11 Amazing Letters from Nobel Laureates
1. "Nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses."
Albert Einstein is arguably the most famous scientist of all time, and father of the world's most famous equation. For his work in theoreticel physics ("especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect," according to the committee), Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics. His contribution to modern science can hardly be overstated, but in 1954, in a handwritten letter to the Jewish philosopher Eric B. Gutkind, Einstein would discuss his views on something completely different. The so-called "God Letter," in which Einstein shares his opinion on religion, is currently on auction. Bidding is at 3 million dollars, and closes next week. An excerpt, as translated from German by Joan Stambaugh:
The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e; in our evaluations of human behavior. What separates us are only intellectual 'props' and 'rationalization' in Freud's language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
Yours, A. Einstein
2. "I count meeting your Teacher as one of the great experiences of my life."
Author and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces." Her most famous work, The Good Earth, was the best-selling novel in the U.S. in both 1931 and 1932, and won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for the Novel. One Wednesday in late October 1936, Buck sat down to write a letter to another inspiring well-known woman who had just lost her companion and teacher, Anne Sullivan.
Dear Helen Keller:
I am one of many thousands, I know, who are thinking of you today with especial affection and sympathy. I count meeting your Teacher as one of the great experiences of my life - one was instantly impressed with the sense of greatness in her presence. What a glorious life you and she made together! How much you both achieved for the world, and what immense strength you have given to us all! I know of no human source so full of inspiration to others as the story of your life with her.
Please, then, accept my deepest admiration, my faith in you that you are able, now, as you always have been, to live triumphantly. I know what this means to you - this parting - I know a little of what this must mean, rather- but I have no fears for you. And will you count me among your friends now more than ever, and if ever I can help you, let me know - I shall be so glad. And when you feel able, I should like to come and see you.
Please remember me kindly and warmly to dear Polly Thomson.
Pearl S. Buck
(Mrs. Richard J. Walsh)
480 Park. Ave.
New York City
3. "Their work has unintentionally caused our present dangers."
Bertrand Russell was one of the 20th century's greatest minds, but pinning him to just one field is a bit difficult. His work has influenced linguistics, mathematics, computer science, philosophy, logic, and more, and because of his strong campaign for nuclear disarmament and anti-war activism, he is also considered one of the century's foremost humanitarians. In 1950, the Swedish Academy gave him the Prize in Literature "in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought." (It was a nice compromise.) In the following letter to fellow Nobel laureate Albert Einstein, Russell proposed a joint effort against nuclear proliferation, which would eventually become the Russell-Einstein Manifesto:
5 April, 1955.
41, Queen's Road,
I have been turning over in my mind, and discussing with various people, the best steps for giving effect to the feeling against war among the great majority of men of science. I think the first step should be a statement by men of the highest eminence, communists and anti-Communists, Western and Eastern, about the disasters to be expected in a war. I enclose a draft of such a statement, and I very much hope that you will be willing to sign it. I enclose also a list of those whom I am asking to sign. If sufficient signatures are obtained, I think the next step should be an international scientific congress which should be invited by the signatories to pass a resolution on the lines of the draft resolution which I enclose. I hope that in this way both Governments and public opinion can be made aware of the seriousness of the situation.
On the whole, I have thought that it was better at this stage to approach only men of science and not men in other fields, such as Arnold Toynbee whom you mentioned. Scientists have, and feel that they have, a special responsibility, since their work has unintentionally caused our present dangers. Moreover, widening the field would make it very much more difficult to steer clear of politics.
(Signed, 'Bertrand Russell')
In response, Einstein was brief:
Dear Bertrand Russell,
Thank you for your letter of April 5. I am gladly willing to sign your excellent statement. I also agree with your choice of the prospective signers.
With kind regards,
This was the last letter he ever wrote. He died 13 days later on April 18. The official Manifesto was released July 9, 1955.
4. "If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you."
