By Thomas F. Staley
Often one of the richest and most interesting components of an archive is the correspondence. Many archives are filled with letters. Norman Mailer's papers, for example, include more than 10,000 letters that document over 60 years of his life. Mailer kept everything—both incoming letters and copies of much of his outgoing correspondence with family, friends, fellow writers, politicians, activists, and fans, among others. Scholars and students who study this collection are able to follow both sides of most of his correspondence, gaining access to a wealth of information about Mailer's life and his work.
Many authors and artists have written extensively about their work—their successes, challenges, and progress. Their correspondence can provide a background portrait of the authors' struggles to create poems, novels, stories, or other works. Letters, of course, can illuminate the text or a work of art. Correspondence also provides a glimpse into the personal thoughts and the day-to-day activities that fill a life. Knowing this process better helps us understand a writer or artist, which is why correspondence is of such great interest to scholars, critics, biographers, and historians.
Writers, in their correspondence, frequently interrogate their motives, which can reveal not only their creative process, but also their other selves, selves that look outside as well as in. Along with the manuscripts, letters offer a kind of archeology of the evolution of an author's mind and provide tremendous insight into their finished works. Many writers explore their internal geography in their letters to friends, lovers, or even enemies.
And in many cases, letters are more than epistolary and become works of art in themselves. The letters of James Salter, for example, are often as lyrical and perfectly crafted as his novels. I have a small cache of letters Salter has sent me over the years, and they are among the best written letters I've ever received. Salter has mastered the art of letter writing as few have.
As you'll read in our cover story in this edition of the newsletter, one can often learn more from a letter than just from the contents of the text. Salter's letters, for example, are almost always written on stationery from the hotels he has visited during his extensive travels across Europe. The letterhead from these hotels—often hastily crossed out because he has long since departed from these temporary homes—offer a geographic trail of Salter's travels and indicate some of the places that may have influenced his creative work.
The nature of eccentricities, the style of an author's letters can reveal so much of the authors themselves.
—Thomas F. Staley