Rare Medium

Letters, We Got Letters

Thomas Mallon anthologizes all manner of epistolary delights.

Book Cover Thomas Mallon (Fellow Travelers) is a delightful writer. In conversation he displays a puckish sensibility, and on the page, ample good humor. With seven novels under his belt (one of my favorites is Henry and Clara, the story of the couple occupying the same opera box as Abraham Lincoln the night of his assassination), Mallon also wanders into non-fiction, ruminating on plagiarism (Stolen Words) and an odd aspect of the Kennedy assassination (Mrs. Paine’s Garage), as well as being a regular contributor to any number of those important magazines.

Years ago he wrote a book on diaries—A Book of One’s Own—and now Mallon has produced what is meant to be a companion piece, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters (Pantheon).
Some things are quite different about this new book. Diarists are a less numerous and odder lot than letter writers: the assassin and the masochist and the crackpot Elizabethan astrologer, all denizens of the A Book of One’s Own, are more drawn to the unanswerable monologue than to exchange there are plenty of flamboyant characters in the pages that follow…but they are writing in a form, letters that have been used by almost every literate person. If the material feels less rarefied, it may also feel more welcoming and accessible. One common feature is indisputable: the pleasure to be had in violating someone’s privacy. Whether we’re reading his diaries or letters, we’re reading material that wasn’t intended for us—at least originally.
Also, Mallon points out that the book is “organized roughly around the circumstances motivating each chapter’s worth of letters,” which he compares to “herding cats.”
Life being the chaotic thing it is and letters being the associative catchall they are, there is nothing very categorical about the categories [Absence, Friendship, Advice, Complaint, Love, Spirit, Confession, War, Prison].
Mallon offers that Yours Ever is not an exercise in nostalgia but a series of glimpses into a still-living literature. One can only hope that’s true, and that Mallon’s tome is a timely homage to a vivid literary activity.
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