Yours Ever: People and Their Letters

Overview

From the author of A Book of One’s Own and Stolen Words comes a delightful and wide-ranging investigation of the art of letter writing.

Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s ...

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Overview

From the author of A Book of One’s Own and Stolen Words comes a delightful and wide-ranging investigation of the art of letter writing.

Yours Ever explores the offhand masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry. Thomas Mallon weaves a remarkable assortment of epistolary riches into his own insightful and eloquent commentary on the circumstances and characters of the world’s most intriguing letter writers. Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the court of Louis XIV, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the besotted midlife billets-doux of a suddenly rejuvenated Woodrow Wilson, the casually brilliant spiritual musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, the cries from prison of Sacco and Vanzetti. Along with the confessions and complaints and revelations sent from battlefields, frontier cabins, and luxury liners, a reader will find Mallon considering travel bulletins, suicide notes, fan letters, and hate mail–forms as varied as the human experiences behind them.

Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature–a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Yours Ever

Yours Ever is nuanced, informed, full-blooded, a vigorous literary salute…It  is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulner­abilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepa­thy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence.”
—The New York Times Book Review
 
“Readers, whether history buffs or not, should find this book pleasingly ripe with insights into the bittersweet rewards of revealing oneself to the perfect listener: at once achingly absent, but also—for a time—so blissfully silent.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Yours Ever is a revelatory collection of the nutty and the noble encased in private correspondence.”
—Fresh Air from WHYY 

"A buoyant, wistful ode to what we have discarded, and perhaps a clarion call to resurrect an art form we have come to believe as technologically redundant."
The Sunday Republican

“Mallon is an ideal guide on this whirlwind tour…Yours Ever puts the belle back in belles-lettres.”
Los Angeles Times
 
“Mallon's stroll through letter-writing history, arranged by genre (Absence, Friendship, Complaint, Confession, etc.) and brightened by selective quotation from exemplary practitioners, is itself like good letter writing—fluid, discursive, aphoristic…Mallon's erudition (which he wears lightly) and his curiosity (which he shares generously) have sent him diving into words left behind by royalists and revolutionaries, murderers and lovers, Ann Landers and Ayn Rand.”
—CNNMoney.com
 
“Mr. Mallon's fine book shows how important it is that we take pains to continue writing soulful letters today, whether on paper or in pixels.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Smart and enchanting…a well-fed meditation on the humanity that descends to us from history in the form of letters.” —The Advocate

Praise for Thomas Mallon

A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries

“It is inclusive... but not a bit long-winded. It is learned but never pedantic. It is also charming, diverting, and exceptionally intelligent. The book is literary criticism, yet it is something more–a knowing, sympathetic, but not soppy commentary on humanity.”
—The New Yorker

Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism
“The wonder of Stolen Words is that it remains specific and detailed yet manages to cover so much ground and blow away so much of the fog surrounding plagiarism.”
—The New York Times

In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing
“With a savvy scope reminiscent of Edmund Wilson’s approach to books and authors, Mallon provides astute analysis of individual works within the broader context of a writer’s career or the genre being considered... Striking phrasing and acute perception are hallmarks of these essays.”
—Chicago Tribune

