Dearest Cal: Please never stop writing me letters—they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I’ve been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
— Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960
Dearest Elizabeth: I think of you daily and feel anxious lest we lose our old backward and forward flow that always seems to open me up and bring color and peace.
— Robert Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop, March 10, 1963
My office bookshelves are segregated topically, and one entire shelf is devoted to books of letters between writers. Most are towering mid-century literary figures about whose lives I obsess like one might Facebook-stalk a crush, looking for new bits of information or examining the edges of pictures for other famous people lurking in the blurry background.
There’s the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, the missives Simone de Beauvoir sent Jean-Paul Sartre, decades of letters between Mary McCarthy and Hannah Arendt, others between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, the love letters Vladimir Nabokov sent his wife Vera, stacks more.
Obviously I’m not alone in this: Carlene Bauer wrote Frances and Bernard, a fictionalized correspondence (and entirely fictional romance) between characters modeled on Lowell and Flannery O’Connor, who met at Yaddo in 1948. I have my students review the book every term, purely for my grading pleasure.
And the playwright Sarah Ruhl seems to share my fixation. Bishop and Lowell’s complete correspondence was published in 2008 in a volume entitled Words in Air, and Ruhl adapted it into a play called Dear Elizabeth that’s currently running off Broadway (at the Women’s Project Theater in New York) after premiering at Yale Repertory Theatre in November 2012.
Dear Elizabeth is a simple and lovely play: Bishop and Lowell (played by a rotating cast) sit at two desks, facing the audience, reading aloud their letters to one another. Once in a while, they get up and meet between the desks. But they spent most of their lives apart, and most of the play, too.
I have thought a lot about why this play, and these letters, move me so much. The answer is elusive. I can think of the obvious: historical interest, a remnant of a lost time, nostalgia for a form that isn’t practiced much anymore. But these seem too easy.
Once in a while, I have been given the gift of a friendship conducted partly through letters—by email, of course. Not everyone likes to write letters, not even writers, so when the gift strikes it’s like lightning. The experience is wholly unlike publishing, which creates a relationship between one writer and (ideally) a lot of readers, a horde of blank faces, all of whom, in our honest moments, we writers suspect are judging us.
The joy of correspondence, then! It is direct, a specific audience, one you can imagine, one you can know. A voice you find fascinating, and a mind that finds your voice pleasing, too. “Will you talk to me in letters?” writes Bauer’s Bernard to Frances in his first letter. In the books, one writer invariably contacts the other with congratulations on some award or publication, and then—off you go, and decades later they’re still at it.
It’s accurate, but insufficient, to say that letter writing is essentially disembodied communication. That is why Dear Elizabeth is an effective companion to the book: I couldn’t stop watching Robert Lowell’s face, as played that night by Peter Scolari. As Bishop breezily narrated her reasons for not coming to Yaddo or for sailing to Brazil instead of Italy, Lowell’s face registered disappointment, hurt, resignation—filling in the blanks that he would not always write down. “I seem to spend my life missing you,” he finally wrote, years into their friendship.
But to say it’s disembodied does the letter-writing relationship some harm. Phenomenologically, it’s simply not true. To strike up a correspondence is to have the other person living in your head. The world takes on another cast. Writers walk around turning everything into a story or a poem or an essay mentally, but a writer with an ongoing correspondence has an ear to the ground for a specific purpose: to find things that will delight or intrigue or surprise the other.
That leads to an element of virtuosity about the letters. The writers aren’t performing for the public—they’re performing for one another. Of course, they are, because who wouldn’t? It’s one thing to write a letter home from camp to your cousin, but another to write to someone whose work you admire, or whose intelligence, you suspect, outpaces your own. “I think I read you with more interest than anyone now writing,” Lowell wrote to Bishop in 1957. “I know I do, but I think I would even if it weren’t for personal reasons.”
In a review of a 1994 collection of Bishop’s letters, the poet Tom Paulin notes that one of her sentences in a letter to Lowell “leaps out as if she is an actor or a dancer, inspired by the intelligence and attention of her audience of one.” Bishop writes to Lowell from Maine about “having just digested all the New York Times and some pretty awful clam chowder,” and Lowell writes to her about how he gets “fantastic and uncivilized.”
When you maintain a correspondence, you begin reading your own letters with your reader’s eyes: McCarthy opens a 1954 letter to Arendt by saying that “this is the second letter I’ve written you; the first I discarded as too boring.”
But put aside the book now, and imagine the pleasure of immediacy. These letters are filled with references to the ongoing public work they’re doing, and you can imagine the real pleasure that came in opening the latest issue of Partisan Review or The New Yorker or a new book by your friend and finding bits that are already familiar, the public work getting woven into a private friendship.
Friendship—that is what we’re after, here. The introduction to Welty and Maxwell’s letters calls it the “autobiography of a friendship.” That is, in the end, what we are reading for. We’re less interested in some fading form of communication than in friendships sustained over time and space, inflected and touched with beauty and wit.
Despite what Facebook naysayers proclaim, friendship is not going away. It’s too fundamental to human society to disappear. But today we often conduct the distance part of our friendships via public broadcast—updates and Tweets—and while I’m first in line to defend Twitter, there’s a part of your intelligence that starts to get soft when you’re always engaging in a one-to-many relationship.
The beauty and fun of a letter is that it’s just for you. When you get a letter from someone whose vocation is writing, you’re reading work tailored specifically to your mind. When you write one, you’re engaging in the discipline of attention directed at one other soul, one other intellect, and you in turn find your senses heightened and your daily life sharpened, full of the “color and peace” Lowell wrote about. You perform, but for one other person. You become Bishop’s “higher self.”
Friendship is a mystery, one with many shades, and books of letters have something to teach us about expending some of your talent out of the public eye.
As Eudora Welty put it, “Friendship might have been the first, as well as the best, teacher of communication.”
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She taught the “Spirituality and Food” seminar at the Glen Workshop in 2015 and tweets at @alissamarie.