Dear Genius – Ursula Nordstrom

Thanks to Phinney Books’ newsletter recommendation, I picked up Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom (ed. Leonard S. Marcus), which is one of the most delightful books I’ve read in a while. As Phinney Books put it, Nordstrom in these letters is “a hoot”. She’s tart, warm, witty, supremely intelligent, and as the introduction puts it, these letters create “an artfully drawn, unfailingly vivid character named Ursula Nordstrom, a literary persona by turns leonine and Chaplinesque, cocksure and beguilingly off-balance.”

She seems like someone whose letters I’d like if they were all just about New York City weather and disliking Nixon, but Nordstrom was writing to and about the children’s book authors she published as director of Harper’s Department of Books for Boys and Girls from 1940-1973 — names like Maurice Sendak, Shel Silverstein, John Steptoe, Margaret Wise Brown, Kay Thompson, and books like Charlotte’s Web, Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, Harriet the Spy, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Bedtime for Frances, The Giving Tree…the list of phenomenal classic books she brought to us all goes on and on. Hearing her cajole, nag, support, encourage, steer, delight in and adore these authors (whose books meant a great deal to me growing up, and still do) is thoroughly satisfying and fascinating. You also get to find out things like how the spider’s face in Charlotte’s Web was originally drawn, and that Ruth Krauss (A Hole is to Dig) kept her manuscripts in the refrigerator.

Here’s a sample, from a 1965 letter to  Krauss who had written to Ursula trying to locate additional copies of her book Somebody Else’s Nut Tree, addressing it to her jokingly as “Vice-President in Charge of Warehouses.”

The Shipping Dept. is now in charge of a big IBM machine named Irving Needleman and I’m not at all satisfied with his work.   More later. But you mention vice-presidential influence and I will tell you something, kid. I have learned 3 things as I have staggered down Life’s Roadway. (1) If people ask you if you like dark meat or light meat it is OK to tell the truth because they really want to know. (2) If there is only 1 chocolate pastry on the French pastry tray it is OK to say YOU want it because there are other identical ones in the kitchen. (3) Vice-presidential influence isn’t on the tray of French pastry.
You said you wish you would think of a book we would like. You would if you just would, Ruth. Look in the refrigerator. We want another good Ruth Krauss book desperately.
Yes, I am fine. I wish I could lose 100 lbs. But otherwise all is well with your fan from the third row.

Or this, the beginning of a letter where she tries to cajole Edward Gorey into making a deadline for a promised book,

Dear Mr. E. Gorey,

I withdraw my proposal of marriage. I couldn’t be married to a man who refuses to answer his telephone. What if I wanted to phone home to say I was going to dine and spend the night with Spiro Agnew?

A telegram to Margaret Wise Brown (who wrote a book called The Important Book) in 1948:

SORRY CANNOT ACCEPT GRACIOUS INVITATION. WISH I COULD. HAVE IMPORTANT DATE WITH IMPORTANT LIBRARIAN ABOUT IMPORTANT BOOK. WILL WRITE WHEN I AM LESS IMPORTANT. LOVE.

And one more just to thoroughly convince you to read Dear Genius, from a 1961 letter to Maurice Sendak,

I’ve been out of the office with a bad throat and assorted aches, which is why I haven’t written you before. Also I spent the entire day Saturday writing you a big fat long-hand letter about Tolstoy, Life, Death, and other items which you can get at your friendly Green Stamps store. And then I left it at home. Will now send the gist of what I think I wrote, and it will be more legible than my handwriting anyhow.
[…]
Sure, Tolstoy and Melville have a lot of furniture in their books and they also know a lot of facts (“where the mouth of a river is”) but that isn’t the only sort of genius, you know that. You are more of a poet in your writing, at least right now. Yes, Tolstoy is wonderful (his publisher asked me for a quote) but you can express as much emotion and “cohesion and purpose” in some of your drawings as there is in War and Peace. I mean that.     You write and draw from the inside out—which is why I said poet.
I was absorbed when I read you had “the sense of having lived one’s life so narrowly—with eyes and senses turned inward. An actual sense of the breadth of life does not exist in me. I am narrowly concerned with me…All I will ever express will be the little I have gleaned of life for my own purposes.” But isn’t that what every fine artist-writer ever expressed? If your expression is now more an impressionist one that doesn’t make it any less important, or profound. That whole passage in your letter was intensely interesting to me. Yes, you did live “with eyes and senses turned inward” but you had to. Socrates said “Know thyself.” And now you do know yourself better than you did, and your work is getting richer and deeper, and it has such an exciting, emotional quality. I know you don’t need and didn’t ask for compliments from me. These remarks are not compliments—just facts.

 

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