Magazine February 22, 2010, Issue

Men of Letters

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

Dubious legend has it that the world’s first letter was written by Queen Atossa of Per­sia, daughter of Cyrus the Great, in the sixth century B.C. We do know that the ancient Greeks had foot runners, the Romans had couriers, and early Europe had messengers, but it was all strictly government business — like the coded order to impale England’s Edward II on a red-hot poker written by a bishop in league with the queen’s lover. Things did not get personal until Louis XI of France formed a regular royal message service, which grew into private carriers for the rich. England followed suit, inadvertently giving us the 15th-century version of ASAP: the “Haste, Post, Haste” directive that customers wrote on the back of their missives, which entered the language as “post-haste.”

Government-run mail service for all got its start in 17th-century England. The recipient paid the postage, thus spurring the sender to write interesting letters if he wanted them accepted and read. In the main, it worked: These early letters tended to be much more vivid and spontaneous than they later became in the 19th century, when they took on the characteristics of the lumbering Victorian mail coach, weighted down with self-conscious flourishes such as “Yrs. of the 15th inst. to hand” and “Ever yr. obd’t serv’t.” The price of a stamp has included the right to drone ever since.

In 1840 the penny post was instituted and envelopes replaced sealing wax, but England’s greatest boon to the epistolary art was the corner mailbox, invented by one of her most popular and prolific novelists, who managed to write one book after another without ever quitting his day job. Anthony Trollope worked for 30 years as inspector of the Royal Mail, which may be why the plots of his novels so often turn on trenchant letters.

This endlessly delightful book is the work of novelist Thomas Mallon (Dewey Defeats Truman), whose own sideline, as it were, is examining the literary subgenres found along the by-ways of writing. He studied diaries in A Book of One’s Own, plagiarism in Stolen Words, and now in Yours Ever he makes reading other people’s mail as much fun as we always suspected it would be.

The chapters are arranged according to epistolary categories, from Love Letters to Letters to the Editor. The first quotable letters are, not surprisingly, from the pen of the woman who transformed letter-writing from a safeguard to back up deeds and wills to an art form in its own right. Ma­dame de Sévigné was an A-list guest at the Versailles of Louis XIV, one of those people who “knows everybody.” She is the original source of the famous story that foodies and people who make fun of the French both love to tell: the chef who committed suicide when . . . something happened. No, his soufflé did not fall, and no, he did not shoot himself, and yes, Mme de Sévigné gets his name right: “The fish had not come and Vatel, the great Vatel . . . was unable to face the humiliation he saw about to overwhelm him and, in a word, stabbed himself.”

Most of her letters were written to her daughter and manifest the good-cop–bad-cop technique of mothers that hasn’t changed a bit since the 1670s. Moreover, says Mallon, she could turn into the ancien régime version of a Jewish mother, as when she advised her daughter to “look after your eyes — as to mine, you know they must be used up in your service.”

Mallon pulls off a veritable miracle when he analyzes the correspondence of Franklin D. Roosevelt without a single mention of the Lucy Mercer letters. FDR’s own letters were marked by an “aristo­cratic serenity” and the carefree enthu­siasm of a country gentleman prone to a lingering prep-school spirit. He was “thrilled!”; everything was “grand!”; he was “tickled to death!” He leaned as heavily on the exclamation mark as Lincoln did on the question mark, enlisting punctuation in the cause of optimism even when he played the “seigneurial scold” and told people to “buck up!”

This is the FDR we know, but Mallon goes further and comes up with a fresh analysis that is stunning in its shrewdness. Given FDR’s patrician background, the only people who could awe him were European royalty. He went out of his way to help several of them during WWII, even having the princess of Norway as a guest in the White House. He did this, says Mallon, as a kind of escape from his own image: “With the monarchs of Europe he could now play knight chevalier, and after years of noblesse oblige toward destitute Americans, his fealty must have been a relief.”

Nobel laureates in literature do not necessarily write good letters, and Mallon does not pull his punches in singling them out. William Faulkner wrote letters mostly to receive them, “as the homesick have always done. . . . A reader amasses enough evidence — as if performing what the legal profession charmingly calls ‘discovery’ — to make a case for Faulkner’s callowness and ordinary vulnerability. [He is] a figure out of Booth Tarkington with the humor and style of a young boy.” Furthermore, his penmanship was terrible.

#page#If you have ever felt guilty for finding Ralph Waldo Emerson boring, you may now lift up your head and sing. Mallon doesn’t like him either. Emerson’s letters come off as “self-deprecating, oxymoronic, philosophical flummery . . . a great self-loving clang . . . too many pages of yearning and abstraction and sky-high-mindedness” that make us crave “the hard and plain and clear.”

