Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Put a stamp on it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, letters, collections

I have a large number of old family letters, and have had mixed feelings about trying to have some of them published. After reading Yours Ever: People and Their Letters by Thomas Mallon, my feelings are even more mixed. My father is still living, and has said I can use his and my mother's letters as I wish. My grandparents, however, are passed away long since. I like to think they'd be honored by my interest. But if I go for publication, am I just one more aging Boomer with a carton of V-Mail to decipher (to use Mallon's dismissive phrasing)?

A search for "letters of" in the books section yields more than 210,000 hits. Even considering multiple editions and paperback duplication, that's tens of thousands of collections of letters in print. Yours Ever differs from nearly all in this: it is a book about letter books, and about the phenomenon of letter writing. Each chapter has ten or so vignettes that discuss and quote the letters of a person or pair of correspondents, or contrast one writer with another.

For example, one contrast is between John Donne, who wrote prolifically, and John Milton who wrote very few letters, and that often in Latin. A pair I found fascinating was Winston and Clementine Churchill. Statesmen spend a lot of time away from home, so Churchill and his wife wrote a lot; the collection of their letters is one of the largest.

The nine chapters are titled, Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War, and Prison. In the last chapter, the author admits the considerable overlap of categories, particularly because many letters from prison would just as well fit in any of the others due to any "awayness" reason besides incarceration. But letters such as those of Dr. M.L. King from jail are specific to the genre. Prison letters are often the best thought out. A prisoner has more time to think.

Though there are many quotes, well more than half the text of the book is Mallon's. He provides a survey of each of these, I guess I'd call them case studies. He tells us that it took many years to write this book. Reading between the lines, I reckon that most of that time was spent reading the letters which he has condensed for us into mini-biographies of the writers. At the beginning of the chapter on Complaint letters, for example, we learn of Eudora Welty's heroine, "Sister", who lived in a post office, and indirectly led to the choice of "Eudora" to name a popular e-mail management program.

Letters are used to connect, to instruct, to woo, and to take a stand. Letters can be as revealing as a diary. When I kept a diary, I thought of it as letters to myself, and I suspect that is pretty common. My own letters are few, even of the electronic variety. I'm a phone caller. Besides, my wife doesn't like to read my handwriting (I seldom type personal letters). I am afraid I will leave nearly nothing for my own descendants to collect! This blog is my primary oeuvre.

But I think some of the letters I hold would fascinate my grandparents' and parents' other descendants. It was from his letters that I learned my great-grandfather was a sprightly, enthusiastic, deeply Christian gentleman who enjoyed exchanging short stories with one of his daughters, and traded jokes with the other, my grandmother. Now, however will I get two cubic feet of letters transcribed…?

No comments: