Fiction, drama, and most poems are the fables of man pretending, living in and expressing himself through the imagination; their symbol is the persona. History and biography are the record of man reporting. Letters are the voice of man speaking and as such the most direct and accessible of all literary forms. But their value as forms of entertainment or revelation is always in direct proportion to the outgoing qualities of the people who write them. In the truly good letter the writer’s guard is down. He feels free to speak out candidly, informingly, colloquially, at times indiscreetly, and what he has to say may be passionate or painful, witty or sober, foolish or wise, according to the expression of thought, action, or mood. While we read we stand, as it were, in the presence of a personality. Even where literary skill is lacking, a personal turn of phrase, a touch of humor, some troubled musing on the state of man or flash of insight can convey a sense of life felt in all its immediacy and vigor. This is one reason why a collection of letters is sometimes more interesting and revealing than the most considered or frankest of biographies.
Unfortunately, however, literary men are not always the best letter writers. Their letters may be ponderous, as are Johnson’s, sensible but austere, as are Wordsworth’s, theatrical and often insincere like Byron’s, perversely self-conscious like Shaw’s, thin and dull like Joyce’s. Frequently, too, writers...
(The entire section is 1948 words.)
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