University of Delaware Library

Special Collections Department

Alfred Chester Letters to Curtis Harnack

1951 - 1958

Manuscript Collection Number: 285
Accessioned: Purchase 1992.
Extent: 1 box, 31 items.
Content: Letters
Access: The collection is open for research.
Processed: September 1993, Kelly Baum

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Table of Contents

Biographical Note

Alfred Chester was born on September 7, 1928 in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a family of Jewish-Russian immigrants. He received his B.A. at New York University in 1949 and completed some graduate study at Columbia University. In 1951, he left for Paris as other bohemian expatriates had done before him, most notably, Gertrude Stein.

While living in Paris he began his career as a serious writer, composing such works as the collection of short stories, Here Be Dragons (1955) and his first novel, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire (1956). During this time, Chester also met and began a relationship with an Israeli pianist, Arthur, with whom he lived in Paris and, for a short time, in New York City. While in Paris, Chester befriended other literary figures, such as Susan Sontag, James Baldwin, and Princess Marguerite Caetani. As well, the years he spent in Paris, 1951-1958, are the time period in which he composed the letters to Curtis Harnack contained in this collection.

Upon returning to New York City in 1959, Chester enjoyed considerable success and fame throughout the 1960's, and was very much a part of the avant-garde literary scene. He continued to write essays and criticism for various magazines, and also published the works Behold Goliath (1964), The Exquisite Corpse (1967), and Head of a Sad Angel (1953-1966). During this time, however, Chester was afflicted with deteriorating health and psychological instability, and was as well a serious drug user and alcoholic. In 1963, he sailed to Morocco on the advice of his friend Paul Bowles, and this marked the beginning of a series of erratic travels all over the world. On August 2, 1971, in Israel, Alfred Chester died in obscurity; by this time, he had become alienated from most of his friends and the literary circles of New York.


Chester, Alfred. Head of a Sad Angel. Edited by Edward Field. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1990.

Ozick, Cynthia. "Alfred Chester's Wig." The New Yorker (March 30, 1992): 79-98.

Scope and Content Note

The Alfred Chester collection consists of 31 letters written by Chester to his friend Curtis Harnack, during the years 1951 to 1959, the period spanning his stay in Paris. Harnack, born in 1927, was also an author, and lived and worked in New York City and Iowa during this time. Chester, Harnack, and Hortense Calisher, Harnack's future wife, met while studying at Columbia University.

The letters provide great insight into the life of Alfred Chester and into the pieces he was composing while in Paris, especially Here Be Dragons (1955) and Jamie Is My Heart's Desire (1956). The letters chronicle Chester's many frustrations with writing and getting published; they also contain preliminary ideas and descriptions of his work. Because he was also a part of the avant-garde literary scene in Paris, his letters characterize various aspects of life in the bohemian circles and its members. Concentrated in the letters of 1951, Chester writes extensively on his relationship with the Israeli pianist.

The letters provide only a small amount of information on Chester's correspondent, Curtis Harnack. There is some mention of Harnack's marriage in the 1950's and also on his own problems with publishers and artistic inspiration.

Contents List

Folder -- Contents

     Letters, Alfred Chester to Curtis Harnack, 1951 - 1958

F1   1951, 11 items
     1951  Jan 15
           Jan 24
           Feb 9
           Mar 5
           Apr 3
           Apr 19
           May 11
           Jun 5
           Jun 25
           Sep 1
F2   1952-1954, 8 items
     1952  Jan 14
           Feb 1
           Mar 15
           Apr 5
           Aug ?
     1953  Jan 7
           Apr 27
     1954  Oct 14-15

F3   1955-1958, 12 items
     1955  Mar 16
           May 11
           Jun 30
           Jul 27
           Oct 12
           Nov 15
     1956  Sep 14
     1957  Jan 5
           May 5
     1958  Mar 21
           May 12
     (One undated letter)

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