3728 Northampton Street, NW
Washington 15, D.C.
Washington 15, D.C.
To: Mrs. Bertha Mahoney Miller
The Horn Book
The Horn Book
Feb. 15, 1944
Dear Mrs. Miller.
It was lovely to get your letter. I am so glad you like my article! I don't mind when I'm paid for it, really, any time that is convenient for you. I am so sorry you are having so many troubles. A sick husband certainly is a tribulation. Mine always wants to have me hovering around in great anxiety about him and at the same time he wants to do exactly as he pleases, get up and go to the phone, and work in bed, and go back to work again much too early. He wants to have his cake and eat it too, for oh me, oh my! If I don't show concern and am as casual about him as he is about himself, or dare to treat lightly his “symptoms"!!!
The Irish, Like the Arabs, Are Spiritual
I think you are right about the Irish having inferiority feelings. I think the reason is that they have a special gift which is not easily appreciated in this pragmatic century. They are dreamers, poets, storytellers and mystics. With that goes a shrinking from daily monotonous toil. They can become furiously active to serve an idea, they are grand soldiers and missionaries and agitators, but to spend most of your time on merely living seems useless to them. You will not find a good Irish cook— they do not serve the stomach well, it is not an interesting organ to them. Now this quality does not make for "success" in the modern sense, though it makes beautiful personalities.
I met an Arab at a supper party recently, a real Arab, a believing Muslim. (He looked like a fat, contented Dutchman.) I was most interested to hear him describe the Arab country and people. They reminded me so much of the Irish. I asked him how he liked [Wendell] Willkie's book [he had a book out in 1943, One World, including a visit with Stalin-JTM], and he said it was quite intelligent for such a short journey, and the intensely individualistic Arab would enjoy meeting a "great personage" who is as simple as Willkie, which sounded like the Irish to me. He also told of the hospitality in Arab villages, and how one "cottager" killed his cow, his sole possession, to do him honor.
He said he didn't like Washington (I don't blame him for that) and that when he left Iraq people said: "Oh, you are going to the United States, how lucky for you, you must never come back if you have any sense," but he says he would rather live in Iraq with hardly any money than in the U.S.A. with wads of it, and I understand how he feels. He says everybody you meet there is a person, alive and full of the tradition and wisdom of centuries.
"You have no steam-heat conversations!" I said, and he was a little puzzled until I explained that it was my name for the conversation one gets in steam-heated arguments. There is something about sitting grouped around a fire which unlocks men's souls and when you sit facing each other in a small modern sitting-room with your back against a radiator, you only feel self-conscious and ridiculous and your soul shrivels inside you.
He admitted right away that it was so. They have only fires in Arabic countries, but they have very thick walls to their houses. The climate is much hotter in summer than Washington, but not so humid; it feels worse here. The winters are about the same. While he talked I caught a glimpse of a lovely, magic land, full of stories and poetry, and I couldn't help contrasting it with the terse sentences in Willkie's book about their not having any bathtub. According to their religion they have to wash five times a day, so they can't be as dirty as some people think, and their wisdom must be immense. It seems that also the harems are exaggerated. This Arab says it is impolite to speak of a man's wife, it is too intimate a term, so you speak of a man's harem to spare his feelings. According to the Koran a man may marry more than one wife, but only if he can give them economical equality and keep the peace between them. Men nowadays seldom risk it, according to this Arab.
The Koran also says it is the duty of a man and woman to beautify themselves, but only for intimates. Their face may be seen, the veil was an imported addition which has been largely abandoned. The word Fez apparently means "The Vienna," because it came from Vienna via Greece [actually seems to have originated in Cyprus, came to Arabs from Greece via Vienna, which developed a monopoly-JTM] to the Arab world. There is no difference between Muslims of various nationality; they are all equal because they are Muslims. (The Christian Church could learn something from that.) Of course their religion is largely laws, and reminds one of the Commandments of Moses. They consider Christians and Jews as belonging to the Muslim Church because they believe in One God. However, the idea of a sacrament is a closed book to them, if I'm to judge by this Arab. He thought his marriage much more "sensible" than the Christian, because it was just a contract. He simply disbelieves there can be anything more than a belief in God, and a lot of sensible rules. It was very interesting to me.
Of course this lack of a mystic quality differentiates the Arab greatly from the Irish, but I imagine they can be as much of a political pain in the neck, they are naturally fanatic and individualistic. What was most absorbing to me, though, was that when he was speaking you could see how sensible and enlightened he thought his own religion and culture and how inferior and fanatic he thought ours. Since we are apt to think vice versa it makes one see how patronizing everybody always is about others. It reminds me of the way unbelievers like to make first a ridiculous image of faith only to knock it down again, like Bernard Shaw who, in a recent interview, said, that of course he didn't believe in a God who had a beard and looked like himself! I could have told him "Well, who does?"
Perhaps what makes Arabic countries and Ireland so attractive is the unity of their faith. Of course I think it wrong to force religion on anyone, but if people more or less could agree naturally it would be so much easier to make laws and to write articles. As Chesterton says, it is impossible even to solve a small argument if there is no principle on which you can agree. The cleavage in Christianity is, I think, the main tragedy of the modern world which led to all other evils. Holland was very like America in many ways, especially in the admiration for science and the feeling that Christianity has had its day. I only began to be interested in religion when I arrived in Ireland.
Yet, for all its charm, Ireland too has its drawbacks. My husband heaved a sigh of relief when he was transferred from Ireland to London. There is an insularity about Ireland, and a self-centeredness which sometimes makes one want to tear out one's hair. And though the people seem to be more alive and eager, I think in reality they are even less interested in others than are the Dutch or the Americans. The nicest Irish people are not the intellectuals or the politicians, but the farmers, leaning over their half-doors and stone walls, with a smattering of astrology and mythology, and a view on everything under the sun, including the uselessness of weeding, "because everything grows again."
