The Beckett/Bushmiller Letters

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Fig. 1 A Bushmiller panel from the early 1950s. Did Beckett see it?

A country road. A tree. Evening. Are these the first six words of one of the most daring and original works ever written for the stage—or the description of a panel from the comic strip Nancy? For if we’re used to the appearances of Gogo and Didi on the page after those lines, we can just as easily picture the entrance of Nancy and Sluggo. The stylistic affinities between the writer of Waiting for Godot and the cartoonist who drew Nancy are as stark in their clarity as Ernie Bushmiller’s stripped-down depictions of Sluggo’s living room and Nancy’s suburban backyard or Samuel Beckett’s evocations of an emptied world in the “low mound” of Happy Days and the “bare interior” of Endgame. Similarly, the short, direct sentences uttered by Vladimir and Estragon, Hamm and Clov, Winnie and Willie, would fit without trouble into the word balloons that hover always over Nancy’s head, and point so unremittingly at Sluggo’s face.

What then are we to make of the trove of letters found recently among Ernie Bushmiller’s personal papers, as his estate was being cataloged for auction? That the successful syndicated cartoonist of an immensely popular daily comic strip known for its appeal to lowbrow readers and children was corresponding for some months in the 1950s with Samuel Beckett, the austere modernist poet who authored plays and novels still considered forbidding and impenetrable, can’t but strike us as unlikely. Certainly it seems strange. Yet a correspondence between the all-American cartoonist and the Irish-French Nobel laureate does exist. Their letters, exchanged between Bushmiller’s home in Stamford, Connecticut, and Beckett’s Paris flat in the rue des Favorites and his writing retreat at Ussy-sur-Marne over a four-month period in 1952 and 1953, shed unexpected light on the work of both men.

Beckett’s love of vaudeville-style clowns and silent movie comics is well known. Bushmiller, himself a gagman in the early ’30s for movie comedian Harold Lloyd, was a direct product of this tradition: His father was a vaudeville performer. So, too, was Buster Keaton’s. Keaton, it will be remembered, was chosen by Beckett to appear in the only film he ever wrote, which he called Film. Beckett often picked such titles: He wrote a play called Play; two silent one-acts were entitled Act Without Words I and Act Without Words II; he called a short monologue A Piece of Monologue. One historian of American cartooning has pointed out that the American Heritage Dictionary uses a Nancy cartoon to illustrate its definition of “comic strip.” Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Bushmiller’s creation being entitled simply Comic Strip, so basic and form-defining is it. Beckett and Bushmiller also use character names that could slide easily from the work of one into that of the other: Winnie, Fritzi, Rollo, Pozzo, Clov, Spike, Bim, Bam, Bom… who’s to say which appears in the plays and which in the funnies? Their startling uses of chiaroscuro are strikingly similar: Quotidian, monochrome worlds, suggested with an extreme minimalism, serve to cast the characters in unavoidable relief and trap them in frames their creators force them up against until they bend, break, and return inexorably to form.

Beckett and Bushmiller were born within nine months of each other (Bushmiller in 1905, Beckett in 1906) but their material circumstances couldn’t have been more different at the time these letters were written. Bushmiller was at the top of his profession. He had been a successful syndicated cartoonist for almost thirty years by 1952. Nancy appeared in about 500 US papers and appeared in translation in many others worldwide. Circulation of the strip was therefore somewhere around 40 million people. Beckett, it is assumed, read Nancy in English in the Paris-based international edition of the New York Herald Tribune. By 1952, Beckett had published a study of Proust, a collection of short stories, a volume of poems, one novel in English and two in French. Although the French novels Molloy and Malone Dies were beginning to receive attention from the Paris literati, none of the books had sold much. Beckett eked out a living as a translator of Mexican poetry. No play of his had yet been produced, although Waiting for Godot would receive its world premiere in January of 1953. Significantly, it is then that Beckett’s correspondence with Bushmiller breaks off.

