You might remember "A Book of One's Own," Thomas Mallon's study of people who keep diaries. Well, 25 years later, he's come out with a companion volume, a book about letter-writers called "Yours Ever," and it's another mother lode for fellow peeping Toms who like to press their nose against the glass of other people's lives.
Mallon says he's embarrassed to admit that he started writing this book "when a first-class stamp cost 29 cents." He's being a little tough on himself -- he clearly likes to hang out in the margins of history and literature, but he's no slouch in the prose department. Did you read "Stolen Words," his book on plagiarism, or "Mrs. Paine's Garage," about an unwitting accessory to JFK's assassination? And his novels? I particularly liked "Dewey Defeats Truman" and "Henry and Clara." But even discounting the books, he's a veritable graphomaniac if you consider the dozens of diaries he's filled.
In "A Book of One's Own," Mallon points out that "diaries are the only kind of writing" to take the verb "to keep": "One doesn't 'keep' a poem or a letter or a novel, not as one actually writes it." He's right: People send letters, releasing a bit of themselves -- and, especially if they're famous, often write with an eye on posterity. These missives frequently end up collected, not just in ribbon-tied packets, but in anthologies.
Well, Mallon has read a lot of these collections. To keep them all straight, he categorizes letters "roughly around the circumstances motivating" the writer -- a trick he also used in his diary book. He's come up with nine divisions, covering Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War and Prison.
You'd think the best would be the love letters, but as Mallon points out, "[l]ike literary criticism, love letters are a form of writing that can never quite compete with the real thing." Point taken, but Mallon is such a sharp literary critic that his sparkling turns of phrase actually do compete with the real thing, often overshadowing the letters he's discussing.
Writing about Samuel Clemens' letters, for example, Mallon notes that his "narratives are always descriptive and his descriptions are always narratives." Edward VIII's treacly love letters to Wallis Simpson earn the abdicated monarch the sobriquet "His Royal Ickiness." As for the "carefully unconsummated passion" that grinds on for years between George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, Mallon observes wittily that, "If friendship, according to Byron, is love without wings, Shaw's feeling for Mrs. Campbell amounts to love with snow tires."
There's more. Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt exhibit "an almost frilly antifeminism" in their correspondence, which spans decades, while the long exchange begun in 1949 between Miss Helene Hanff of New York City and Frank Doel of the London booksellers at 84 Charing Cross Road is "a winning vaudeville of American sass and British reserve."
Noel Coward's collected letters, on the other hand, "turned out to be a bit of a swindle" because many were written to him rather than by him, and therefore lack his wonderful "combination of velvet and sandpaper." Mallon also warns that when "reading the letters of a chronic and compulsive complainer -- let's take a habitual animadverter like H.L. Mencken -- one may have trouble differentiating true fits of spleen from that organ's mere pirouettes, rhetorical movements designed to delight both writer and audience."
Not all the letter writers are famous. Mallon is taken with the tragic, unconsummated love story of a British couple whose courtly World War II correspondence is found and published by the woman's son after her death, some 60 years after she lost the man who preceded her son's father in her affections. The letters from a blind tailor trying to persuade a blind seamstress to marry him and emigrate to America result in the unavoidable observation that sometimes love really is blind, and a clearly irresistible pun: "the lovestruck tailor is pressing two suits at once."
In addition to his penchant for vibrant language, Mallon is interested in the arcs that emerge in long-term correspondences. As a result, "Yours Ever" is not just an appreciation of a moribund art, but a collection of often fascinating mini-biographies. The most gripping spring from the urgency of wartime or prison -- such as the moving saga of Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng, the publication of whose letters from prison eventually helped secure his release.
Mallon's "belief that it's better to convey enthusiasm than obligation" limits his selection. Still, it's curious that he makes no mention of a prevalent predilection in letter writing: the postscript. Although he mentions suicide notes, deathbed farewells and bequests do not appear in "Yours Ever."
However, these are small quibbles. Not all the letters he cites are compelling. But Mallon is an ideal guide on this whirlwind tour, and he wisely limits quotes to a few trenchant lines rather than blocks of epistolary prose. "Yours Ever" puts the belle back in belles-lettres.
Dear Mr. Mallon:
So, what's next? "And Then I . . . : People and Their Blogs"? "Reply All: People and Their E-mails"? "140 Characters: Twitterers and Their Tweets"? Can't wait.
McAlpin reviews books for NPR.org and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.