As selections from the letters of Henry James, Dawn Powell, James Dickey and Jack Kerouac show, writers' corres-pondence often sheds light on the complex connection between public personas and private, ordinary selves.
Every writer has at least an inkling of the condition Jorge Luis Borges describes in his teasing but truthful parable "Borges and I." It is a sense of internal doubleness, played out in the curious relationship between the writer's humdrum self -- -the one who cooks meals and shops for bargains -- and his namesake, the author who brings forth books, wins honors and finally becomes an entry in biographical dictionaries. The teller of Borges's little parable, after setting forth the differences between these two close but noncongruent souls ("he shares [my] preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor"), concludes with an enigma: "I do not know which of us has written this page." It is a classic Borgesian moment, and it stays teasingly on the mind.
I think of it now, in fact, because one of the signal pleasures of reading literary correspondence is having the occasion, repeated occasions, to ponder that enigma anew. Whom, for example, do we encounter when we read one of Gustave Flaubert's letters to his mistress Louise Colet, in which he tells her, in fairly rapid-fire order, all of the following: that he wishes she didn't love him; that he truly loves only himself; that he nevertheless loves her company and her body ("yes, your body, poor Louise, when you lean on my left arm and bend back your head and I kiss your neck."); that he clearly esteems her highly to be telling her, a woman no less!, such hard truths; that his novel is going slowly ("What a heavy oar the pen is, and what a strong current ideas are to row in! This makes me so desperate that I enjoy it considerably."); that his cold was coming to an end; and finally, that she must think happy thoughts, because, "After all, we have to laugh"? Is this the artist assuming his godlike pose for eternity, we wonder, or is it the conniving homme moyen sensuel keeping his mistress at just the right desired distance? Or is it both, simultaneously or alternatively?
I suspect it's the last, and not only in this letter but in most letters by writers. I would even hazard that, to writers, letters are supreme occasions for negotiating between their writerly and their humdrum selves. On some of those occasions, it's simply a matter of showing off: See, says the author, am I not a wonderful creature, able to turn the dreary dailiness of your life, your little sins and even smaller virtues, into this? (James Joyce turns somersaults expressing the love his humbler self feels for the earthy Nora, somersaults that will later be deployed in creating Molly Bloom.) At other times, it's a kind of debt-servicing: The author makes a token payment on his extensive vicarious borrowings from the poor schlemiel who has to make do in the world out there. (Flaubert, checking his Olympian iciness for the briefest of nonces, flatters Louise just enough to keep his flesh-bound alter ego in her good graces and, more important, in her bed.) On yet other occasions -- though not so many, because this is still the author's turf -- we hear back from the schlemiel himself. "Hey, I'm just about over my cold! What d'y a think about that?" ("Not much, but maybe it can be put to some use," we can almost hear the author saying.)
Yes, to be sure, a letter by a writer is also written to and for a particular recipient, not to mention posterity, via the future collected correspondence. But the recipient is, in varying degrees, more an excuse than the reason for writing. Credit this unlovely fact to the monstrous narcissism of writers, all writers, though of some more than others. That narcissism, older even than Ovid, has always been the guild affliction. But it was made worse -- even given encouragement and license -- -by that powerful cultural movement called Romanticism. Arising just as traditional religions appeared to be losing their sway, Romanticism enshrined sensibility and transformed the artist into a sage, priest and demiurge, all rolled into one. With its Byrons and Shelleys and its even more complicated anti-Romantic Romantics such as Flaubert, Joyce and Yeats, that movement cast such a powerful spell that we moderns and postmoderns continue to live in its thrall.
Overstated? Not at all. Consider how many people continue to think that the artist -- the literary writer, in particular -- -is a special, privileged soul who has something valuable to tell us about how we should live our lives. Should live, mind you: as though the artist were endowed with the power and wisdom to dispense ethical precepts. (His or her art, I should qualify, often has things to tell us about how we might live our lives, but Romanticism's mistake is to suggest that the artist does.) This veneration of the artist is a form of cultural delirium that even writers occasionally see through. But who wants to throw over a good thing, particularly if your specialty is writing about the rarefied sensibility of the artist -- a fairly popular pursuit during our highly self-regarding century?
