“One of the grim pleasures of reading collected letters,” Wilfrid Sheed, a connoisseur of grim pleasures, once wrote, “comes in watching a style being built year by year until it resembles a model prison, with the writer on the inside. ” 2013 saw an exceptionally strong showing of such prisons, so for the first time this guiltiest of literary guilty pleasures gets its own category here in our year-end festivities. “Guilty” pleasure because in almost all cases, such scholar-curated letter collections are presented to the reading public against the explicitly-stated wishes of the correspondents themselves – time and again, the star figure in the collection puts himself on record forbidding any posthumous publication of what he wrote for private consumption, and though professional writers enamored of appending a Byronic “Burn This” even to innocuous one-page chats are always, always lying and would be mortally offended if the recipient actually did so, plenty of people actually don’t want their private laundry annotated and aired in public. So letter collections have an ineradicable allure of gossip about them; it makes them hard to resist, and in 2013 I didn’t resist very much! In fact I read damn near all of them, and these were the best:
10. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Random House) – We start off this inaugural ‘Best Letters’ list (inaugural and perhaps isolated? Who knows what new speciality the books of 2014 will display? Even I, who’ve been reading 2014 books for months now, consider it far too early to tell) with this fat and immensely interesting collection from a writer who very much would have been appalled at the sight of it – and yet, the vaguely forbidden allure holds stronger here than in most such collections, not because of the well-known fleshing-out of Cather’s sexuality but for her surprisingly approachable and sometimes caustic take on the world – and the people – around her. My own reading experience prompts me to say the Willa Cather found in these letters is a hell of a lot more interesting than the Willa Cather found in her books, which have always struck me as severely over-praised … but thanks to Jewell and Stout, I may have to re-think that.
9. Italo Calvino Letters: 1941-1985, edited by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Princeton University Press) – A little sub-theme in this list this year is the way it’s inadvertently re-positioning some authors for re-appraisals by yours truly in the near future, and this splendid Calvino volume is a perfect case-in-point: as with the dreary, ham-handed fiction of Willa Cather, as with the … well, the everything-ever-written of T.S. Eliot, so too with Calvino, whose slim novels have always struck me as just so much mugging for the camera – and yet the Calvino writing these letters, an immensely cultured and puckish man I instantly wanted to know better, wrote those novels! And so, since I loved this volume so much, I must re-visit all those books in light of this one. It’s a great letter-anthology that can do such a thing.
8. The Selected Letters of Anthony Hect, edited by Jonathan Post (Johns Hopkins University Press) – As with so many of the writers on this list, Hecht could often erect a facade of literate, cultured bonhomie that was at dire odds with the boredom or panic he was feeling, and although he sometimes did something similar in his letters, a more disturbing and appealing vulnerability peaks through. You can read my full review here.
7. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Yale University Press) – Long before the grizzled old legend and borderline crackpot, there was Eliot the brilliant reader, editor, and deadline-prose writer, and that’s the Eliot captured in this wonderfully-researched volume, by far the most entertaining so far in Yale’s ongoing publication of the Eliot correspondence. You can read my full review here.
6. The Letters of Paul Cezanne, edited by Alex Danchev (J. Paul Getty Museum) – Danchev, whose 2012 biography of Cezanne was so deeply thoughtful, returns to the master in this sparkling collection of freshly-translated letters that show the man in all his steadfast dedication and infrequent volubility, all of it underpinned by Danchev’s typically wonderful critical apparatus. This Cezanne is no great shakes as a letter writer (but then, not many people, even great prose artists, tend to be), but his personality animates everything he wrote so fascinatingly – and charmingly – that the reading is irresistible.
5. Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand, edited by Constance Jordan (Oxford University Press) – The austere and forbidding sepia print Oxford picked for the cover of this fantastic and long-needed collection of the letters of the great jurist Learned Hand perhaps does a disservice to the leaping, often playful mind contained in these correspondences, but readers won’t have to go far into this volume to encounter it, and along the way they’ll get to know one of the most penetrating and sometimes controversial legal minds America has ever produced.
4. The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin Sandler (Bloomsbury Press) – This is a comparatively short book and a necessarily discreet one, and those are its only flaws. But even the mostly polite (and mostly official – in other words, carefully proofed and routinely redacted by JFK’s faithful secretary Evelyn Lincoln, who was often far more of the President’s “auxiliary brain” than Ted Sorensen ever was, only without the grandstanding) selections provided here richly display Kennedy’s sharp wit and equally sharp insight, and Sandler’s accompanying curations are winningly non-intrusive.
3. The Selected Letters of William Styron, edited by Rose Styron and R. Blakeslee Gilpin (Random House) – This one is technically a late 2012 publication, but it got to me too late for inclusion in last year’s list and is far, far too good not to be included on this one! This is a brimmingly human collection, showing Styron in all his many mental registers as he recounts in quasi-Rablesian terms the clashes and triumphs of his writing life, first to his colleagues and peers in the trenches and then, later, to the younger crop of writers to whom he was a problematic but challenging mentor-figure. If 2013 was a standout year for ‘selected letters,’ it’s this great book (and William Shawcross’ surprisingly wonderful collection of the Queen Mother’s correspondence, also from late in 2012) that kicked it off.
2. The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press) – This is another of those ‘selected letters’ volumes that any sane reader would wish were five times as long (and so prolific a correspondent was Bernstein that such a mammoth volume could theoretically be assembled – and may yet be, we can hope). Here is all the man’s irrepressible spirit, his uncontrolled hyperbole, his unfeigned interest in all things, even the easily-imagined echo of his glutinous, infectious laugh. Simeone’s editorial apparatus is excellent, but these letters would shine like bright suns (what a joy it must have been to get one in the mail) no matter what their setting.
1. Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963, edited by Katherine Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I thought the critical reception given this great, sad, heartwarming book – the best Letters volume of 2013 – by the professional punditry class in the United States this year was puzzling enough almost to be disgraceful. Space was allotted to the book (which is almost always a boon of some kind), but usually the space was allotted in order to warn readers that the space ought not to have been allotted – that Powers, essentially, isn’t a literary figure worthy of this kind of careful, archival attention, even from his own daughter. This “readers who like this sort of thing will probably like this sort of thing” passive-aggressive sniffing informed even some of the critical appraisals that seemed most praising on the surface, and it’s a shame; it downplays what is here a magnificent achievement on Katherine Powers’ part, a painstaking reconstruction of the heart and mind of one of America’s most penetrating satirists – a thoroughly daring act of empathy from a first-rate critic in her own right.