Literary Letters: Correspondence as Art

Until his death on January 27, 2010, J. D. Salinger was famously a recluse. Once a darling of the New York literary scene, he had published nothing since 1965, though there were rumors that he wrote every day. An old girlfriend once said he had finished two novels beyond The Catcher in the Rye and that she had seen them, along with a bunch of notebooks bearing his squiggly script. One of Salinger’s neighbors claimed there were fifteen more novels awaiting exposure. Salinger himself fed these rumors in a 1974 interview, his next-to-last on record: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. . . . I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

Salinger’s pleasure was the public’s pleasure. People were, and are, nuts for his work. Catcher has sold an estimated 65 million copies. Over the years, Salinger had been approached about a movie version by Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others—and had spurned them all, sometimes with you-can’t-be-serious pique. Writer-director Billy Wilder remembered his turn at trying to buy the rights:

I loved [Catcher]. I pursued it. I wanted to make a picture out of it. And then one day, a young man came to the office of Leland Hayward, my agent, in New York and said, “Please tell Mr. Leland Hayward to lay off. He’s very, very insensitive.” And he walked out. That was the entire speech. I never saw him. That was J. D. Salinger and that was Catcher in the Rye.

Nor was Salinger fond of would-be biographers. In 1984, he declined to cooperate with the British writer Ian Hamilton on his proposed J. D. Salinger: A Writing Life. This didn’t stop Hamilton, who wrote to scores of Salinger’s friends, family, and associates, many of whom also gave him the brush-off. Old co-workers of Salinger’s father, Sol, were “mafialike in their suspiciousness,” and Salinger’s neighbors in Cornish, New Hampshire, were as taciturn as the locals in a horror movie. No one spoke about the famous writer living among them or gave out his address or even pointed and ran. To Hamilton, “[T]he signals were, shall we say, ill mannered, both hostile and provocative. ‘You’ll get nothing out of me.’”  

Where Hamilton did find material was in library archives, where many letters written by Salinger had ended up. He paraphrased or quoted from the letters lavishly, a presumption that riled Salinger when somebody showed him the book’s galleys. In 1986, he sued Hamilton and his publisher, Random House, for copyright infringement, losing at trial but winning on appeal, and the biography was axed. In its ruling, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said that a biographer may report facts from unpublished letters but mustn’t reproduce the “vividness” of their expression. (Hamilton got a measure of revenge in 1988 with In Search of J. D. Salinger,his story of mixing it up with the priggish author.)

Four years later, the Second Circuit heard a similar case, this time between Ellen Wright, widow of the writer Richard Wright, and Margaret Walker, over Walker’s new biography of Wright. Walker had excerpted six letters and ten journal entries by Wright, all unpublished. In a seeming contradiction to the Salinger case, the Court allowed the borrowings, ruling that they amounted tofair use, which had been Ian Hamilton’s argument.

What was different? For one thing, Walker used only 1 percent of Wright’s work, whereas Hamilton, according to the Court, copied “at least one-third of seventeen [Salinger] letters and at least 10 percent of forty-two letters.” The second reason, however, is about heart rather than hundredths. “Of the fourteen sections taken from [Wright’s] journal entries,” the Court explained, “only three, under a generous reading of expression, adopt [his] creative style.” In other words, what Walker quoted was humdrum whereas Hamilton looted passages that showed, in the words of the Court, “a sufficient degree of creativity as to sequence of thoughts, choice of words, emphasis, and arrangement to satisfy the minimal threshold of required creativity.”

Creativity? But they were just letters, written for the same middling purposes we all write letters: gossiping, commiserating with friends, ordering a toaster, wishing a happy birthday, answering a question, sharing tidings, reporting to an editor, wooing a lover, instructing a maid, planning a visit, and so on. Right? Not exactly. Wright and Salinger also discussed obsessions, emotions, loves and hates, rising and falling, the human condition, books and movies, history, politics, and whatever else came to mind. Many of their letters read like essays, a habit common to writers. Flannery O’Connor’s letters, for example, brim with her thoughts on, and delight in, Christianity. To the novelist John Hawkes, she wrote, “There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would ultimately be possible or not.” If she had put these words in an essay, we would say they were literature. The truth is, they are literature anyway. This is what the Second Circuit wanted its litigants to understand: written a certain way, letters are creative nonfiction.

