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Better letters: We've got mail

By Carolyn See
Friday, November 13, 2009

YOURS EVER

People and Their Letters

By Thomas Mallon

Pantheon. 338 pp. $26.95

If Thomas Mallon -- when it comes to this collection of letters, at least -- were a blanket, he'd be a crazy quilt. If he were a toy, he'd be a whirligig. Because, in choosing to write a book about "people and their letters," the author comes up against the fact that there are an awful lot of letters flying around Western civilization and a daunting number of people. Know this going into "Yours Ever": There's no pattern at all here. Despite sorting the letters into categories like "Love," "War," "Confession," "Spirit" and "Prison," which gives a superficial impression of order and thoughtfulness, no particular writer or pair of writers gets longer than a six-page treatment, and there's no explanation of why a particular set of letters landed in a particular chapter.

This isn't to say that "Yours Ever" shouldn't be read -- it's crammed with interesting snippets from all over the place. You just have to approach it with an exceedingly quiet mind.

Mallon, by his own account, intends "Yours Ever" to be "a kind of companion volume to 'A Book of One's Own,' " a study of diaries that he published back in 1984. It shows something about the nature of this author's temperament that he can think of books published 25 years apart as companions, but the more important statement in his introduction concerns the feedback he has received from people asking, "How could you have left out . . . ?"

Although Mallon says that in this new volume he has been influenced by his "enthusiasm" rather than any "obligation," there's obviously been a strong impulse to steer in the direction of the inclusive. It is his intention, if I read correctly, to put in a little of this, a little of that and a little of this again, so that by the end we come away with a strong idea of what a letter in our culture might contain.

So, after reviewing the origin of the U.S. Postal Service and the differences between snail mail and e-mail, Mallon begins his survey with the Paston Letters, which English majors will remember from graduate school. This correspondence flourished during the 15th century in England. The father, John, tended to stay away from home, furthering the family's interests, and so did the elder son. The mother, Margaret, remained home with the younger son and kept the family apprised of events. These letters are priceless by their very dailiness. We see the youngest pining for a bird to train and get him out of the house: "If I have not a hawk I shall grow fat for lack of labour and dead for lack of company, by my troth." So many years ago, and our ancestors are already fretting about fresh air and exercise! But then, one turns the page and finds Mme. de Sévigné in the court of the Sun King, two centuries later, and another whole country away.

It takes a while to realize that chronology has no place here, nor geography. Or even subject: "Life being the chaotic thing it is and letters being the associative catchall they are, there is nothing very categorical about the categories," Mallon remarks. The reader must get used to the fact that -- except for the "War" chapter, which sensibly limits itself to our Civil War, the two World Wars and one volume of letters from Sarajevo during the Bosnian war -- these letters careen across the pages like bumper cars with the electric current turned up.

Mallon's favorite unit of writing appears to be the 1,000-word familiar essay, which he has employed to such good purpose in the past. Milton, that great poet, merits only three pages here, Lafcadio Hearn five. And the transitions are dizzying. We go, for instance, from President Richard Nixon, in the section on "Complaint," to Florence Nightingale, writing from the front, which includes the scathing remark, "Thirty [wounded soldiers] were bathed every night by Dr. MacGrigor's orders in slipper-baths, but this does not do more than include a washing once in eighty days for 2300 men."

Right after this, there are two puzzling paragraphs about "Samuel Johnson's rejection of praise for his 'Dictionary' from Lord Chesterfield, that parental Polonius we fled back in Chapter 3." One page later, the punch-drunk reader is hit with three pages of Vladimir Nabokov vs. Edmund Wilson. Nixon, Nightingale, digression, Nabokov, Wilson -- where's the connection? It's baffling.

And the reader might groan further about puzzling insertions covering the begging letter, the fan letter and the suicide note, all of which show up in the chapter on "Confessions." But personally, Whittaker Chambers was where I hit the wall. What portentousness! And isn't that guy already heading down the chute to well-deserved obscurity? Who cares about his "anti-anti-Communism"? Must everything be included? On the other hand, Mallon's essay on Wilfred Owen is dazzlingly beautiful. And that, too, was a matter of pure editorial choice.

This is a book that should sell well in the holiday season. It's one of those perfect Christmas gifts to give to bachelor uncles or friends who aimlessly hang around. It looks beautiful, it's meant to be read in eight-minute increments, it's as full of learning as a candy bar chock-full of nuts. And it's impossible to criticize its actual content, unless you crave a narrative thread.

See reviews books every Friday for The Post.

Sunday in Outlook

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-- Growing up in the bin Laden family.

-- Why Moses belongs on Mount Rushmore.

-- Hope for animals among stories of extinction.

-- And the negative side of positive thinking.

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