Reviewer Guest Post: On Letter Writing as Genre

Alex Crowley -- November 7th, 2013

Today we let one of our normally anonymous reviewers out of lockdown to get some fresh air and sunlight. Give a hearty PW welcome to Cynthia-Marie O’Brien…

Every few days, there’s a new envelope in my mailbox addressed with my mother’s familiar handwriting. The envelopes have been coming for more than 10 years to different addresses; if I’d kept them all, they’d number close to one thousand. As the intended audience, I wouldn’t want anyone to read these, but there’s not much anyone else could discern. Rather, it’s the principle they were written not for an imaginary ideal reader, but only for me; a specific, real singular reader. There’s a contract between reader and writer, a known set of shared understandings that preclude what needs to be explicit. My mother the writer might shrug if someone had access to her letters: they reveal just the complex love of mother for daughter.

Private letters as a literary genre are perhaps closest to essay, that which is literally “to try.” They try to communicate; they’re a genre for pleasure and leisure; meandering is tolerated, even welcome. Even Amazon ranks the sales of letter collections under a category “Letters & Correspondence,” a subset of “Essays & Correspondence.” Unlike essays, most letters are not written for publication. This is especially true if we extend the definition of letter to those we ‘pen’ to friends and family via email. Yet the letter is a genre whose final public or private fate depends on the significance, judged by others, of the author and recipient.

In comparison to what seemed like a lot of snail mail from my mother, the correspondence of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., yielded a staggering 35,000 letters between 1945 and 2005. More importantly, they astound in the calculated intensity of the author’s shrewd awareness of serving multiple audiences. His tireless use of letters to advance his vision and spread it in a written form of networking is masterful. The letters shift registers to suit individual recipients and specific circumstances or content, yet he is on record acknowledging that he always wrote his letters planning for an unknown number of readers, for a capital R reader, for posterity.

Doing so indicates a conscious embrace of his status as a public intellectual and an acceptance, even desire, that this merited him no right to privacy in the realm of correspondence, a stance worth considering today as we wrestle with what privacy means in the digital age. Perhaps technology is a red herring and, in defining privacy, we’ve always had conflicting ideas. A return to questions of ethics and intentions should take precedence over the platform in which we’re exchanging and sharing information.

letters of art schlesinger jrThe Letters of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., edited by the historians’ sons Andrew and Stephen, was released last week by Random House. Undoubtedly, this collection’s release was timed for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s assassination. These letters document Schlesinger, Jr.’s plans to write A Thousand Days and his life-long defense of the Kennedy legacy. They include Kennedy’s request to Schlesinger, Jr. for comments on the manuscript of what became Profiles in Courage, and the reply of incisive chapter-by-chapter critiques from the man who became his White House advisor. The collection should be understood as an effort to pour more cement into the foundation of Schlesinger, Jr.’s legacy as architect of American liberalism; the introduction explains how he helped Kennedy craft language in his acceptance of the Democratic presidential nomination declaring what it means to be a liberal.

In the 2000s, when Schlesinger, Jr. died and his letter collection stops, the U.S.P.S. recorded a drop-off of nearly one-third in first-class mail volume. So if we’re not sending many letters, why are we reading collections of them? Critically-acclaimed letter collections published in 2013 include George Orwell: A Life in Letters (Norton/Liveright), The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Random House), Letters of William Gaddis (Dalkey Archive), and Italo Calvino: Letters 1941-1985 (Princeton Univ.).

That last collection, named as one of PW’s best books of 2013, is remarkable not only because it is in the curious genre of letter but is also a translation. The University of Rochester’s blog Three Percent is named in sad homage to the fact that only about 3% of books published in the United States are translations. The Orwell collection taps into a renewed interest in his fiction in this age of surveillance, while the release of Cather’s correspondence could only be set in motion once her prohibition on the publication of her letters, codified in her will, became legally moot when the will expired.

Competing with the Schlesinger, Jr., collection for strategic releases fueling or satisfying our interest in public figures, last week’s publications included letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale Univ.) and John Lennon (Little, Brown). The most enduring reason we are reading these unwieldy doorstops of books is also not about technology, but human nature. “It’s fun to read other people’s mail,” said Patricia O’Toole, whose The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918 (Simon & Schuster, 2006) was a finalist for the Pulitzer, National Book Critic Circle, and Los Angeles Times Book Prizes. As an aspiring writer, O’Toole sought to satiate her curiosity about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life in the author’s letters. For her, letters are a way to become closer to someone. Compared with biographies which interpret letters, collections give intimate access to a person’s own words to those of us who aren’t sifting through archives one painstaking letter. But it’s naïve to think they are assembled neutrally, even if they were written without a clear, singular purpose.

O’Toole, author of a forthcoming biography of Woodrow Wilson, said many of the most revealing letters about person A are written not between A and B or A and C, but between B and C about A. That’s why her research strategy includes looking at the letters between other people in her subject’s orbit. After her book When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House (Simon & Schuster), O’Toole later published a collection of Roosevelt’s quotes. What’s the appeal of that perennial collection type? Who buys snippets, organized and culled by a researcher? “I imagine they have to write speeches,” she said. Quote seekers, she said, probably have a similar impulse as letter readers do, but “reading books of quotations is often a good way to begin learning about the subject’s ideas.”

Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children was first issued in 1919. It has spent nearly a century in print, with the latest edition published in 2006. That collection, O’Toole said, was crafted not for his children, as claimed and as they were delivered when written, but for history. While the letters adopt an intimate tone to his children, Roosevelt was, like Schlesinger, Jr., documenting events and creating a record using the letter genre as his medium.

O’Toole welcomes the advent of more archives being online and says it’s always useful to see letters written while an event was in progress in comparison with those written when it is over. For that, I find the Schlesinger, Jr., collection to be fascinating. And yet, the letters that offer the most, beyond what other published works from public figures have already done, are those that were written to stay private. In a private letter, a writer adopts a tone that is their own, not the one they are giving the world. We hunger for it and there’s no doubt we learn from it. The question is, as in Cather’s case, whether we have an ethical right to it, no matter how magnificent it is.

As for the Schlesinger, Jr., collection, this is letter-as-genre-of-careful-planning. Readers already love it, yet do they understand how the historian used the genre? A review on GoodReads wonders, “I wonder if it might have been better to separate political and personal letters?” As a reader, this task strikes me as futile in the case of a man whose devotion to ideal of the public intellectual embodied the personal being political.


Cynthia-Marie Marmo O’Brien is an essayist and journalist. Her writing on the imagination received a notable citation in Best American Essays 2011. She has been published in America Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Killing the Buddha, and Words Without Borders, among others. She has been a freelance reviewer for Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly. She is founding editor of literary journal Hypothetical: A Review of Everything Imaginable. She is at work on two nonfiction books.

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