The Love Letters of Dylan Thomas

Published by J.M. Dent

84 pages, 2002

Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son

edited by Michael Schumacher

Published by Bloomsbury

412 pages, 2001

Letters to J.D. Salinger

edited by Chris Kubica and Will Hochman

Published by University of Wisconsin Press

250 pages, 2002





Letters As Literature

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


We are almost overrun with the technology of human communication. It is possible to ponder the available communication alternatives for longer than required of the communication itself. Let's see: We can fax a greeting, FedEx a contract, telephone with a question and voice mail with an answer. It is possible to have telephone conversations that provide visual contact and international voice communication has never been more cost effective. And yet, on Valentine's Day we still get out the trusty pen and scribble a heartfelt note to loved ones. And does anyone ever get one of those photocopied Christmas greetings without rolling their eyes in impatient disgust: Couldn't they have taken the time to write?

We have all of these options, but nothing seems able to surpass the special communication that happens when you simply put pen to paper. More: nothing replaces our fascination for the words others have written to people who have nothing at all to do with us. You explain it, because I certainly can't. I just know that a friendly cursive hand in blue ink on the front of the envelope will invite me to open a letter much more quickly than the promise of dollars I may or may not have won. Go figure.

In some ways the only thing more -- or at least as -- delicious as reading a letter from a friend is reading other people's letters to still others. Especially if the writer is known to us. Publishers know this, too. And every season a new crop of "Letters to" and "Letters from" appear to entice us into other people's lives.

The Lover Letters of Dylan Thomas provide fairly direct access into the twisted romantic heart of the Welsh poet. Most of Thomas' love letters -- to his wife, Caitlin, to Pamela, his first love and to all the women that came between, after and during -- are low on news and high on stream of consciousness declarations of undying devotion. Thomas devotees may find themselves disappointed to a certain degree: many of his love letters are, for the most part, quite tedious, with occasional sparks of great poetic wit. Like this one to Emily Holmes Coleman, an American novelist Thomas became involved with in the late 1930s:

darling Emily dear, dear Emily darling, Emily Emily dear Emily,

I think of you so much. I think of us, and all the funny, nice things we've done, and all the nicer things we're going to do. I think of nice places and people, and, when I think of them, you're always there, always tall and death-mouthed and big-eyed and no-voiced, with a collegiate ribbon or a phallic hat. I think of us in pubs and clubs and cinemas and beds. I think I love you.

Yet later in this same letter to Emily, it seems quite clear whom Thomas actually loves:

I don't really know about Caitlin. I don't know how tough my Caitlin is, how powerful her vagueness is, whether the sweet oblivion in which she moves about is proof against the tiny little hurts that can eat through a mountain while the big hurts just batter against it.

Some of the newsier letters are from Thomas to his beloved Caitlin -- his wife and by then the mother of his children -- in 1950, while he was on a book tour in the United States. News -- and the poetry -- must be sifted from between bouts of homesick anguish:

Oh why, why, didn't we arrange it somehow that we came out together to this devastating, insane, demoniacally loud, roaring continent. We could somehow have arranged it. Why oh why did I think I could live, I could bear to live, I could think of living for all these torturing, unending, echoing months without you.... I have driven for what seemed like, and probably are, thousands of miles, along neoned, gigantically hoarded roads of the lower region of the damned, from town to town, college to college, university to university, hotel to hotel, & all I want, before Christ, before you, is to hold you in my arms in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire.

What emerges from the slender book is a rough sketch of an insecure man who always felt passionately about whoever was closest at hand but who was capable of creating images so vivid we still see them today, almost 50 years after his death.

Just as loving -- but in an entirely different way -- are the letters between the father and son poets Louis and Allen Ginsberg in the aptly titled Family Business. This is selected correspondence between father and son from the mid-1940s until shortly before Louis Ginsberg's death in 1976. Read them any way you like, but these are love letters of the most intimate kind. At various times both Ginsbergs debate Allen's choice of sexuality -- a homosexual, he came out to his father in the 1960s -- as well as both men's politics and various political views as we move through the years.

