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Gems from the Stacks (November 1999)

Writer Nancy Hale (1908-1988) donated her own papers and those of her family to the Sophia Smith Collection beginning in 1960. The following exchange is from Hale's correspondence with William Maxwell, her good friend and editor at the New Yorker which published many of Hale's stories from the 1930s through the 1960s. These excerpts are about her story "Georgetown Nights" which appeared in the New Yorker on September 19, 1942. Gus Lobrano was an editor at New Yorker and Harold Ober was Hale's literary agent.

--Maida Goodwin

Nancy Hale, 1930s. Photographer unknown.

W.M. to N.H.
....The negro story is wonderful, and has Mr. L[obrano] caught in a very fancy dilemma from whch he ought to extract himself by the end of the week. Didn't you know it was good?...

N.H. to W.M.
No, I didn't know that (Georgetown) was a good story and furthermore I don't yet. WHY did you like it? It gives me a funny startled feeling as if I were all backwards. You--although you are probably quite different from what you have come to represent to me on pieces of yellow paper--are a kind of artistic conscience to me and I would have said, I guess I did think, that you would have disliked that story or at least thought it the things I thought it, bald, unlighted. I rewrote it and saw it was the best I could do with the episode and the general belief that there are good and bad people and that's all--not black and white or hook-nosed or whatever. But I certainly was surprised....

W.M. to N.H.
Lobrano and I edited the Georgetown story last Friday afternoon. I was starting for the five-forty-five and put my head in the door and saw by his face that he was in trouble, so we went at it. Both of us enjoy editing together. It's like playing duets. We only do it when there is something complicated and first rate, and usually we end in a rapture of satisfaction with the writer, ourselves, and life in general. You produce the most overwhelming affect when read sentence by sentence. That panic beginning "She shut the door on the night" is something. I've decided that you're the greatest living writer, or would be, if you only had a little more sense.

But why did you stop at the top of the last page? The idea was there and carried the piece to its proper conclusion, but the writing was dead and hell and all to edit. It isn't as if you couldn't take the final jump high, wide, and handsome. I've seen you do it too many times. Actually, it's as if the phone rang, and you had to come back after fifteen minutes, and do the ending calmly, in cold blood. Did it?...

N.H. to W.M.
....Why am I not sensible? I'm awefully stupid but that generally passes as sensibleness. How am I not sensible? PLEASE REPLY PROMPTLY....

W.M. to N.H.
...I should be caught dead telling you why you aren't sensible when it makes a fine and useful club to hold over your unknowing head. But if you should ever sometime catch yourself repeating something Ober has said, for example, about your work, and wondering whether just because he's somebody who isn't you that he might just possibly be right--then at that moment you'll know, if you should also happen to remember, what I mean when I say you aren't sensible. It's metaphysical, and has something to do with the soul's completeness....

N.H. to W.M.
I'm sending the proof back and I rewrote the last page, but I don't know if it's any better. Not a lot different. I attended to the queries....

I STILL don't see why you like the story any. I thought maybe it would seem better when I read proof. But I think it's bare and uninteresting. Sort of a dull little story about dull little people. There's nothing galumptious about any of it....

Do you mean by my not being sensible that I ought to be more self-assured?

W.M. to N.H.
...Part of the rewrite of the last pg helped, part didn't. But you were right not to strain it....

But I see now I am going to rue the day I said you weren't sensible. Can we change it? Can I say you have a hair lip? More self-assured as an artist, and because you are an artist. Being self-assured as a person depends on the attitude of friends, husbands, children, neighbors, the mail-man, the cleaning woman, the whole social conspiracy. It's possible, or should be, to feel unloved, unwanted, unbeautiful, and uneasy, at the same time as you know you're the lamb of God. As indeed you are Miss Nancy Hale. Nobody can do what you can....

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 © 2005 Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063 Page last updated on Wednesday, 11 December 2013