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Mourning the Letters That Will No Longer Be Written, and Remembering the Great Ones That Were

Letters were so often sexy. “A correspondence is a kind of love affair,” Janet Malcolm wrote in “The Journalist and the Murderer.” When Lionel and Diana Trilling were courting in 1928, he wrote to her: “Often I want to make a big literary gesture to you, a superb piling up of the best and truest words I know.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne is said to have washed his hands before reading his wife’s letters, lest he sully them in the slightest way. Georgia O’Keeffe’s and Alfred Stieglitz’s letters are so steamy they will still burn your fingers. Her: “the kisses — the hotness — the wetness.” Him: “the hands — the mouth — & eyes.” Someone get these two a room, and some commas.

In her sex and food novel “Blue Skies, No Candy,” Gael Greene wrote: “I don’t remember Emma Bovary ever getting caught up in the seamy mechanics of cheating phone calls. Adultery must have been much more elegant before the telephone. A man had to dispatch an epistle. By messenger. On horseback.”

In the recently published correspondence between Albert Camus and one of his lovers, the actress Maria Casarès, we learn that on the day before his death in a car accident, Camus posted letters to three separate women arranging rendezvous.

Many letters, like many emails, began with an apology for a belated reply. There was an art to these regrets. One of the best came from S. J. Perelman, who wrote to a friend on March 16, 1945, “Your letter of December 22 has been hanging in the rafters like a haggis and is now of a ripeness to be answered.”

I like this almost as much as Lionel Trilling’s late response to a 1951 letter from Norman Podhoretz. Trilling explained that “nothing less than the totality of The Modern Situation, the whole of Democratic Culture, has kept me from writing to you.” Reader, if I owe you an email, ditto.

I miss Manhattan and, during quarantine, think of the ringing empty buildings. James Agee was a young staffer at Fortune magazine and working in the Chrysler Building in the summer of 1932 when he wrote to Father Flye, his mentor, about how good his phonograph sounded late at night.

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