“Better save my letters,” Burroughs instructed Allen Ginsberg, “maybe we can get out a book of them later on when I have a rep.”
This focus makes Yours Ever more entertaining than it would have been had Mallon trawled through the epistles of ordinary people. But it also allows the book, and the reader, to lose sight of the democratic nature of letter writing. For most literate people through most of history, the letter was the only kind of expressive writing they would ever attempt, and thus their closest encounter with the problems of communication and representation implicit in all writing.
Looming over the whole book, of course, is the question of whether the letter itself is a dead genre, killed by the telephone and email.
For the handwritten letter was the most democratic bearer of “aura,” of the sacredness of personhood; and e-mail, by sacrificing aura for speed and ease, is yet another instance of the way in which technology is dematerializing, if not desecrating, the self. At the very least, we can be sure that no one does with an e-mail what the painter Russell Cheney did with a letter from his lover, the critic F.O. Matthiessen: “Couldn’t read the letter, but there it is in my pocket, and I’d slip my hand in and hold it, and a couple of times I’d hold it against my cheek, the sense of being with you strong.”
From “Letter Heads” by Adam Kirsch. A review of Thomas Mallon’s Yours Ever: People and Their Letters. New York: Pantheon. 352 Pages.