Brenda Ueland --
her writing, her legacy and her place in the world
A new struggle is fast approaching in the ongoing drama of Linden Hills real estate development
-- this one has an added wrinkle --
2620 44th Street once belonged to famed and beloved Linden Hills writer Brenda Ueland.
If you don't know who Brenda was, or what place she holds in the pantheon of writers (not just Minnesota writers), I invite you to spend a minute -- or an hour, or three -- perusing these links I'm providing below...
Along the right margin, you will find links to a short anthology of Brenda's work, published by Eric Utne. You'll find letters-by-writers in support of preserving Brenda's cottage, just steps from Lake Harriet where she used to walk. You'll see a link to Strib Columnist (and Linden HIlls resident) Gail Rosenblum's superb article from last Friday. And you will also read a letter to the Minneapolis City Council from Brenda herself -- written years ago, in support of protecting a different 44th street cottage from demolition...
On the left -- please read my own "abridged" anthology of Brenda's writing. Enjoy!
from Beauty Will Save the World
My father came from Norway to Minneapolis when he was 17, dug the Washington Avenue sewer, and became a lawyer when he was 26. My mother was born in Ohio during the Civil War among Abolitionists rescuing runaway slaves. She went to high school in Minneapolis and although very poor, she had great beauty and style. After high school she taught Sixth Grade; and years later, one of her pupils told me: “I was never bright until I was in your mother’s class, and I have been bright ever since.”
My parents were political idealists, feminists, democrats. They wanted their children to be light-hearted and athletic, to live outdoors and eat oranges and apples. My mother thought the girls should not be the menials of the boys, and so the boys made their own beds and the girls were on the football team in the pasture. She thought that if mothers were what they should be, surrounding their children with every freedom and happiness and cheerful intelligence, we would have the Millennium in one generation.
Now my wonderful parents raised us in the Unitarian Church. Did Unitarianism add to our grandeur and wisdom? I think it did. We grew up more lighthearted and untrammeled than Orthodox children, overawed and inculcated with guilt (Original Sin). The hopeless naughtiness of that—always having to drag Original Sin
around! I think we were just as benign and good as the others, perhaps more so— more original, easier laughter, allowed to even have a little engaging rascality.
And my parents were generous to all religions—all of us poor humans groping in the darkness toward Eternity. The only thing wrong about Orthodoxy, they thought, was the grimness, the fraidy-catism, the self-righteous conceit, always trying to discipline others. My mother and my brother Torvald were having a little religious conversation and he said, “Is God a bird?”
This shows that there was not much religious alarm in the family.
An interesting thing is that entirely unadmonished I became religious myself, quite cheerfully and naturally so. And whenever great men and women reveal in their lives and works their souls—Tolstoy, Blake, Carlyle, Bach, Michelangelo, Mozart, St. Joan, St. Catherine of Sienna—there expands in me a kind of light and
recognition. I seem to see farther into the mysterious gloom—perhaps not so gloomy after all.
Excerpted from Brenda's 1981 speech to the First Unitarian Society of Mpls
“He Whose Face Gives No Light Shall Never Become a Star”
Why urge everybody to write when the world is so full of writers, and there are oceans of printed matter?
Well, all of it does not amount to very much and little is worth remembering. Every two or three years a book comes out and everyone likes it very much and praises it and says it is a true work of art. And for these books I am grateful. But here could be a great deal more living literature, that really talks to people and
does not just kill time for them.
And what is a little book or two, when there is so much greatness in the world hidden all around us? These good things that appear in print seem so meager, so slight, so publisher-touted, in this country of a hundred million people. Now one or two little books—making an impression for two years, forgotten utterly in five—
that is not enough, when you think what there might be, what might come out of people.
But if (as I wish) everybody writes and respects and loves writing, then we would have a nation of intelligent, eager, impassioned readers; and generous and grateful ones, not mere critical, logy, sedentary passengers, observers of writing, whose attitude is: “All right: entertain me now.” Then we would all talk to each other in our writing with excitement and passionate interest, like free men and brothers, and like the people in paradise, whom Dostoevsky described in a story: “not only in their songs but in all their lives they seemed to do nothing but admire each other.” The result: some great, great national literature.
