Belles lettres

Amid the tectonic shift of the e-mail era, a loving memorial to a species of writing nearly extinct

(Jack Molloy)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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Sir Thomas Gresham’s famous law warned that cheap money drives out expensive (“bad’’ and “good’’ was how he put it). Nowadays you could apply it to e-mail, whose ubiquitous ease threatens to do away with letter writing.

So “Yours Ever,’’ a survey of letters and letter writers, most over the past 200 years, memorializes a precious and dwindling species, one that almost uniquely arrests time’s oblivion. Art is long, life short, the saying goes; but these letters, written by the famous and a few of the obscure, sustain over the centuries an enduring present tense. Not “I was,’’ but “I am.’’

Thomas Mallon’s book is a successor, 25 years later, to “A Book of One’s Own,’’ a spirited exploration of diaries. That one, Mallon acknowledges in his introduction, may have been feistier - “antic,’’ is his word - but then so was he. He is less brash now, he implies, and perhaps less incautious.

Indeed, for the reader “Yours Ever’’ seems a bit less lively. Some 100 letter writers crowd into nearly 340 pages, each with a scene-setting background and Mallon’s comments; at times it seems like a series of snippets. William Faulkner, for instance, gets a couple of not particularly memorable pages selected only from his early years.

But Mallon, drawing largely from published collections, burrows shrewdly and to rewarding effect. Furthermore he can be a memorably witty commentator.

The writers are so various that their arrangement by themes is cheerfully conceded to be of the loosest. This reader’s own arrangings are even looser. One is to suggest that the letters of professional wits - Groucho Marx, S.J. Perelman, Alexander Woollcott - tend to be little more than performances. Memorable letters strike inwards.

Some, though ostensibly for instruction, do more. Madame de Sévigné’s mix of news and advice to her daughter movingly reveals a mother’s anguish over her child’s exposure to a merciless 18th century society. F. Scott Fitzgerald writes his daughter Scottie a catalogue of warnings. But Mallon quotes Malcolm Cowley: Consumed by alcohol and a sense of failure, Scottie’s father “wasn’t writing those letters to his daughter at Vassar; he was writing them to himself at Princeton.’’

A few lines from V.S. Naipaul reveal the coldness of a coldly brilliant writer. Telling his parents of his prospective and eventually long-suffering wife, he describes her as “not unintelligent, nor altogether unattractive.’’ His sister and his clone in chill had previously advised him: “best to marry the person who is mad after you - almost worships you - than marry one you love.’’

A drier misanthropy is reflected in the poet Philip Larkin, who memorably describes his face as an egg wearing goggles. Larkin wrested astonishing lyrics out of a sourness he clung to as if it was life’s breath. “Crimped and crabbed and complainingly pinched into shoes he refused to change, he disapproved of most everything,’’ Mallon comments with something more than wit.

Quite opposite is Keats’s overflowing exuberance. A city boy, he marvels at the Lake District mountains. A sense of the absurd livens the passion; describing a fat lady managing to struggle to a peak, he notes that she had servants to help “but then she had herself.’’ Mallon remarks the lilt that ran through Keats’s sorrows. “No matter how hard circumstances press, the bedsprings of his self are available for falling back on; the harder his fall, the more cheerful their squeak.’’

From Milton he gets the purest example of the letter writer’s excuse for not communicating sooner: telling a friend that to write is to remind himself of the painful miles that lie between them.

The long correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt is a record of mutual intellectual support and revelation. Arendt, Mary writes, is someone she can actually watch think. Arendt praises the security she draws from Paris, as if she feels that somewhere in every street, thinking has taken place. “Like a house . . . the whole city really is, with many, many rooms; but you feel never exposed, you are always ‘housed,’ protected, an entirely different spatial feeling from all other big cities I know.’’

Pretty much everyone who should be there is there: Byron, Lincoln, Charles Lamb, Henry Adams, Lord Chesterfield, and on, and on. Virginia Woolf, supreme letter writer, is absent; Mallon, overwhelmed no doubt, notes the great quantity of comment she has received in recent years. Recovering, he deals handily with Franklin Delano Roosevelt whose letter style was offhandedly patrician (Dewey is a “little man,’’ Congress, “silly’’), as if the presidency were a gentlemanly avocation, a kind of yacht.

Some of the most remarkable letters are written by Wei Jingsheng, an imprisoned Chinese dissident. He addresses the hierarchy as if gently mocking both them and himself. To Deng Xiaoping:

“You are at the top of a billion people and I am at the very bottom - but life isn’t easy for either of us. It’s just that I am not the one making your life difficult, while you’re the one making it hard for me.’’

No yacht for Wei. Something more: a skiff, buoyantly unsinkable in crashing seas.

Richard Eder writes reviews for several publications.

YOURS EVER: People and Their Letters
By Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95

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