Feb/Mar 2010

Letter Heads

The art of correspondence from Keats to Burroughs

Adam Kirsch


Thomas Mallon's Yours Ever: People and Their Letters is not the history of letter writing its subtitle seems to promise. Instead, it is an amiable, very readable collection of brief essays about dozens of correspondents, almost all of whom were not just "people" but professional writers. Mark Twain and Colette, Bruno Schulz and Virginia Woolf, William Burroughs and H. L. Mencken: These are not individuals you would want at the same dinner party, but they would all grudgingly admit to belonging to the same guild. Even most of the statesmen Mallon discusses—Lincoln, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Churchill—considered themselves men of letters. In other words, all the correspondences considered here can be found at the library (the book can be read as an extended advertisement for its bibliography), and almost all were written with at least one eye on publication. "Better save my letters," Burroughs instructed Allen Ginsberg, "maybe we can get out a book of them later on when I have a rep."

This focus makes Yours Ever more entertaining than it would have been had Mallon trawled through the epistles of ordinary people. But it also allows the book, and the reader, to lose sight of the democratic nature of letter writing. For most literate people through most of history, the letter was the only kind of expressive writing they would ever attempt, and thus their closest encounter with the problems of communication and representation implicit in all writing. Those problems are especially acute in letters, which, more than poems and much more than novels, aspire to authenticity; they are meant to be not just literary performances but emissaries of the self. The real function of the love letter, for instance, is phatic: Simply by making the effort to write it, the lover offers proof of his devotion. Chekhov, confined by sickness in the Crimea, wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, and Mallon observes that this "correspondence is one of its own principal subjects. Endless complaint is made about the other's not writing." "You're not angry with me and haven't stopped loving me? Anton, you haven't changed?" Olga demands.

Perhaps this is why love letters—one of nine epistolary species, including "complaint," "advice," and "prison," to which Mallon devotes chapters—are, ironically, harder for professional writers than for "people." One of the few nonliterary figures whose voices we hear in Yours Ever is Sullivan Ballou, the Union soldier whose last letter home was made famous by Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. "But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights . . . always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheeks, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by." It sounds uncannily like Walt Whitman promising to haunt the reader in Leaves of Grass: "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you."

Ballou's poetic language was meant to testify to his exceptional passion, and no doubt that is how his wife read it. For an actual poet, however, the poetic is the realm of artificiality, of what Thomas Mann called the "not quite," as in not quite sincere, not quite spontaneous. In writing to a lover, therefore, the novelist or poet will probably err on the side of plainness, as though the surrender of her magic powers will prove that her emotion is no trick. Keats is one of the very best letter writers, but his love letters are formulaic, as Mallon notes: "Writing to Fanny herself, this great epistolary philosopher will settle for the dull boilerplate of ecstatic love ('I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form')." Of course, no one knew better how to express it, but if he had written to her about "The moving waters at their priestlike task / Of pure ablution round earth's human shores," Keats would have felt, even if Fanny did not suspect, that he was writing not to her but to posterity.

Indeed, the more lavishly inventive a love letter is, the less likely we are to believe it genuine. One of the lesser-known writers Mallon discusses is Mariana Alcoforado, a seventeenth-century Portuguese nun who fell in love with a French soldier, the chevalier de Chamilly. After Chamilly went back to France, she wrote him five exceedingly eloquent letters, setting out her passion and pain: "Your last letter reduced [my heart] to a peculiar state: its pounding was so extreme it made, so it seemed, efforts to leave my body and go find you; I was so overcome by all these violent emotions that I remained abandoned by my senses for more than three hours; I stopped myself from returning to a life I must lose since I cannot keep it for you; at last, despite myself, I saw light." If this peroration, with its baroque poetic tropes, sounds "too good to be true," as Mallon says, that's because it is: "Most scholars believe that Mariana may have existed but that her letters were actually the creation of . . . the comte de Guilleragues, who would have known enough about Chamilly's Portuguese escapade to fabricate the letters, which he published in 1669." It makes sense that Rousseau was devoted to these letters, and some of Mariana surely went into Julie, his "nouvelle Héloïse," whose epistolary style in turn influenced the writing of real love letters across Europe.

Mariana's letters are unusual in having been written by someone else, but they are also typical, in the sense that all letters present an invented self. George Bernard Shaw, to take a supreme example, "had only one style, onstage and off," Mallon writes. "At my age—a driveller—a dotard!" he rants to his Platonic lover, the actress Mrs. Campbell. "I will conquer this weakness, or trade in it and write plays about it." Jessica Mitford, whose entire family spent their lives playing themselves in print and in person, keeps up the indolent aristocratic banter to the very end. "Bob—It's so ODD to be dying, so I must just jot a few thoughts," she wrote to her husband on her deathbed. "You'll need someone [to remarry]—I mean you've got all those household skills, cooking etc., pity to waste don't you agree?"

It follows that Mallon's taste in letters is as personal as his, or anyone's, taste in literature, and the reader may disagree with his judgments. His style is brisk and journalistic—some sections are clearly adapted from Mallon's reviews of published books of letters—and he naturally favors letter writers who, like Mitford, display "fine gusto." Mencken falls into this bright and worldly category, as does, strangely enough, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who addresses the grand duchess of Luxembourg as "Dear Lottie" and advises his ambassador to Italy, "Watch out for that tummy!"

Melancholics and the self-pitying, on the other hand, irritate Mallon to no end. His section on Philip Larkin, whose letters he grudgingly describes as "appallingly entertaining," is so out of sympathy with both the poet and the man as to miss his power entirely. "In his letters, [Larkin] often acts the filthy, disagreeable little boy," Mallon writes, and this is quite true, but it misses the suffering and self-contempt that Larkin's letters, as well as his poems, both reveal and conceal. James Agee is a lesser writer than Larkin, but he, too, deserves better than Mallon's description: "a paunchy, anguished Peter Pan, unable to stop singing in an adolescent tremolo."

Mallon's approach prevents him from making more than occasional forays into the deeper issues his subtitle raises. Looming over the whole book, of course, is the question of whether the letter itself is a dead genre, killed by the telephone and e-mail. "If you've bought or borrowed this book," he writes in the introduction, "I'm guessing you're the sort of person who deplores the absence of salutations and polite closings in electronic correspondence." In this sort of genteel, slightly snobbish nostalgia for the letter, we hear an echo of the stronger ambivalence that Walter Benjamin taught us to feel toward the age of mechanical reproduction. For the handwritten letter was the most democratic bearer of "aura," of the sacredness of personhood; and e-mail, by sacrificing aura for speed and ease, is yet another instance of the way in which technology is dematerializing, if not desecrating, the self. At the very least, we can be sure that no one does with an e-mail what the painter Russell Cheney did with a letter from his lover, the critic F. O. Matthiessen: "Couldn't read the letter, but there it was in my pocket, and I'd slip my hand in and hold it, and a couple of times I'd hold it against my cheek, the sense of being with you strong."

Adam Kirsch is the author most recently of Benjamin Disraeli (Schocken, 2008).

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