Carolyn See
If Thomas Mallon—when it comes to this collection of letters, at least—were a blanket, he'd be a crazy quilt. If he were a toy, he'd be a whirligig. Because, in choosing to write a book about "people and their letters," the author comes up against the fact that there are an awful lot of letters flying around Western civilization and a daunting number of people. Know this going into Yours Ever: There's no pattern at all here…This isn't to say that [it] shouldn't be read—it's crammed with interesting snippets from all over the place…[and] as full of learning as a candy bar chock-full of nuts.
—The Washington Post
Stacy Schiff
[Mallon's] chapter titles—"Absence," "Friendship," "Advice," "Complaint," for starters—offer a virtual tour of the human condition. He concedes that his categories are fluid and arbitrary, as indeed they are…Similarly, Mallon feels free to depart from the beaten track. His old friends and the obvious suspects are all here—Flaubert and Sand, Freud and Jung, the Mitfords in all their ferocious fluency—but so are plenty of unknowns…the result is by any measure a charming, discursive delight. Yours Ever is nuanced, informed, full-blooded, a vigorous literary salute. Mallon offers up his text as one that "bows down to its bibliography, one that presents itself as a kind of long cover letter to the cornucopia of titles listed back there," a line, I might add, that could serve as a fine definition of belles-lettres.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This companion volume to prolific Mallon's 1984 study of diaries, A Book of One's Own, surveys several epistolary subgenres, including friendship, advice, complaint, love, confession, war-zone dispatch and pleas from prison. A 25-year correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt pleasurably mixes world politics and personal foibles, musings about the Eichmann trial with an unwanted pregnancy and literary gossip. Henry Miller bullied his patient publisher James Laughlin for 30 years (“Why should I compromise?... to please you?”); Florence Nightingale's angry, agitated letters from the Crimean War show a respect for the suffering soldier and a contempt for complaining nurses; E.M. Forster confides to a friend his homosexual initiation at age 37 by an Egyptian tram conductor; and Winston and Clementine Churchill's long correspondence blends patriotism, ambition and shared tenacity. They stand in marked contrast to the duke and duchess of Windsor's baby talk and self-pity. This smart, witty and lively account with excerpts of a not-yet-extinct literary genre will whet our appetites for published collections of letters—a selected bibliography is included—while motivating us to put pen to paper to rediscover a satisfying means of communication. (Nov. 10)
Library Journal
Desiring a companion volume to his study of diaries, A Book of One's Own, Mallon (Fellow Travelers; Henry and Clara) offers samples of personal correspondence from ancient Persia to email, which he believes will revive the lost art of letter writing. Nevertheless, most excerpts are from traditional handwritten postings. Topics range from absence to love, confession to prison. Each chapter heading contains a blanket term (e.g., "Absence," "Spirit," "War") under which Mallon tucks in the thoughts of many well-known writers, statesmen, and social advocates. Some epistles reveal not-so-noteworthy character traits: William Faulkner's racism, V.S. Naipaul's misogyny, and Neal Cassady's self-destructive path. On the other hand, Lincoln, while altruistic, proves himself primarily pragmatic; Virginia Woolf radiates as a gentle, life-affirming lover; political dissident Wei Jingsheng's mocking pleas help liberate him from Chinese prison; and Oscar Wilde's rant against publishers of personal letters adds an ironic twist. VERDICT An engaging if slightly disjointed exposé of the inner musings of some of the world's best thinkers; of interest to readers who favor biography.—Nedra Crowe-Evers, Sonoma Cty. Lib., CA
The Barnes & Noble Review
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 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. --Alexandra Mullen

Alexandra Mullen left a life as an academic in Victorian literature to return to her roots as a general reader. She now writes for The Hudson Review (where she is also an Advisory Editor), The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679444268
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/10/2009
  • Pages: 338
  • Product dimensions: 6.06 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

THOMAS MALLON is the author of seven novels, including Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman and Fellow Travelers. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and The Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Read an Excerpt

Introduction

It embarrasses me to admit that I began writing this book when a first-class stamp cost twenty-nine cents. Well, here we are, the price half again as much and I a third again as old, and my excuses no better than what one usually offers when finally answering a letter that’s been under the paperweight for ages longer than one ever meant it to be.

But a person can’t adequately procrastinate without at least one semi-valid rationalization, and so here’s mine: if this book had come out, as it was supposed to, around 1997, it would have appeared just as e-mail was reaching Everyman and beginning to kill, or revive (there are both schools of thought), the practice and art of letter writing. Whichever the case, the book would have come ashore just as a sea change was making the waters even more interesting.

Letters had always defeated distance, but with the coming of e-mail, time seemed to be vanquished as well. It’s worth spending a minute or two pondering the physics of the thing, which interested Charles Lamb even early in the nineteenth century. Domestic mail was already a marvel—“One drops a packet at Lombard Street, and in twenty-four hours a friend in Cumberland gets it as fresh as if it came in ice”*—but in his essay “Distant Correspondents” (1822), Lamb seemed to regard remoteness and delay as inherent, vexing elements of the whole epistolary enterprise. Considering the gap between the dispatch and receipt of a far-traveling letter, he wrote: “Not only does truth, in these long intervals, unessence herself, but (what is harder) one cannot venture a crude fiction, for the fear that it may ripen into a truth upon the voyage.” In Lamb’s view, sentiment, unlike revenge, “requires to be served up hot . . . If it have time to cool, it is the most tasteless of all cold meats.” He even imagines poor sentiment being “hoisted into a ship . . . pawed about and handled between the rude jests of tarpaulin ruffians.”