If literary correspondences are largely showcases of authorial narcissism, we might wonder why so many people, writers and non-writers, are so interested in reading them. The easy answer is that the authorial ego continues to fascinate. The luster of the artist-hero has been diminished somewhat by culture's overuse and abuse of the archetype -- consider the glamorization of Hemingway, the almost comic cultification of Virginia Woolf or the exhausting self-advertisings of Norman Mailer -- but it still has enduring power. Given that the nooks and crannies of the Imperial Self have been the single greatest preoccupation of modern culture, evident everywhere from the psychoanalytic couch to Madison Avenue, it's hardly surprising that we want to visit the artist's private world. We go there not merely to glimpse the oddments that go into making the work of art but to gaze at the interior depth and complexity of the artist. And it's not merely voyeurism. We hope, in the process, to acquire some of that depth and complexity ourselves. Of course, that's one of the reasons we go to the work of art, too -- or at least used to. In a time of desublimated pleasures and instant gratification, more and more readers seeking enrichment of sensibility forgo the indirections of art for the direct hits of literary biography or literary correspondence.
But this is seemingly to cast a wholly negative light on literary letters and the reading of them, an appearance I must immediately counter by the returning to the brilliance of the Borgesian conceit. Because what literary letters disclose in that negotiation between the author and his or her liveaday self is a valuable insight into the perils, trials, exhaustions, exasperations, necessities and precarious rewards of the literary life. Borges tells us in the parable that he knows that the "I" is destined to perish, and that only some small part of him will live on in "Borges." Even more, he knows that while Borges "has achieved some valid pages," not even those pages will save him. They won't, he says, "perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition."
This is a glimpse into the great and terrible impersonality of art, in whose service the author takes over and uses the life, hobbies, preferences, perversities and beliefs of that figure Borges calls "I." In the face of the galloping demands of the author, it requires great ingenuity and self-knowledge for the "I" to preserve his wholeness and integrity. The self must stay one step ahead or else be subsumed by that fanatical votary of literature, become -- horror of horrors -- merely the version of himself that the author has constructed. Everybody knows writers who have become Writers, wearing Writer uniforms and saying and doing Writer things. There are few sadder creatures on this God's Earth.
But how to avoid that ghostly, ghastly fate. The teller of the Borges parable offers a strategy of limited efficacy: "Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him." It's sad to lose everything, of course, but sadder yet not to try to elude that monomaniac who would make of one nothing more, or other, than a Writer.
What makes literary correspondence so exciting to read is that it documents the effort by the writer's humbler self to remain ahead of what the author is steadily and constantly trying to make him into. The tension felt in the best letters, I believe, is the conflict between those two sides that make up a James Joyce, a Gustave Flaubert, a Virginia Woolf, a Flannery O'Connor or a Walker Percy, as they respectively give to and withhold from literature. The strategies by which some writers hold back some portion of their lives are manifold and sometimes marvelous. Henry James does so, as he indicates in a letter to his brother William, for the most ingenious of reasons, out of respect for form:
"I have got plenty of gravity within me, & I don't know why I can't put more into the things I write. It comes from modesty & delicacy (to drop those qualities for the moment;) or at least from the high state of development of my artistic conscience, which is so greatly attached to form that it shrinks from believing that it can supply it properly for big subjects."
This circumspection might have led to what is often held to be the weakness of James's work -- that, as Hilaire Belloc put it, he consistently "chewed more than he bit off." But one might just as strongly argue that his reticence was the great engine behind his literary achievement. Whatever the case, my reading of James's correspondence and that of many other writers leads me to a tentative hypothesis: that the writers who serve literature best are those who most ingeniously resist giving everything to it.
I should add that that I base this hypothesis on something slightly more than the sporadic and casual reading of literary letters. I had the good fortune a few years ago to edit the correspondence between two writers and friends, Walker Percy and Shelby Foote, who had almost diametrically opposed visions of what should be rendered unto art. The latter viewed literature, in classic Romantic-Modernist terms, as that to which one must sacrifice all, the last and only true object of veneration. Percy viewed it quite otherwise: as important, yes, but important primarily as a medium nicely suited to the depiction of the human comedy, a medium for which he appeared to have some little "knack." Politely but firmly, he let his friend Foote know that his strongest allegiance went to something quite other than art: that is, to his quite seriously held religious faith. Foote, and much harsher critics of Percy, thought this would lead to the writing of "Sunday school tracts." They might be right, but I don't think so.
