The emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer will soon be forgotten, while other correspondence is here to stay. Let’s go back to the days where writing letters was more about cultivating confidants and friendships, and less obviously a media stunt. Reading someone’s letters give us a glimpse into their private life — that’s why we love them. If you ever wondered what some of your favorite modern writers were composing when they weren’t polishing drafts of books that would go on to change the world, check out this list.
Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
Truman Capote was notoriously meticulous in his professional work, but his letters were quite the opposite. Sometimes scribbled in a mad five minutes, or written without a second thought to the whiplash of emotion within their lines, Capote wrote as though he were always leaning to whisper in your ear. His correspondence could rarely be classified as “cold,” even when making a professional request, such as writing to Elizabeth Ames — then in charge at Yaddo — on behalf of a young writer named Patricia Highsmith, whose work Capote thought held real talent (Highsmith was later accepted to Yaddo, where she wrote part of her first novel, Strangers on a Train).
In Tearing Haste: Letters Between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
Deborah Mitford, the Duchess of Devonshire and the youngest of the six Mitford sisters, invites British author and OBE recipient Patrick Leigh Fermor to her royal home, a visit that sparks a half-century of friendship and scintillating correspondence. When they began to write each other in the early 1950s, Fermor had secured his reputation as a respected author, but Mitford admittedly could never bring herself to read his books, claiming to not be much of a reader. But Mitford undersells herself: their exchange is sophisticated, witty, and often full of energy and a lyrical beauty while indirectly documenting cultural and societal milestones. This collection features an impressive list of cameo “appearances,” including Evelyn Waugh, Fred Astaire, and John F. Kennedy.
Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters
Zora Neale Hurston became a prominent literary figure after the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God. But Hurston wrote much more than she published during her lifetime, and at her passing, her estate contained numerous story manuscripts, essays, plays, and more. This collection of approximately 600 letters, written to various individuals including fellow writers Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois, is a beautiful reflection upon Hurston’s life, the challenges she faced, and the doors she opened for others.
Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O’Connor
For anyone who is even a minor fan of Flannery O’Connor, this collection is a great glimpse into the author’s very human side. Humorous, angry, arrogant, curious: the many different facets of Flannery O’Connor are revealed here. What readers may find most intriguing are some of the (300) letters exchanged between “Betty” Hester and O’Connor, whose intellectual exchanges provided the foundations of a powerful epistolary friendship for the recluse Hester, and whose letters were sealed for 20 years before they could be released in part here.
Thinking of Home: William Faulkner’s Letters to his Mother and Father
William Faulkner’s infamous complexity shifts to a softer side in his correspondence with his parents. These letters show a different personality that only a few people rarely observed. In the letters compiled during the short window of 1918 to 1925, we are given a glimpse of Faulkner’s life until he returned home to study at the University of Mississippi, including details from his travels to New Haven, New York, Paris, and New Orleans. During his stint with the Canadian flyers of the Royal Air Force, Faulkner mused about his training and war itself. His sense of longing for his home and family in Oxford, Miss., gives us the biggest glimpses into the heart of who Faulkner was as a young man forming the writer he would become.
Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray
For lovers of music and literature, this collection belongs on the shelf. When American literary and jazz critic Albert Murray and author Ralph Ellison began their correspondence in 1950, Ellis was in New York City and Murray was in Alabama. Their letters are surprisingly funny, full of anecdotes and opinions on pretty much everything: from their families to contemporary writers to musical greats to the advancements of African Americans over the decades. Their admiration for each other is made clear, as Ellison writes: “You’re the only one I really write to and, other than a wild, Russian chick of a girl whose now in the states and who wouldn’t write home for eating change, my only friend.” The writers’ friendship lasted until Ellison’s death in 1994, but this curated set of letters are pulled from 1950 to 60.
