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Humane and Heartbreaking Letters from the Last Five Centuries

Graham Barclay/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 1883, infamous know-it-all Henry James received a letter from his dear friend Grace Norton, who was laboring under a profound and desperate grief. “I don’t know why we live,” he uncharacteristically replied, as he put his lyrical powers to work as a panacea:

... Sorrow comes in great waves—no one can know that better than you—but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us it leaves us on the spot and we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. … My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, anymore than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass ...

I first read and marked these words in a long, dense collection of James’s letters edited by his renowned biographer Leon Edel. The collection is masterful, but crowded: over a thousand pages of James musing and arranging and complaining. 

Letters of Note—which grew from, of all things, a blog—includes the letter in what’s decidedly a more browsable book, which features correspondence that ranges from a Korean widow’s sixteenth-century lovesong to a Nick Cave diatribe to MTV. Like many others in this compilation, the James letter is indeed “deserving of a wider audience” and Letters of Note brings it out of the scholarship and into the conversation.

The collection, of course, contains a variety of missives from one famous face to another (Hemingway to Fitzgerald, Twain to Whitman, Jagger to Warhol, etc.), wherein they play their characters with wit and style. But letters are some of the most illuminating documents we have to understand the vulnerabilities and subtle mechanisms of the human psyche. And so Letters of Note is at its most humane—and satisfying—when its authors offer glimpses of their uncertainty; when they aren’t aiming to proclaim universal truths, but only their personal convictions.

A soldier who died in the Battle of Bull Run mere days after penning a letter to his wife made clear that he did not know if they would ever join hands again. But he reassured her of his love for her, “Never forget how much I loved you nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield it will whisper your name.” From the mouth of a romantic lead it’s the type of line that would induce cringing. But the soldier’s script on the page makes it real, and visceral, and desperately sad. It will remind you of the unbridled emotion of the written word.