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Book Bag: The Best Letter Collections

The co-editor of Selected Letters of William Styron, on his favorite correspondences.

The Letters of John CheeverEdited by Benjamin Cheever

Nobody put things quite like Cheever. On life in Iowa (something everyone, from Styron to Vonnegut, describes differently): “I’m having a great time but I’m getting tired and I am having trouble with alcohol again. I rush from the boat races to the Rugby field and from there to a date with a Bengalese beauty who lectures on Wordsworth. I shout myself hoarse at football games, take young women to concerts, dance the Virginia Reel, play football, lecture on the problems of modern fiction and generally splatter myself over this part of the mid-western landscape.” Cheever comes to life in Blake Bailey’s brilliant biography, but the author’s letters show him drinking in the world like a one-man production of Mad Men. Not only are the letters full of Cheever’s many contradictions, his son Ben provides superb explanations and asides that make the collection a real narrative, giving the book that special something so many collections lack.

The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker PercyEdited by Jay Tolson

As a historian of the South, it just does not get much better than this! The syrupy drawl of Foote (which was captured at its most hyperbolic in Foote essentially narrating Ken Burns’s Civil War) interfaces with great depth, friendship, and humor with his lifelong friend, the novelist Walker Percy. These guys really get into the nuts and bolts of writing (outlines, drafts, critiques of each other’s work), the economic realities of being a writer (grim, struggling, wanting more), and what it means to be from the South and write about the South (pride and prejudice).

The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft to Gilbert ImlayEdited by C. Kegan Paul

My wife’s favorite became one of my own. If you doubt that heartbreak is timeless, you need to read these letters from Wollstonecraft to her baby-daddy Gilbert Imlay. Her daily missives chronicle the longing and insecurity that often befall long-distance relationships and eventual breakups. As the writer Robert Stone put it to me in college (about James Joyce, alas), “if you can’t hear” Wollstonecraft’s desperation, “you’re not listening!” “I would hide [my face] in your bosom if you would again open it to me,” she writes to Imlay, “and nestle closely till you bade my fluttering heart be still, by saying that you forgave me.” Just to give you an idea of the awesome power here, Percy Shelley was so obsessed with Wollstonecraft after reading the letters he married Wollstonecraft’s daughter … Oh yeah, and old Percy insisted they consecrate their love on Wollstonecraft’s grave!

Letters to OlgaBy Vaclav Havel

Letters, inevitably, alternate between the sublime and the superficial, the moving and the meaningless. When Rose Styron and I started work on her late husband William Styron’s letters, she turned me on to Havel during the many, many mornings we waded through my daily transcriptions and notations of Bill’s work. Havel was allowed by Czechoslovakian prison authorities to write one heavily censored letter a week to his wife, Olga. This correspondence blends the maddeningly mundane and the philosophically insightful. Havel’s letters, a source of hope and structure for him, also show how the form itself is always at once spontaneous and personal as well as composed and packaged.

Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert LowellEdited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton

Rose and I were bowled over by this volume when it appeared in 2010. Words in Air documents two beautiful minds in a long intellectual love affair. The book also captures all the pangs the editor of a letter collection encounters. You can’t read too much of this correspondence—hundreds of letters in beautiful prose, executed in the midst of acclaimed professional writing without wondering what you’ve been wasting all your time doing. Reading Bishop and Lowell, a different recrimination pops up: will I ever have a friendship that comes close to this? Brilliantly edited, just plain brilliant, and quite intimidating.

What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William MaxwellEdited by Suzanne Marrs

It’s hard not to love this one. Maxwell is a fascinating guy and a brilliant writer. Welty was such a character, and the two of them are hyper-literate. Maxwell is pretty much the dream editor, so supportive and insightful he would make any writer mad with jealousy. He wrote Welty about her story “The Golden Apples” and explained that “at one point I was aware that I was holding my breath, a thing I don’t ever remember doing before, while reading, and what I was holding my breath for is lest I might disturb something in nature, a leaf that was about to move, a bird, a wasp, a blade of grass caught between other blades of grass and about to set itself free.” Um, can you edit me, Mr. Maxwell?