mad in pursuit: letters from james & orpha, summer of '26

LETTERS from James & Orpha: contents

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Orpha takes James to task. She basically accuses him of whining about having to get off his pedestal and go to work. She claims this higher ground because her life has been more "sordid" -- no fairyland for her. She urges him to forget about the godless Nietzche and look at Christ because he embodied a more livable philosophy: "that the commonplace must be glorified, that fallacy in man must be recognized, that forgiveness, atonement and restitution are possible." She understands the difference between herself and James. He is harmony; she is dissonance -- so let the music play.

Postmarked Thursday 6.24.26, from Orpha in Glens Falls NY


To write anything coherent will be impossible. From the daily writing I have done to collect bits to send you, to tell you at all the myriad reactions and revelations the first of this summer is bringing to me will be hopeless.

Bear with me. Know that it is because constantly I am pondering the things you desire me to. I am sending you the daily progression of my attempts at analysis. Perhaps by September I shall have concluded satisfactorily — probably not.

You gave me your promise that you would write whenever it was at all possible. I was truly alarmed until your letter came yesterday. You need not doubt my word. I have kept it. I have been ill, busy. I wanted some word from you first — so, a week has passed. From today, it will be as you wish it.

There is no "warm summer reality" for me.

After leaving you, I had a much less boring journey to Cohoes* than I had foreseen. Rose Cohen (Cornell Dramatic Club) -- an unusually fascinating companion; eccentric travelers, odd occurrences — all food for speculation, musing. I thought I should like to write a book, just about such things — I have a collection of "bits of life."

With Aunt Carrie in Cohoes I spent three days, from 7 A.M. to 12 P.M., each of which I suffered school in all its phases pounded into every pore in my skin. I assisted in putting on a 7th grade play, an outing, and in making out reports and statements — interminable mathematical enigmas — all. I came on home thoroughly tired, nervously worn out and a victim of my diseased organs.**

So I have continued until today. I am comfortable again. We plan for the slight operation soon.

I have finished the Van Dyke. I am rereading The Forsyte Saga — an experiment. Randy reads a great deal. We have planned to spend a portion of each day at the library. Can you suggest some authors for Randy, and incidentally others for me? I have begun scheduled vocal and piano practice. I am sleeping ten or eleven hours a night. I am initiating the new racquet (many thanks) tomorrow. Not a cent do I spend. Cooking, sewing, and washing, all have their places. I am planning systems, working out practical theories for housekeeping. The collection is growing (delighted about the new luncheon set — do as you like about keeping it there). I could be divinely happy, if you were so.

There is no "warm summer reality" for me. There will be no summer this year for me. This is not home for me. I feel that I have no home, figuratively. What I cannot explain to my family stands between them and me; what you still fear and what you cannot reconcile nor yet hear stands between you and me.

Your life is a tragedy to you —the mysticism, the veil of the unknown seems drawn aside — you feel reasonably sure of what your life is to be. In this respect you still desire youth, because of its uncertainty. You seem to hate the future because it is an ugly problem. You have been dealt a blow by one for whom the dealing is as great a torture as its effect is upon you. It has changed the course of both our lives. You have learned, by seeing the worm-eaten core of the object of our wholehearted worship, that no thing is perfect, but God and your ideal. Better this than to have continued unschooled, believing one object wholly good and all others despicable. Your ideal remains for you to turn to. Your imagination is left to you. Weave with it about your still untrammeled dream — men have always done it.

This division must always be — the division I have made because I saw the tragedy in life earlier. Living has always been sordid, it is yet here — financial worry, illness, impending ruin, depression, relatives dying, ugliness. I have had to leave it, and go to my fairyland, the resort from which I can still look forth hopefully. One must have it — you must have it now to supplement your life with me which you feel not wholly perfect. It is this bit of youth we must all retain.

If we can go together, we shall be what we want to be. If you can cease to shut me out of your life as you have done by believing me careless of attaining the spiritual and aesthetic excellence which is the sole object of your life, you will be sharing your life with me.

You must have strength to overcome the disillusionment, and look to that within yourself to rebuild and reconstruct.

Objectively, you are living now. Your letter is so. You are apart. You must cease to be a Nietzsche. You are looking at life, trying to reconstruct it, failing. You are knowing life, you think, knowing your love for me. You are not feeling it. Life is not a Nietzschean affair — it is a Christ-one. He recognized the subjective value in life — that it is within man that God or Beauty live, that humanity is broader, that the element of understanding of man is greater than psychological and philosophical analysis — that the commonplace must be glorified, that fallacy in man must be recognized, that forgiveness, atonement and restitution are possible.

Make life seem a fairyland, but do not blind yourself to the truth that it will not always be that way. Let the music play out in its shadowy half-remembrance. If its intensity is gone forever, if the memory of a shadowy player will never again move you, it is partly because you choose not to listen. You are the master of your life, you have chosen earth to live in, you are composer of your life's melodies and discords. The song of this summer is one to which you play an undying, inevitably eternal accompaniment.

Who struck the opening chord of our life together, our life from this day on, I do not know. In it we have each had a part. Thus far, I have contributed dissonances, you, harmonies. Together, musicians have made of them immortal songs — perhaps we, too, may. We have agreed to go on fashioning the notes together. Remember, you have played a part in what is already a finished prelude. If your soul cannot sing now sometimes, and you can make only mournful notes, hopeless ones, fearful ones, fearing always that I will strike a discord — our life song will end in discord or it will cease before it is hardly begun.




James and Orpha have separated for the summer. She to Glens Falls to prepare for their September wedding; he to Long Island to get a job and build them a house.

*Cohoes: a town near Albany, south of Glens Falls.

**Tonsils and adenoids

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy (1922). James was carrying around this novel during their first spring together. It chronicles the ebbing social power of the commercial upper-middle class Forsyte family between 1886 and 1920. Galsworthy's narrative examines not only their fortunes but also the wider developments within society, particularly the changing position of women.

Randy is her younger brother.


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