Salinger’s letters may never be published, but others have helped the genre proliferate. Search WorldCat, a database of library catalogs, for books with letters in the title and correspondence in the subject field (to avoid novels like Luanne Rice’s The Letters), and you get close to fifty thousand results, some of which have been best sellers. The Greatest Generation Speaks, Tom Brokaw’s collection of letters from mid-twentieth-century Americans, was called “vivid” and “heartwarming” by various critics, and former President George H. W. Bush’s All the Best, George Bush was praised as “remarkable for [its] candor, humor, and poignancy.”

Other collections have excelled with judges, if not booksellers. In 1977, Letters of E. B. White won the L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Two years later, The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, was given a National Book Critics Circle Special Award. Since 1989, the Modern Language Association has handed out the Morton N. Cohen Award for a Distinguished Edition of Letters—i.e., a collection that is “in itself a work of literature.” Past winners have included collections by Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, George Santayana, Tennessee Williams, Charles Darwin, and Mark Twain.

Why are letters celebrated? According to one critic, the only thing better than a letter from a friend is “reading other people’s letters to still others,” but voyeurism is only part of it. The bigger reason is that good letters are good writing, and good writing draws much-deserved acclaim. As for what makes them creative nonfiction, definitions of that genre are copious, but I like Barbara Lounsberry’s in The Art of Fact. She offers four characteristics: subject matter from the real world, comprehensive research, “The Scene,” and (my favorite) fine writing.

The best letters have all these ingredients. Take this passage from Salinger’s 1943 letter to Whit Burnett, founder of the magazine Story. Morose over the marriage of Charlie Chaplin to Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, Salinger imagines that he “can see them at home evenings, Chaplin squatting gray and nude, atop his chiffonier, swinging his thyroid around his head by his bamboo cane, like a dead rat. Oona in an aquamarine gown, applauding madly from the bathroom.” Let’s see. Real-world subject matter? Check. Scene? Hammy, but check. Research? Salinger had dated Oona O’Neill, so I guess you could say he interviewed her. And fine writing? The finest, especially those details: chiffonier, bamboo cane, aquamarine gown.

Equally fine is a 1928 lament from John Steinbeck to Carlton Sheffield, who had been Steinbeck’s roommate at Stanford. Steinbeck sets the scene with an admission that “[i]t is a long time since I have begun a letter such as I mean this to be: an unhurried dissertation in which there is no sense of duty. Perhaps I have lost the power to write such a letter.” He warms to the subject of writer’s block (a too-real-world subject, if you ask me) before elegizing his age and the passage of time: “I don’t regret the years. I have enjoyed them after a fashion. My sufferings have not been great nor have my pleasures been violent. I wish we might resurrect a summer out of the heap of years”—fantastic image—“but that is not possible at this time.” At the end, he returns to his main subject, the struggle to write, braiding it with the strand of aging, a technique of the finest essayists: “I am twenty-six and I am not young any more. I shall write good novels, but hereafter I ride Pegasus with a saddle and martingale, for I am afraid Pegasus will rear and kick, and I am not the sure steady horseman I once was. I do not take joy in the unmanageable horse any more. I want a hackney of tried steadiness.”

Letters are a diversion for most people, but they can make writers into literary gym rats. Philip Larkin paid the bills with book reviews and journalism while making literature in his spare time. Or trying to, at least. Reading his letters, you wonder when he wrote anything else. The 1992 Selected Letters includes some seven hundred, chosen from the “many thousands” available. (Another volume appeared in 2010.) “My Sunday morning,” he wrote in one, “consists of plodding across Pearson Park, past the children’s playground, & then on the other side I buy 4 Sunday papers of steep scurrility & vanish into a drab premises called the Queen’s Hotel, where in a fireless room I settle on an imitation-leather couch and drink a pint or two of pallid Hull beer, scanning headlines of rare promise (‘When the Girl Guide Was Late Home’) and sometimes being glowered at by a large yellow cat. . . .” You can see him working out the miserable, ironic voice that powers “Dockery & Son,” “Aubade,” “The Old Fools,” and other poems. (And yet, I want to scream at him, “You can’t write poetry if you spend all your time on letters!”)

David Foster Wallace was another letter junkie. In Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story, D. T. Max says that Wallace “may have been the last great letter writer in American literature.” You can see him, in his letters, popping the top on themes that he would later pour into the tall frosted glass of his fiction, which never came easy. He tried to explain this in one letter to his agent, Bonnie Nadell: “Do not assume, please, that I am being slothful or distracted because I have not sent you any fiction to publish. . . . I write daily, on a schedule, am at least publishing hackwork and I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.” By hackwork, he meant the essays for which, in the 1990s, he was increasingly, bittersweetly, in demand. He described this tension, and its seduction, in a letter to his mentor Don DeLillo: “I do not know why the comparative ease and pleasure of writing nonfiction always confirms my intuition that fiction is really What I’m Supposed to Do, but it does, and now I’m back here flogging away (in all senses of the word) and feeding my own wastebasket, and taking half-hours off to write letters like this and still calling it Writing Time.” At least he was honest about it.

