TERRY GROSS, host:
When was the last time you sat down and devoted some time to writing a letter in long hand and on paper? Thanks to email, Twitter and all the other alternative forms of communication technology has given us, letter writing is fast becoming a lost art. In his new study of letter writing, called "Yours Ever," novelist and critic Thomas Mallon takes a look at a type of writing that may soon be rendered as quaint as the quill pen. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: At first glance, Thomas Mallon's "Yours Ever" falls into the no-brainer category of new books. It's a study of the art of letter writing and it's chock full of luscious quotes from the likes of marathon missive manufacturers like Teddy Roosevelt, George Sand, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, Flannery O'Connor and Winston Churchill. Mallon himself brought out two earlier collections that are in the same vein as this one: "A Book of One's Own," which was a study of diaries, and "Stolen Words," about plagiarism.
You see what I mean about no-brainer. "Yours Ever" promised to be such an affable literary entertainment that I almost passed it up. But what bumps this book out of the realm of the ho-hum is Mallon's own gift for unpredictable criticism. He's a canny reader of other writers' styles and he confidently makes the kind of blunt pronouncements on other writers' personalities, as well as their work, that have become out of fashion in the relentlessly contextualized age of therapy and postmodern literary theory.
For example, in a chapter that focuses on letters of complaint, Mallon turns his gaze on the British poet Philip Larkin, whose letters are filled with xenophobia, self-disgust, and scatological imagery, which doesn't mean that they aren't also sometimes very funny. Writing to a correspondent, Larkin compared the art of publishing a book to farting at a party - you have to wait till people stop looking at you before you can behave normally again.
Mallon shrewdly points out that what former admirers of Larkin's who were dismayed by the posthumous publication of his letters really can't forgive about him, more than his unattractive prejudices, is that he was pissed off rather than righteously angry. That's such a smart insight. We don't mind our poets raging, but a poet whining on year after year about his noisy neighbors and bowel movements seems depressingly earthbound. As an appreciation of letters as a literary genre, "Yours Ever" is imbued with a sense of the form's eleventh-hour mortality.
Email has all but vanquished what Mallon refers to as the small hardships of letter writing - having to think a moment longer, remaining in suspense while awaiting reply, having one's urgent letters cross in the mail. These are the things that enrich the art of letter writing, emotionally and rhetorically. Mallon tries not to be too sentimental. After all, writing letters can be a pain. But it's hard not to mourn the form when you're put in the private company of such masters as H. L. Mencken, Mary McCarthy and Noel Coward.
Describing a performance by the World War II era British singer Deanna Durban, Coward said that she sang "There'll Always Be an England" with tears rolling down her face as though she were bitterly depressed at the thought. In contrast, the letters Mallon quotes from Ayn Rand, in a chapter he calls "Advice," fascinate precisely because of their lack of elegance. Mallon observes that the ugly, pile-driving clarity of Rand's writing was suited to the giving of advice, at least in those instances when the requester needed someone else's certainty to pulverize hesitation.
He then quotes from a letter that Rand wrote to her niece who asked for the loan of $25 to buy a dress. Auntie Ayn stipulated a repayment plan and signed off thusly: if you become ill, then I will give you an extension of time, but for no other reason. If, when the debt comes due, you tell me that you can't pay then I will consider you as an embezzler. I will write you off as a rotten person and I will never speak or write to you again.
"Yours Ever" is a revelatory collection of the nutty and the noble encased in correspondence. One small complaint I have is that I wish Mallon had more consistently identified the recipients of these gems. It helps to know whether the letters were indeed private or public performances. Otherwise, delving into this book offers readers the consolation that, even if email does delete the art of letter writing as we know it, there are still mountains of snail mail from the past to be opened up and savored.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Yours Ever: People And Their Letters" by Thomas Mallon.