On 8 July 1971, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her friends Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale: ‘I have to get to Cambridge early in September to arrange my new flat—and do some work on my new seminar, on “Letters”!’ She mentioned Jane Carlyle, Anton Chekhov, ‘my Aunt Grace’, John Keats, a letter found in the street, and asked for suggestions, ‘just on the subject of letters, the dying “form of communication.”
‘Dying’ — already, fifty years ago. My pronounced appetite for reading letters must be nearly as old, from Ackerley to Zukofsky. Is that a clue to why, though? Remnants, often receptacles, of a disappearing world, the attraction of the receding, the vanishing, the casualties of cultural, social and economic history. Prose is often just written – letters are at least always written to, addressed to, someone, an individual, which seems to offer something to grasp, to hang onto. They may appear written with eventual publication in mind, as is sometimes the case with diaries. But they’re often revealing and go to forming the autobiography that the writer may have declined to write, or never got around to writing.
I like, too, the ways in which letters themselves become the subject of letters, or of anecdotes (in letters), strands of biography or criticism. ‘Historians don’t go where sources don’t lead,’ Maya Jasanoff remarks, ‘which means they usually stop at the door to somebody’s mind. Even when diaries or letters seem to “tell all,” historians typically treat what happened as one thing, and what somebody made of it as another. Novelists walk right in and roam freely through a person’s feelings, perceptions and thoughts. What happened is what you make of it. That, Conrad argued, could make fiction the truer record of human experience.’ In his preface to Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Mediterranean’ writings, Alan Thomas mentioned that: ‘The debt of future literary scholars to Hugh Gordon Porteous might well have been greater, for he received many letters from fellow poets and accumulated a good deal of material when writing his excellent life of Wyndham Lewis. He sorted all this original material into two groups, important and less important. Unfortunately, he placed the former in a paper bag similar to the kind he used for the disposal of garbage. He returned home one evening to find that his charlady had given this to the dustmen.’
To J. Howard Woolmer (21 March 1997), Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘How nice to get one of your laconic letters which say exactly what you mean and no more – and after all that’s what letters are for.’ Twenty years before, she had recorded the rather gloomy scenario of the painter Edward Burne-Jones burning ‘many hundreds of letters, though he hated to lose Swinburne’s.’
One of the earliest bestsellers that I recall when I started in the book trade was The First Cuckoo, an anthology of letters to the Times and Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Thomas Hardy, noted among the Reverend Henry Moule’s many activities that ‘He wrote letters to The Times about the potato.’
(Sylvia Townsend Warner via NYRB editions)
Sylvia Townsend Warner reflected more than once on the value—and the mutual pleasure—of letters. To William Maxwell, she remarked: ‘The people who were attached to me might, however, like a collected volume of my Letters. I love reading Letters myself, and I can imagine enjoying my own.’ And, to David Garnett, little more than a week earlier: ‘You enjoy my letters, I enjoy yours. We are like those Etruscan couples who sit conversing on their tomb. We belong to an earlier and more conversational world, and tend to finish our sentences and tie up our shoelaces.’
My favourites volumes would include:
D. H. Lawrence, without a doubt.
Guy Davenport, correspondence with Hugh Kenner and with James Laughlin
Letters between James Salter and Robert Phelps.
Sylvia Townsend, correspondence with William Maxwell, with David Garnett, with anybody.
Edward Fitzgerald – and Penelope Fitzgerald, come to that.
Eudora Welty, to Maxwell again and to Ross Macdonald.
Elizabeth Bishop herself.
I am currently spending a great deal of time peering at Ford Madox Ford’s often execrably handwritten letters – or staring at words and phrases in previously published versions that annotation has smoothly sidestepped thus far. What is that? Quotation? Misprint? Misremembering? Joke? And what does that mean? The shocking news—I jest but it would, I suspect, be genuinely shocking to some people—is that not everything exists on the world wide web. Not every book and journal has been digitised—even when they have been, often in fuzzy scans, the original books have misprints, missing pages, wrong pagination, transposed chapters, startling variations between UK and US editions.
Ford, recalling Hokusai, an old man mad about painting, ‘humbly’ wrote himself down as a man ‘a little mad about good letters’. There are certainly some good letters above his signature. So this promises to be endless fun. Almost endless, that is, since a deadline will certainly come calling.
 Elizabeth Bishop, One Art: The Selected Letters, edited by Robert Giroux (London: Pimlico, 1996), 544.
 Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World (London: William Collins, 2017), 10-11.
 Alan G. Thomas, editor, Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 13.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, edited by Terence Dooley (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), 365.
 Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne-Jones (London: Michael Joseph, 1975), 227.
 Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 50.
 Letter of 23 June 1976, Michael Steinman, editor, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (Washington: Counterpoint, 2001), 301.
 Richard Garnett, editor, Sylvia and David: The Townsend Warner/ Garnett Letters (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994), 213.
 Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 296.