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Selected Letters

Selected Letters

Charles Olson
Edited by Ralph Maud
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 532
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  • Book Info
    Selected Letters
    Book Description:

    For Charles Olson, letters were not only a daily means of communication with friends but were at the same time a vehicle for exploratory thought. In fact, many of Olson's finest works, includingProjective Verseand theMaximus Poems,were formulated as letters. Olson's letters are important to an understanding of his definition of the postmodern, and through the play of mind exhibited here we recognize him as one of the vital thinkers of the twentieth century. In this volume, edited and annotated by Ralph Maud, we see Olson at the height of his powers and also at his most human. Nearly 200 letters, selected from a known 3,000, demonstrate the wide range of Olson's interests and the depth of his concern for the future. Maud includes letters to friends and loved ones, job and grant applications, letters of recommendation, and Black Mountain College business letters, as well as correspondence illuminating Olson's poetics. As we read through the letters, which span the years from 1931, when Olson was an undergraduate, to his death in 1970, a fascinating portrait of this complex poet and thinker emerges.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91800-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxii)

    Charles Olson believed in letter writing. It was honest communication. He believed in it as a true political act that might create a polis, if anything could. It was a means of establishing polity, of registering what he believed the postmodern (as he defined it) should give us: a sense of belonging. For Olson letter writing was an everyday thing; it made the world more of a home.

    TheMaximuspoems were, he always insisted, literally letters. The model available to him was Maximus of Tyre, a philosopher of the second century A.D., who traveled to centers of learning and...

  4. Library Sources for the Charles Olson Letters in This Volume
    (pp. xxiii-xxvi)
  5. A Chronology of Charles Olson’s Life and Correspondence
    (pp. xxvii-xl)
  6. Letters

    • I
      (pp. 1-18)

      The first letter was written in June 1931, at the end of Olson’s third year at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He graduated the following year and stayed on to complete an M.A. on Melville in June 1933. His first teaching job, from 1934 through 1936, was at Clark University, in his home town of Worcester, Massachusetts.

      Olson’s father, Charles (formerly Karl) Joseph Olson, had come from Sweden as a babe in arms. Olson’s mother, Mary Theresa Olson (née Hines), was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Annually from the age of five, Olson spent summers with his mother in the...

    • II
      (pp. 19-38)

      Olson’s work on Melville’s reading attracted the attention of F.O. Matthiessen, who brought Olson to Harvard University in the fall of 1936 for graduate work in English and American literature. In his subsequent years at Harvard, 1937–1939, Olson joined the newly created American Civilization program and completed coursework for a Ph.D. He was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for 1939–1940, spending the year in Gloucester writing a book on Melville.

      Having met in May 1940, the twenty-one-year-old Constance Wilcock, his wife-to-be, Olson decided he must look for a job, and he obtained short-term employment in New York City.


    • III
      (pp. 39-78)

      Olson’s time at the Office of War Information ended in 1944, when he devoted himself to Roosevelt’s election campaign as a paid member of the Democratic Party staff. He and Connie then went to the Democrats’ winter headquarters in Key West, Florida. Roosevelt’s death in April 1945 put any thoughts of a political career out of his mind, and he and Connie returned to their small house in Washington, D.C. Olson, now a committed writer, finishedCall Me Ishmaelby the end of 1945 and started publishing poems.

      Visits to Ezra Pound at St. Elizabeths hospital dominated 1946. Olson got...

    • IV
      (pp. 79-128)

      Olson came into his own with the publication ofy & x,the first copies of which arrived from Caresse Crosby’s Black Sun Press in October 1948. Five Olson poems were printed alongside five drawings by the Italian painter Corrado Cagli, a special friend. Otherfriends—Frances Boldereff and Robert Creeley—strengthened him at this time with daily correspondence.

      Olson also established himself as an extraordinary teacher with visits at Black Mountain College beginning in October 1948.

      He was released by the death of his mother in December 1950 to make a journey with Connie to the Yucatan in Mexico.


    • V
      (pp. 129-214)

      In January 1951 Olson and Connie began their vacation in Mexico. Yucatan became a vantage point for seeing what the modern world lacked and what would be needed for a postmodern future. That it has a great deal to do with mythology and the archaic is evidenced inMayan Letters(edited by Robert Creeley from the many letters he received from Mexico) and in the “Human Universe” essay, which was written there.

      While in Mexico Olson kept in touch with those he valued at Black Mountain College. He returned to teach full time in July 1951 and began organizing his...

    • VI
      (pp. 215-248)

      The years of change were 1954 to 1957. The Washington house was no longer available to the Olsons. The Olsons were no longer—after fits and starts of breaking up—a couple. Olson was made rector of Black Mountain College, but it was a last-ditch battle against the college’s decline. These were heroic years for those who remained: Robert Creeley for a time, Robert Duncan for a time, Wesley Huss till the end. BMC closed officially in October 1956. Olson then spent six months alone at Black Mountain with his new wife and son, winding up the affairs of the...

    • VII
      (pp. 249-294)

      Olson rented rooms in 28 Fort Square, Gloucester, in August 1957. He still had to return to Black Mountain one more time to deal with loose ends, but the move back home to Gloucester was accomplished. He and Betty would raise their son, Charles Peter, in the fishing town of Olson’s own boyhood.

      Then there was the history of Gloucester to absorb him. And theMaximuspoems, now of epic proportions. By the time he looked up, it was 1963. He had been in hibernation for six years.

      TheMaximuspoems began in May 1950 as letters from Olson in...

    • VIII
      (pp. 295-310)

      Olson accepted a 1963 summer school job at the University of British Columbia, where Warren Tallman and Robert Creeley had for a year been preparing the way for not only Olson but also Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and a host of student poets.

      The news that Olson was actually teaching again reached Albert Cook, the new chair of the English department at the State University of New York, Buffalo, who persuaded Olson on the telephone to come for a semester. Olson, although he occasionally may have denied it, entered enthusiastically into Buffalo academic life and stayed,...

    • IX
      (pp. 311-378)

      There came a personal tragedy. Olson’s beloved wife, Betty, was killed in an automobile accident at the end of March 1964. Olson could do nothing for a month. Creeley visited on 24 April. Jack Clarke came for a job interview at the university on 1 May. Then there was apparently a complete breakdown, and Olson was in the hospital during May. He had recovered by 1 June, and only then do we see him begin again with something like the previous attention to correspondence.

      In a radical departure from custom, in the summer of 1965 Olson moved into the world...

    • X
      (pp. 379-412)

      The great hostess and patron Panna Grady was instrumental in getting Olson to England, finally, in November 1966, and Klaus Reichert organized a visit to Berlin in December. Olson’s longstanding wish to research the Weymouth Port Books for information about the founding fathers of Gloucester took him to Dorchester, Dorset, for five weeks in February and March 1967. He was no sooner back in the United States than he went off again to participate in the International Poetry Festival in London on 12 July 1967.

      This was enough. But he was coaxed out again for lectures and readings at Cortland,...

    • XI
      (pp. 413-432)

      The last year of Olson’s life contained dire premonitions that were not entirely submerged in the enthusiasms of the moment.

      Olson was under no illusion about his health, but he chose to leave Gloucester and visit Charles Boer at the University of Connecticut. This was on 26 September 1969. Early in October he made a quick trip back to Gloucester to get books needed for the teaching he had embarked upon at the university.

      His cancer overcame him on 1 December 1969, and he was admitted to a local hospital. Having been moved to an intensive care unit in New...

  7. Bibliography
    (pp. 433-448)
  8. Annotated Index
    (pp. 449-493)