I have written a few times before about the letter collections of certain writers and artists and why they carry a wider, enduring appeal.
Famed New Yorker editor and writer, William Maxwell, once described this appeal as follows:
The personal correspondence of writers feeds on left-over energy. There is also the element of lavishness, of enjoying the fact that they are throwing away one of their better efforts, for the chances of any given letter’s surviving is fifty-fifty, at most. And there is the element of confidence — of the relaxed backhand stroke that can place the ball anywhere that it pleases the writer have it go.
Maxwell should know as he was a prolific letter writer. At least three of his correspondence collections have been published: with Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, and Sylvia Townsend Warner.
It is this last collection, titled ‘The Element of Lavishness‘, that I am sharing a few notes on today.
William Maxwell, New Yorker Editor from 1936-1975, had a special long-distance relationship with the British writer, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Over 40 years, he edited nearly 150 of her stories and they exchanged 1300 letters about many things, chiefly, of course, writing and reading.
Though they were both married/partnered with others, their particular respect and love for each other, as editor-to-contributor and writer-to-writer, is beautifully evident in these letters. She told him he wrote better letters than Henry James and he returned the compliment by saying hers were better than those of Virginia Woolf.
They also gave each other feedback on their writing and shared views on many things: politics, music, family life, nature, and so on. There is a rare sort of genteelness to be found here, and it is made all the more gracious with their mellow humor, lack of bad words about anyone else (for the most part), and the sheer, honest pleasure of exchanging words and ideas.
Maxwell also corresponded regularly with other famous writers who were published at the NYer during his time — e.g. Nabokov, Updike, Cheever, Salinger, Gallant, Munro, Welty, O’Connor. How he managed to keeep that up, do his editing job, and write his own fiction and non-fiction, I do not know. He must have spent entire days just reading and writing with strict discipline.
I am still working my way through this lovely collection, which does not include all 1300 letters. What I am enjoying most is how they riff off of each other. I mean, as they were both accomplished writers, we expect and appreciate their eloquence and originality. But, more than even those things, what impresses me is how they play off one another’s ideas to elaborate and take them in interesting directions; how they absolutely delight in offering up well-crafted anecdotes and vignettes to each other; how they encourage one another’s writing beyond the letters out of a sheer pleasure for literature but also a genuine admiration for that writing.
Here is an excerpt of Warner sending a story and Maxwell rejecting it in the nicest possible way. Such a thoughtful and considerate editor, don’t you think?
Warner to Maxwell, October 29, 1939:
You see I keep my promises, and here is a possible story for The New Yorker [“A Viking Strain”]. As it has its eye on Christmas, if you do decide to do it, will you please deal with any questions and revisions in proof for me? I know I shall always be at ease with any alterations you make.
The luminous dogs are true.
I’m sorry to send the typescript without a shirt-front, but one is thrifty with paper.
Maxwell to Warner, December 8, 1939:
I have a kind of an egg-shell (snow-white) that I put over my head and that makes it possible for me to dictate rejection letters without getting too low in my mind, but this time it didn’t work. There may be a crack in it, but I have looked at “A Viking Strain” (which we have all read and like and would have thought perfectly usable had it come in late in September) steadily for two weeks trying to get up enough gimp to send it back to you. Because it’s so charming, and because I don’t quite know how to explain to you what you must never have noticed, probably, and that is, you are the founder of a school of fiction. The stories about your mother began it, I think, and now there are a number of English writers who approach contemporary problems through the eyes of the tiny English village that you brought to life. It’s become the established way of writing about England’s problems, and (strangely) even creeps into the London Letter, now that Miss Flanner is on this side of the water. It’s still a good way of dealing with England’s problems, of course, but while you were turning around three times before settling down in Dorset with your evacuees and your New Zealand (not New England) spinach, we’ve been flooded by stories like “A Viking Strain,” the only difference being that they were not half so well done.
If it were a substantial and at least partially rounded narrative, it would have done, no doubt, but the interest of course lies chiefly in the country point of view toward the war, and the country perpetrator, both of which are familiar to us (we are so dreadfully informed, as you know, and can tell at least three days ahead of the actual moment of invasion when any European nation is going to be invaded) now.
I’m sending the ms. back by boat and trust that it won’t be damp when it reaches you. And I hope and trust that I’ve not permanently confused you by my remarks on the state of contemporary English letters. The thing is if you do a rounded story, you’re safe from the journalistic boys and girls, who seize upon things like the luminous dogs, and with that and very little else make a just possible story for The New Yorker. When you really square off (as with “Plutarco Roo”) nobody can touch you or anticipate so much as a word, or a semicolon.
P.S. Shirt-fronts aren’t in the least necessary, and I hope you are parsimonious with paper from inclination and not from necessity. But if paper is scarce over there, for one war reason or another, it certainly isn’t here, and we’d be enchanted to send you a box. Just say the word.
Here are a couple more such beautiful, kind rejections:
Maxwell to Warner, August 8, 1967
“Bruno” isn’t quite right for The New Yorker. It is beautifully written, but it has a curious quality: you give your sympathy to the characters, each in turn and then withdraw it. As if, in the end, you had come to dislike them all impartially. Which is perhaps the case, and your intention. At all events, I don’t think you ought to change anything; it clearly is what it is; this is what came. Now that you are delivered of White*, will you do more? I know you won’t hold this particular failure to like something against us, and besides there is much in the story that we did like. Will you do five or six more right away and one after another?
*White is T H White, the author of among others, ‘The Once and the Future King’, and Warner had just completed writing his biography.
Maxwell to Warner, January 17, 1968
Mr Shawn** is such a fantastically gentle man that it really wouldn’t do to entertain, for long, savage emotions toward anything he says or does. I think some of the humor, and drama, and excitement, of these stories depends upon a certain knowledge of and ate for aesthetic objects, which experience has not happened to throw his way.
**Mr Shawn was the editor-in-chief and Maxwell’s boss at The New Yorker at that time.