They are not unlike the Vermont farmers, except that they are less reserved. They are eager to speak and air their souls. And, of course, Ireland's great charm is the general acceptance of the supernatural. It is remarkable how easily one breathes in a country where God is as real as an apple. Also, in Ireland you are close to nature. You deal with stones and sand and sea, with hearths and fire, with wells and udders and surf-holes. Everything you use is dug up or squeezed out of something. One is near the heart of the world.
New York City
Now New York is quite different, it stunned me. I remember hanging desperately on to my personality like a dog with a bone, and being very much on the defensive to the disappoinment of my husband, who thought I would be overwhelmed with enthusiastic admiration for his native city. When I arrived there for the first time exactly the ninth of February ten years ago, he proudly presented me with a box of strawberries. His face shone with the miracle of it, this product of American ingenuity, symbolic, to him, of his fabulously wealthy and productive country.
I hadn't even taken off my hat and coat, but I sat right down and burst into tears. The idea of eating strawberries when it was sixteen below zero was enough to finish me off. Then I remember my frustration and rage when I found out that I couldn't get out of our apartment without bothering the elevator boy, and the red-letter day when I discovered the stairs, and the amazement of my husband when I insisted on using them. I remember my horror when I couldn't regulate the temperature of my room, it all happening mysteriously downstairs, and twenty degrees above my liking.
Then I remember the open-mouthed amazement of a fellow apartment dweller when she found I had my windows wide open, and how she summoned all the inhabitants of that particular floor to come and look. And then, when Olga was coming, my determination to get out of that "hole" into some human place, and how we at last found an old house on thirtieth street, squashed between high buildings, where we had a whole floor, and it had a chimney which could be "opened" which my husband promptly did, with the help of a mason or plumber or something, who was very interested in my "condition," and kept telling me to sit down and rest, and also enlarged on the fact that he had nine sons and that his wife would soon have another, and that she still hoped it would be a girl, notwithstanding her nine disappointments.
I would so much have liked to hear whether the girl materialized, but we never did. The apartment was supposed to be heated by "hot air," but the air was decidedly cool, and so we lugged bags of coal up and had a fireplace in the living room and a potbellied stove in the bedroom, was I happy!
Praying for the Mice
We also had a lot of mice and my husband insisted on exterminating them. He explained lengthily about the unsanitary aspects of having them around as pets, and on account of the baby I at last capitulated. We thereupon went to a place where they sell the means by which one gets rid of those animals, and the man, looking only at my husband, went with gusto into the mechanics of their horrible death.
When he saw me tugging frantically at my husband's sleeve, however, he slowed down and explained how absolutely and utterly painless it all was, but I, having seen the cruel gleam in his eyes at first, would not believe him. My husband was like granite, however and so my only refuge was prayer. So at night after having duly pleaded for the safety of the mice, I fell into a lovely sleep, to be wakened the next morning by the furious cries of my husband, who was dancing around with the trays in his hands, saying that the mice had eaten the cheese and got away. I chuckled. That's all I did, chuckle. But my husband spun around on his heels and glared at me.
"You didn't...You didn't..." his voice trembled with indignation — "You didn't pray for them?!"
"Only one Hail Mary," I confessed timidly.
"Well of all the mean...!" my husband was speechless. Then he made me promise never to pray for them again, and hopefully set out the trap once more. But one prayer can be very powerful. The only mouse he ever caught was one that accidentally fell into a pot of paint. Now my husband never lets me know when he sets out traps and he and Randal [her third child and first son] dispose of them secretly, with masculine hardihood.
Of course you must not jump to the conclusion that I do not like America, I feel it is the hope of the world and I should be very proud of it, if it weren't so proud of itself. My husband says the very nicest people he has ever met are Americans, but then, he is American himself of course. I always say, "Well I married you, didn't I, when I could have had a Dutchman or an Irishman (at least, I pretend to him that I could have). On the other hand, you took a Dutch-Irish girl." We compromise by saying that American men are nicest but that Dutch-Irish girls are nicest, and since there are precious few of the latter I ought to be satisfied.
I think Americans have made their life too full of gadgetry. They call it a high standard of living and I call it clutteritis. But I admit some things are handy. Only when they start making houses that you can carry around with you and divide in two halves when you get divorced, as they are threatening to do, I don't know what I'll do. Buy a castle for two dollars and fifty cents or something. And put a moat around it. And get me a couple of bows and arrows. And say: "No houses parked here," etc., etc.
I hope you do not feel that we can't correspond any more now I've written my article. Your letters are no end of enjoyment to me. When I write my husband I practically get no answer, for it takes so long to get there that by the time he writes back I've forgotten what I've written. And, though I write May [Massee, her editor] sometimes, she is much too busy to answer, so I always end up thinking she probably disagrees with everything I say, which is rather disappointing. So your letters have been a real find of happiness for me.
Though I think I have an enviably full life, it is not overly social. I meet few people. I have some friends but I do not see them often. I am not in touch with anybody who paints and with very few who write. This is all very good for developing independently of current fashions but it leaves one rather hungry for exchange of thought. You're so tremendously alive and appreciative and interested in others, one can't help wanting to exchange views with you. So I hope you don't mind if we carry on.
Mr. Royanovsky may still have my letter… But I'm not sure it's fit for publication. On the other hand, what about his next book? I should love to write about it if it is as good as his last.
Handwritten letter. Transcribed by JJTM, edited-annotated-posted by JTM.