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  • Written by Thomas Mallon
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  • Written by Thomas Mallon
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People and Their Letters

Written by Thomas MallonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thomas Mallon

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List Price: $13.99

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On Sale: November 10, 2009
Pages: 360 | ISBN: 978-0-307-37864-4
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A delightful investigation of the art of letter writing, Yours Ever explores masterpieces dispatched through the ages by messenger, postal service, and BlackBerry.
 
Here are Madame de Sévigné’s devastatingly sharp reports from the French court, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tormented advice to his young daughter, the casually brilliant musings of Flannery O’Connor, the lustful boastings of Lord Byron, and the prison cries of Sacco and Vanzetti, all accompanied by Thomas Mallon’s own insightful commentary. From battlefield confessions to suicide notes, fan letters to hate mail, Yours Ever is an exuberant reintroduction to a vast and entertaining literature—a book that will help to revive, in the digital age, this glorious lost art.

Excerpt

Introduction

It embarrasses me to admit that I began writing this book when a first-class stamp cost twenty-nine cents. Well, here we are, the price half again as much and I a third again as old, and my excuses no better than what one usually offers when finally answering a letter that’s been under the paperweight for ages longer than one ever meant it to be.

But a person can’t adequately procrastinate without at least one semi-valid rationalization, and so here’s mine: if this book had come out, as it was supposed to, around 1997, it would have appeared just as e-mail was reaching Everyman and beginning to kill, or revive (there are both schools of thought), the practice and art of letter writing. Whichever the case, the book would have come ashore just as a sea change was making the waters even more interesting.

Letters had always defeated distance, but with the coming of e-mail, time seemed to be vanquished as well. It’s worth spending a minute or two pondering the physics of the thing, which interested Charles Lamb even early in the nineteenth century. Domestic mail was already a marvel—“One drops a packet at Lombard Street, and in twenty-four hours a friend in Cumberland gets it as fresh as if it came in ice”*—but in his essay “Distant Correspondents” (1822), Lamb seemed to regard remoteness and delay as inherent, vexing elements of the whole epistolary enterprise. Considering the gap between the dispatch and receipt of a far-traveling letter, he wrote: “Not only does truth, in these long intervals, unessence herself, but (what is harder) one cannot venture a crude fiction, for the fear that it may ripen into a truth upon the voyage.” In Lamb’s view, sentiment, unlike revenge, “requires to be served up hot . . . If it have time to cool, it is the most tasteless of all cold meats.” He even imagines poor sentiment being “hoisted into a ship . . . pawed about and handled between the rude jests of tarpaulin ruffians.”

And yet, once the sentiment-carrying letter arrives, Lamb will be “chatting” to his distant correspondent “as familiarly as when we used to exchange good-morrows out of our old contiguous windows.” The letter will have reconnected them, however imperfectly, by the slenderest and most improbable of threads. With e-mail and its even realer-time progeny, the IM and the text message and the Tweet, we get to ask simply “how have you been?”—in, that is, the twelve minutes since we were last in touch.

In a history of the mails that he published in the frantic year 1928, Alvin F. Harlow proudly insisted that “the history of postal service has been the history of civilization,” and he debunked the idea that Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, wrote the first letter, from Persia, sometime in the sixth century B.C. Mr. Harlow felt certain that these civilizing instruments had been on the road, if not the wing, “hundreds of years” before that. Setting aside the question of precedence, we do know that Greeks had their fleet-footed hemerodromes and the Romans their Cursus publicus for the delivery of communications between one part of the government and another. Couriers and messengers made the Dark Ages a little less so, before Louis XI established what Mr. Harlow calls “the first royal, regular message service” in the fifteenth century, which allowed Henry VIII to imitate and expand the institution forty years later, across the Channel. Not long after that, private carriers began servicing non-royal folk, bequeathing us the phrase “post haste”— a shortening of the injunction (“Haste, Post, haste!”) that customers sometimes inscribed on their dispatches.

During the seventeenth century, government delivery service appeared in England, along with postmarks and complaints from messenger boys against the unfair competition. (One thinks of how the lethal bicycle messengers of 1980s Manhattan cursed the faxes that suddenly ran them off the road.) The mail coach transported England into its golden epistolary age, a time of such confidence in the quality of letters that, as Daniel Pool points out in his book about nineteenth-century British life, the recipient paid the postage. That changed with the advent of the penny post, around 1840, by which time envelopes had replaced sealing wax.

