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Yours Ever: People and Their Letters

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Bethanne Patrick.

If you run screaming for the exit at the phrase "collection of correspondence," come back here this instant: Thomas Mallon's new book is no mere compiling of epistles. Rather, Yours Ever is a history of just how much letters can accomplish, combined with crackling commentary from its savvy editor/author.

I know what you're thinking: how could the word "crackling" ever characterize a writer's comments about a bunch of letters? Aren't letters a sort of slow-mo dialogue—an antiquated form that is finished, done, over with? People communicate electronically these days, via cell phones, PDAs, and Internet applications such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Isn't that an improvement?

To answer those questions, simply remind yourself (as Mallon reminds us here) that the key word is "communicate." Yours Ever focuses on the insights that letter writers share about themselves and their time periods, rather than on which pen nibs or paper stock they used. Mallon has arranged his topics by purpose rather than by chronology or personality, allowing him to present 19th-century Briton Florence Nightingale alongside her 20th-century compatriot Graham Greene in the chapter on "Complaint." Both of them eventually manage to set things right—though Greene's petulant screeds to newspapers suffer in comparison with the poignancy of Nightingale's letters home from a battlefield hospital during the Crimean War.

Mallon is unafraid to pass editorial judgment. Remarking on a letter in which V. S. Naipaul informs his patient father that his first novel has just been accepted, Mallon writes, "He was on his way, in bitter, baleful flight, ever farther away from the gentle hand that had set him aloft."

Many famous folk make appearances in the pages of Yours Ever—Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, even Ann Landers. Whereas the letters of some (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for example) cover fairly familiar territory, those of others are a complete surprise. Who knew that President Woodrow Wilson had written love letters to his fiancée, Edith Bolling Galt, practically adolescent in their ardor? Or that Noel Coward was a font of advice to his friends John Gielgud and Marlene Dietrich?

One of the book's most satisfying "celebrity sightings" concerns John Keats and his fiancée, Fanny Brawne. Their love story was recently featured in the movie Bright Star, but only the missives penned by Keats's own hand can convey his voice to us so directly across the decades: "Miss Brawne and I have every now and then a chat and a tiff," he wrote to his brother and sister-in-law in 1820, capturing in a quick phrase the entirety of what Mallon dubs their "romance of wild fluctuations."

The correspondence left behind by lesser-knowns, and complete unknowns, often turns out to be just as affecting. This stems not from juxtaposition; Mallon offers each letter writer his or her appointed space, and that space hinges not on the writer's éclat but on the volume of his or her communiqués—and the novelty of the thoughts expressed in them. The author has included young African American freewomen from the 19th century, closeted yet devoted gay men from the 20th century, and a sadly chaste exchange between an English girl and her swain during World War II.

That back-and-forth, as Mallon notes in his introduction, is not the rule: "A letter is rarely more than half the story; if its forerunner or reply aren't available, one has to infer the other half of the conversation, which can be as frustrating as listening to a cell-phone caller on the train."

Mallon's running commentary on the letters partially removes that frustration for his readers, but that is not the primary satisfaction of Yours Ever. The great joy in reading this lively volume comes from the everyday glimpses of personal truth in letters such as this one, form novelist Flannery O'Connor to her young colleague Shirley Abbott: "I don't write to bring anybody a message, as you know yourself that that is not the purpose of the novelist; but the message I find in the life I see is a moral message."

Bethanne Patrick is a book reviewer and host of The Book Studio for WETA-PBS.

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