That many celebrated authors and poets should also be celebrated letter writers comes as no surprise. Skill with words in one format is likely to give facility in another. But there is something else; writers often (not always) afflicted by extreme loquacity. When not writing War and Peace or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,* the writer is typically to be found expounding on the uses of the free indirect narrative voice to the bloke who has come round to read the meter or explaining the set up of The Wasp Factory to the mystified small child they are supposed to be babysitting.
But what unites ninety eight percent of writers of all types is the extreme lengths we will go to to avoid getting down to actually doing some “work.” In my own case I have even, on occasion, gone so far as to do the washing up in order to put off the moment when I had to start writing.
Writing letters might seem an odd, nay ineffective way of avoiding writing but it generally isn’t the writing that a novelist is contracted to do or the poet needs to complete before a reading. The proof of this is that when letter writing is the obligate activity the situation is reversed and writing letters becomes the thing to be avoided. James Joyce, for example, wrote Ulysses as a way to put off writing a thank you letter to his Aunt Josephine for a present of some socks.
The fact is that many famous writers are celebrated of their letter writing and many have had their correspondence collected into books (often posthumously). Some of the most celebrated are: Alexander Pope, Flannery O’Conner, George Orwell and (inevitably) Emily Dickinson and equally inevitably, Jane Austen.
To no one’s surprise the novelist famed of her sharp wit wrote amusing letters. What is a bit surprising is how brutal they can be. Austen had learned to temper her rapier wit in the novels. And bear in mind, the published letters are the ones that her sister, Cassandra did not destroy in order to maintain Jane’s reputation, which makes you wonder what was in the ones she did burn!’
“Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright. I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”
Sir Tho. Miller is dead. I treat you with a dead baronet in almost every letter.
On a more serious note, Kurt Vonnegut is a celebrated letter writer, but none are more poignant than the one he wrote to his father to let him know that he was alive after his capture by the Germans in WWII. The letter shows that Slaughterhouse Five, for all its aliens and time travel, is fundamentally a memoire and it exhibits all the melancholy humour that characterises Vonnegut’s fiction.
“Well, the supermen marched us, without food, water or sleep to Limberg, a distance of about sixty miles, I think, where we were loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car. There were no sanitary accommodations — the floors were covered with fresh cow dung. There wasn’t room for all of us to lie down. Half slept while the other half stood. We spent several days, including Christmas, on that Limberg siding. On Christmas eve the Royal Air Force bombed and strafed our unmarked train. They killed about one-hundred-and-fifty of us. We got a little water Christmas Day and moved slowly across Germany to a large P.O.W. Camp in Muhlburg, South of Berlin. We were released from the box cars on New Year’s Day. The Germans herded us through scalding delousing showers. Many men died from shock in the showers after ten days of starvation, thirst and exposure. But I didn’t.”
Letters Live first took place in December 2013 at the Tabernacle in London and quickly established itself as a very powerful and dynamic event format that attracted outstanding talents to performing remarkable letters in front of a live audience.
Inspired by Shaun Usher’s international best-selling Letters of Note series and Simon Garfield’s To the Letter, Letters Live is a live celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence. Each show always features a completely different array of great performers, reading remarkable letters written over the centuries and from around the world. One of the joys of Letters Live is that one never knows who is going to take to the stage or what letter they are going to bring alive.
Warning: contains offensive language
*Coleridge may have been in a class of his own when it came to garrulosity :
‘It was Green, too, who introduced Keats to Coleridge in April 1819, legend has it in Millfield Lane, “Poets’ Lane”. Keats and Coleridge each left an account of this, their only meeting. Keats’s: “After enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable, I walked with him at his alderman-afterdinner pace for nearly two miles, I suppose. In those two miles he broached 1,000 things – let me see if I can give you a list – Nightingales-poetry-on poetic sensation-Metaphysics-Different genera and species of Dreams-Nightmare-a dream accompanied by a sense of touch-single and double touch-a dream related-first and second consciousness-The difference between Will and Volition-so my (many) metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness-monsters-The Kraken-Mermaids-Southey believes in them-Southey’s belief too much diluted-a Ghost story-Good morning- I heard his voice as he came towards me- I heard it as he moved away- I heard it all the interval- if it may be called so.” https://www.friendsofcoleridge.com/membersonly/highgate.html