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A Friendship in Letters

by Danielle Magnuson


Tags: Epistolary, letters, friendship, literature, Brooklyn Rail, Danielle Magnuson,


The epistolary genre bursts with warmth. From love letters to modern e-epistles, personal correspondence may contain little complaints, funny stories, and big successes piled together with equal weight and candor. The reader of such a letter, after all, is generally a sympathetic listener, a person predisposed to find the complaints valid, the anecdotes amusing, and the triumphs worth applauding.

There are charming epistolary fiction books that make me want to write letters, like Anne of Windy Poplars (1936) and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2009), but occasionally we are granted the voyeuristic pleasure of reading a real letter between friends, as in Joan McClure’s wonderful 1969 letter to her college friend Aliceann, reprinted in The Brooklyn Rail (May 2011). A mother and graduate student, McClure writes about passing her linguistics exams, grouses about ironing her children’s clothing, and gossips about her neighbors with equal fervor and dry wit.

“I agree with you that housework is a total bore, and the only thing that has kept me going these past few years is my studies,” writes McClure to her friend, clearly a kindred spirit. The letter provides an honest, ungutted glimpse into the late 1960s, when an aspiring linguist felt the pressure to also be a perfect housekeeper and mother:

Like tiny brushstrokes, the details of McClure’s letter reveal the portrait of her life now, distanced from her college days. It’s a privilege to read such a correspondence, to be privy to the unguarded intimacy between friends. “I’m going to have another party for my students this summer,” writes McClure toward the end of her long, tender missive. “How I wish you could come.”

Source: Brooklyn Rail 

Image by Muffet, licensed under Creative Commons.