In America, as the Pony Express began racing alongside train tracks, speed of delivery came to trump all else, though the cozy convenience of home delivery did not arrive in most places until after the Civil War. Here, where I live in Washington D.C., a walk down F Street will take you past the building that served as the city’s post office in Lincoln’s time; the sidewalk that’s now filled with tourists—the building has become a hotel—once teemed with wives and sweethearts and women who didn’t yet know they were widows, all of them come to collect the mail they hoped was arriving from the battlefield.

Anthony Trollope arrived in the capital just a few years later— “in June the musquito of Washington is as a roaring lion”—to negotiate a postal treaty between the United States and England. (The Victorian appetite for work being what it was, writing several dozen books didn’t mean Trollope couldn’t hold a full-time government job, too.) According to R. H. Super, the treaty “settled almost nothing.” Trollope’s real postal success would remain more domestic than international: his introduction of the red pillar box that allowed for easy mailing of the letters upon which events in his novels so often turn.

More than one fine literary stylist has found e-mail actually to be more in keeping with letter writing’s early vitality than were the stuffy epistolary conventions that grew up over later centuries. Reflecting on her correspondence with a friend in France, Phyllis Rose writes, in The Year of Reading Proust:“Like a collagen cream or estrogen which restores to the skin its lost elasticity, e-mail has given me back the spontaneity I had lost to the laziness of age. I can receive Jack’s newsletter at noon, read it after dinner, write him a note, and it will pop up on his computer screen when he arrives at work the next morning in Paris.”

*More or less foreseeing the telephone, Lamb writes that posting a letter is like “whispering through a long trumpet.”
Thomas Mallon

About Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon - Yours Ever

Photo © William Bodenschatz

Thomas Mallon is the author of eight novels, including Watergate, Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman, and Fellow Travelers, and seven works of nonfiction. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review, among other publications. He lives in Washington, D.C.
Praise

Praise

“Exhilarating. . . . Mallon knows why we are reading over his shoulder; we are in it for a glimpse of the great man in his pajamas, the great writer on a lark, his stylistic guard down, conjuring with the crumbs and lint, the burnt toast and sprained egos of everyday existence. . . . 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. . . . By any measure a charming, discursive delight. Yours Ever is nuanced, informed, full-blooded, a vigorous literary salute.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Vibrant. . . . Yours Ever is not just an appreciation of a moribund art, but a collection of often fascinating mini-biographies . . . Mallon is an ideal guide on this whirlwind tour. . . .  Puts the belle back in belles-lettres.” —Los Angeles Times

“The best that the epistolary genre has to offer. . . . A letter of introduction to the joys of letter writing.” —The Wall Street Journal
 
“Mallon explicates and comments with wry humor, a daunting intellect and an impeccable prose style. . . . Everything is all here, the ridiculous and the sublime.” —The Miami Herald

“Enjoyably treats a chattier matter: why we write—recklessly, passionately, self-revealingly—to anyone at all. . . . 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.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Mallon not only finds wonderful letters such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s advice to his daughter, he also possesses such marvelous interpretive powers that a reader . . . might feel that each chapter is a letter intended for himself.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“With commentary so insightful and language so finely wrought that I suspect any one of the letter writers within would be delighted to make [Mallon’s] acquaintance by post . . . [Yours Ever] is, quite simply, the kind of book that makes you want to be a better reader.” —The Austin Chronicle
 
“Mallon . . . burrows shrewdly and to rewarding effect. Furthermore he can be a memorably witty commentator.” —The Boston Globe
 
“Fascinating. . . . Engrossing. . . . Each reader will certainly make up a bouquet of favorite quotes from these letters.” —Bookreporter.com
 
“[Mallon is] a master of the ‘brief life’ . . . fashioning deft sketches of the correspondents.  The result is his own delightfully idiosyncratic dictionary of literary biography.” —Slate
 
“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. . . . Engaging.” —Fortune
 
Yours Ever is a revelatory collection of the nutty and the noble encased in private correspondence.” —Maureen Corrigan, “Fresh Air,” NPR
 
“This endlessly delightful book . . . makes reading other people’s mail as much fun as we always suspected it would be.” —National Review
 
“An amiable, very readable collection of brief essays about dozens of correspondents. . . . Entertaining.” —Bookforum.com
 
“Smart and enchanting. . . . Yours Ever is far, far better than a disjointed compendium of great American letters. . . . It is, rather, a well-fed meditation on the humanity that descends to us from history in the form of letters. . . .Mallon takes those we think we recognized and presents them from a fresh perspective.” —The Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana)



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