Reading other people's letters, like reading private diaries, offers thrilling and unexpected glimpses into the lives of otherstheir pledges of love and their sharp remonstrances, their thoughts on war and peace and the gossip of the day, their intellectual travels and idle chatter. It is partly this guilty pleasure we take in such literary eavesdropping that makes The Oxford Book of Letters so compelling. More than 300 letters spanning five centuries chronicle the affairs of correspondents from Elizabeth I to Groucho Marx, from politicans to poets, from the famous to the unknown.
Editors Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode have chosen a remarkable selection of correspondents both educated and barely literate, with styles that range from polished and witty to stumbling and artless, but who all share a gift for letters that display an immediacy and intimacy not shared by any other form of writing. Here is John Adams to his wife, Abigail, in what we know to be a harried April of 1776 ("You justly complain of my short Letters, but the critical State of Things and the Multiplicity of Avocations must plead my Excuse"); Benjamin Disraeli, confiding to Lady Bradford the secret of his purchase of the Suez Canal for England ("not one of the least events of our generation"); Charles Dickens to his son, Henry, regarding finances ("You know how hard I work for what I get, and I think you know that I never had money help from any human creature after I was a child"); Flannery O'Connor to Cecil Dawkins, a young college instructor, with writing advice ("You can't be creative in all directions at once. Freshman English would suit me fine. I'd make them diagram sentences"); and an indignant A.T. Harris to the head of the Atlantic City Railroad in 1896 ("On the 15th yore trane that was going to Atlanta ran over mi bull...yore ruddy trane took a peece of hyde outer his belly between his nable and his poker at least fute square"). Among the most moving letters are those from emigrants to America, Australia, and South Africa, describing the hardships they endured and the resolution with which they faced their new worldswe read Anna Francis's letter to her sister, detailing her dashed hopes for happiness as an emigre in South Africa ("And is this the place in which I am to live out the remainder of my wretched existence! Forbid it heaven!"); and Rebecca Butterworth's forlorn letter to England from Arkansas, outlining a litany of disaster: stillborn children, poor crops, dire illness ("If we sell soon and the Lord spares us, we will be out in fall").
With subjects ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary, from the tragic to the hilarious, the Kermodes have included both isolated missives as well as exchanges of letters between regular correspondents, where familiarity and an ongoing saga add to the fascination. The editors provide a context for the letters, and unobtrusive notes. In an age where communication is instant and ephemeral, this volume celebrates the glory of the written word, and what may well be a dying art form.