And yet, once the sentiment-carrying letter arrives, Lamb will be “chatting” to his distant correspondent “as familiarly as when we used to exchange good-morrows out of our old contiguous windows.” The letter will have reconnected them, however imperfectly, by the slenderest and most improbable of threads. With e-mail and its even realer-time progeny, the IM and the text message and the Tweet, we get to ask simply “how have you been?”—in, that is, the twelve minutes since we were last in touch.

In a history of the mails that he published in the frantic year 1928, Alvin F. Harlow proudly insisted that “the history of postal service has been the history of civilization,” and he debunked the idea that Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, wrote the first letter, from Persia, sometime in the sixth century B.C. Mr. Harlow felt certain that these civilizing instruments had been on the road, if not the wing, “hundreds of years” before that. Setting aside the question of precedence, we do know that Greeks had their fleet-footed hemerodromes and the Romans their Cursus publicus for the delivery of communications between one part of the government and another. Couriers and messengers made the Dark Ages a little less so, before Louis XI established what Mr. Harlow calls “the first royal, regular message service” in the fifteenth century, which allowed Henry VIII to imitate and expand the institution forty years later, across the Channel. Not long after that, private carriers began servicing non-royal folk, bequeathing us the phrase “post haste”— a shortening of the injunction (“Haste, Post, haste!”) that customers sometimes inscribed on their dispatches.

During the seventeenth century, government delivery service appeared in England, along with postmarks and complaints from messenger boys against the unfair competition. (One thinks of how the lethal bicycle messengers of 1980s Manhattan cursed the faxes that suddenly ran them off the road.) The mail coach transported England into its golden epistolary age, a time of such confidence in the quality of letters that, as Daniel Pool points out in his book about nineteenth-century British life, the recipient paid the postage. That changed with the advent of the penny post, around 1840, by which time envelopes had replaced sealing wax.

In America, as the Pony Express began racing alongside train tracks, speed of delivery came to trump all else, though the cozy convenience of home delivery did not arrive in most places until after the Civil War. Here, where I live in Washington D.C., a walk down F Street will take you past the building that served as the city’s post office in Lincoln’s time; the sidewalk that’s now filled with tourists—the building has become a hotel—once teemed with wives and sweethearts and women who didn’t yet know they were widows, all of them come to collect the mail they hoped was arriving from the battlefield.

Anthony Trollope arrived in the capital just a few years later— “in June the musquito of Washington is as a roaring lion”—to negotiate a postal treaty between the United States and England. (The Victorian appetite for work being what it was, writing several dozen books didn’t mean Trollope couldn’t hold a full-time government job, too.) According to R. H. Super, the treaty “settled almost nothing.” Trollope’s real postal success would remain more domestic than international: his introduction of the red pillar box that allowed for easy mailing of the letters upon which events in his novels so often turn.

More than one fine literary stylist has found e-mail actually to be more in keeping with letter writing’s early vitality than were the stuffy epistolary conventions that grew up over later centuries. Reflecting on her correspondence with a friend in France, Phyllis Rose writes, in The Year of Reading Proust:“Like a collagen cream or estrogen which restores to the skin its lost elasticity, e-mail has given me back the spontaneity I had lost to the laziness of age. I can receive Jack’s newsletter at noon, read it after dinner, write him a note, and it will pop up on his computer screen when he arrives at work the next morning in Paris.”

*More or less foreseeing the telephone, Lamb writes that posting a letter is like “whispering through a long trumpet.”

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Table of Contents

Introduction 

ONE  Absence 
TWO  Friendship 
THREE  Advice
FOUR  Complaint 
FIVE  Love
SIX  Spirit 
SEVEN  Confession
EIGHT  War
NINE  Prison

Selected Bibliography
Index

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