And this is all that I have to say. To sum up—if you want to write:
Know that you have talent, are original and have something important to say. Know that it is good to work. Work with love and think of liking it when you do it. It is easy and interesting. It is a privilege. There is nothing hard about it but your anxious vanity and fear of failure.
Write freely, recklessly, in first drafts.
And why should you do all these things? Why should we all use our creative power and write or paint or play music, or whatever it tells us to do? Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it.
And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and to express it, i.e., share it with others? And so I really believe this book will hasten the Millennium by two or three hundred years. And if it has given you the impulse to write one small story, then I am pleased.
Excerpted from the book If You Want to Write, first published in 1938 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
ALSO NOTE: (from Mr. Utne's Letter to the Neighborhood)
"Developers are seeking permission from the City of Minneapolis Zoning & Planning Committee to demolish Brenda Ueland’s house at 2620 West 44th Street...
"Although the City of Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) recently voted to deny the demolition permit for Brenda’s house, the developer has appealed...
"We have been told that HPC recommendations are often overturned by Zoning & Planning and by the City Council.
"The developer's appeal will be heard on March 16 at 9:30 a.m. at the Zoning & Planning Committee meeting, which is a public hearing. Following that meeting the committee will make a recommendation to the full City Council. According to Hanauer it’s vital that advocates for the preservation of Brenda’s house be at the Z&P meeting on March 16, (Room 317, City Hall, 350 South 5th Street)."
“A group of men want to build a parking ramp at 2621 West 44th Street. This is across the street from my house… Now first I want to tell you about our street, West 44th Street. It comes down a hill from the endearing and comforting Divine Science Church, (now Lake Harriet Community Church). But then it wanders and bends somewhat. I mean it is not a straight crashing highway where cars zoom and rush to get straight downtown. It bends and charmingly and gently leads into Lake Harriet… We love our street and everybody who lives on it, and we will not have it uglified… Not all of our houses are expensive or in the least pretentious, but we are fond of all of them and especially of the people who live in them who are ALL grandly first-rate enough to see and care about the beauty of the place they live in. And about Lake Harriet, as perfect as a legend in a fairy tale!”
--Brenda Ueland, 2620 West 44th Street, Linden Hills
Patricia Hampl writes: "I am not automatically in favor of preservation projects, and often see the wisdom of change...
I have lived my entire life in St Paul, and have seen the city of my childhood destroy places—perhaps most tragically, Interstate 94 decimated the Rondo neighborhood, a sin (what else to call it?) we still can’t properly atone for. I have seen—and live in—a neighborhood that was on the verge of ruin (the Cathedral Hill), but was brought back over patient decades, so that today, I frequently find high school students snapping selfies on my front steps on Laurel Avenue. Why? Because it turns out F Scott Fitzgerald’s grandmother lived in this rowhouse.... These students are not visiting the house where Fitzgerald wrote anything, but rather where he visited his granny. These students—and the teachers who send them on these field trips—understand that structures of habitation, of personal residence, carry resonance and meaning. They inspire.
In the case of Brenda Ueland’s 2620 West 44th this is much more so. click here for more
Eric Utne - Letter to the Neighborhood:
Your urgent attention is needed--the Linden Hills neighborhood is under threat. Developers are seeking permission from the City of Minneapolis Zoning & Planning Committee to demolish Brenda Ueland’s house at 2620 West 44th Street. They also plan to tear down the houses on either side of it, as well as some of the last remaining shade trees on the street, and to build up to 40 luxury condominiums in their place. click here for more.
Brenda Ueland immortalized Lake Harriet in her writing. She is one of the great walker-writers in a tradition that includes Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alfred Kazin and Vivian Gornick—writers who construct a philosophy for living and capture the world as they move through it on foot. Lake Harriet sustained Brenda Ueland in body and mind. I live far from the lake now, but when I read Brenda Ueland, I am right back home:
"This noon I went around Lake Harriet and two miles farther. It is more than 18 below zero. But I am warm. I wear as always my burglar suit, and under it two layers of wool underwear, and two layers of truck driver’s mittens under horsehide, a Norwegian cap with a visor. I am warm in this cold, though the air is a sword in the lungs. It is very beautiful. The sun is a blare of gold in the pure blue sky and everything is so still, golden, pallidly golden. No one is out except an occasional snow plow or milk truck. The drivers stare at me, smiling through their closed-in glass cabs. Two dogs come out barking at me, but overjoyed to have a human being out and walking, and they frolic around me, their joy overcoming their hostility and their barking indignation."
