YOURS EVER People and Their Letters
by Thomas Mallon
Published by Pantheon Books/Random House, Inc.; © 2009, Hardcover: 311 pp
There are books that grab you so hard that you sit up all night, immersed in the plot from beginning to end. There are also books you can set aside only for really important things, and can’t wait to get back to. In these days of bodice-rippers and cliff-hangers, there are precious few books which are best experienced in short dips. Yours Ever is a prime example of the latter. If you are looking for a wonderful book which can be experienced in episodic bursts, this one is it, a good book to carry to the dentist’s waiting-room, or to pick up as accompaniment to a hasty lunch at your desk, or for a brief bedtime read before you snuggle down and close your eyes.
Mallon has culled bits and pieces of letters from a staggering number of sources. I found myself wondering about the volumes of dross he had to read before he made his selections of snippets. The index of sources ranges from Jack Henry Abbott, who was Norman Mailer’s convict correspondent, to Emile Zola. The only initial missing from this alphabetized list is “X.”
The book is no chronological tromp through epistolary history. It’s more like a (mostly) cheerful romp, a jump-around clumping by the author’s admittedly soft-edged categories: chapters are headed by abstracts like “Complaint,” “Friendship,” and “Advice,” or with specifics like “War,” and “Prison.” Sometimes Mallon’s rationale isn’t very clear: letters placed under the heading of “Complaint” could just as easily be placed in the chapter headed “Advice” or even “Friendship.” But his idiosyncratic reasoning is hardly the point. He is, after all, the author, and well within his rights to be arbitrary in such decisions.
Mallon almost never gives us a whole letter, and there is a good deal of contextual information and authorial comment in between the snippets we see. Were he to narrow his field or allow longer excerpts from the letters, he might well have ended up with an epistolary Encyclopedia. This approach, while occasionally frustrating, allows him to quote from a staggering number of letter writers.
From time to time, he lingers a bit longer on a pair of correspondents, e.g. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, or Woodrow Wilson and Edith Galt. (There is no accounting for taste, and Mallon may have had good reason to include Wilson’s icky mash notes to Edith, but they surely didn’t do much to improve my opinion of the man or of the woman who reputedly ran things in the White House after his stroke).
More often, however, Mallon jumps right along, culling the best bits of a correspondence and sharing them with us. We receive choice excerpts from the usual suspects like Heloise and Abelard, or Charles Lamb, but there are also some new and unexpected sources, like Hu Yaoband, a contemporary, political prisoner in China, or V.S. Naipaul whose words paint a most unflattering self-portrait.
There came a point when this reviewer rebelled at yet another use of the adjective “epistolary.” Every few pages, one runs into phrases like: “epistolary output,” or “epistolary feuds,” or “epistolary relationship.” It was a minor annoyance, of course, and one I had to abandon when I realized that there really isn’t a good synonym for “epistolary.” Roget's Thesaurus lists: “Epistolary: postal; by post; under cover of; enclosed.” Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers only a phrasal definition: “of, relating to or suitable to a letter.” “Postal outrage” does not work as an equivalent of “epistolary outrage,” although it might describe what you feel when an envelope chewed up by a sorting machine is delivered to your mailbox. I made a mental apology to the author for my annoyance over “epistolary” and got over it. .
One of the pleasures of a book like this is the spill-over triggers that lead you down unexpected paths. A friend who was reading Yours Ever at the same time I was, enthused: “There are letters in there from Lafcadio Hearn! I hadn’t thought of Lafcadio Hearn in years! I went right my bookshelf and grabbed his American Writings. What a treat!”
Similarly, Mallon’s description of Don’t Tread On Me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman has caused me to put it on my birthday wish-list. Anyone who refers to Hollywood as “that mis-begotten flea pit” begs to be read.
So if you are looking for a dip-in-and-out delight, check out Yours Ever. Anyone who loves the writing or reading of letters is in for a treat.