#8: READING OTHER PEOPLE’S MAIL. Sitting down to a volume of somebody’s letters has the inevitable whiff of duty and homework to it, but there can be pleasures, surprises, shocks even, and variety. The best and most moving letters I know of are those of Van Gogh and of John Keats. They are both, of course, the recorded tragedies of lives ended suddenly and young—but how different the paths!
In Van Gogh’s letters, we see the wakefulness of the painter—the constant awareness of light and visual detail—more vividly evoked than we ever will anywhere else; we see the lifeline of communication provided by Van Gogh’s beloved correspondent, his brother Theo; we see, most of all, the young Dutchman, who began his life with the hopes of becoming an evangelical minister, bearing the moral duties of being both an artist and a human among other humans until the duty can be borne no more.
The selections of the letters edited by Mark Rothskill published in pocket book by Touchstone can still be found cheaply secondhand; probably the largest one-volume selection, published by Yale, is Ever Yours: The Essential Letters. The various multi-volume editions are all terrifyingly expensive, but the website vangoghletters.org has recently loaded the entire corpus of Van Gogh’s letters, thoroughly annotated and variously indexed, to free access; another of those amazing moments when the internet can make you feel rich as a king. It’s beautifully done and worthy of the artist in all ways.
The letters of John Keats, surely one of the most attractive personalities who ever wrote poetry, show us a wonderful emotional fullness, with none of the swooning that puts contemporary readers off some of Keats’s early verse. Part of that fullness is the illuminant side of a family shadow: Keats and his siblings were separated by the deaths of their parents, and so in Keats’s letters to his siblings we are privy to family visits which had to take place on paper. The friends with whom he shared his poetic interests became a kind of family too; these letters, which witness one of the quickest literary developments on record—by his mid twenties Keats had written some of the inarguable masterpieces of English-language verse—have an eagerness, an ardor, that is Keats’s own. Then illness struck, which frustrated as well his romance with Fannie Brawne, and he died at the age of 26, certain that his work would be forgotten. “Here lies one whose name was writ in water” is the epitaph on his grave in Rome. These last letters of separation are among the most moving ever written. “I can scarcely bid you goodbye, even in a letter. I always made an awkward bow.”
There have been several good selections of Keats’s letters—the edition from Oxford edited by Robert Gittings is probably the best—and a complete edition in two volumes from Harvard, not easy to find cheaply. One of the few happy results of Keats having lived so short a life is that he never got to the age when he propaned his earlier manuscripts and got rid of his juvenilia. The result is that we have an extraordinarily full picture of one of the most rapid artistic developments in the history of poetry. And he is the subject of one of the great literary biographies: W. Jackson Bate’s John Keats (Belknap Press, still in print), which gives Keats’s story its full, affecting drama, accompanied by some of the most cogent criticism of Keats’s poems yet done. For the now-standard text of the poems themselves, go to The Poems of John Keats, edited by Jack Stillinger (Belknap Press); the Penguin edition edited by John Barnard (1977) has excellent and helpful annotations. The long essay on Keats at the end of Harold Bloom’s book The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (Cornell, 1961) is an excellent piece that places Keats in the poetic context of the time.
On a humbler but cheering level, there’s 84, Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff. These letters between an aspiring playwright in New York who had a crush on British literature and the staff of a used-book shop in the post-war years of London’s bookseller’s row, are a charming and comic high point in bibliophile/Anglophile literature. She wanted books; they supplied, and over the years the contrast between the formal courtesy of the London letters and the bright New York yawp of Hanff’s responses mellows into one of the best-recorded of all book-loving friendships. In The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, Hanff finally makes it to England, and the breathless amused charm and inimitable vernacular continues. If you get hooked on Hanff, there’s more: Q’s Legacy (more on England), Apple of my Eye, Letter from New York and Underfoot in Show Business (on New York). Buy them; you’ll reread them.
Of the great theatrical correspondences—there aren’t as many as you might expect—my favorite are the letters exchanged between Ellen Terry and George Bernard Shaw. No one succeeded in disarming Shaw as Terry did: he obviously adored her, and the exchange of letters between them is entirely charming and amiable. You may not learn all that much about the technicalities of early modern theatre, but only rarely have two people so thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. There’s a hint of real passion in the letters, to which Shaw replied: “Let those who may complain that it was all on paper remember that only on paper has humanity yet achieved glory, beauty, truth, knowledge, virtue and abiding love.” Christopher St. John edited the standard selection, and it’s still easy to find secondhand. Terry’s own autobiography, The Story of My Life, is still in print and eminently worth reading.