Biography, like fiction, is a shaping art. Even the most plodding and pedestrian chronological account of a life bears the mark of a biographer’s hand: the sense of evidence culled, compiled, enhanced, managed, meant to establish or emphasize a point, in a way that unedited life seldom affords. It is more likely in the correspondence, published and unpublished, that one finds the runaway untidiness of the subject’s everyday life: the stray episodes that do not fit a pattern, the chance relationships that, as often as not, lead nowhere in particular—or, with interesting possibilities, everywhere. In the letters (and in the journals and diaries) one gets the helter-skelter of life as it is lived.

To be sure, volumes of published correspondence are also shaped by literary or legal or commercial considerations. The market value of the letter-writer in question, the danger that some...


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