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Woolf, Updike, and Nabokov: The Best Letters to the Editor in New Republic History

Courtesy of The New Republic

A Matter of Fahrenheit

When Douglas Stewart wrote in 1970 that “there are simply too many senile voters ... the vote should not be a privilege in perpetuity,” it was too much for some readers, including a then-fifty-year-old Ray Bradbury.

Sirs: I am much in your debt for publishing the brilliant article by Douglas J. Stewart. Taking the vote away from old people is great. But, may I suggest an even better alternative? Let us build ovens and gas chambers and really do the job right. The people can be carted from all over the country, once they are old enough, and, before entering the gas chambers and ovens, have the best dentists pull out their gold teeth. ... There is a danger here; there are quite a few liberal old people about, and we must be careful not to put Marcuse or anyone like him in the ovens. Other than that, the plan is beautiful and I hope Mr. Stewart will join me in this great improvement on American democracy. We can call it the Nazi Party, if he feels that is a good name. 

I have other plans for cripples, the blind, and the Jews, if Mr. Stewart wishes to hear them.

Ray Bradbury

October 3, 1970

Boston v. Britain

After a reader said that Virginia Woolf was condescending toward “poor benighted Americans” for claiming that American-born Henry James was not a “native” writer of British English, she defended her perceived snobbishness in our pages.

Sir: I hasten to submit to your correspondent’s correction and to retract my opinion that because Henry James was born in Boston he therefore did not write English like a native. I will do my best to believe that the language of Tennyson and the language of Whitman are one and the same. But may I explain that the responsibility for my error rests with Walt Whitman himself, with Mr. Ring Lardner, Mr. Sherwood Anderson, and Mr. Sinclair Lewis? I had been reading these writers and thinking how magnificent a language American is, how materially it differs from English, and how much I envy it the power to create new words and new phrases of the utmost vividness. I had even gone so far as to shape a theory that the American genius is an original genius and that it has borne and is bearing fruit unlike any that grows over here. But in deference to your correspondent I hasten to cancel these views and will note for future use that there is no difference between England and America; climate and custom have produced no change of any sort; America is merely a larger England across the Atlantic.

Virginia Woolf

April 24, 1929

Before They Were Stars

Michael Kinsley, who edited the magazine from 1979 to 1981 and then again from 1985 to 1989, could craft a letter like few others. Here, writing on letterhead from Harvard’s Kirkland House, he tried—and tried again—to charm his way into the offices of The New Republic.

Dear Mr. Sanford,1

This is an inquiry about a summer job. I wrote to Marty Peretz,2 who is a former teacher of mine, several months ago, but received no response. Under the assumption that he is a busy man I have declined to take a hint, and now write to you. A resume and some samples are enclosed. They are mostly humorous (at least in intent) but, as the resume indicates, I have written serious pieces as well for various publications and have a Nader book coming out in the fall whose tone could best be described as morose. Friends at TNR might be willing to put in a good word for me: Tom Geoghegan or Eliot Marshall among the old guard, or Linc Caplan among the new. Tom and I were roommates for two summers while I was working for Nader and he was working for you. I know Ralph would vouch for me, and I hope Marty would as well. Thanks very much.

Michael Kinsley

March 19, 1975

Dear Marty,

I am about to give wide distribution to the enclosed summary of my life and works in search of a job after Law School, and thought I’d send one to you. Having sampled the life of the law this past summer (at a small Jewish firm in San Francisco and a large WASPy one in L.A.), I’ve decided it’s not for me.

As you can see I’ve had a lot of experience in editing as well as writing. Ideally, I would like a job that involves both. I enjoy all aspects of editing very much, from thinking up and assigning pieces to copy editing and proofreading. And to be honest, I think I’m good at it. (I like to believe my past employers, Charlie Peters and Ralph Nader, also think so.) Of course you are familiar with my writing, and so can form your own opinion of that.

I have no idea what your staff situation will be in the next few months. But if any openings develop (or if you hear of anything available elsewhere, for that matter), please keep me in mind.

Michael Kinsley

September 30, 1976  

John Updike’s postcards and letters to his New Republic editors were always lively little things—though this is the only time he exercised his artistic talents for us.
97M-25, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Updike’s letter reads: “Dear Mr. Evett—Received my book and your letter—thanks for both. I’ll try to get the review to you in two weeks. It’s a BIG book. Yrs, John Updike."

A Most Unfair Fight

The poor soul who sought to “correct” Nabokov’s mistaken translation of Baudelaire learned a valuable lesson in chastening a writer who’d been trilingual since youth.

Sir: Mr. Nabokov’s August 4 essay, “The Art of Translation,” contains a beautiful example of the Art of Misquotation.

He refers to a line from “L’Invitation au Voyage” as “Mon amie, ma soeur, connais-tu la douceur. ...” Poor Baudelaire! The Russian translator didn’t do so badly. Baudelaire wrote: “Mon enfant, ma soeur, Songe à la douceur. ...”

E.W. Nash

Sir: I am sorry that a poor memory led me to make a “friend” of that child; but Mr. Nash is quite wrong in assuming that by correcting my quotation he has baudelairized the Russian version: that little joy-ride goes on undisturbed.

Vladimir Nabokov

September 22, 1941

Declining With Respects and Otherwise

Invitations to our parties throughout the years have been received with varying degrees of excitement. People seemed genuinely enthused about our seventieth anniversary...

I won’t be able to make the 70th Anniversary Gala. But I will be toasting you from Omaha with Pepsi.

Warren Buffett

November 5, 1984

Hollywood Star; Lowly Editor
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images; Courtesy of Joan Stapleton

I am sorry to be absent from your 70th Anniversary party for The New Republic. But I was unexpectedly called to Europe for an audition. It looks like my hairstyle and manner of dress is finally paying off. They want me for the lead in the Rick Hertzberg story.

Warren Beatty

November 27, 1984

...and this was very charming about our 40th...

Not a week goes by that I am not confronted with at least one invitation to speak and often on occasions that touch close interests of mine. But not half a dozen have come during all the years I have been on the Court that stirred feelings and affiliations as deeply rooted as your warm-hearted invitation to speak in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of The New Republic. Herbert Croly was, as you know, an intimate friend whose outlook and purposes on affairs and on man’s destiny I shared to an uncommon degree; likewise, the purposes at which your parents aimed in founding The New Republic enlisted my hopes and efforts as few enterprises of my life did. Every personal consideration, therefore, would induce me to speak at your birthday party.

But my job, as I conceive it, precludes. It can hardly be news to you that I have strong views about the restrictions which should confine one in my place and observance of which I cannot depart from even under the strongest temptation. I will not get up and say nothing. To say anything relevant to the occasion and to The New Republic inevitably would carry me into the area of issues which, as a member of the Court, I ought not to enter and I will not do so. I am sorry that this should be so, but so it is. If you will have me as a mere attendant at the dinner I shall, of course, be glad to come.

Felix Frankfurter

August 25, 1954

...but this was a somewhat less cheery response to that very same party...

It is impossible for me to write you a polite evasive no in response to your invitation to become a sponsor of The New Republic dinner. But much as I should like, out of both piety toward The New Republic’s past and hope for its future, to say yes, I find that I cannot. A dinner at which Mr. Henry Luce is the main speaker on behalf of the liberal tradition seems to me only a mockery—and a very bitter one to those who served The New Republic in its great days. Pardon my candor: the occasion does not permit me to dissemble.

Lewis Mumford

September 30, 1954

  1. David Sanford, our managing editor at the time.

  2. Our owner from 1974 to 2012.