have free competition upwards; we decline to allow free competition downwards. We do not want to tear down the structure of science and civilization but to spread a net on the abyss.
It’s an eloquently stated argument, given the current debates over what exactly government is for.
In late 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien’s son Christopher–who would later prove so industrious in the keeping-up of his father’s legacy—was away from home, serving with the Royal Air Force in South Africa. J. R. R. had published The Hobbit seven years earlier, and was still in the process of writing his Lord of the Rings trilogy (The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn’t appear in print until 1954). J. R. R. would post draft pages to Christopher as he wrote.
In this letter sent three days after Christmas, J. R. R. talks about his new chapters:
I am glad the third lot of Ring arrived to date, and that you like it—although it seems to have added to yr. homesickness. It just shows the difference between life and literature: for anyone who found himself actually on the stairs of Kirith Ungol would wish to exchange it for almost any other place in the world, save Mordor itself. But if lit. teaches us anything at all, it is this: that we have in us an eternal element, free from care and fear, which can survey the things that in ‘life’ we call evil with serenity (that is not without appreciating their quality, but without any disturbance of our spiritual equilibrium)… I am afraid the next two chapters won’t come for some time (about middle of Jan) which is a pity, as not only are they (I think) v. moving and exciting, but Sam has some interesting comments on the rel. of stories and actual ‘adventures’. But I count it a triumph that these two chapters, which I did not think as good as the rest of Book IV, could distract you from the noise of the Air Crew Room!….
More of the letter can be found at the American Reader‘s “This Day in Letters” feature.
When David Foster Wallace took his life in 2008, among other painful echoes he left behind a gaping void in the American literary landscape. He was arguably the brightest star in that roughly defined gaggle of writers like Jonathan Franzen, William T. Vollmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides who broke through in the 1990s with styles that were entirely different and yet felt of a piece with all their emotional chaos and stylistic verve. (Check out Evan Hughes’s fantastic piece on that group here.)
For many readers, of that group, Wallace was the guy who people would still be reading in a hundred years. As one of Wallace’s editors said afterwards about the devastation so many people felt, “A lot of people are really sad for all the books we’re not going to get to read.” That’s not an entirely selfish thought, it’s more of a mourning for the beauty and intelligence that had gone out of the world with that shocking act.
D.T. Max’s biography on Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, is coming out later this year. There’s an excerpt from the book over at The Daily Beast, which includes this vivid scene about Wallace’s courtship of the memoirist Mary Karr (The Liar’s Club), when he was wracked by writer’s block and indecision, and was just coming out of rehab:
Wallace did not hear subtle variations in no; he knew only one way to seduce: overwhelm. He would show up at Karr’s family home to shovel her driveway after a snowfall, or come unannounced to her recovery meetings. Karr called the head of the halfway house and asked her to let Wallace know his attentions were not welcome. Wallace besieged her with notes anyway…. One day, she remembers, he arrived at a pool party she was at with her family with bandages on his left shoulder. She thought maybe he had been cutting himself and wouldn’t show her what was underneath—a tattoo with her name and a heart. He clearly felt he had made a commitment there was no retreating from. The details of the relationship were not clear to others though: Wallace told friends they were involved; Karr says no. She too steered Wallace to a new course in his fiction. “His interest in cleverness was preventing him from saying things,” she remembers. She told him not to be such a show-off, to write more from the heart. One time when he told her that he put certain scenes into his fiction because they were “cool,” she responded: “That’s what my f–king five year old says about Spiderman.”
Later, Wallace would write Infinite Jest and many other novels and shorter pieces in which he showed off as much as possible, but still managed to write from the heart.