Anyone interested in 20th-century literature will want to read Selected Letters of Conrad Aiken. Neglected throughout his career, Aiken (1889-1973) nonetheless embodies nearly all the emblematic qualities of the modern poet. For this well-edited volume Joseph Killorin has chosen 245 letters (out of some 3,000) to tell the story of Aiken's life and career.
When Aiken was 11, his father murdered his mother and then committed suicide. The boy had to step across their bodies to call the police. At Harvard Aiken became friends with T. S. Eliot and may even have influenced Eliot's early poems. After being elected class poet, he fled the university rather than recite at his graduation. When he eventually landed in England, he looked up Ezra Pound and gave him the manuscript of Eliot's Prufrock for consideration.
The next several decades reflect a modernist's life: he tries to start a magazine called New Leaves with Robert Frost, settles uneasily in England, collects Japanese prints, studies Freud, commits adultery, remarries twice more, becomes an alcoholic, attempts suicide. Amid all this he writes - novels, including Blue Voyage which Malcolm Lowry reputedly memorized, long dramatic poems, hundreds of review, stories ("Silent Snow, Secret Snow"), plays, and the autobiographical Ushant. Despite the output, most of this work has been undeservedly overlooked or dismissed.
Perhaps these letters will help redress that neglect for they are witty ("the camembert condition of M. Vaidemar"), dotted with puns and parodies (including an impressive one of The Wasteland), insightful into his relationship with foster son-disciple Malcolm Lowry, and inspiring in their depiction of one so devoted to the literary life. Still I suspect that Aiken, like Ford Madox Ford, may be destined to remain one of those writers who is constantly being rediscovered, but never enshrined. (Yale, $15)