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Yours Ever: People and Their Letters Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 10, 2009
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This companion volume to prolific Mallon's 1984 study of diaries, A Book of One's Own, surveys several epistolary subgenres, including friendship, advice, complaint, love, confession, war-zone dispatch and pleas from prison. A 25-year correspondence between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt pleasurably mixes world politics and personal foibles, musings about the Eichmann trial with an unwanted pregnancy and literary gossip. Henry Miller bullied his patient publisher James Laughlin for 30 years (Why should I compromise?... to please you?); Florence Nightingale's angry, agitated letters from the Crimean War show a respect for the suffering soldier and a contempt for complaining nurses; E.M. Forster confides to a friend his homosexual initiation at age 37 by an Egyptian tram conductor; and Winston and Clementine Churchill's long correspondence blends patriotism, ambition and shared tenacity. They stand in marked contrast to the duke and duchess of Windsor's baby talk and self-pity. This smart, witty and lively account with excerpts of a not-yet-extinct literary genre will whet our appetites for published collections of letters—a selected bibliography is included—while motivating us to put pen to paper to rediscover a satisfying means of communication. (Nov. 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Praise for Yours Ever
“Yours Ever is nuanced, informed, full-blooded, a vigorous literary salute…It is next to impossible to read these pages without mourning the whole apparatus of distance, without experiencing a deep and plangent longing for the airmail envelope, the sweetest shade of blue this side of a Tiffany box. Is it possible to sound crusty or confessional electronically? It is as if text and e-mail messages are of this world, a letter an attempt, however illusory, to transcend it. All of which adds tension and resonance to Mallon’s pages, already crackling with hesitations and vulnerabilities, obsessions and aspirations, with reminders of the lost art of literary telepathy, of the aching, attenuated rhythm of a written correspondence.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“Readers, whether history buffs or not, should find this book pleasingly ripe with insights into the bittersweet rewards of revealing oneself to the perfect listener: at once achingly absent, but also—for a time—so blissfully silent.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Yours Ever is a revelatory collection of the nutty and the noble encased in private correspondence.”
—Fresh Air from WHYY
"A buoyant, wistful ode to what we have discarded, and perhaps a clarion call to resurrect an art form we have come to believe as technologically redundant."
—The Sunday Republican
“Mallon is an ideal guide on this whirlwind tour…Yours Ever puts the belle back in belles-lettres.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Mallon's stroll through letter-writing history, arranged by genre (Absence, Friendship, Complaint, Confession, etc.) and brightened by selective quotation from exemplary practitioners, is itself like good letter writing—fluid, discursive, aphoristic…Mallon's erudition (which he wears lightly) and his curiosity (which he shares generously) have sent him diving into words left behind by royalists and revolutionaries, murderers and lovers, Ann Landers and Ayn Rand.”
“Mr. Mallon's fine book shows how important it is that we take pains to continue writing soulful letters today, whether on paper or in pixels.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Smart and enchanting…a well-fed meditation on the humanity that descends to us from history in the form of letters.” —The Advocate
Praise for Thomas Mallon
A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries
“It is inclusive... but not a bit long-winded. It is learned but never pedantic. It is also charming, diverting, and exceptionally intelligent. The book is literary criticism, yet it is something more–a knowing, sympathetic, but not soppy commentary on humanity.”
—The New Yorker
Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism
“The wonder of Stolen Words is that it remains specific and detailed yet manages to cover so much ground and blow away so much of the fog surrounding plagiarism.”
—The New York Times
In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing
“With a savvy scope reminiscent of Edmund Wilson’s approach to books and authors, Mallon provides astute analysis of individual works within the broader context of a writer’s career or the genre being considered... Striking phrasing and acute perception are hallmarks of these essays.”
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Top customer reviews
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Not having read Mallon's previous works, such as his diarist compendium, I was not prepared for what this one was likely to be. From reviews and blurbs, I assumed this was a book about letter writing--one that would define what makes a great letter writer, give examples of great letters, etc. I assumed incorrectly. Instead, this is a book about the lives of people who engaged in correspondence. Perhaps 30 or more epistolary relationships are presented with an essentially biographical thrust. Short excerpts of letters are presented, but used more to highlight the lives of the letter writers than to explicate theories or appreciation of letter writing. Not a single letter is reproduced in full, so it is never possible even to divine for oneself how a letter-writer goes about constructing a good letter.