Winston Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values," making him the only British Prime Minister to receive the award. (In 1963, he would also become the first Honorary Citizen of the United States.) In July, 1915, long before any of this took place, a 40-year-old Churchill wrote a letter to his wife, Clementine, which was sealed and marked with instructions to deliver the note to her in the event of his death. He then reenlisted in the Army.
Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident & not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling one I have been happy, & you have taught me how noble a woman's heart can be. If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in life, cherish the children, guard my memory. God bless you.
25 years later, Churchill would be Prime Minister, and the letter long forgotten.
5. "Jesus it's marvellous to tell other people how to write."
Papa Hemingway picked up his Nobel for Literature in 1954, following a series of harrowing injuries and brushes with death. He opted out of traveling to Stockholm to receive his award, and instead sent a short speech along to be read in his absence. (You can listen to it here, as read by John C. Cabot, the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden.) Twenty years before, though, Hemingway was writing much longer missives, in this case to longtime friend and confidante, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Soon after publication of Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway to ask his opinion on the work. This was his reply, which is in turn critical and awash with invaluable advice for anyone who wants to write a book. (Note that the great Hemingway was a hit-or-misspeller, and had a little homonym confusion to boot.)
(Transcript courtesy of Letters of Note)
28 May 1934
I liked it and I didn't. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald (goddamn it Dos took it with him so I can't refer to it. So if I make any mistakes—). Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn't come from, changing them into other people and you can't do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can't make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.
That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best—make it all up—but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.
Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples' pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvellously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to—the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.
There were wonderful places and nobody else nor none of the boys can write a good one half as good reading as one that doesn't come out by you, but you cheated too damned much in this one. And you don't need to.
In the first place I've always claimed that you can't think. All right, we'll admit you can think. But say you couldn't think; then you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people's antecedants straight. Second place, a long time ago you stopped listening except to the answers to your own questions. You had good stuff in too that it didn't need. That's what dries a writer up (we all dry up. That's no insult to you in person) not listening. That is where it all comes from. Seeing, listening. You see well enough. But you stop listening.
It's a lot better than I say. But it's not as good as you can do.
You can study Clausewitz in the field and economics and psychology and nothing else will do you any bloody good once you are writing. We are like lousy damned acrobats but we make some mighty fine jumps, bo, and they have all these other acrobats that won't jump.
For Christ sake write and don't worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can't think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right.
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it—don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist—but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.
About this time I wouldn't blame you if you gave me a burst. Jesus it's marvellous to tell other people how to write, live, die etc.
I'd like to see you and talk about things with you sober. You were so damned stinking in N.Y. we didn't get anywhere. You see, Bo, you're not a tragic character. Neither am I. All we are is writers and what we should do is write. Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you. It's not as simple as that and I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her and you complicated it even more by being in love with her and, of course you're a rummy. But you're no more of a rummy than Joyce is and most good writers are. But Scott, good writers always come back. Always. You are twice as good now as you were at the time you think you were so marvellous. You know I never thought so much of Gatsby at the time. You can write twice as well now as you ever could. All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.
Go on and write.
Anyway I'm damned fond of you and I'd like to have a chance to talk sometimes. We had good times talking. Remember that guy we went out to see dying in Neuilly? He was down here this winter. Damned nice guy Canby Chambers. Saw a lot of Dos. He's in good shape now and he was plenty sick this time last year. How is Scotty and Zelda? Pauline sends her love. We're all fine. She's going up to Piggott for a couple of weeks with Patrick. Then bring Bumby back. We have a fine boat. Am going good on a very long story. Hard one to write.
Always your friend
[Written on envelope: What about The Sun also and the movies? Any chance? I dint put in about the good parts. You know how good they are. You're write about the book of stories. I wanted to hold it for more. That last one I had in Cosmopolitan would have made it.]
6. "I am shocked and griefstricken."
Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his efforts against racial inequality through nonviolent methods. He corresponded frequently with President John F. Kennedy, and revealed in his autobiography that he had voted for JFK in 1960, though he never issued a public endorsement. Immediately following news of Kennedy's assassination, King released the following brief letter of condolence.
If you're interested in reading the many letters and telegrams passed between the president and MLK, the King Center archives have released thousands of documents, including original speech and sermon notes.
7. "Bippity bippity bippity off into the bushes."
Theodore Roosevelt is almost always described with strong adjectives: Exuberant, vigorous, outspoken, abrupt. But you don't often hear about his softer side, especially with his favorite son, Quentin. Two years before he would win the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, he was doodling rabbits and writing letters like this one to 6-year-old "Quenty-Quee."
Many of Teddy's letters were collected in Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to His Children, published in 1919. He was the first of only three U.S. Presidents to be awarded the Peace Prize while still in office, along with Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama.
8. "He is unable to accept your kind invitation."
After Frances Crick and James Watson published the double-helix model of DNA in 1953, and especially after sharing the 1962 Nobel in Medicine (along with Maurice Wilkins) for their discoveries, the men found themselves bombarded with requests. Crick, ever the scientist, drew up these handy form response cards, which he sent to almost everyone who wrote to him through the 1960s. The options "are a faithful reflection" of the most-received requests.
9. "One of the greatest enemies of the human race."
Linus Pauling is the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes, which he received in 1954 for Chemistry and 1962 for Peace. As one of the founders of quantum chemistry and molecular biology, a staunch activist who was "against all warfare as a means of solving international conflicts," it's unsurprising that, just months before the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pauling wrote a strongly-worded letter to President Kennedy about nuclear weapons testing:
1 March 1962 Night Letters Durham, NC
President John F. Kennedy, White House:
Are you going to give an order that will cause you to go down in history as one of the most immoral men of all time and one of the greatest enemies of the human race? In a letter to the New York Times, I state that nuclear tests duplicating the Soviet 1961 tests would seriously damage over 20 million unborn children, including those caused to have gross physical or mental defect and also the still births and embryonic, neonatal and childhood deaths from the radioactive fission products and carbon 14. Are you going to be guilty of this monstrous immorality, matching that of the Soviet leaders, for the political purpose of increasing the still imposing lead of the United States over the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons technology?
(Signed) Linus Pauling
To Dr. Jerome Wiesner, Mr. McGeorge Bundy, Dr. Glenn Seaborg
I have sent the following telegram to President Kennedy. (quote it). Linus Pauling
10. "It is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me."
In 1943, Alfred Hitchcock approached John Steinbeck about writing a screenplay for him. Steinbeck was delighted, having just returned home from war with shrapnel wounds and eager, as always, to be working on something. He churned out the first draft of Lifeboat, handed it over to Hitchcock and team, and began working on his next project. But when the film was ready in January 1944, Steinbeck was less than pleased with the changes made to his work. His letter to 20th Century Fox says it best:
January 10, 1944
I have just seen the film Lifeboat, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and billed as written by me. While in many ways the film is excellent there are one or two complaints I would like to make. While it is certainly true that I wrote a script for Lifeboat, it is not true that in that script as in the film there were any slurs against organized labor nor was there a stock comedy Negro. On the contrary there was an intelligent and thoughtful seaman who knew realistically what he was about. And instead of the usual colored travesty of the half comic and half pathetic Negro there was a Negro of dignity, purpose and personality. Since this film occurs over my name, it is painful to me that these strange, sly obliquities should be ascribed to me.
A month later, Steinbeck wrote to his agent, requesting that his name be removed entirely from the film's credits. His request was ignored.
11. "Long may the Grand Master live."
Letters of Note
He wasn't a winner, but he did found the Nobel Prizes, so Alfred deserves a little nod in the list. Here's the translation of a note he sent by telegram to Victor Hugo in 1885, in honor of the author's 85th birthday:
Long may the Grand Master live, to charm the world and spread his ideas of universal charity.