Looking for collections of interesting letters
June 16, 2016 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for published collections of fascinating letters. NOT by writers.

I am looking for books that can be purchased (or, at worst, obtained by interlibrary loan), not actual letters that require traveling to a university library and sitting in a locked room while I try to decipher someone's 18th century scrawl.

Why no writers? Because I've probably already found them. Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Keats, etc., etc. Of course, writers write the best letters. But I want to cast my net more broadly. I'd like to find the correspondence of the high and the low, the virtuous and the criminal. Countesses, prostitutes, snake oil salesmen, televangelists, explorers, tycoons, military heroes and villains, politicians, rakes, revolutionaries, terrorists, warlords, lovers.

Here's an example of what I'm after: Selected Letters of Sidney Smith, Oxford University Press, 1981. Smith was a 19th century English clergyman who led an largely uneventful life but wrote some the most witty, charming, insightful, and sometimes bitterly satiric letters in English. This edition is readily available as a paperback used book.

Finally: I'd prefer letters originally in English. I read no other languages, and poetry, as they say, is that which is lost in translation. I'm in search of beauties, subtleties and eccentricities of the letter-writer's character, and I'm afraid that it's those things which even a good translation might get wrong. I've glanced at the letters of Cicero, for example, and find them rather opaque.

Searching the green, I found a great thread on letters between female friends and lovers. That's an excellent start, and exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for, but not limited to women or friendship.
posted by Slithy_Tove to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know about Letters of Note? There's a website as well.
posted by charmedimsure at 5:03 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are editors too close to writers? Because Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom is so, so, so much fun.
posted by Stacey at 5:04 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Letters of Bernard Berenson and Isabella Stewart Gardner? They collaborated in building one of the U.S.'s great museums.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote a series of letters home from her husband's (C18) embassy to Persia that are warmly remembered. She brought vaccination for smallpox into England.
posted by praemunire at 5:05 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

How about culinary? Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles is a collection of letters from James Beard to fellow chef Helen Evans Brown. It's been a long time since I read it, but I remember lots and lots and lots of food, just these random toss-off references to cooking that I would never have conceived to try myself and which I found fascinating.
posted by cdefgfeadgagfe at 5:17 PM on June 16, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe Postsecret?
posted by cnc at 5:23 PM on June 16, 2016

Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart is a good read. Exactly what is says on the tin. Synopsis and brief bio here.
posted by Beti at 5:59 PM on June 16, 2016 [6 favorites]

I enjoyed Don't You Have Time to Think?, a collection of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman's letters. I think it's edited by his daughter, Michelle, and has occasional notes about the letters themselves, such as this one to his dead wife Arline. Contrary to what it says there, the book mentioned that the letter was worn, as if he re-read it often.
posted by spelunkingplato at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2016 [3 favorites]

This Atlantic article may have some suggestions for you.

I especially like the O'Keeffe letters, the search for which led me to the article. The book was my first gift to my SO, a retired art teacher.
posted by key_of_z at 6:28 PM on June 16, 2016

I've enjoyed reading collections of letters home written by emigrants to America, like:

Letters From The Promised Land: Swedes in America, 1840-1914

In Their Own Words: Letters from Norwegian Immigrants
posted by Corvid at 6:48 PM on June 16, 2016

You want the letters that John and Abigail Adams wrote to each other (plus ones they wrote to other men and women during the early days of American independence.)
posted by MsMolly at 7:26 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

How about The Family Budget, a collection of letters written between seven English siblings in WWI? Some of them were in the war, some were stateside, one was in India... it's described more fully here. (Full disclosure, I know the editor.)
posted by forza at 7:37 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I just finished (well mostly finished) Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reichg which contained a lot of letters written by people on all sides of the conflict to their loved ones. Some of the prose was really striking to me. It's not just letters, though.
posted by sm1tten at 8:44 PM on June 16, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the lighter side, but still real letters: The Lazlo Letters
posted by rhizome at 8:51 PM on June 16, 2016

I really enjoyed The Groucho Letters
posted by Mchelly at 9:01 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've never read them myself, but Vincent Van Gogh's lifetime of letters to his brother are the main reason we know anything about his life. They were not originally in English, though.
posted by Alexandra Michelle at 9:52 PM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Not exactly common folk, but what about letters from Queen Victoria and Albert? You can buy a few books. Here's: an example.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 1:29 AM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Paston letters cover seventy years of an English family's rise in the 15th century. They are available in several editions as well as on line.
posted by BWA at 9:09 AM on June 17, 2016 [2 favorites]

Similarly, the Lisle letters, from Henry VIII's reign. I don't think either the Paston or Lisle collections are particularly noted for their literary qualities, but they certainly are interesting as historical documents.
posted by praemunire at 10:21 AM on June 17, 2016 [1 favorite]

Royko in Love: Mike's Letters to Carol. Letters written by Chicago columnist Mike Royko to his future wife.
posted by SisterHavana at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all the suggestions, folks! This is very helpful. I've marked posts that I thought were especially pertinent.
posted by Slithy_Tove at 5:59 AM on July 14, 2016

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