In 1961, Maurice Sendak wrote his editor Ursula Nordstrom, concerned that his genius was not the genius of Tolstoy. Well, “Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either,” she replied.
Truth be told, given the choice, I don’t know whether I’d rather have the genius of either Tolstoy or Sendak over the genius of Nordstrom as expressed in this letter from Letters of Note (that wonderful site without which the internet would be SO much more of a wilderness). Sure, being an editor consists of mostly a lot of hard-work stuff that does not fall under the “writing brilliant authors brilliant letters” category, but, given the chance and the gift to encourage an author in this way even every once in a while–I doubt I could hope for anything more. An excerpt is below; go read the rest of this gem at Letters of Note.
I loved your long letter and hope it clarified some things for you to write it. 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.