Wherein the staff shares favorite epistolary novels, poems, and collections and whether they’ve ever been waiting anxiously at a mailbox. We hope you enjoy the recommendations and getting to know Easy Street a bit better. Clicking on any cover will take you to the book’s Amazon page. —CG
If I were to recommend an epistolary novel, it would be Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain.
It is difficult to name a favorite book without examining its influence on one’s understanding and enjoyment of other books. Therefore, if I could invite any two men (living or dead) to have dinner with me tonight, they would be Mark Twain and Aaron James. James is the author of the bestseller Assholes: A Theory. During the meal, Twain would bloviate about Letters From the Earth, being entertaining even while espousing a number of its painful weaker parts. He would not admit to any heavy-handedness. James, in between bites, would check off the requirements for being an asshole in an elegant leather bound journal. I would wonder if his notes were about Letters or Twain himself. Then we would enjoy an after dinner cognac and a cigar together on the veranda. Quietly nodding our heads in satisfied unison, we would look across the moonlit lawn and agree that if the Divine Criminal we may have only invented actually exists, he is either a jealous and vengeful sociopath, or a first-degree asshole.
What’s most fascinating about epistolary stories is how well they can work whether or not the reader knows the recipient’s identity. In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, its MC, Charlie, pours out his hilarious, innocent heart to a nameless “friend” whose identity we may or may not ever learn (no spoilers!). Spoilers aside, the identity of Charlie’s mysterious interlocutor isn’t the point. The point is how the realism of a letter-writing format freshens the old bildungsroman of the-artist-as-a-young-man trope, perhaps even because of, and not in spite of, the generic use of “friend,” allowing the reader to share that intimately confessional role.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, in The Letters of a Post-Impressionist Being the Familiar Correspondence of Vincent Van Gogh, Theo, Van Gogh’s brother is, presumably, the only intended audience to Van Gogh’s narration of his own coming of age moment, albeit at an older age. After all, Van Gogh didn’t begin to paint until his late 20s, died ten years later, and only sold one painting in his lifetime. There’s no way he could have guessed at his stupendous post-mortem fame, and what’s most refreshing about these letters is there’s no hint of that kind of ambition—his ambitions are entirely artistic and even spiritual in aim. In fact, after reading these letters I don’t think Theo’s Van Gogh would have been too keen on our multi-millionaire Van Gogh. (Perhaps that’s really why we consider him so crazy.) And, although we only experience one side of the brothers’ dialogue, it’s obviously their love and respect for one another’s ideas about art and life that inspires each shimmering letter, which, taken passage by passage, reads almost like a collection of haibun.
Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al is the best-selling epistolary novel in American history, and yet it is often omitted from lists of such works. Why? Too low-brow. Lardner got his start as a sportswriter covering baseball, and the book is a series of letters from pitcher Jack Keefe to his friend Al Blanchard. The book was such a success it was turned into a comic strip, which Lardner wrote but others drew. That’s two strikes against it in the minds of those in charge of putting works of literature up on—or keeping them off of—pedestals.
The book is written in the American vernacular, which causes some to look down their nose at it, but no less a stylist than Virginia Woolf gave it high praise, saying Lardner wrote “the best prose to come our (Britain’s) way,” often “in a language which is not English.” Lardner influenced a generation of writers to abandon the genteel tradition of the 19th century and write as Americans spoke; Hemingway admired him so much he used “Ring Lardner” as his pen name in high school. Fitzgerald and Hemingway didn’t agree on much, but they both thought that Lardner was a better writer than the other.
You Know Me Al is a work of sustained irony at a level that recalls Huckleberry Finn; Jack Keefe, like Huck, is an American innocent who is unaware of his own failings, which the author reveals to the reader with sly humor.
I’ll toss onto the epistolary bookshelves Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al. I surely arrive too long in the tooth to be the best audience for the former, but reading it did stir powerful, sweet, and sad memories and feelings of high school outsiderness. Regarding the latter, Lardner is clever in the way of a P.G. Wodehouse or E. Waugh and provides short, perfectly entertaining reads for the right time—perhaps while sitting mid-inning through a thundershower delay. Though perhaps slightly off category, I’ll also offer up J.M. Blaine’s Midnight, Jesus & Me, which is billed as “misfit memoirs,” reads like a novel built on connected short fiction, but feels like a series of intimate letters from author to reader.
