A few months ago I wrote a post about the joys of reading collections of letters. My introduction was clumsily worded, so I was delighted to find a statement by Eudora Welty on the value of letters. She says it far better than I ever could: “All letters, old and new, are the still-existing parts of a life…clamorous with the moment’s happiness or pain.” That sense of being part of someone else’s life is doubled in the collections I discuss below: each one is a window into a relationship. In these days of email and cheap long distance, it’s easy to forget that letters were the primary means of staying in touch for parted couples and faraway friends. These letter collections take you into the lives of a loving couple in a world turning upside down, a brilliant writer’s kind advice to a young man, and the collaboration that changed America’s culinary landscape forever.
The marriage of John and Abigail Adams was a rarity for its time in being a true partnership. Not only was Abigail never afraid to speak her mind to her husband, John usually took her opinions seriously. That mutual respect and affection is evident on almost every page of My Dearest Friend: Letters of Abigail and John Adams. At a time when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were political enemies, Abigail had the independence and forthrightness to tell her husband, “tho frequently mistaken in Men and Measures, I do not think him an insincere or a corruptable Man. My Friendship for him has never been shaken.” The regard John had for his independent wife is evident in comments such as “You are really brave, my dear, you are an Heroine.” In addition to discussion of the issues and personalities of the day, their letters reflect the day-to-day concerns of eighteenth-century Americans, such as worries about smallpox and complaints about poor quality beer. And these letters have an especial poignancy given how many others were lost to the uncertainties of eighteenth-century mail delivery during a time of war. Abigail wrote to her husband in 1778, “So many vessels are taken, that there is Little chance of a Letter reaching your Hands. That I meet with so few returns is a circumstance that lies heavy at my Heart.”
At the beginning of the last century Franz Kappus, a teenage military cadet with literary ambitions, wrote to the poet Rainer Marie Rilke for advice on pursuing an artist’s life. Rilke’s replies, published as Letters to a Young Poet , contain some of the most beautiful advice and meditations on life ever written. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could craft responses to letters that included such jewels as “Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love,” or “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.” Unfortunately for the curious, Letters to a Young Poet does not include Kappus’ replies: he wrote in his self-deprecating introduction to the 1929 edition, “where a great and unique man speaks, small men must keep silent.”
In 1951 the curmudgeonly journalist Bernard DeVoto wrote an article for Harper’s bemoaning the poor quality of American kitchen knives: “they look wonderful but they won’t cut anything.” Julia Child, who was living in Paris at the time, read the article. Having a kitchen stocked with the best in French cutlery, she sent DeVoto one of her knives. DeVoto’s wife Avis, who handled most of her husband’s mail, wrote Julia a letter of thanks. The ensuing correspondence was published in 2010 under the title As Always, Julia: Letters between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece. The two traded pans and herbs via post and wrote each other about cooking, politics, sex, their families and…a cookbook Julia was writing, which under Avis’ guidance would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As Always charts the give-and-take and occasional setbacks as Avis edited the expatriate’s recipes for the American public: “Page 5 — cleaning eggs…what do you mean? …we never have eggs that dirty.” In addition to insights on the creation of the book that changed how Americans cook and eat, As Always provides glimpses into the lives and minds of two delightful women. Avis followed politics with gusto, even if her predictions were sometimes off the mark (as when she predicted Adlai Stevenson would be “bigger than Roosevelt”). And Julia’s enthusiasm for food was simply one side of a voracious personality: she writes about learning Norwegian, “I don’t care how many mistakes I make as long as I can talk and talk and talk.”