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The Oxford Book of Letters [Hardcover]

by Sir Frank Kermode, Anita Kermode
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 14, 1995 0192141880 978-0192141880 First Edition
Reading other people's letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of others--their pledges of love and their sharp remonstrances, their thoughts on war and peace and the gossip of the day, their intellectual travels and idle chatter. It is partly this guilty pleasure we take in such literary eavesdropping that makes The Oxford Book of Letters so compelling. More than 300 letters spanning five centuries chronicle the affairs of correspondents from Elizabeth I to Groucho Marx, from politicans to poets, from the famous to the unknown.
Editors Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode have chosen a remarkable selection of correspondents both educated and barely literate, with styles that range from polished and witty to stumbling and artless, but who all share a gift for letters that display an immediacy and intimacy not shared by any other form of writing. Here is John Adams to his wife, Abigail, in what we know to be a harried April of 1776 ("You justly complain of my short Letters, but the critical State of Things and the Multiplicity of Avocations must plead my Excuse--"); Benjamin Disraeli, confiding to Lady Bradford the secret of his purchase of the Suez Canal for England ("not one of the least events of our generation"); Charles Dickens to his son, Henry, regarding finances ("You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child"); Flannery O'Connor to Cecil Dawkins, a young college instructor, with writing advice ("You can't be creative in all directions at once. Freshman English would suit me fine. I'd make them diagram sentences"); and an indignant A.T. Harris to the head of the Atlantic City Railroad in 1896 ("On the 15th yore trane that was going to Atlanta ran over mi bull...yore ruddy trane took a peece of hyde outer his belly between his nable and his poker at least fute square"). Among the most moving letters are those from emigrants to America, Australia, and South Africa, describing the hardships they endured and the resolution with which they faced their new worlds--we read Anna Francis's letter to her sister, detailing her dashed hopes for happiness as an emigre in South Africa ("And is this the place in which I am to live out the remainder of my wretched existence! Forbid it heaven!"); and Rebecca Butterworth's forlorn letter to England from Arkansas, outlining a litany of disaster: stillborn children, poor crops, dire illness ("If we sell soon and the Lord spares us, we will be out in fall").
With subjects ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the tragic to the hilarious, the Kermodes have included both isolated missives as well as exchanges of letters between regular correspondents, where familiarity and an ongoing saga add to the fascination. The editors provide a context for the letters, and unobtrusive notes. In an age where communication is instant and ephemeral, this volume celebrates the glory of the written word, and what may well be a dying art form.

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Editorial Reviews Review

Sir Philip Sidney begins a May 1578 letter, "Few words are best." Happily, Frank and Anita Kermode, the editors of this 500-page collection, disagree. Thanks to them, we can now guiltlessly eavesdrop on writers such as Elizabeth I, Pope, Keats, and the most verbal Marx Brother. When Warner Brothers objects to the title A Night in Casablanca, Groucho innocently responds, "I just don't understand your attitude. Even if you plan on re-releasing your picture, I am sure that the average movie fan could learn in time to distinguish between Ingrid Bergman and Harpo. I don't know whether I could, but I would certainly like to try." A paragraph later, Groucho tells the studio, "Professionally, we were brothers long before you were." The ironies just keep on coming.

But The Oxford Book of Letters goes beyond (actual, literary, and Hollywood) royalty. It also includes letters home from emigrants, "a sprightly Birmingham schoolmistress," and other uncelebrated individuals. Some are witty, others bizarre, and still others contain "jokes and teases that depend on a prior intimacy but can sometimes be enjoyed by the voyeur." In their fine introduction, the editors term 1700-1918 "the great age of letter-writing," though their selections from other eras are a long way from weak. They are right, however, about the fact that there will be fewer future epistolary contenders. Fortunately, this book--and the many from which it is pillaged--will still be on hand. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The husband-and-wife editors (he is a former professor of English literature at Cambridge and editor of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; she is a retired professor of English who has taught at various U.S. and British universities), have compiled a wonderful collection of some 300 letters written by Britons and Americans from 1535 to 1985. According to the Kermodes, the golden age of letter writing was from 1700 to 1918, and they therefore emphasize this period in their collection. There are selections from many well-known personages such as philosopher Edmund Burke, feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and writers Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and Henry James, as well as selections from a number of lesser-known immigrants to Australia and South Africa who vividly describe their experiences. Included is a heartrending account of the death of the poet Shelley in a letter written by Mary Shelley to a friend. The majority of letters are from the writers' private correspondence and testify to the importance of letters in maintaining love affairs, friendships and family ties. An interesting and important record of a dying art.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 584 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; First Edition edition (September 14, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192141880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192141880
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,275,353 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sir Frank Kermode has been a prominent figure in the world of literary criticism since the 1960s. He has been King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge and Professor of Poetry at Harvard. He was knighted in 1991.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Eavesdropping: one of humanity's favourite games. This book lets you read other people's mail over the course of a few centuries.
There's a saying "We photograph ourselves every time we open our mouths". I was reminded of the atmospheres conjured by Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology", wherein deceased citizens of an American small town declaim their real epitaphs, rather than the ones on the stones overhead. As with that book, I grew gradually aware of being in the powerful company of an identity in whom all the stories become one. There is an odd sense of incompleteness about the book-perhaps one of your letters and one of mine are awaited?
A seemingly plotless sweep through history that develops the voice of an operatic choir as you read on. Recommended.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Snapshots in a Fresh Album December 23, 2002
This is a very intimate book. The letters, occasionally one or two letters to give a sense of an important author's life, literally do give you a brief glimpse into a living life - like one of those apartment windows Edward Hopper paints, or views seen fleetingly from a train - these letters open up a life to you, often at a moment of great crisis - Alexander Pope's formal letter mourning the death of a friend bursts out uncontrollably despite his reserve at the turn of a line - and sometimes they are quiet letters, saying not much at all except how the picnic was and the very texture of life is given in a half a page. The Kermodes have given, in their dual editorship, a wider spectrum than I believe any one editor's personality and tastes could have plumbed. A book to return to again and again, rediscovering authors whose collected letters you might go and try to find. A book for always finding new friends in, or re-assessing authors you thought you knew in the light of what they wrote a lover, or a friend, when no-one was reading what they read but their own love.
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