Friday, May 14, 2010

Review: Yours Ever: People and Their Letters

To someone fond of the written word (and especially the hand-written word), Yours Ever: People and Their Letters should be a delight. Thomas Mallon, author of 2007's Fellow Travelers and other novels, has written a meditation on the (mostly) lost art of letter writing, and he explores what happened when people picked up a pen, or sat down at their typewriters, and composed thoughtful missives. What happened then was that the writer and recipient had a physical object worthy of saving, and they also had a written account of love, confession, war, or faith (four of the categories that Mallon files letters under). What happens now is that we're able to read these enduring accounts of the past and better understand what it was like to live then.

In the introduction, Mallon touches on the problems that e-mail poses to enduring intimate correspondence, but after the introduction, he uses snippets of letters to speak for themselves. It's clear from reading each chapter that most of the letters could ever have been sent as e-mail (or text messages). "Addictive gratifications have replaced the old, slow anticipation of the daily visit from the mailman," Mallon writes. But for all the virtues of letter-writing, while it's up to the letter-writer to pen something worth stashing away somewhere, it's up to the recipient to actually do that. Because of that, in some cases, only half-sides of correspondence exist, and Mallon pieces together the writer and recipient's relationship.

Some of the expected letter-writers are there -- Abelard and Heloise, George Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell -- but Mallon digs deeper to fill the chapters with some surprising anecdotes. William Faulkner, newly arrived in New York, writes home that “things happen and then unhappen by the time I hear of them"; Scottie Fitzgerald pulls "checks and news" from her father's letters and then ignores the advice he penned within them (“Just do everything we didn’t do and you will be perfectly safe.”); Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife right before going off to the Battle of Bull Run, which took his life.

But what should be a terrific read isn't one. Your Ever lacks a narrative drive, and the letters seem haphazardly linked, making reading this book trying at times. I wish that Mallon had printed the actual letters, as opposed to just snippets of them, to let the letters do the heavy lifting. Though not the most compelling read, Yours Ever is worth picking up and flipping through to mine for the insights that letter-writers like Oscar Wilde penned — if nothing else, Mallon has made me wish I had a handful of witty friends who wrote me letters.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds fascinating. I definitely have to read it!