I’m happy to bring you this suggested list of the best collections of letters which first appeared on the blog Madam Mayo (always worth checking out!).
It was so sad when I moved in 2006 to come across boxes of old letters in the back of one of my closets…most of which I had to throw away, even knowing that the letter is a dying artform. (Do you really think they’ll be publishing Collected Emails of Michael Chabon?) After reading this piece, I vowed to check out some of these volumes…and to write a real, live letter or two!
Special thanks to the always-generous C.M. Mayo, writer and blogger extraordinaire, and to the author of this post, Richard Goodman, for permitting me to run this post.
We've gone to the blogs, guys. But back in the days, they tossed off letters, some so soulful that they have been collected into books to treasure--- and to turn to for inspiration. Apropos of his forthcoming The Soul of Creative Writing, Richard Goodman, author of the cult-favorite travel memoir, French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, and an astonishingly wide variey of articles and essays for the New York Times, Harvard Review, Vanity Fair, Saveur, Creative Nonfiction, and the Michigan Quarterly Review, among many others, offers his five favorite epistolary collections. ~~C.M. Mayo
#1. The Letters of Giuseppe Verdi
Alas! out of print, but available at abebooks.com At the conclusion of the 1972 New York Times review of these letters, the reviewer could only say, "What a man." And indeed, Verdi was. This is a book not only for music lovers, but for any artist, of any kind. Listen to Verdi berate his librettist: "You talk to me about 100 syllables!! And it's obvious that 100 syllables aren't enough when you take 25 to say the sun is setting!!!"
#2. The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, vol. 1 and vol. 2
Wonderfully translated letters of the author of Madame Bovary. These books are just jammed with gems. For Flaubert, writing was agony, and he wrote about his search for the exact word so eloquently, "I am the obscure and patient pearl-fisher, who dives deep and comes up empty-handed and blue in the face."
#3. One Art: Letters, Selected and Edited, of Elizabeth Bishop
The letters of one of America's greatest poets. Reading them is a course in courage and ethics. It's worth getting the book just to see how she takes Robert Lowell to task for exposing the private lives of others in his poetry.
#4. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh
(Check to see if you can get a good price on the three-volume Bulfinch set. It's got it all.)
Letters by this great artist who was, as it turns out, perhaps the best-read painter who ever lived. He loved books, and many of his letters are about the writers he admired. It's difficult to read these letters as they approach the inevitable end to his life. You feel the sad resignation of a man who knows he's drowning. Still, his passions stay with you.
#5. The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, vol. 1 and vol. 2It's amazing how he did it. What a hardscrabble life he led before he hit the big time. It seems like a quarter of the letters in the first volume are to his agent asking for twenty or thirty bucks so he can get his typewriter out of hock. But what resolve! ~~Richard Goodman
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