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975
In this collection, we climb into two of the 20th century’s greatest minds — minds that were in proximity to some of the most important people and events of the times. Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher and political scientist shared an enviable friendship that spanned continents with Mary McCarthy, an American novelist and literary critic. Both women were members of the Partisan Review and spent much time discussing Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. The collection is notably unbalanced, with twice as many letters written by Arendt. Their letters contained not only gossip and relationship details (many concerning McCarthy’s four marriages) but also lively discussions of literature, the reach of fascism, and individual morality and common sense. Their friendship wasn’t without its snags, such as when McCarthy admitted her sympathy for Adolf Hitler — he seemed, she argued, to want the people of occupied France to like him –which offended Arendt, a German-born Jew, who had barely escaped Nazi clutches.
Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence 1950-1963
One of the most notable names in all of literature not only for her work but her death, these letters give a glimpse into a troubled, brilliant mind. What is striking about this collection is that the letters span 13 years of correspondence between Sylvia Plath and her mother. In these pages, readers will learn more about Plath’s college years; her relationships, both platonic and romantic, and the waxing and waning of her marriage to a man she considered her male counterpart; and the births of her children. There is an element of falsehood to the letters, a front Plath put forth to shield her mother from the depth of her personal struggles. The letters, released by her mother, could be seen as an attempt to rewrite the framework of Plath’s life as her mother would have us see it.
Letters From Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond
I recommend reading The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, but for those who want to dig deeper and immerse themselves in the mid-century Black radical experience, this collection is a gem. Hughes, a talented poet and one of the most important modern contributors to American literature, rose through his writing to become one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance. This collection spans 35 years, ending just before Hughes’s death in 1967, and weighs in at a whopping 440 pages. The correspondence between Hughes and his four best friends — Matt and Evelyn Crawford, and William and Louise Patterson — encapsulates what it’s like to grow up Black, leftist, resilient, and focused. It’s a blend of politics and art which may inspire others in our current political climate.
I began 2015 with my then-girlfriend, now fiancée, and two other couples, at a rented house in the Catskills. The house belonged to a college art professor — Bard, I think — and on every available wall of the place hung some darkly priapic piece of art. There was a small, cold artist’s studio in the backyard where Renée and I were supposed to sleep, but after discovering a bundle of dreadlocked human hair, strung invisibly from the ceiling, and a series of circular collages that can only be described as psychosexually insane (or insanely psychosexual?), we opted for the narrow futon in the main house, near the dry heat of the hearth.
We cooked every night, drank a survey of Caribbean sugar cane — Appleton, Barbancourt, Brugal — went hiking through the crater lakes at Minnewaska, talked and sometimes argued about music, art, magazines. Renée made a playlist I still sometimes listen to when I’m pretending to write, and as we counted down the seconds to the new year, we formed a little crooked circle and danced and sang.
During quiet times, I read poems: Richard Wright’s Haiku, and the Robert Frost collection I always throw into my backpack when I leave the city. This was the beginning of a halting, yearlong attempt to read more poetry. I finally caught up with people like Morgan Parker and Phillip B. Williams, revisited Langston Hughes (and dug into his enigmatic, newly released Selected Letters) and Gwendolyn Brooks and Kevin Young, consulted with the back-pocket edition of Pablo Neruda I used to carry around as an annoying undergraduate, and — speaking of haiku — tried, again and again, all year, to figure out the effectiveness and easy grace of Matsuo Bashō’s frog, slipping into the water with a immortal plop. No luck there.
I have been trying to understand pastoralism — I hit 30 and everything suddenly seems so loud — and so have been working my way, slowly, through a slim Dover Thrift anthology of English Romantic Poetry. (Has anybody, by the way, published a big takedown of the Dover people? What they do — I’m sometimes very cheap, it seems right to mention — seems too good to be morally right.) They’ve all got their merits, but let’s be honest: the whole movement was John Keats and the Pips. I reread Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at some point (Dover again! Please tell me this is okay to do), and her prose, and imagination, blows all her husband’s friends’ verse out of the water.
