Selected by Norah K. Barr, Marsha Moran, and Patrick Moran. Counterpoint. $35.
"I am as obviously a letter writer as some people are alcoholics or Benzedrine boys," M. F. K. Fisher wrote at the age of forty. The wry, self-deprecatory tone of that admission will be familiar to followers of Fisher's long, productive career as a writer. They will take her at her word. Newcomers to her work need only this collection of correspondence as proof that she was, indeed, a woman of letters. If you did not sense her looking over your shoulder, you would be tempted, even, to raise that to a Woman of Letters.
But it is certain that Fisher herself would deny any hint that she was some twentieth-century female version of those Victorian literary lions who mastered all forms and promoted their opinions on everything from world historical events to personal conduct and aesthetics. To the contrary, she always resisted attempts by her admirers to monumentalize her. (Well, almost always; as an old woman, she did get a kick out of being designated an "honorary Armenian.")
By many measures, Fisher would qualify for the grand literary distinction. At some point in her eighty-three years she tried almost every literary form: essays, book reviews, travel pieces, novels, short stories. She anthologized the work of others, translated articles and books, and contributed essays and articles to serious magazines. She even edited a newspaper. She also mastered a few forms that would make a real Man of Letters blush, including cookbooks and articles on food and child care. Some of these genres were not, perhaps, literature, but she wrote everything with inimitable style and flair.
That style is always intimate but never coy; it is elliptical, digressive, witty, fresh, tactile, and bursting with energy. "The need to use words and direct them to a chosen person is almost physically urgent in me," she explains to her sister Norah. She began to respond to that need as a child and continued almost until her death in 1992. I can think of no better way to find a voice or hone a style than through the daily practice of a wide and richly varied correspondence. Fisher cultivated an epistolary garden of family, friends, lovers, and peers that continued to expand, even in old age, and that, in turn, extended her ties to the world at a stage in life when most people, from exhaustion or fear, are drawing inward in increasingly small circles. As an example of what an abidingly open mind can encompass even in the face of persistent pain and the apprehension of death, A Life in Letters has much to teach us.
Fisher seems to have been born without a gene for conformity. Her life accommodated both her firm roots in her native California soil and her lust for foreign flavors. Born in 1908 into a long line of newspaper people, she was transplanted from Michigan at the age of four to the Quaker town of Whittier, California, where she soon learned what it was to be an outsider. The "friends" in her autobiographical essay collection Among Friends looked askance at her family, and their children, taking...