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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Letters and Journals (but mostly letters)

My current obsession: the letters and journals of famous authors.

I've spent the better part of this past year plunging in and out of the most intimate and personal moments of some of my favorite writers. It's been an unexpected joy. And as someone who keeps her own journal, it is both inspiring and hopelessly demoralizing. Reading the private musings of an 18-year-old Sylvia Plath is a sure-fire way to really deflate one's literary ambitions.

And while it's certainly exciting to read about the monumental moments in these authors' lives relayed to their loved ones, it is the ease and grace with which they recount the ordinary details of their daily lives that is the true beauty of these collections.

Here is what David Sedaris has to say about the importance of keeping a journal:
I’ve been keeping a diary for thirty-three years and write in it every morning. Most of it’s just whining, but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote. It’s an invaluable aid when it comes to winning arguments. "That’s not what you said on February 3, 1996," I’ll say to someone.
For more on what other famous authors say about keeping a journal, click here.

Plus, check out this picture of Herman Melville's journal. There are a bunch of other great images of author and artist journals here.

And here are the four collections that I am currently enraptured with:

Letters of Note : An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience by Shaun Usher

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday. Entries include a transcript of the letter; a short contextual introduction; and, in 100 cases, a captivating facsimile of the letter itself. The artfulness of Shaun Usher's eclectic arrangement creates a reading experience rich in discovery. Mordant, hilarious, poignant, enlightening—surprise rewards each turn of the page. Colorfully illustrated with photographs, portraits, and relevant artworks, this handsome hardcover is a visual treat too, making Letters of Note an utterly distinctive gift, and an instant classic.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

A major literary event--the complete, uncensored journals of Sylvia Plath, published in their entirety for the first time. Sylvia Plath's journals were originally published in 1982 in a heavily abridged version authorized by Plath's husband, Ted Hughes.

This new edition is an exact and complete transcription of the diaries Plath kept during the last twelve years of her life. Sixty percent of the book is material that has never before been made public, more fully revealing the intensity of the poet's personal and literary struggles, and providing fresh insight into both her frequent desperation and the bravery with which she faced down her demons. The complete Journals of Sylvia Plath is essential reading for all who have been moved and fascinated by Plath's life and work.

Letters of James Agee to Father Flye 

“I’ll croak before I write ads or sell bonds—or do anything except write.”

James Agee’s father died when he was just six years old, a loss immortalized in his Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, A Death in the Family. Three years later, Agee’s mother moved the mourning family from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the campus of St. Andrew’s, an Episcopal boarding school near Sewanee.

There, Agee met Father James Harold Flye, who would become his history teacher. Though Agee was just ten, the two struck up an unlikely and enduring friendship, traveling Europe by bicycle and exchanging letters for thirty years, from Agee’s admission to Exeter Academy to his death at forty-five. The intimate letters, collected by Father Flye after Agee’s death, form the most intimate portrait of Agee available, a starkly revealing account of the internal and external life of a tortured twentieth-century genius. Agee candidly shares his struggles with depression, professional failure, and a tumultuous personal life that included three wives and four children.

First published in 1962, Letters of James Agee to Father Flye followed the rediscovery of Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the posthumous publication of A Death in the Family, which won the 1958 Pulitzer Prize and became a hit Broadway play and film. The collection sold prolifically throughout the 1960s and ’70s in mass-market editions as a new generation of readers discovered the deep talents of the writer Dwight Macdonald called “the most broadly gifted writer of our American generation.”

The Selected Letters of Willa Cather

Willa Cather’s letters—withheld from publication for more than six decades—are finally available to the public in this fascinating selection. The hundreds collected here range from witty reports of life as a teenager in Red Cloud in the 1880s through her college years at the University of Nebraska, her time as a journalist in Pittsburgh and New York, and her growing eminence as a novelist. They describe her many travels and record her last years, when the loss of loved ones and the disasters of World War II brought her near to despair. Above all, they reveal her passionate interest in people, literature, and the arts. The voice is one we recognize from her fiction: confident, elegant, detailed, openhearted, concerned with profound ideas, but also at times sentimental, sarcastic, and funny. A deep pleasure to read, this volume reveals the intimate joys and sorrows of one of America’s most admired writers.

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