Review

Yours Ever: People and Their Letters

by Thomas Mallon

In YOURS EVER, Thomas Mallon resumes his odd yet engaging habit
of puttering about on the fringes of the literary life and, in the
process, churning out a good many fascinating tidbits. In previous
works, he explored diary writing and plagiarism. Here, he gives his
readers a quick tour of letter writers past and present, young and
old, famous and obscure, longwinded and epigrammatic. Every reader
will have his own list of favorites cited --- and also a list of
sorely-missed absentees.

The book is not chronological --- in fact, one of its somewhat
annoying features is the need for the reader to leapfrog back and
forth through history. We go without a break from Sacco and
Vanzetti to Sir Walter Raleigh, from Richard Nixon to Florence
Nightingale, and from Harold Ross to Abelard. The time-travelling
reader gets a bit jet-lagged, though the trip itself is often
engrossing. This is due to the way Mallon has chosen to organize
his book. YOURS EVER is structured around nine broad motifs of
absence, friendship, advice, complaint, love, spirit, confession,
war and prison. I lost count of how many letter writers he
covers, but they surely would populate a small town. His book is
enjoyable reading, but as its parade of writers passes by, it
begins to seem like the literary equivalent of speed dating.

Some of these writers are treated more fully than others.
Charles Dickens, one of the great literary letter writers, gets
only a couple of pages while the rather boring and persnickety
correspondence between Sigmund Freud and Alfred Jung goes on a
great length. My personal list of people who deserve severe
trimming, if not outright exclusion, would include Rainer Maria
Rilke, John Keats and Bruno Schulz --- writers who certainly
deserved their fame but whose self-absorbed letters do not always
make good reading. My list of I-wish-they-were-there candidates is
headed by two names: Abigail Adams and Arnold Schoenberg.
Adams’s letters are famous enough to need no recommendation;
Schoenberg’s are probably the most self-revelatory of any
famous composer’s --- cranky, arrogant, and full of the
writer’s certainty of his own importance. But they are also a
window into the mind of a prickly genius uprooted from his native
soil by the Nazi menace and plunked down into an American culture
that often revolted him.

Among the most felicitous of Mallon’s choices are the
letters of Lord Byron and the doomed British wartime poet Wilfred
Owen. There are also a couple of exchanges between gay couples and
a fascinating look at letters from a German army officer who was
revolted by what his leaders were making him do during World War
II.

Mallon surmises that letter-writing has not died, but merely
entered the “post-private age” by morphing into e-mail
and even more exotic forms. But he finds the old-fashioned
pen-and-paper variety more fitted for revealing the true character
of the sender. Regardless, each reader will certainly make up a
bouquet of favorite quotes from these letters (and also from
Mallon’s often witty commentary). Here are a few of my
favorites:

Lord Byron on his rather unfortunate marriage: “I got a
wife and a cold on the same day, but have got rid of the last
pretty speedily.”

Mark Twain’s deft putdown of Sir Walter Scott: “Did
he know how to write English and didn’t do it because he
didn’t want to?”

And perhaps the most cutting of all is Ayn Rand’s warning
to a niece who had asked her for a loan of $25 to buy a dress:
“I want you to know right now that I will not accept any
excuse --- except serious illness...If, when the debt becomes due,
you tell me that you can’t pay me because you needed a new
pair of shoes or a new coat…then I will consider you as an
embezzler…I won’t send the police after you, but I will
write you off as a rotten person and will never speak or write to
you again.” 

Rand ended with the hope that “this will be the beginning
of a real friendship between us.” Mallon records that
the niece took the deal. The reader can only hope that she got
herself a becoming dress with that cash.

Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 24, 2011

Yours Ever: People and Their Letters
by Thomas Mallon

  • Publication Date: December 7, 2010
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Social Commentary
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 030747741X
  • ISBN-13: 9780307477415