Letters vs. historians

The New York Times had an article today on the planned publication of Robert Frost’s letters, arguing that the forthcoming volumes “could soften a battered image” and re-humanize Frost. The article sets up a familiar dynamic, pitting the biographers offering “their” versions of Frost’s life against the letters, which, the article assumes, will show the “real” Frost. The collected correspondence, the author writes, will “offer the most rounded, complete portrait [of Frost] to date.”

It’s not an unusual stance to take, but I’m fascinated by the article’s unspoken implication that letters offer the unmediated truth of life—that they are facts, while scholarly works are mere interpretation. This seems particularly naive when dealing with writers, who spend their lives searching for the right words and crafting the measured response. This is as true of letters as of any other authorial work.

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