Why did Samuel Beckett write to Ernie Bushmiller? Did he feel a sense of kinship with the cartoonist whose strip he read every day? Did he see in Bushmiller a man who quietly pursued his repetitive vocation day after day, no matter what? Did the Bushmiller characters strike a chord in the creator of Vladimir and Estragon? Did Beckett first formulate some of the innovations of his later plays while pondering situations for Nancy and Sluggo? We can never know if the inadvertent surrealistic antics of Bushmiller’s tykes influenced the translator of Eluard and Breton, or what first prompted the author of The Unnamable and Krapp’s Last Tape to begin sending strip ideas to a cartoonist in Connecticut. Was it Beckett’s frustration with his literary career, or the seemingly endless difficulties in mounting Godot that led him to seek another outlet, in yet another literary form, for his ideas and emotions? Whatever the reasons, we are lucky that much of the Beckett-Bushmiller correspondence has been preserved.

So far, there has been little interest in these letters in the vast academic field that devotes itself to Beckett. The Journal of Beckett Studies, the official organ of that trade, has remained silent. No university has expressed interest in acquiring the letters for its library, including the University of Reading, which houses the Beckett Archives and the Beckett International Foundation. The letters are currently held in Stamford, Connecticut, by a longtime neighbor and friend of Ernie Bushmiller and his wife. —ASH

 

A note on the text: What was presumably the first letter in the correspondence is missing. It is assumed to have been sent to Bushmiller from Paris via the New York Herald Tribune. Other gaps in the correspondence are noted in explanatory footnotes. Samuel Beckett’s letters have been edited following the stipulations of his Estate. It is their wish that only those portions of his letters relevant to his work be published. Material of a personal nature has therefore been omitted. These omissions are indicated by four ellipses and are explained in footnotes. The sketches, panels, and finished strips Bushmiller produced based on his correspondence with Beckett have not all survived; however, the ones reproduced here do not represent all those that have been found. Beckett’s letter of Jan. 2, 1953 is the last known in the correspondence.

 

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Fig. 2 A strip drawn by Bushmiller in response to Beckett’s first (missing) letter. (c.f. EB letter of Sept. 11, 1952; subsequent SB letter of Sept. 18, 1952.)

Stamford, Conn., USA
Sept. 11, 1952

Dear Sam,

Thanks for writing to me. It’s always nice to hear from someone who enjoys Nancy, especially someone from way over in Paris, France!

Thanks also for sending me your book Murphy. I’ve only read the first few pages, and I have to say—pretty funny! I like the setting of a “mew.” I have to admit—that one I had to look up! Good title, too. It reminded me of the kind of books the fellows in the art room were reading back in the Twenties when I worked for the New York World. Have you ever heard of James Joyce? I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to finish it—life gets pretty hectic when you have to churn out seven strips a week! But it’s right by the bed next to the new Thurber, and I noticed my wife Abby has been looking at it. She reads a lot more than I do—gets all the Reader’s Digest condensed books and gets over to the library here in Stamford a lot.

Your gag and strip ideas for Nancy are much appreciated, and I have to say interesting, too. Many readers send me ideas for the strip, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any quite like yours. I made some sketches and drew up a few panels because I was intrigued by them, but I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know how well they’re going to work.

I think the problem you’re having, Sam, is the same problem any literary man might have. You’re not setting up the gags visually and you’re rushing to the snapper. It seems to me you’ve got the zingers right there at the beginning, in panel no. 1, and although I have to admit you got Nancy and Sluggo in some crackerjack predicaments, I don’t know how they got there.

For instance, putting Nancy and Sluggo in the garbage cans is a good gag, but in my opinion you can’t have them in there for all three panels. How did they get there? Same thing when you had them buried in the sand. I like to do beach gags, but I don’t think that having Nancy buried up to her waist in the first two panels and then up to her neck in the third one is adequately explained, and I’ve been at this game for a while now. Also, why would Sluggo be facing in the opposite direction when he’s talking to her?

I like the nighttime setting of some of your other ideas, but it just doesn’t seem to me that you have Nancy and Sluggo doing enough. I also don’t think Fritzi would have a broken-down ice-box in her living room. In fact, I know she wouldn’t!

Anyway, I’m sending you the drawings I worked up. Let me know what you think. It’s back to the drawing board for me as I have still have two more strips to finish this week and a Sunday one, too.

