Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Writers at work

This photo of Goethe's study in Weimar, from about 1929, with its dramatic shadows, has a vaguely Last Year at Marienbad look about it.  One can see that Goethe was assisted in his immense productivity by the lack of any distractions -- no books, no art work in the room, unlike in this painting by Evan Jordan entitled simply "Writer at Work in His Study." Aside from the fireplace, it reminds me of my own working environment, especially the great numbers of books that one will never get around to reading.

Goethe was also assisted in his work by the quiet, unassuming presence of various "Schreiber" (stenographers). He discovered in Frankfurt already that he didn't like to write himself, that he preferred to dictate, and he also used the services of others to carry out the wearying work of copying manuscripts. Philipp Seidel, who had been Cornelia's teacher, functioned as a copyist for Goethe's father, a lawyer, and then for the young Goethe himself. He accompanied Goethe when the latter moved to Weimar and remained his most trusted servant, indeed confidant, until 1788. Aside from Carl August, Philipp Seidel was the only person in Weimar privy to Goethe's journey to Italy in 1786. On Goethe's return to Weimar, Christiana Vulpius replaced Seidel in more ways than one. In the following years Goethe's relationship with his stenographers and copyists was strictly professional, but he often assisted them in their social and professional advancement.

Here are some more writers' studies and even writers at work, beginning with one of my favorites, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Very neat, but here one sees the various accoutrements that seem to be essential to the working environment of modern writers. In STW's case, the music manuscript on the wall indicates her musicological pursuits. In 1917 she joined a committee that collected Tudor church music from all over England, eventually published in ten volumes. Many of her early short stories take place in villages to which she traveled in her collecting work. Lots of eccentric English characters and rural sights in them.

Edith Wharton looks as if she is attending to her social correspondence. 
And, then, there was Jane Austen. Could it be any better than this? Have we done any better with computers, with the possibility of endless revising and printing?

Photo credits: Julian Littlewood (Goethe's study); Yale University Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library (Edith Wharton); The Guardian (Jane Austen) 

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