The Griffin and Sabine Trilogy is a series of epistolary novels by Nick Bantok. The Trilogy is comprised of Griffin and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence, Sabine’s Notebook and The Golden Mean, which chronicle the ongoing and increasingly mysterious exchange of love letters between artists and soul mates Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem. Beyond being just an enigmatic love story, this trilogy engages the reader by providing a holistic journey for the senses. Each page not only delivers beautifully cryptic artwork, but also the opportunity to handle actual postcards and letters that must be removed from their envelopes. As such, the reader experiences the voyeuristic thrill of opening someone else’s mail while trying to figure out the true nature of these unique characters and their mysterious bond. The puzzling nature of the story, where the reader is left with as many questions as answers about the fate, as well as the actual existence of these lovers, only adds to the intrigue and enjoyment of the story. The experience makes the reader want to both savor each message and simultaneous race forward to the next episode of the entangling mystery. The series is a delight of the senses for the true romantic.
PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives is a compilation of real life postcards that represent the phenomenal response to a community art project created by Frank Warren.
It all began in 2005 when Warren distributed blank postcards to strangers and asked them to anonymously mail him their secrets. He included the following instructions:
You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything—as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.
Warren received an overwhelming response from all corners of the globe. Submissions ranged from plain postcards with unadorned script to highly decorated and embellished works of art. But despite the artistry, it is the content of these messages that remains the most compelling aspect. Whether elegant or crude, these revelations of the confessor’s deepest fears, regrets and embarrassments have proven to characterize compelling representations of our collective vulnerability and proof of our common humanity.
Since the original work, five additional compilations have been published, including, My Secret: A PostSecret Book (2006), The Secret Lives of Men and Women: A PostSecret Book (2007), A Lifetime of Secrets: A PostSecret Book (2007), Confessions on Life, Death, & God (2009) and The World of PostSecret (2014). The project also hosts a website, postsecret.com, which is updated weekly with new secret submissions. Its continuing popularity is a testament to our need for human connection, understanding and ultimately forgiveness.
Flowers for Algernon is my favorite epistolary novel. Everyone who’s been to high school has read it: the story of a mentally handicapped 32-year-old named Charlie Gordon who undergoes experimental surgery to make him a genius. The surgery was successful when performed on Algernon, a laboratory mouse. Charlie’s development parallels Algernon’s, as does his ultimate demise.
Algernon is told entirely as diary entries. This is powerful for several reasons, not least of which is that one must be honest in one’s diary—as Charlie is, detailing embarrassments that he might not otherwise include in a first-person perspective. Diary entries have the further advantage of being able to hop, skip, and jump from one significant event to another. There’s no requirement for narrative filler between dramatic scenes.
In Charlie’s case, the diary approach also allows him (i.e., the author) to graphically illustrate his evolution in intelligence and sophistication, especially via gradual improvements in spelling and grammar, following the surgery. That would be awkward in ordinary first-person, since it would require that the beginning of the finished and published tale be heavily flawed. An epistolary approach was the perfect choice for Algernon.
Winston Churchill and his wife had a delightful epistolary relationship, documented in Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, edited by their daughter Mary Soames. He was well-traveled and busy, of course, so he had lots of things to say. They are full not only of historical and political goodies, but since Churchill was a painter he had a wonderful way of looking aesthetically at the world around him. Both he and his wife were articulate and funny and romantic. If all you know of Churchill is that he was a fat statesman with a cigar, you’re really missing out.
I don’t think anyone can read the Griffin & Sabine series by Nick Bantock without emitting at least an inner “squee.” The books are full color with delightful artwork and little envelopes stuck to the pages with letter facsimiles that you can pull out and unfold to read. The book begins a correspondence between Griffin and the mysterious Sabine and continues on through two additional books. For me, the appeal is the high-touch aspect. Letter writing itself is very high-touch and, thus, an intimate form of communication that is sadly lacking these days. The book mimics that experience that we’re missing by not writing letters.
And of course I think everyone should read Letters to Zell by our very own talented writer/editor Camille Griep. It’s a delightful glimpse of what a fairy tale world looks like behind the scenes, the nitty gritty of what happens post-Happily Ever After. The tale is told in the form of letters from Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty written to their BFF Rapunzel after she leaves Grimmland to pursue her passions.
My favorite epistolary novel is probably Pamela Ribon’s You Take it From Here. It’s a story of friendship, of a battle with cancer, of romance, of forgiveness. I encountered it at a time in my own life when all of those things were front and center. I bought my best friend a copy and harassed her every day until she’d read it.
I’d also recommend our October Poet in Residence, Brendan Constantine’s, collection Letters to Guns. It’s a complex book of poems, and though not strictly speaking entirely epistolary, is hung on the framework of letters written to firearms by various inanimate objects. At times deathly funny and others frenetically somber, the collection demonstrates the range of creativity Constantine is capable of as he races past the edges of poetry’s rapidly, and blessedly, decaying boundaries.