Yours,
Ernie Bushmiller [handwritten]

 

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Fig. 3 The first panel of the “beach” strip drawn by Bushmiller, also in response to Beckett’s first letter. (c.f. EB letter of Sept. 11, 1952; SB letter of Sept. 18, 1952.)

 

Paris
18.9.52

Dear Ernie,

It was kind of you to reply to my letter, and regarding my ideas for Nancy here are some notes, depressingly inadequate.

I agree with you, the gags I presented are too elliptic. More action is called for. To that end I would suggest that with the ashbins, N and S exchange words only in the first two panels. The last would then have them lidded, N and S no longer visible. The idea is that there is nothing funnier than unhappiness. The rest is Gasoline Alley

With the mound I did not mean to suggest that it was a beach, with the sea and ships in background. Nothing but sky. I would add more props to these renderings. A different hat for S than his usual, perhaps of the variety called a boater. Not sure if it carries the same name in the States. Also for N, different props. A toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, blob of paste on brush? Fleshiness of N should be missed when she is up to neck in last panel. 

As for the nighttime scenes, would sleepwalking on part of N account for her presence? I take insomnia of S as given.

Perhaps I have the wrong idea about how these things should be done. You’ve done a very good job in spite of me. Simplicity and symmetry excellent, as always. 

Would you consider a strip featuring Fritzi only, and only her mouth visible? Difficult, but could work. Shall consider it more.

Salutations to Abby.

 

Ever
Sam 

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Fig. 4 Sketches (as opposed to finished panels) drawn by Bushmiller in response to Beckett’s letter of Sept. 18, 1952.

 

Stamford, Conn., USA

Oct. 2, 1952

Dear Sam,

It’s good to hear from you again, and I enjoy getting your ideas for the strip because they always surprise me. I’m glad we worked out some punchlines[1] and that you liked the strips I came up with. I don’t know exactly when they’ll run. United Feature has me write pretty far ahead. Sometimes they pass on a strip too, although that’s never happened to me. With these, I don’t know. They’re a little drier than usual, that’s for sure!

As for the new stuff you sent me, I like the one with Sluggo out in his junked-up yard looking through the telescope at night. That one I can work with. Sluggo carrying the door on his back, I don’t think he can have the door on his back for all four panels, but, true, Nancy wouldn’t help him with the door. She’d be telling him what to do all right!

Your idea with the book—I think two panels of Sluggo reading is good, then one panel where he’s thinking hard, then the snapper: he’s used the book to prop up a table with a broken leg! What do you think?

Thanks for the compliments regarding how I show the various characters lying down. I like to draw them lying down, but a whole strip where they’re lying down I don’t think would work. Only Sluggo can pull that off! You know I love to work in hoboes and tramps, and Sluggo is known for how he shirks and likes to knock-off, but Fritzi? You guys in Par-ee are way ahead of us in that department, if I read you correctly.

Abby is still reading Murphy. She got up to the part with the chess game and brought me in as she doesn’t know the game herself. I looked at it and explained it to her the best I could. Crazy stuff, Sam. Goofiest chess game ever, I’d say.

I don’t know if you get over to this side of the ocean too often, but if you do, Abby and I would love to meet you. The National Cartoonists Society is having its annual New Year’s wing-ding in New York again this year, and since I’m a founding member I can invite anyone I want. There’s nothing like New York on New Year’s Eve. That holiday can get some people down-in-the-mouth, but around these parts it’s always a blast. We’d love to have you. We guarantee a good time.

Yours,
Ernie Bushmiller [handwritten]

 

[1] Previous letters of both EB and SB appear to be missing. EB appears to have responded to SB’s letter of 18 Sept. 1954 with new drawings; SB evidently approved.

 

 

10.14.52

Paris

Dear Ernie,

Always impressive that you get the work out so efficiently. I have been slogging away at translations…. [1]

I’m touched by your invitation to celebrate the end of one and the beginning of another in New York. Travel to the States isn’t for me just now, and I’ve never been one for parties…. [2]

As to the strip ideas, it is important that S’s trousers fall all the way down while he peers through telescope. The dots were inspired but not enough. I don’t mean to quibble. The gag doesn’t work if S holds up pants. Pants mustn’t be half on. The snapper is that nothing is more grotesque than the tragic. I will spare you personal reasons why I’d rather not have this image modified, suffice to say that S doesn’t even realize they’re fallen. It is a funny story. Some other time.

