Yours Ever: People and Their Letters
By Thomas Mallon
(Pantheon, 338 pages, $26.95)
“Oh, my dear friend, my heart was trembling as I walked into the post office, and there you were, lying in Box 237. I took you out of your envelope and read you, read you right there.”
So sighs Klara Novak in the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner. Fast forward to 1998, and Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s “reimagining” You’ve Got Mail sighs the same thing, but not at the post office. In tiny sentences, she types, “I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: You’ve got mail. I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beating of my own heart. I have mail. From you.”
It’s difficult to not ponder what unites these movies across the technical gulf when reading Yours Ever, Thomas Mallon’s scrumptious new book about letters. He began writing it in the early ’90s, just as dial-up modems were starting to ferry e-mails over telephone wires and when, he is embarrassed to admit, a first-class postage stamp cost just 29 cents. As our words are made increasingly of pixels instead of ink, in movies and in life, Yours Ever stands out as a timely, eloquent, and appreciative profile of the letters that make up our mailbag.
Of course, letters is a vast, if casual, branch of literature. Mallon wisely resists the encyclopedist’s urge to be exhaustive. Yes, hundreds of letters are sampled here, most by people with starry names like Roosevelt, Freud, and Keats, who, it is no surprise to learn, liked to inject the sinewy adjective “real” into his missives. But Mallon does not choose the correspondence he writes about merely out of “obligation.” Better, he says, to let “enthusiasm” lead, a dictum he followed in A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries, the sister volume to Yours Ever published in 1984. This loose precept allows him to include lesser-known sets of correspondence, like that between the blind British tailor and blind British seamstress during World War II who loved in word but never met.
Only a few of the letters he mentions stand out as boring or routine. Reading Yours Ever feels like dancing, not wrestling, with Proteus; every time you think you have the step down Mallon surprises—and delights. The book is built to resist organization and to capitalize on that element of surprise. Its nine categories—including “Absence,” “Advice,” “Love,” and “War”—are “non-categorical,p;rdquo; he says. This gives Mallon the freedom to talk about letters in whatever order he wishes, and to return to certain writers, such as his seeming favorite Charles Lamb, who compares letter-writing to “whispering through a trumpet.”
True, readers might complain that some well-worn favorites or mega-belletrists like St. Paul get a mere paragraph or two—and in this apostle’s case, he shares those paragraphs with the Sufi mystic Ibn Abbad of Ronda—but such complaints can’t travel very far, simply because they’re to be leveled against books written to different purpose. Yours Ever is the product of Mallon’s spirited reading, and in that way it is personal—and it is fitting that it would be such, with a subject as personal as other people’s mail.
Mallon reveals some of the interior temperatures of letters—but not to the ungentlemanly point of being a gossip or muckraker. He notices, for instance, that there are those who write not just to the addressee, but also to themselves, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. Flustered and at times detailing Gatsby-esque schedules in his letters, he cautions his daughter Scottie. He tells her not to be like her parents, though people will be quick “to deck you out in our sins.” And as he notes at least once, he kept a carbon of his own letters to see if she responded to all his points. “But the copy’s real job,” Mallon writes, “was to keep those points, especially the last one—‘Please work—work with your best hours’—face up and available to the man still struggling in the Garden of Allah Hotel.”
Within each chapter are several 1,000-word essays, a form Mallon mastered decades ago when writing for periodicals like National Review and The American Spectator. Entries on individual letterwriters rarely exceed the few pages needed to meet that word count (which, in fact, is the count of a meaty letter), but these clear, gem-like glimpses are often biographies, or at least character studies, writ small. As Mallon observes, “we are most ourselves when frantic and fidgety” and letters, catching us unbuttoned in the off-hours, do have a way of carrying the imprint of our emotions. Even our pencils know when we’re mad.
A TYPICAL MALLON TURN goes something like this: In the chapter “Spirit” there is discussion of Emerson, who refuses the “velvet life” and believes “that Goodness is the only Reality.” Suddenly this turns into talk about Flannery O’Connor, who, while keeping her peafowl and walking on crutches, her “flying buttresses,” warrants that the intellect “will cease to be tyrannical” only once it is inside the Church and that, in writing, “everything has to be subordinated to a whole which is not you.” O’Connor’s passing comment about the letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Robert Bridges becomes a bridge into their letters, which had trouble keeping “the separation of church and verse.” Hopkins kept trying to bring Bridges to God. And so on Mallon goes, as if he is opening nesting dolls every few pages.
The pace of the book is quick, especially when Mallon goes for laughs. Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote more than 150,000 letters, talked a lot about animals. Our critic-guide writes:
[Roosevelt] was also the most popular attraction in a self-assembled zoo. Throughout his letters he is either pampering animals (“I am acting as a nurse to two wee guinea pigs”) or slaughtering them (“P.S.—I have just killed a bear”)….He observes that a guinea pig (another one, not the one above) is “squirming and looking exactly like Admiral Dewey.”
There are several completely off-the-cuff stretches of beauty, too. Four years before he was shot in the head by a Nazi officer in 1942, Polish artist Bruno Schulz wrote a letter Mallon flags as “one of the most vivid assessments ever made of the imaginative challenge posed by letter writing ”:
Spatial remoteness causes the written word to seem too weak, too ineffective, powerless to hit its target. And the target itself, the person who gets our words at the end of that road through space, seems only half-real, of uncertain existence, like a character in a novel….One probably shouldn’t say such things but fight instead that weakness of imagination which refuses to believe in the reality of remote objects.
And yet it is easy for the recipient of the letter, and for us, to believe in “the reality of remote objects.” History seems to take place in our present tense. There is famous, frustrated, cloistered Heloise, writing to Abelard in the 12th century, “Among those who are wedded to God I am wedded to a man…What a monster am I!” There is “Billy” Faulkner, on his own in New Haven at age 21, telling his mother that all he needs are “shirts—shirts— shirts.” You can nearly feel the cotton when he specifies to her to buy them with one button, please, not two, at the collar.
Mallon notes the tendency for the e-mail—which dismantles not just space, as the letter did, but time, too—to be brusque, prickly, to be “so bluntly efficient that it often seems downright angry.” Often the e-mail is not even “topped and tailed”; salutations disappear and, when they do appear, they can seem quaint, not simply unnecessary. Still, we’d do well to recall Flannery O’Connor, who, instead of worrying about the death of the novel, fretted over whether “the one I’m working on is dead” and even embraced technology, as it was, preferring the typewriter to the pen because it allowed for more expression; on it, you use ten, not three, fingers to write.
The same, of course, can be said of the keyboard. Thankfully Mallon doesn’t write to tell us what we have lost, veer into nostalgia over hot pools of sealing wax and the turreted edges of stamps, or roar about cultural decay. Yet, again, the appeal and intimacy of letters is obvious, especially after reading this book. As Mallon asks, “Who really wants to buy Casanova’s hard drive?”