Among the worst correspondents is the controversial writer who is ever involved in threats and lawsuits. Henry Miller, purveyor of literary sex and effluvia in Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, was volatile, bumptious, bullying, likely to blow up over any letter’s contents. Ren­dered paranoid by the constant criticism that he wrote “dirty” and the calls for censorship that followed him everywhere, he developed a predictable epistolary technique: “Miller would have been impos­sible with e-mail, which has made the telegram’s instant high dudgeon affordable to all. One imagines him hitting the Send key, retracting and re-releasing sentiments with the same dosage of overstatement used in their initial dispatch. At least, in his low-tech day, he could cool down while rummaging for a stamp.”

How does Mallon rate conservatives as letter writers? Political soulmates do not usually make epistolary soulmates, particularly when one is the master and the other the neophyte, because mutual admiration is not very satisfying to later readers. In the correspondence between Whittaker Chambers and Ralph de Toledano, “a sonorous morbidity dominates both sides of the exchange, each man outdoing the other with fortissimo chords.” Their letters are consistently self-conscious and strained, “a fraternal echo chamber of high regard and darkest despair” that would make the average conservative reader yearn for “the jut of Barry Goldwater’s jaw or the goofy grace of Ronald Reagan’s smile.”

Beatniks with a private income are likely to come across as schizophrenic. William Burroughs was a charter member of the Beat Generation but he was also the scion of the adding-machine family, and trust funds, like murder, will out. Furious when Louisiana law ruled that he could not evict his tenants without removing the property from the rental market, he wrote his Boswell, Allen Ginsberg, “We are bogged down in this octopus of bureaucratic socialism.” He also called liberals “vindictive, mean, and petty,” and took a dig at Jack Kerouac worthy of H. L. Mencken. Hearing the plans for the cross-country car trip that would become the basis for Kerouac’s On the Road, he said, “For sheer compulsive pointlessness [it] compares favorably with the mass migration of the Mayans.”

Unfortunately, murder, like trust funds, will out also. In a letter to Ginsberg he describes the drunken game of William Tell that he and his wife were playing the night she died. He had a gun and she had a glass on her head, and the next thing he knew . . . In his letter he rejects Freudian theories about unconscious intent on his part and instead blames his wife’s death on her “bullet-seeking brain.” Then he tells Ginsberg: “Better save my letters, maybe we can get a book out of them later on when I have a rep.”

It is easy to tell who Mallon’s favorite letter writers are, and he makes his case in just three pages. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West were lesbians blessed with two of the most supportive husbands in history, literary or otherwise. Virginia, an upper-middle-class aesthete, was an intellectual novelist and co-owner, with her husband, Leonard, of the Hogarth Press. Vita, an aristocrat whose highly popular commercial novels accounted for most of Hogarth’s profits, was married to Sir Harold Nicolson, who saw no reason that his own homosexuality and that of his wife should interfere with the duty and pleasure of building a solid English fam­ily life.

Nor did it. Vita’s sexuality was a force to be reckoned with, as the patrons of Parisian sapphic nightclubs could attest. Virginia attested to it in a masterly use of erotic indirection when she described Vita as “all fire and legs and beautiful plunging ways like a young horse.” Mallon attests that Vita “swept over the land like some fifth season, harvesting sensations as soon as the earth could thrust them up.” But she also swept over the land in her wellies, slogging through mud with her son’s Boy Scout troop on jolly weekends in the country. She could go from denizen of a den of iniquity to den mother without missing a beat. She always kept her head, and always found a sensible way to cope, as she proves in a wonderfully evocative sentence in a letter written while on a stuffy Russian train: “I have smashed the windows with a corkscrew, and a thin shrill pencil of frozen air rushes in re­viving us.”

Given our present cultural collapse, we owe a debt of gratitude to these women, and Mallon evidently feels the same way: “Love was never allowed to overwhelm work, marriage, or self-protection,” he concludes. “Sense always triumphed over sensibility, so much so that there is a kind of erotic rationality to their correspondence. Not the least sexy thing about these lovers is that they never ran away with one another.”

There are many, many more delicious quotes in this book, so many that my Hi-Liter ran dry, but I can’t resist three last one-liners.

Jessica Mitford’s Luddite put-down of a faxed letter: “Yours of 9:54 rec’d.”

Mallon on Lord Byron: “From birth, Byron seemed bent on becoming an adjective.”

Mallon’s take on high- vs. low-tech: “Does anybody really want to buy Casa­nova’s hard drive?”

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