These letters from Steinbeck, Larkin, and Wallace are confessional, almostblubbering, which abashes some readers. Letters between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, notes the critic Arthur Krystal, teem with “bitter recriminations and poignant reminders of happier days.” Krystal thinks they should never have been published. Why? “Surely, Zelda still has an expectation of privacy that death cannot retract.” But privacy is a slippery argument. While other genres have what Wolfgang Iser calls an “implied reader,” a letter has an actual reader—the addressee on the envelope. Surely this does not mean, however, that the writer had no other readers in mind. Writers are performers. Look at Steinbeck’s imagery, Larkin’s black humor, Wallace’s puns, and Salinger’s spoof of Chaplin. These guys put as much effort into their letters as into their belles-lettres. Perhaps they sensed that someday even their “private” notes would appear between boards.

Of course, even non-writers want their prose to sound competent when they know someone will read it. (Quick quiz: How often, when someone you know writes a note, something simple, like to excuse a child’s absence from school, does the writer hand it to you and say, “How does this sound?”) We want our letters to sound polished, and we also want them to say something. Creative nonfiction works this way, too, and to us who are used to writing it, it is a hard spell to come out of. In essays, we write about things that fascinate us, but in our letters, the fascination is ourselves. We ask a few de rigueur questions of the recipient before getting down to reporting—or whining, à la Steinbeck, Larkin, and Wallace—about our world.

And what a confessional world it is. Facebook, Twitter, blogs, vlogs, YouTube, PostSecret, My First Time, Fresh Confessions,—all exist to mock writer Hamilton Nolan’s assertion that “most people’s lives are not that interesting.” Those who live in small towns know that nothing interests people more than the privacies around them. And anyway, most people’s lives, if not objectively compelling, are still interesting to themselves. This is also the foundation of good nonfiction. An essay may discuss the psychology of cults, murder vis-à-vis the World Series of Poker, Ted Williams growing old, the meanest company in America, or what Shamu can teach us about marriage, but that is only its putative subject. What the work is really about is why the writer chose it—a fascination, in other words.

The best essays adopt a chatty feel; letters are designed with it. The essay is a flexible genre, but the letter is more flexible still. It can narrate epics, create ideologies, and save or damn souls all with the intimacy of one-on-one dialogue. Writers use letters the way they use journals: as proving grounds for ideas, attitudes, and styles, but with the added benefit of a reader to write back. Letters, in other words, are a writer’s beta-testing.

And for some writers, a letter is an end in itself. I once watched a high school friend write a letter in class to our teacher. When she finished, she crumpled it and stuck it in her pocket. I asked her later why she did this. “It helps me get out my anger and frustration,” she explained, “to write a letter to somebody. A real person, I mean.”

“Even if they never read it?” I asked.

“Especially if they never read it,” she replied.

For Further Reading: Five Volumes of Letters You Should Read Now

The John Lennon Letters

(Little, Brown, 2012)

This collection of letters and postcards by the legendary Beatle was called “the most intimate book ever published about Lennon” by The Washington Post.

Other People’s Love Letters: 150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See

(Clarkson Potter, 2007)

Bill Shapiro, former editor of LIFE, assembled this collection of actual billets-doux. A sample: “I look forward to your letters too much to call. Also, where do you stand on chains?”

Reagan: A Life in Letters

(Free Press, 2004)

Ronald Reagan wrote some ten thousand letters in his lifetime, making him the most prolific president since Theodore Roosevelt. Publishers Weekly praised this sampling for its “insight into a singularly important and fascinating American life.”

Letters to a Young Poet

(Modern Library, 2001)

These ten letters by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, written from 1902 to 1908, are among the most moving in modern literature.

The Adams-Jefferson Letters

(University of North Carolina Press, 1988)

“A major treasure of national literature,” according to C. Vann Woodard, this collection of correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams is the best of its kind.

About the Author

anthony aycock
Anthony Aycock

Anthony Aycock has written essays for The Missouri Review, The Gettysburg Review, ONLINE, National Paralegal Reporter, and Community & Junior College Libraries. His first book, The Accidental Law Librarian, is now available.

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