Louis' entry to Allen for November 23, 1963 includes the following hopeless little paragraph:

Yesterday the shock of the assassination of President Kennedy shook me as it shook the world. Not since FDR has such a tidal wave of incredulous grief hit America. Somehow, the last two days, I have no desire to work at my desk.

Most of the correspondence, however, is of a more personal nature, even when political views are included, as in this letter from Louis to Allen dated November 23, 1965, in a civilized debate over American actions in Vietnam:

Your emotionalism -- while it is nobly aimed and shows a great and kind character -- nevertheless is blind to many aspects of reality. The old party line of the Communist party was and is an evil thing, a Procrustean bed that lopped off limbs and minds. You yourself being a theoretical communist do not appear to have clean hands, despite your blind nobility.

Much later -- in May of 1973 -- Allen writes on the same topic, but with the added perspective of 10 years and many headlines. The poetry in these lines to his father is apparent... and pure Ginsberg:

Watergate rushing truths -- It's like a woolen sweater -- unravel one thread and the whole cloth finally comes apart -- If the thread keeps unraveling the whole fabric of "mass hallucination" public imagery will fall -- and what should be seen is that all of Vietnam -- all the "Brainwash" imagery Romney complained about in 1968 -- was also a giant Watergate-type conspiracy.

What's beautiful in Family Business is the respect these men -- father and son in an era when fathers and sons often battled noisily over political and moral differences -- accord each other, no matter what the topic. Even when their differences of opinion are vast, they are polite, concise and sometimes -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- even poetic. Family Business is a snapshot of an important era in American history viewed through the eyes of two very different -- though closely related -- poets. A fascinating book.

Letters to J.D. Salinger aren't really. The book might more aptly be called Undelivered Letters to J.D. Salinger, because the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye has never seen them. Unless, of course, he's bought a copy of the book. We'll probably never know for sure, but co-editor Chris Kubica kind of doubts it. From Kubica's introduction:

People sometimes ask me, what's the whole point? Why even bother with all this? If Salinger ever hears about this book he won't read it. And if someone sends him a copy he's likely to use it as kindling or drop it into his Post Office's circular file on the way out the door. My answer is simple: This book isn't for Salinger. It's for me. And for you. And for anyone who has read and been touched by Salinger's words and wants to find out what everyone else thinks about them.

Kubica reminds us that around 1965, Salinger "'checked out' from public life, leaving our many questions about his life and his works unanswered. This book provides a forum for these questions, thoughts, and creative ponderings."

With some help from the Internet, the postal service and what seems to be a delightfully kooky nature, Kubica has created the perfect forum. Kubica's respondees in Letters to J.D. Salinger include English teachers you've never heard of, J.D.'s cousin Sid, a few anonymous and single named correspondents from the Web and a lot of writers, from little known to extremely well known, all collected here to share their thoughts with -- and, indirectly, about -- J.D. Salinger.

The novelist Tom Robbins, noted for his avoidance of media as well as writing Skinny Legs and All and six other books, offers a brief but insightful comment:

You made the right decision. I've sometimes wished that I'd followed your example, although I'd have missed meeting hundreds of wonderful people.

Well known poet Jim Harrison also writes briefly and with admiration though he ends on a humorous note:

Meanwhile I hope you keep writing. Tu Fu, perhaps the greatest Chinese poet, published no books in his lifetime but did quite well afterwards.

Some of the letters are lengthy and include questions about Salinger's characters -- notably Holden Caufield -- as well as comments on how the author's work has affected their lives and dreams. Some include questions, occasionally long and detailed, sometimes tellingly simple. From the Web, "TANIA b" asks, "Do you watch the sunsets?" "Geeti" says "Thank you for Seymour." And Polly comments, "Every time I'm in a cab that smells all vomity I think of you and Holden and say so, usually to the cab driver, and all of a sudden it's a perfect day, really, for more than bananafish, more than anything at all."

Letters to J.D. Salinger is an engaging book. It evokes -- without really even seeming to try -- an author whose relatively small cast of characters have left a lasting impression on almost everyone who has ever encountered them. Kubica is right: Salinger probably won't read the book. And it's his loss: he's missing out. Though it's probably a feeling he's used to by now. | February 2002


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.