Letters & lunches: About Ursula

A Portland gathering dedicates a new stamp in honor of the late, great writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Here's what one of her best friends had to say.

Ursula K. Le Guin at the Oregon Coast, from the Arwen Curry film, “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), the great Portland writer whose essays, poetry, and speculative fiction presciently addressed cultural, political, and environmental issues as they helped transform and broaden the borders of literature, has been honored by the issuing of a new, 95-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp. A Postal Service day-of-issue event on Tuesday in the sculpture garden of the Portland Art Museum commemorated Le Guin’s life and introduced the stamp. Among the speakers was one of Le Guin’s oldest and closest friends, Portland writer and dance critic Martha Ullman West, whose own book, Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, was published in May 2021. Here are Martha’s comments from Tuesday’s celebration.

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URSULA LE GUIN WAS A WOMAN OF LETTERS, in every sense of the phrase. Via the postal service and e-mail, for nearly six decades, we exchanged words on the page and on the screen, sometimes at great length, often briefly. We made lunch dates, and we broke them.  We wrote about our families, our work, current events, and our cats. We sent each other poems, and recipes, and jokes.  Ursula sometimes illustrated her letters with line drawings (“The catless manuscript is not worth writing,” she once said on a postcard, the words written in feline form. I had complained that my cat had sat on a page of manuscript I was trying to edit by hand. )

And we wrote about who and what we were reading: Toni Morrison, Mary Shelley, James Baldwin, Isadora Duncan, Louisa May Alcott, Vonda McIntyre, Molly Gloss, Carolyn Kizer, Sylvia Plath, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, and yes, other people’s mail, as in the letters of Virginia Woolf and William Butler Yeats.

One day, probably in 1969, we had arranged to meet on the steps of the downtown library before walking over to the Diamond Head Café for lunch.  Ursula didn’t drive a car, and I had pledged to take her home after our cheeseburgers, root beer floats, and straw-paper shooting contest. (Yes, we did that, she taught me how, and she always won.)  That day, Ursula emerged from the library door carrying a huge stack of books.  I glanced at the titles as I relieved her of part of the burden.  All of them were about the psychology of sleep, of dreams, of unconscious and semi-conscious behavior.  She was doing the research for The Lathe of Heaven, published fifty years ago.

The U.S. Post Office’s new stamp honoring Le Guin, with a background scene from her 1969 novel “The Left Hand of Darkness.”

Lathe, of course, is about a lot more than that: the Green House effect is mentioned on page six, in connection with the view of Mt. Hood from Portland.  Go on line and you will see it reviewed as an early predictor of climate change, but not as a novel about the abuse of power, a theme that runs through I’d venture to say the bulk of Ursula’s fiction, certainly The Left Hand of Darkness, published two years earlier.   Nor do I see humor mentioned, odd, since when I recently reread Lathe, I found myself laughing out loud. Ursula was a seer with a sense of humor, and how! We learn in school, some of us anyway, that the devil is in the details.  In Ursula’s work, in just about all of it, from poems, to essays, to novels, to children’s books, to letters to friends, the humor is in them, too. And in conversation: I once told Ursula that she was a role model for me.  “Oh?” she said, giving me that sly, sidewise look.  “What kind of roll? Parker House?”

She was a great, groundbreaking, genre-bending American literary artist, and I am grateful to the postal service for acknowledging her place in our culture with this lovely stamp.

About the author

Martha Ullman West began her checkered career as an arts writer in New York in 1960. She has been covering dancing in Portland and elsewhere since 1979 for many publications, including The Oregonian, Ballet Review, the New York Times, and Dance Magazine, where she is a Senior Advisory Editor. She is a past-co-chair of the Dance Critics Association, from which she received the Senior Critics Award in 2011. Her book Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet was published in 2021 by the University Press of Florida.

4 Responses.

  1. Angie Jabine says:

    A lovely and illuminating tribute, Martha! Why can’t our friends and “roll” models live forever?

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    Thank you Angie, and I would like to add that Ursula’s granddaughter, India Downes-Le Guin’s tribute really said it all about the importance and the beauty of a strong grandmother-granddaughter relationship, sustained by letters at that. And said it all with eloquence, humor, and yes, tears. There were things all the speakers mentioned, incidentally, cats being one of them, Ursula’s phenomenal ability as novelist, poet, and essayist another. I spent an hour or so last night rereading the posthumously published Conversations on Writing, edited interviews with her by KBOO’s David Naimon (she did the editing). I cannot recommend this collection highly enough.\

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