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Lillian Smith Studies: "Letter to Mr. Hartley"

Dr. Seuss to Wesley S. Hartley

Sidney Kingsley to Wesley S. Hartley

Introduction

Lillian Smith "Letter to Mr. Hartley" appeared posthumously as “Bridges to Other People” in the September 1969 issue of Redbook. Wesley S. Hartley was a high school creative writing teacher in California from the late 1950s to early 1960s and later taught in Nevada. He wrote to multiple writers, asking them about formal education for creative writers. He sent queries to various authors over the years including Allen Tate, Katherine Anne Porter, Amiri Baraka, Dr. Seuss, and more.

In her response, Smith comments on the role of high school education before moving into details about her post-secondary education. She comments on her college education at Piedmont and Peabody Conservatory, speaking specifically about some of her instructors. She then chronicled her time in China and her time as the director of Laurel Falls Camps. Smith stresses the importance of the arts, in all their forms, and the importance of the connections we make between one another through education.       

Possible Activities

  1. Do  a quick Google search for authors that Mr. Hartley wrote to. Type in “Wesley Hartley California creative writing” and see the letters that appear. Choose and research one of the authors Hartley wrote to. Construct a presentation on the author and present it to your class. 
  2. Imagine that Mr. Hartley wrote a letter to you asking what type of education a creative writer needs to be successful. Write a reply to Mr. Hartley in response to his query.
  3. Mr. Hartley wrote queries about education to multiple authors. Choose one of your favorite artists (musician, writer, actor, etc.) and write a letter to that artist asking them questions about education. You can even share on social media, email, or snail mail the letter and the artist may reply. 

Lillian Smith on Collaboration between Reader and Writer

Questions

  1. When the piece appeared in Redbook it was “Bridges to Other People.” Why do you feel that this is an effective title or not for Smith’s response?
  2. Bridges are an ongoing symbol throughout Smith’s work and her reply to Mr. Hartley. What types of bridges does Smith see as the most effective for connecting people to one another? What types of bridges would you consider to be the most effective?  
  3. Smith writes, “But I learned more from the campers themselves because I tried not to put barriers between me and them and we talked together about everything.” For Smith, learning is not top down; instead, it’s a two-way connection. What are the benefits of this approach to learning and teaching? How can you incorporate this approach into your own learning experiences? 
  4. According to Smith, “education is a private matter between the person and the world of knowledge and experience and has only a little to do with school or college. . . . It all depends on what one does with one’s mind outside the classroom.” What does Smith mean when she says “education is a private matter”? How do you navigate the private and public world of your own education? How do you motivate yourself to learn?
  5. Smith ends her reply to Mr. Hartley by stating that once someone stops learning she will die. When does learning stop? What does learning actually entail? How can you ensure that you are continually learning?