It was brought home to me in graduate school that Newton’s Third Law, which otherwise so elegantly deals with reciprocal forces, fails to account for mail: the amount of pleasure a letter brings to its recipient induces more than an equal and opposite amount of guilt as it remains unanswered. Or is it just my amour propre as a terrible correspondent that makes me want to universalize my failings? I have no idea how large the class of sheepish dilatory letter writers is, but I do know that I’ve found some companions and some spurs to activity in Thomas Mallon’s new book on letters. Originally planned as a companion to A Book of One’s Own, his anthology of diaries, it has appeared a trifle later than he had expected: “It embarrasses me to admit that I began writing this book when a first-class stamp cost twenty-nine cents.”
Of course, there’s always an excuse. As Mallon reports, Tennessee Williams found that “when work goes well, he’s too tired to answer letters; when it doesn’t, he’s too depressed.” The middle-aged John Milton seemed to face up to his faults as a correspondent by claiming to be “by nature slow and lazy to write.” One gulps. But as a teenager Milton was able to rustle up this rhetorical rhodomontade:
[I]t is in truth my fear that, as soon as I should meditate a letter to be sent you, it should suddenly come into my mind by what an interval of earth you are distant from me, and so the grief of your absence, already nearly lulled, should grow fresh, and break up my sweet dream.
Mallon organizes his material thematically: absence, advice, complaint, confession, war, prison, and so on. He takes up Dear John letters, suicide notes, biblical epistles, and fan mail both swooning and threatening. There is no chapter on excuses for failing to respond to letters in a timely manner. I would have liked one, if only to give Mallon the excuse to cite the extreme cases of Malcolm Bradbury’s Unsent Letters or, even funnier, Algernon in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest – Cicely points out to Algy that because he was entirely unaware of her existence during their engagement, she was forced to write his love letters to her herself. Mallon has, however, limited himself to the world of real people. Wilde makes an appearance in the prison chapter, where his most famous letter — the 50,000-word “De Profundis” — is overshadowed by the begging letters he wrote between his release and his death three years later. They were composed of absinthe and wry: “The Cloister or the Café — there is my future. I tried the Hearth, but it was a failure.”
What does the ideal letter consist of? Mallon thinks “a letter should feel like its own enclosure, the bright on-purpose prose dancing out of the envelope like photos or cash.” That doesn’t mean the tone or subject matter is necessarily cheerful. Vexation, indignation, and anger spice things up. There’s pleasure to be had from letters to the newspaper written by the stock Blimp “Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells.” But the sui generis Graham Greene, too, quite enjoyed sending off his “cracked pots to the papers.” The crabbiness doesn’t even have to be sincere, as Mallon points out when he considers the letters of H. L. Mencken: “[O]ne may have trouble differentiating true fits of spleen from that organ’s mere pirouettes, rhetorical movements designed to delight both writer and audience.”
Such consciousness of playing upon the epistolary stage isn’t surprising given how many of Mallon’s subjects are writers: Emily Dickinson, Mme. de Sévigné, Mark Twain, Flaubert, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Whittaker Chambers, Maxwell Perkins, the “bleakly exhilarating” Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen…Mallon reads Keats’s letters as “conscious entertainments” — quite rightly, as Keats knew that his letters would be read out loud and circulated. The sense of audience doesn’t necessarily hide the writer, though — Jessica Mitford’s “ideological worst and self-mocking best are both on display, in annoyingly peaceful coexistence.” But letters can also reveal writers stripped from their familiar guises: in the suicide note Virginia Woolf left for Leonard, she “addresses her husband…in the kind of simple declarative sentences she’d practically banished from the English novel.”
Some of the book’s best moments come from people I’ve never heard of. Elinore Stewart, raised in the Oklahoma Indian Territory and living on a ranch two miles from the post office in Burnt Fork, Wyoming, rises right off the page: “I know this is an inexcusably long letter, but it is snowing so hard and you know how I like to talk.” She fills her letters with sharp descriptions and allusions to her reading — Thackeray and Dickens. The World War II correspondence between Mirren Barford and Jock Lewes painfully descends from the high-mindedness of sheltered youth.
Mallon’s commentary isn’t obtrusive, but the book is obviously shaped by his taste. That includes a taste for puns: About the spat between Vladimir Nabokov and Edmund Wilson over Russian translations, he says it’s a case of “when Pushkin came to shove.” Mallon is more patient with 20 years’ worth of James Agee’s self-regard than I am. His selection of F. O. Matthieson’s letters gave life to what was a famous but shadowy presence in my mind. He loves Charles Lamb so much he begins and ends with him and even quotes the same (marvelous) sentence twice in praise of his spontaneity on the page, especially the “excitement of his feelings by food”: “God bless me, here are the birds, smoking hot!”
Given email, Facebook, and Twitter, whither the letter? Mallon seems to think that reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. After all the telephone didn’t kill it off, even though, as Tennessee Williams pointed out in a letter, “No doubt we’ll be talking before you get this.” The ether is cheap, and that leads to certain abuses. After he’d been fired as postmaster for throwing away the mail, Faulkner groused, “I reckon I’ll be at the beck and call of folks with money all my life, but thank God I won’t ever again have to be at the beck and call of every son of a bitch who’s got two cents to buy a stamp.”
Slowness gathers up beauty, says the poet, so I buy Forever stamps. Thanks to Mallon’s book, I learned about the Letter Exchange — an epistolary club and magazine for snail mail fans. It gives me faith in the future to know there’s a whole universe of correspondents not to write to.