The Books Briefing: What Personal Letters Reveal About Human Struggles

Dear faraway friends and lovers: Your weekly guide to the best in books

During the Dust Bowl in 1930s Oklahoma, a woman waiting out the drought on the farm she shared with her husband wrote to a friend across the country. Her dispatches on the agricultural crisis of the time—published in the May 1936 issue of The Atlantic—encapsulate their daily life in a matter-of-fact tone that belies the scope of the disaster. Letter-writing is an old-fashioned form, but it remains a thoughtful one that can reveal the individual realities of a distant era.

The open letters collected and edited by Carolina De Robertis in Radical Hope offer lessons for surviving racial oppression, following the striking example set by James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Sylvia Plath’s letters to her mother show the writer’s efforts to be excited about small joys in her life even while struggling with depression.

The notes exchanged between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz glitter with affection that transcends the couple’s reputation as artistic icons. T. S. Eliot’s correspondence with a woman named Emily Hale shows the depth of the love between them—and creates a mystery as to why that love dissolved. ​

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The secret cruelty of T. S. Eliot
“The sensation of a letter from T. S. Eliot in your hands—dry and delicate and sort of immaculate, in a way that seems to partake of the nature of the man himself—is a strange one. And these are, by his standards, intimate letters.”

✍️ Letters from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale

The haunting last letters of Sylvia Plath
“It’s the letters home, the letters to her mother, that ring most pitifully with the strained note of heartiness that all melancholiacs will recognize: the daily effort of a depressed person to get over herself, to get it together.”

📚 The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2: 1956–1963, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil

The intimate, political power of the open letter
“In different ways, these letters balance two aims: to enlighten the outside world and, perhaps more importantly, to share tactics of survival and resistance with kin and whoever else might need them.”

📚 Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times, edited by Carolina De Robertis

Letters from Georgia O’Keeffe, Alfred Stieglitz, Ernest Hemingway, and more
“[These] five chronicles of famous correspondence … shed new light on the hearts and minds of cultural icons.”

📚 Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, edited by Leonard Marcus
📚 My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915–1933, edited by Sarah Greenough
📚 The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 1, 1907–1922, edited by Sandra Spanier and Robert W. Trogdon
📚 Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten
📚 Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer

Letters from the Dust Bowl
“When drought struck Oklahoma in the 1930s, the author and her husband stayed behind to protect their 28-year-old farm. Her letters to a friend paint a picture of dire poverty, desiccated soil, and long days with no sunshine.”

✍️ Letters from Caroline A. Henderson to her friend Evelyn

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Teaching a Stone to Talk, by Annie Dillard.

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