Monday November 30th, 2009

All Hail Snail Mail

Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95

“Mail is very eventful to me,” Flannery O’Connor once said. It’s easy to imagine why the isolation enforced by her physical condition made O’Connor particularly glad to receive letters, but all of us have known the pregnant thrill of waiting for the postman. Or even of logging into an account. More than one friend of mine has recently noted, with some sadness, the decline in non-work-related e-mail. That’s right, we’re already nostalgic for e-mail. Text messages and Twitter and all the increasingly ruthless forms of purposely constrictive communication make me pine for the days when friends sent ruminative e-pistles at two in the morning, many of which I printed, making a fairly large stack worth keeping for the long term. But as Thomas Mallon reminds us in Yours Ever, his charming, wandering tour of letters from and to the famous and obscure, even the forms we consider ancient were once greeted with suspicion:

Those of us with a strong inclination toward the past must remember that, to its early writers, the handwritten or even chiseled letter must itself have seemed a marvel of modernity, and surely, even in Queen Atossa’s time, there were those who complained that letter writing — by its nature a “virtual” activity — was cutting down on all the face time that civilized Persians had previously enjoyed.

Twenty-five years ago, Mallon published A Book of One’s Own, about personal diaries throughout history, and Yours Ever is its overdue companion. (The first sentence of his introduction: “It embarrasses me to admit that I began writing this book when a first-class stamp cost twenty-nine cents.”) His method in both volumes could be called the erudite mosaic, and it’s refreshingly out of step with the times. John Freeman’s recently published The Tyranny of E-mail hews closer to nonfiction’s current polemical mood, if it’s a mood you share, but Mallon is content to mosey through his material, offering sharp, not necessarily connected thoughts only when the time is right. There isn’t a thesis in sight. Along with this structure (or general lack thereof), it shares with the earlier book about diaries a compulsive planting of seeds for further reading. Mallon writes that Yours Ever “bows down to its bibliography, [and] presents itself as a kind of long cover letter to the cornucopia of titles listed back there.”

The book is divided along broad chapter headings like “Absence,” “Love,” and “Confession,” and Mallon admits that “there is nothing very categorical about the categories.” Early on, filed under “Absence,” we find Madame de Sévigné in a “perpetually clever orbit” around Louis XIV’s court, sending twenty years of gossip-filled letters to her married daughter in Provence. Mallon notes that, like Samuel Pepys in his diary, de Sévigné “made what is supposedly literature’s supporting material into a finished product.”

There aren’t many notable people whose voices don’t live on in a few letters or a bevy of them. F. Scott Fitzgerald and E. M. Forster, Proust and Dickens, Churchill and FDR. They’re all here, along with dozens of others, many of them far less famous, each of their stories efficiently stitched together with patches of letters over the course of two to five pages. We see the flinty parenting of Fitzgerald (“less like advice from a father to a daughter than loud slaps to the face of a drunk one is walking to keep awake”) and the “ordinary vulnerability” of William (“Billy” in his sign-offs) Faulkner: “There he is,” Mallon writes, “during and after the First World War, up in Connecticut and New York and Canada, telling his parents all that’s happening, but writing letters mostly to receive them, as the homesick have always done.” We find that the energy of an exchange can benefit from tension, like that between the good-natured George Sand (“Je t’aime — that’s how all my dissertations end”) and the crabby Flaubert (“[I’m] choking on gall”); Bruno Schulz (for whom “melancholy is an omnipotent scourge”) and the “several artistic women who offer [him] appreciation and aid”; or the nurturing-then-rivalrous relationship of Freud and Jung.

Given the deeply personal nature of much correspondence, heartbreak is plentiful. Keats was buried, per his wishes, with an unopened letter from Fanny Brawne, a woman of fluctuating affections whose “whole heart” had eluded him during life. Before taking her life, Virginia Woolf wrote a devastating letter to her husband, Leonard, which was composed, Mallon remarks, “in the kind of simple declarative sentences she’d practically banished from the English novel”:

I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time . . . I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And I know you will. You see I can’t even write this properly.

If there’s fault to be found in Yours Ever, it may be in Mallon’s reluctance to excerpt letters at great length. The project wouldn’t have nearly the same off-center appeal if it were simply a compilation of entire letters, but it would have been nice to get more of writers at something close to full gallop, more instances like the Woolf excerpt or Flannery O’Connor’s statement of purpose to Shirley Abbott in 1956:

It is popular to believe that in order to see clearly one must believe nothing. This may work well enough if you are observing cells under a microscope. It will not work if you are writing fiction. For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing. I don’t write to bring anybody a message, as you know yourself that this is not the purpose of the novelist; but the message I find in the life I see is a moral message.

Mallon is never less than a pleasurable guide, but he is understandably at his very best with the best material, like the “bleakly exhilarating” letters of Philip Larkin. (“I am quite unable to do anything in the evenings — the notion of expressing sentiments in shorts lines having similar sounds at their ends seems as remote as mangoes on the moon.”) Mallon writes of the poet, “He craved sooty windows the way others do bright lights.”

For all of its nostalgic conjuring of envelopes and stamps and patience, Yours Ever ultimately proves that expression can be artfully composed no matter its guises or guidelines. When Jessica Mitford sent cable addresses while traveling at sea, she signed off as “ELKSHATRACK” — a friend had told her, “You need news from home like an elk needs a hat rack.” Can there be any doubt that today she would be The telegraph was a forerunner to today’s quip-based communication. When General George McClellan sent Abraham Lincoln a message complaining about his tired horses, Lincoln responded: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?” If Honest Abe had sent that riposte on Twitter, he would have had 20 characters to spare.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

P.S. If you’re interested in composing the all-time best postscript, you will have to clear the dauntingly high bar set by Teddy Roosevelt: “P.S. — I have just killed a bear.”

Mentioned in this review:

Yours Ever
A Book of One’s Own
The Tyranny of E-mail