Tell Me More: On the Fine Art of Listening
I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is. And how we forget it. And how we don’t listen to our children, or those we love. And least of all—which is so important too—to those we do not love. But we should. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. Think how the
friends that really listen to us are the ones we move toward, and we want to sit in their radius as though it did us good, like ultraviolet rays.
This is the reason: When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life. You know how if a person laughs at your jokes you become funnier and funnier, and if he does not, every tiny little joke in you weazens up and dies. Well, that is the principle of it. It
makes people happy and free when they are listened to. And if you are a listener, it is the secret of having a good time in society (because everybody around you becomes lively and interesting), of comforting people, of doing them good.
It is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising way.
I discovered all this about three years ago, and truly it made a revolutionary change in my life. Before that, when I went to a party I would think anxiously: “Now try hard. Be lively. Say bright things. Talk. Don’t let down.” And when tired, I would have to drink a lot of coffee to keep this up.
Now before going to a party, I just tell myself to listen with affection to anyone who talks to me, to be in their shoes when they talk; to try to know them without my mind pressing against theirs, or arguing or changing the subject. No. My attitude is: “Tell me more. This person is showing me his soul. It is a little dry and meager and full of grinding talk just now, but presently he will begin to think, not just automatically to talk. He will show his true self. Then he will be wonderfully alive.”
When I have this listening power, people crowd around and their heads keep turning to me as though irresistibly pulled. It is not because people are conceited and want to show off that they are drawn to me, the listener. It is because by listening I have started up their creative fountain. I do them good. Now why does it do them good? I have a kind of mystical notion about this. I think it is only by expressing all that is inside that purer and purer streams come. It is so in writing. You are taught in school to put down on paper only the bright things. Wrong. Pour out the dull things on paper too—you can tear them up afterward—for only then do the bright ones come. If you hold back the dull things, you are certain to hold back what is clear and beautiful and true and lively. So it is
with people who have not been listened to in the right way—with affection and a kind of jolly excitement. Their creative fountain has been blocked. Only superficial talk comes out—what is prissy or gushing or merely nervous. No one has called out of them, by wonderful listening, what is true and alive.
And click here for:
a 40-page compilation of Brenda's writing that opens with this:
If You Want to Write begins, “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say…” and Brenda believed it. When the book came out an incredulous Saturday Review of Literature reviewer attacked Brenda’s idea that most people should write. “Let the mediocre stick to reading,” he advised. Don’t offer “false hopes to the untalented.” Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and biographer Carl Sandberg thought otherwise. He called If You Want to Write “the best book ever written about how to write.” (As of this writing the book has sold more than 300,000 copies since 1987, with a devoted following.)
The next year G.P. Putnam’s Sons published Me, the story of the first half of Brenda’s self-described “very unconventional life.” In an edition re-issued in 1993, memoirist Patricia Hampl wrote that Brenda was a true “rule-breaking woman,”
and that Me was her “masterpiece.”
In the 1940s Brenda wrote a column for the Minneapolis Times, and in 1945 received Norway’s highest honor, the Knights of St. Olaf medal, for her coverage of Vidkun Quisling’s trial and her relief work after World War II. She
corresponded with, and was admired by, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Upton Sinclair, Robert Penn Warren, and Carl Sandburg, among
During the last three decades of her life Brenda lived in a two-story stucco house near Lake Harriet, a lovely, spring-fed urban lake whose forested public shoreline held park-like trails. She walked the lake twice a day, “Once for the body
and once for the soul.”
Brenda’s true love was life itself.
“While you are alive, be alive!” was one of her favorite maxims.
Brenda Ueland -- was True and Alive.
And she lived for 31 years in that cottage by Lake Harriet.