How were the profiled letter-writers chosen? Apparently at random. The author comments on the fact that readers will be disappointed to have their favorites excluded, but no theme is presented to tie the book together. As far as I can tell, the author selected famous people from across the political spectrum. So we have Churchill and Wilson together, and of course all the spectrum of race, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation. Most disappointing, the profiles do not seem to be based on the reputation of letter writing so much as general historical fame. So, for example, I see no rationale for including the Churchill letters. Yes, he received a Nobel Prize in literature, but not for his correspondence with his wife, which is what's presented. Likewise, with Wilson, do I care that the Whitehouse staff thought he was neglecting his duties to write love notes? Does this give me insight into letters as a literary form?
I've always had an interest in letter writing. But I've never pursued the interest, and this book was to be my first foray into the subject. I don't feel it was worth my time, although it did spark further interest in select works, such as...
Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) of Madame de Sevigne;
The Pure and the Impure (New York Review Books Classics) by Collette;
The Japanese letters of Lafcadio Hearn;
Notes from the Underground: The Whittaker Chambers/Ralph de Toledano Letters, 1949-1960
Plus two stars for Mallon's felicity with English, but that's all I can give this disappointing purchase.
The book is not chronological --- in fact, one of its somewhat annoying features is the need for the reader to leapfrog back and forth through history. We go without a break from Sacco and Vanzetti to Sir Walter Raleigh, from Richard Nixon to Florence Nightingale, and from Harold Ross to Abelard. The time-travelling reader gets a bit jet-lagged, though the trip itself is often engrossing. This is due to the way Mallon has chosen to organize his book. YOURS EVER is structured around nine broad motifs of absence, friendship, advice, complaint, love, spirit, confession, war and prison. I lost count of how many letter writers he covers, but they surely would populate a small town. His book is enjoyable reading, but as its parade of writers passes by, it begins to seem like the literary equivalent of speed dating.
Some of these writers are treated more fully than others. Charles Dickens, one of the great literary letter writers, gets only a couple of pages while the rather boring and persnickety correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Alfred Jung goes on a great length. My personal list of people who deserve severe trimming, if not outright exclusion, would include Rainer Maria Rilke, John Keats and Bruno Schulz --- writers who certainly deserved their fame but whose self-absorbed letters do not always make good reading. My list of I-wish-they-were-there candidates is headed by two names: Abigail Adams and Arnold Schoenberg. Adams's letters are famous enough to need no recommendation; Schoenberg's are probably the most self-revelatory of any famous composer's --- cranky, arrogant, and full of the writer's certainty of his own importance. But they are also a window into the mind of a prickly genius uprooted from his native soil by the Nazi menace and plunked down into an American culture that often revolted him.
Among the most felicitous of Mallon's choices are the letters of Lord Byron and the doomed British wartime poet Wilfred Owen. There are also a couple of exchanges between gay couples and a fascinating look at letters from a German army officer who was revolted by what his leaders were making him do during World War II.
Mallon surmises that letter-writing has not died, but merely entered the "post-private age" by morphing into e-mail and even more exotic forms. But he finds the old-fashioned pen-and-paper variety more fitted for revealing the true character of the sender. Regardless, each reader will certainly make up a bouquet of favorite quotes from these letters (and also from Mallon's often witty commentary). Here are a few of my favorites:
Lord Byron on his rather unfortunate marriage: "I got a wife and a cold on the same day, but have got rid of the last pretty speedily."
Mark Twain's deft putdown of Sir Walter Scott: "Did he know how to write English and didn't do it because he didn't want to?"
And perhaps the most cutting of all is Ayn Rand's warning to a niece who had asked her for a loan of $25 to buy a dress: "I want you to know right now that I will not accept any excuse --- except serious illness...If, when the debt becomes due, you tell me that you can't pay me because you needed a new pair of shoes or a new coat...then I will consider you as an embezzler...I won't send the police after you, but I will write you off as a rotten person and will never speak or write to you again."
Rand ended with the hope that "this will be the beginning of a real friendship between us." Mallon records that the niece took the deal. The reader can only hope that she got herself a becoming dress with that cash.
--- Reviewed by Robert Finn