Empson: Telling it like it is

On 24 August 1945 Empson writes to George Orwell about Animal Farm. I really like this letter because it gives us some insight into the editing process of Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution. I personally like to read letters like this because it reminds me that even the best writers need criticism and need to edit. I think it would be really interesting to see the draft Orwell gave to Empson and then see the changes he made based on Empson’s feedback. While reading Empson’s letters I came to appreciate his straight talk, no matter whom he is writing to.  In his letter to Orwell his feedback was direct and to the point. Later in a letter to T.S. Eliot (17 May 1948) Empson is writing to explain a letter he previously wrote which Eliot considered to be “the most insulting letter which I have ever received” (pg. 159)


I am myself a very incompetent man at this kind of thing, and people are always telling me that I am making a muddle, and that my efforts are doing more harm than good. It never crosses my mind to that this is a mortal insult, and that all relations must be broken off for it. I do hope most earnestly that you are not taking this kind of attitude; I never though you were that kind of man at all; it would be a most painful discovery […] it is very bad for a great writer to refuse to be treated like other people […] I am only trying to point out that there are two very clear-cut alternatives. Either I was accusing you of an underhand trick or I was simply complaining that you had let things get into a muddle (pg. 161).


I like that even though he is writing to T.S. Eliot, he is still going to call him out on his temper tantrum and self-righteousness, but he does leave T.S. Eliot a chance to show some humility.


On 05 May 1962 again shows his “tell it like it is” attitude in a letter to Christopher Ricks, “It is extremely kind of you to send me this horrible book [David Holbrook, LLareggub Revisted: Dylan Thomas and the state of modern poetry (1962)] after I had forgotten to ask you for it; I have tried to finish it quickly.


While I was reading these letters I really appreciated Empson’s honesty and straightforwardness because it doesn’t pander to inflated egos. Empson doesn’t take up the whole of his letters trying to figure out the most delicate way to deliver criticism. That being said, through a semester’s worth of reading letters by famous authors I have learned that who you know can be really important, which is unfortunate for Empson, because I can imagine his style didn’t always win him friends.


Source-Empson, William, and John Haffenden. Selected Letters of William Empson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2006. Print.



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