- Introduction to Focus: Not-So-Dead Letters
Letters address our desire to speak with—or, at least, eavesdrop on—the dead. Reviewing the first volume of The Letters of Samuel Beckett in the spring of 2009, J.M. Coetzee praised the editorial work that went into collecting, collating, and annotating the massive tome, but lamented the constraint placed on the editors by Beckett himself—that the letters would be “[reduced] to the passage only having bearing on [his] work.” The problem, according to Coetzee, is that “in the case of a great writer… every word that he pens can be read as having bearing on his work.” The reviewer thus anticipates a day “when, all legal restrictions having expired, the distinction between literary and private will be dropped and the entire archive will be thrown open.” So much for the Flaubertian wish that the artist might become inaccessible to posterity, leaving only his art. But Coetzee’s anticipation is entirely understandable, particularly given the provocative glimpses of Beckett’s friendships, love affairs, and personal difficulties offered in the volume, even if it is surprising coming from one of the most assiduously private authors of our time. Letters, perhaps especially the letters of a celebrated author, promise to reveal the subjectivity of their writer in a way that no other form does—even the most informal or artless correspondence may provide a glimpse of the living will of the absent, the dead. In the age of Facebook, it seems that we still desire, or desire all the more, what media theorists have come to call “prosthetic intimacy,” mediated access to the private lives of others, if only so that we can better appreciate their professional activities.
To be sure, Coetzee’s wish to access the entire archive of Beckett’s private correspondence speaks to motives that are both outdated and entirely contemporary: the aim of biographical criticism, of the sort that Flaubert scorned, to shed light on literary works by reference to the interests, experiences, and peculiarities of their author; and the effort of the so-called “new modernist studies” to understand literary texts in relation to the network of discursive and material practices associated with modernity. When I began working with Beckett’s correspondence as a graduate assistant in the late 1990s, my classmates could wonder aloud, with Barthes’s announcement of the “death of the author” still ringing in their ears, whether there was any value in compiling such biographical materials. But with the expansion and reconfiguration of the field of modernist studies in this century, which was already underway at that earlier moment, a narrow focus on textuality and tradition has gradually given way to revived interest in the authorial figure—now as a site where various cultural traditions, social norms, political forces, collective affects, technological potentialities, and that most problematic of notions, “personal experiences,” converge. This is not to say that attention to literary letters has become, or should be, strictly “academic.” Coetzee announces a more general fascination with the lives of writers, with the intermeddling of the personal and the professional, as evinced in the enormous wealth of literary letters that have seen publication in recent years.
This issue of American Book Review features a dozen reviews of newly published correspondence from modernist writers on both sides of the Atlantic, including William and Henry James, Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, W.B. Yeats, Waldo Frank, and Jean Toomer, as well as later figures such as Beckett, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Anthony Hecht, Paul Auster, and, yes, Coetzee himself. Given the revelatory quality of the epistolary form, these collections open out onto a broad range of private and public matters: they offer details about the reading habits, cultural involvements, and personal contacts of these writers; they provide access to modes of thinking, feeling, and expressing that inform their “literary” efforts; they expose forms of intimacy that are, perhaps, disappearing in our own hyper-mediated age, with its increasingly frenetic, diffuse, and ephemeral means of communication. For Wharton, a “real letter” was precisely one that expressed gratitude to the recipient, offered the details of her everyday...