Enclosed two pages of sketches that show what I have in mind as well as several new ideas, including some below. The proportions are all wrong but you’ll get the ideas. [3]

The book gag works well, as I hoped it would.

I noticed an exemplary strip of yours in the Herald Tribune two days ago involving N and a banana. Words absolutely unnecessary in this one, you made the right choice. I’ve always found a carrot funnier than a banana, but that may be the difference between the old world and the new.

Working on an idea that would put N and S in sacks. There they would start their day, brush teeth, do exercises, change from night clothes. Too much action now? Perhaps a Sunday strip. That way praying can be added.

Best regards to Abby.

Ever
Sam

 

[1] SB describes an advertisement he’s recently seen on the back of a popular American magazine, the title of which he cannot recall. It featured George Bernard Shaw, who’d been dead for two years, endorsing an American typewriter manufacturer, and it has angered and depressed him. He points out that “today people cannot find peace even in the grave,” but that, when it comes to writers being used to sell products posthumously, “here in France one feels safe from those terrible things.”

[2] SB relates an anecdote regarding a UNESCO-sponsored reception for North American journalists he once attended at the Mexican embassy in Paris. He attended it under duress and only because Alberto Giacometti pointed out that there would be an open bar. SB was cornered by a drunken American cartoonist named Jimmy Hatlo, illustrator of a one-panel strip called They’ll Do It Every Time, and is not eager to repeat the experience.

[3] Missing.

 

 

Stamford, Conn., USA
Nov. 2, 1952

Dear Sam,

Too bad you can’t make it over here for New Year’s, but remember, the invitation stands. New York’s the one place you can’t miss if you’re visiting America, I’ve always thought.

I have to say that some of the gags you come up with are a little depressing. They are simple, I will grant you that, but sometimes they don’t have that punchiness that I try to put in the strips, the kind you get right away and then it sends you zipping along. Do you know what I mean? Some of the stuff you come up with, I think it makes the reader linger, and that’s a sure fire way to lose readers. Nobody wants to get stuck on the funny pages. Let them get stuck in national news and the business pages and the editorials and the Help Wanted. They go over to the comics to forget all that stuff, not to get depressed. So I guess I don’t really know what you mean by “tragic,” is all I’m saying.

That reminds me, Abby finished Murphy the other night. When she closed the book I asked her what happened at the end, but I couldn’t make sense out of what she said. I was tired, anyway, and I was falling asleep, although I wouldn’t let on because if I did she just would’ve explained it all over.

I hope you like the new strips I’m sending along. I tried to work out some of your ideas. Let me know if you’re pleased.

Yours,
Ernie Bushmiller [handwritten]

 

 

Ussy
2.1.53


Dear Ernie,

The Annis Terribilis begins well. [1] A play I have written, called in French En Attendant Godot, opens in Paris in three days. It’s to be performed at the Théâtre de Babylone on the boulevard Raspail. About 200 seats but comfortable enough. I’m sure little in common with the Broadway that you and Abby are used to, but if you find that you’re going to be in Paris soon, let me know.

I brought the strips you sent two weeks ago here to Ussy with me. Many thanks for them. I agree, they do seem dark. Perhaps I led you astray somewhat. You are after all the father of Nancy and know what’s best for her, not me. Thanks for all the trouble you’ve taken as always. I’ll be looking at Nancy in the paper. Could it be that I’ll see something we’ve worked out?

I do have one idea for Fritzi that uses her presence at the side of the frame as sort of an interlocutor. I shall send you some notes depending on how the play goes.

Much love to you and Abby. Keep well.

Ever
Sam

 

[1] It appears that at least one letter from EB and one from SB are missing before this one from SB.

 

Illustrations by R. Sikoryak
This piece originally appeared in Hermenaut No. 15, 1999