I think, to the contrary, that it helped him become a wickedly funny novelist -- and did so in large part by keeping him from taking himself too seriously as Walker Percy the writer. Faith does not make a good writer -- the literary gift goes to believers and nonbelievers with no seeming divine preference -- but in Percy's case faith happened to bring with it a saving literary grace, a grace that found formal expression in humor. And I would argue that this access to humor made him a better writer of fiction than his good and talented friend, who did nonetheless write some good fiction and a work of narrative history, The Civil War, that has become a modern classic.
Of course, one might argue that I drew faulty conclusions from the correspondence between these two friends and literary craftsmen, or at least that I generalize too broadly from it. Fortunately, there are countless other volumes of literary correspondence to test the hypothesis against, including four perfectly exemplary ones by hugely dissimilar writers that have just come into print: Henry James: A Life in Letters, edited by Philip Horne (Viking, $35); Selected Letters of Dawn Powell, 1913-1965, edited by Tim Page (Henry Holt, $30); Crux: The Letters of James Dickey Edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (Knopf, $35); Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters (Viking, $34.95).
All are intelligently and painstakingly assembled volumes, carefully selected, arranged and annotated by editors deeply versed in the lives, times and works of their authors. One finds in these books everything one seeks in literary correspondence: high and low gossip, insights into the sources and making of the authors' works and, most of all, "the real and best biography" (as Henry James called his brother's collected letters) that we are likely to have of these writers.
Philip Horne's selection of James's letters is a more modest sampling than Leon Edel's four-volume swipe at the Master's massive output, estimated at some 15,000 letters. Nevertheless, about half of Horne's choices were previously unpublished. More important, Horne selects and comments upon them so skillfully that he fashions a true and shapely "life in letters."
Dawn Powell's faithful servitor, Tim Page, former music critic of The Washington Post, has dedicated a goodly portion of his career to making the underappreciated writer better known, adding this labor to his earlier biography and an edition of her diaries. His selection shows Powell to be as witty and tough as the sharp satiric novels she penned, and also -- if there truly is such a thing -- a natural writer from the get-go. (Here's how the Ohio girl starts a letter to relatives on her 19th birthday: "Nineteen is an ugly year, isn't it? Now eighteen was a round, even, complete year. I felt young and debutantish. But nineteen! It's just a sort of gathering up of the all the tag-ends of all the teens -- a Review of Reviews -- nothing thrilling about nineteen." A writer like that you will follow anywhere.)
For their part, Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman have done a great service to the reputation of James Dickey by showing that the loutish, posturing, womanizing drunk he publicly became in his later years was a tragic disfigurement of the deep, decent man and gifted poet he truly was. Dickey waged a lifelong war against preciosity and mere literariness in poetry, but he did so not out of a simple, atavistic he-manishness. His was a more complicated struggle not to lose himself in the artifice of art, and his life is in some ways a sad illustration of my paradoxical hypothesis. Strangely, Dickey created some of his best poetry when he was an ad-man writing jingles for Coca-Cola. But when he became a university professor, he began to take on the role of the Poet, an act that sapped his real virility and vitality, leaving a sadly struggling poseur who became almost a parody of himself -- at least on the outside. As the letters show, an inner decency and intelligence remained to the end.
Jack Kerouac could not be farther from the literary precincts of Henry James, but literature has many far-flung neighborhoods. Kerouac's "spontaneous prose," whose origins are documented in Ann Charters's 1995 edition of his earlier letters, created a sensation when On the Road was published in 1957, the year in which the letters of this second volume begin. Rambunctious and energetic, the letters sometimes become what Truman Capote charged all of Kerouac's writing was -- typing, and very fast typing at that -- but they still convey the genius of that special American type: the perpetual-motion man. It's sad to watch the energy flag, the toll of too much hard living, as Kerouac succumbs to alcoholism and bitter disenchantment. But, Lord, did he burn brightly for a time!
In each of these excellent volumes, I find ample confirmation of my hypothesis about that precarious negotiation between the author and his everyday self. And the confirmation is both saddening and inspiring. What extreme stakes are involved in the literary life -- nothing less than one's very selfhood. And yet, not only for the work that it sometimes yields, the gamble seems a worthy one. And possibly, for some people, an unavoidable part of their fate.
Jay Tolson is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.