Regular readers of this site know that I'm utterly addicted to writers' letters (so much so that I've just added a new category - Writers' Letters). I find them endlessly fascinating, even when the author's work is especially well known to me. I'm not sure what it is - perhaps the universality of the struggle to write; the idea that the blank page could undo even the giants; or perhaps it's simply the mundane business of being a writer, something that helpfully disabuses me of any notions of the "glamor" of the creative act.
At any rate, it's early Christmas here at TEV as two superb-looking collections hit my doorstep. The first one - Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence - isn't going to be published until February, so it seems a bit unfair to talk too much about it now. Though I will say I am struck by how much of the early back and forth is taken up with numerous rejections of Bishop's poems, this despite her having been regularly asked to send new material. The frustration is expressed on both sides - the editors' and Bishop's - but the persistance obviously paid off in the end. I'll excerpt some of these as the publication date nears.
The other volume is Saul Bellow: Letters, published next month by Viking. The collection represents two-fifths of his correspondence and Bellow pretty well wrote to everyone, as you can imagine. I'm spending my Sunday (and probably much of my Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday) with Bellow, but here's an early eye-catcher:
To Bernard Malamud, May 10, 1959, Minneapolis
I shy away from all writers' organizations. The PEN is about my limit, and I have doubts about that. No doubt the [Authors] League is fine, but the publisher and the agent aren't the enemy. The enemy (and I'm not horribly hostile towards them, either) is a hundred and sixty million people who read nothing. What's the League going to do about them, about Orville Prescott, about TV and Hollywood? It may increase my income by six hundred per annun. I don't care about increasing my income by six hundred per annum. It is isn't worth joining an organization for. [ ...]
And this is an excerpt from a 1996 letter to James Wood, thanking him for various kind reviews in The New Republic:
I had, as a fanatical or enrage reader, studies over many decades gallery after gallery of old men in novels and plays and I thought I knew all about them. But to be one is full of surprises. Let me see: There is Oedipus at Colonus, there is the old sculptor of Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken, there is, of course, King Lear, and also Duncanin Macbeth and Polonius in Hamlet, and there are Jonathan Swift's Struldbruggs - the repulsive and unkillable old, there is old Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, there is Father Zossima in The Brothers K, there is Gerontion, and Yeats in his final years. But all of this business about crabbed age and youth tells you absolutely nothing about your own self. I shall leave the subject there. I can't even begin to say what it's really like.
More excerpts to follow, if I can tear myself away ...