Speaking of publishers, I — like everybody else, maybe — was wowed, and often tutored, by this year’s offerings from NYRB books. Eileen Chang’s Naked Earth helped me to understand the logic and language of Mao’s China; Linda Rosenkrantz’s unruly, addictive Talk drew me closer to Andy Warhol’s drug-and-Freud-fueled New York than I’d ever, at least consciously, wanted to venture.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed at a book the way I laughed at Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Or the last time I felt as trustful of the control and restraint and taste of a novelist as I did with Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House. Or as happy to be crawling through the oeuvre of a favorite playwright as with Eugene O’Neill’s Seven Plays of the Sea.
I found a first-edition, hard-copy of the O’Neill on one of the uncountable book-lousy folding tables you’ll find, any Sunday of the year, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. These tables, and their attendant “book guys,” are a good reason, if you need one, to live in New York. On another day — summer, sun-stunned — after, I’m just now remembering, a long weekend meal with those same couples from the Catskills, I stopped by a book table and picked up Michael Beckerman’s impressive New Worlds of Dvorak, a close reading — journalistic and musicological at turns — of the great composer’s years spent in America, trying to bequeath to us the “national music” we kind of already had.
I cherish Saul Bellow, so I started but am hesitant to finish his newly collected nonfiction, There Is Simply Too Much to Think About. I cherish Flannery O’Connor, so I read a few more of her beautiful, chastening letters and left her alone. I cherish Ralph Ellison — third big cliche in a row, I know — so I read Arnold Rampersad’s magisterial, appropriately tragicomic biography — very late to that particular party, I know — and went sprinting back to the essays in Going to the Territory and Shadow and Act.
Speaking of cherished writers and unfashionable lateness, I finally picked up my copy of Mansfield Park (Dover!!!) and wished I’d read it 10 years earlier, for all sorts of real-life reasons. I finally read Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, and felt the same way. I read Hilton Als’s White Girls and felt awkward about the looks I got on the subway. (The dynamics of reading on the subway are another essay entirely.)
And speaking of taking things slowly, for fear of ever catching up, I read the second of the Karl Ove Knausgaard novels and called it a year.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’s haunting, world-beating Between the World and Me led me back — inevitably — to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Those aforementioned Hughes letters led me back to the Harlem Renaissance — and specifically, for some reason, back to the so-called “passers:” Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Plum Bun; Nella Larsen’s odd, twitchy Quicksand; Jean Toomer’s Cane, an insane, beautiful blend of verse, prose, and drama. Cane’s is probably still my favorite book, and reading it again made me want to someday try to write a life of Toomer, who seems to have been America’s most interesting psychopath as well as its most tragically unrealized and overlooked modernist.
(The Fauset, the Larsen, and the Toomer are collected in the Library of America’s beautiful boxed set of Harlem Renaissance Novels.)
At some point Renée and I began reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex — which she’s already read, and I have not — aloud, in bed, at night, sort of inconsistently. It’s wonderful so far.
As always, I ended up feeling like I should’ve been able to read a lot more.
Maybe it makes sense to share, before leaving this exercise alone, that this has been one of the more emotionally intense years of my life. I’ve been introduced to entirely new, often overwhelming species of joy and anxiety and fulfillment and fear and hope. There were times of ridiculous, almost uncomfortable happiness; other days (weeks, months) I spent wishing for a side exit.
With these extremes came a change in my reading. For the first time since I was a kid, I found myself reading almost desperately, reading as a purposeful means of escape. I guess I’d forgotten (likely during the slow and misguided process of becoming a writer) how effective and merciful an analgesic it can be to leave your own imagination and pick up somebody else’s.
Reading has always been my favorite thing to do. This year it was sometimes the only thing I could do. I felt more grateful for books, and for writers — because I remembered that I need them — than I’d been in a very long time.
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