In J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says that after he reads a book he loves he wants to call the author up on the telephone. The fact is, while I haven’t tried to call up authors, I have written to a lot of them. I’ve written them for the same reasons Holden wanted to ring them up—out of sheer gratitude. And all of them, except one or two, have written back.
You may not believe this—and I can understand why—but I’ve never written an author expecting to get a reply. I’m not looking for an autograph. I write out of pure uninhibited spontaneous exuberance, from the same genus of emotional responses as the arm-waving public greeting of a loved one at an airport. I can’t help myself. I can’t hold back my enthusiasm. I just tell them: thank you, thank you, for what you did in this book, for what you said, for how you said it, for the courage and brains and compassion and perseverance to say it. Thank you for creating that character, for turning that phrase, for making me laugh, thank you for making me see, thank you for your amazing, brilliant, sensual writing. You are a damned amazing writer! Or words to that effect.
After I write the fan letter, I forget about it. Really. After a few days, I’ve tossed it from my mind. I can’t write a fan letter with the expectation of a reply as well as I can’t give a kiss with the expectation of a kiss back. It doesn’t work for me. So, often, a reply is an utter surprise. I’m not going to deny that getting a letter from an author I greatly admire isn’t the thrill of a lifetime. We may have heroes as kids—baseball players or astronauts—but writers have heroes all their lives: other writers. I am still prone to literary hero worship. I’m still as in awe of Joseph Conrad now as I was 30 years ago.
I have sent letters to and received letters from authors I esteem who happen to be famous. I’ve written letters to and received letters from authors who are well known but not necessarily famous in the global sense—though that means nothing to me. And I’ve written letters to and received letters from writers who are not famous at all. In each case, the letters I wrote came from the same irresistible passion about their work. I had to tell the author how much I liked the book—or essay—had to thank him or her. All of them were appreciative, because, I think, they could tell from my unrestricted effusiveness I meant it.
I wrote M.F.K. Fisher in 1975, because, at age 29, I’d never read anything like The Art of Eating. Never read anything that had as much sophistication and heart and compassion and aliveness written by an American. Why hadn’t anyone told me? How could I not be her slave for life when she began her letter to me, “It is so pleasant to get a really kind, sensitive fan letter that I feel ashamed of myself for not doing, sometimes, what I so appreciate from others…the taking the trouble to express something nice.”
I’d specifically written Fisher to tell her how much I appreciated her essay on eating alone. The essay is titled “A is for Dining Alone,” from An Alphabet for Gourmets, and the first absolutely marvelous sentence takes off from its title, “…and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself.” This written by a woman in 1949!
Fisher concluded her letter, “I still enjoy eating alone more than with almost anybody else, and it’s nice to know I have at least one fellow traveler. And this reminds me that I have actually met a very pleasant young man who wrote to thank me for writing about how to boil an egg!”
Who would know that 15 years later I would write my own small book and impetuously send two chapters to M.F.K. Fisher, hoping against hope, only to receive the most glorious commendation from her!
I wrote Henry Miller not for any specific book he’d written but for the magnificent life he had led. No one showed more courage and determination to be a writer, an American writer, than he. If you are struggling as a writer—as I was and am—if you sometimes feel the scorn or derision, or worse, indifference with which America holds its artists, seek out The Rosy Crucifixion or the two Cancer books. They’ll give you courage. I wrote Henry Miller that was exactly what his work had given me. I was so taken by my feelings that I wanted to go to California to kiss his ring, but he declined.
“Dear Friend,” he wrote back in his own hand, “Thank you so much for your appreciative words! As for visiting me, I’d rather you wouldn’t. I am in poor shape—blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, arthritis of the hip and arteriosclerosis in one leg. Sort of a semi-cripple.” I got his letter in 1974. He stayed with us until 1980, dying at 89. I still get inspiration from his life. I’m so pleased I was able to show him my gratitude.
I wrote Joan Didion for the good things she had to say about Hemingway (her handwriting is illegible; I’m still not sure to this day exactly what she wrote back); I wrote Mary McCarthy for The Stones of Florence; I wrote John Updike for an essay he wrote about Kafka; I wrote E.B. White for his essay about Walden, “A Slight Sound At Evening,” surely one of the best, if not the best, essay about Walden ever written. I imagine White must have been pleased not to receive yet another letter about Charlotte’s Web. What a charmer he wrote back to me! “It is, I think,” he wrote, “quite true of Thoreau that he often was able to speak directly to the reader, singling him out, like the President pointing at a reporter during the press conference.”
Sometimes I get substantial replies (M.F.K. Fisher); sometimes polite and terse. Mary McCarthy simply said, “I hope that you get to Florence and that you’ll be satisfied to be there.” Pauline Kael in one of her replies said only, “Thanks.” Sometimes I get a postcard (Updike, Edward Hoagland, James Crumley.) Crumley, the author of Dancing Bear, that hilarious detective novel, made me laugh until I fell off my chair, and I told him so. His complete reply? “You write a hell of a fan letter.” Sometimes the letters are handwritten (Miller, Shirley Hazzard, Laurence Wylie). Most of the time the letters have been typewritten—not word processed, but created with a real well-oiled machine.
Always, though, the person is on the page of the letter, not the squeaky-clean, published, typefaced author. Each letter is distinct—even the typewriter faces are different. Sometimes the stationary is heavy, most often it’s simple and workmanlike. Errors are made and corrected by hand. And the signatures! Some so surprisingly meek in light of the grand achievements of the hand that penned them! “Handwriting,” as Nijinsky wrote, “is a lovely thing; it is alive and full of character.” It’s almost like shaking hands.
I wrote Paul Fussell to thank him for The Great War and Modern Memory, that most moving book about World War I, and he thanked me back. I wrote Ross Russell because of his terrific biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives!; I wrote Pauline Kael twice, the letters eight years apart, and got replies to both. I wrote Francis Steegmuller to praise him for his translations of Flaubert’s letters, and he wrote back, “Thank you very much indeed for what you say about Flaubert and about my books. I’m sure that he is at least as delighted as I.”
Sometimes the replies are indirect. I wrote to Erskine Caldwell in 1987, because I felt, and still do, that he is one of America’s most underrated writers. He rose to fame and infamy with Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre, but my god what a brushstroke for hunger and poverty! He read my letter, and he appreciated it, but the reply I received telling me this was from his widow. “I am enclosing a picture of my husband which I hope you will enjoy. I am sorry that he could not sign it for you.”
Maybe the letter I’m most pleased with is one I received from Jess Stein, a vice president and editor at Random House. I wrote to Mr. Stein in 1977 because I was so unabashedly enthusiastic about the new Random House Unabridged Dictionary, of which he was the editor. I was swept away by that dictionary. I don’t have a copy of my letter to Stein—I never keep copies of letters I write—but I do remember even today that my praise for that dictionary roamed all over the place, from synonyms to typefaces. It was, and still is, a remarkable achievement.
Who would know that 20 years later I would go to work for Random House’s Reference Division, where the dictionary was birthed, as an associate editor? And who would know that in 2001 the entire Reference Department would be dissolved, my job with it, and that the Random House Unabridged Dictionary would never be updated again. Jess Stein, R.I.P! He was so appreciative of my letter. He invoked Johnson’s lament that “lexicographers do not hope for praise but only for the absence of blame.” Then he went on, “That’s quite true because people rarely take the trouble, as you did, to tell someone that what he has done is as good and as helpful as he had hoped. So thank you very much for your very kind and thoughtful letter.”
The pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Stein, believe me.