The Epistolary Me

<i> Michael Frank is a contributing writer to Book Review</i>

How to grasp a life? How to capture who, and what, a human being was--how she evolved, worked, learned, loved, came to consciousness and maturity, survived success and loss, how she readied herself for death? Usually this task falls to biographers, those nimblest of patch-workers. They consult the diaries, the correspondence, the books (when the subject is a writer), the possibly well-intended (and possibly not) testimonials of friends; they review flaking newspapers and faded photographs and walk through meaningful rooms that have lost their meaning and, after splicing and sewing and interpreting, they render a portrait, a simulacrum, of a life, a version--in short, a narrative.

In the absence of a biography, and in the presence of a collection of letters, the reader can find himself turning into a biographer as he proceeds, extrapolating the themes, delineating the trajectories and pondering the mysteries that are so haphazardly laid out in its pages. By their accidental, unplanned nature, most collections of letters are touched by the spirit of, and indeed Tantalus--along with Dionysus--is intriguingly proximate to those of M.F.K. Fisher, which span more than 60 years and have been published as “A Life in Letters,” a splendidly rich, vastly varied (though one-sided) 500-page conversation that has been edited by Fisher’s sister, Norah Barr; her former assistant, Marsha Moran; and her friend, Patrick Moran. The volume has been elegantly published by Counterpoint, whose editor in chief, Jack Shoemaker, helped revive interest in Fisher’s work by reprinting her early books in the 1980s, when he was head of North Point Press.

Born in Albion, Mich., in 1908, Fisher moved to California when she was a small girl (“I hate to live anywhere else,” she would eventually say) and after several important stints in Europe, mainly France, died there in the Sonoma Valley in 1992. Fisher was a gifted though never fussy gastronome, a spare but stellar stylist and a woman in possession of a penetrating yet wholly unsentimental mind. This unusual admixture of qualities produced the kind of literary career in which a writer takes a form--in Fisher’s case, the personal or gastronomical essay or sketch--and subtly transforms it, marking it with her own individual and inimitable voice and approach.


Fisher’s career fell into roughly three phases. In the late 1930s and all through the 1940s, she published nine books, including the now classic “How to Cook a Wolf” and “The Gastronomical Me.” A dry spell of about 10 years followed, during which her energies were largely absorbed by the demands of a complex family life. Then, for two decades, she entered into a period of great industry (a dozen-plus books), which became all the more remarkable toward the end, when she was suffering from Parkinson’s and losing her eyesight and voice. Throughout Fisher’s writing, her point of departure is often a variation on the closest statement she ever offered to a credo: “Since we must eat to live,” as she says in a late letter in “A Life in Letters,” “we might as well enjoy doing it.” Enjoying, savoring, seeing, being present with and open to nearly every taste, scent, person, idea and impression that came her way: In more than 20 volumes, this is the Fisher hallmark, the fundamental Fisher stance. She wrote about food, yes, but only insofar as to write about food is to write about life.

“Life,” note, not necessarily her life. Although Fisher frequently uses the first person and often puts her own family and her own experience into her work, her authorial voice derives a good deal of its power from its mystery and indirection. At its best it is a voice both very precise and curiously, compellingly, disembodied. Beneath the surface of a Fisher essay or story, there is usually something more brewing: more pain, more pleasure, more understanding. She is at once terrestrial and subterranean, reporter and seer. She is a bit of a Sibyl, a bit of a magician; she seems to know so very much.

Now we are given the letters, and we think naively (perhaps arrogantly): Ah, here we will discover what made Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher who and what she was. Here, though, Tantalus makes two separate appearances. The first is on the editorial side: By intent or by chance, or because there is no extant material, the volume elides such dramatic events in Fisher’s life as the suicides of her brother David and her second husband and great love, the then-mortally ill writer and painter Dillwyn Parrish. The letters neither obscure nor address, but nonetheless leave unexplained, the story of the out-of-wedlock birth of her elder daughter Anna: For a time Fisher pretended, even to close friends, that she had adopted Anna, and apparently she never revealed her paternity. (Given Fisher’s upbringing and the period, the early 1940s, keeping a baby born outside of marriage was nonetheless a choice that showed daring and strength.)

Naturally readers have no right to expect to have all or any of these events decoded, but they can at least hope to learn why certain letters were chosen and others not; by what principle material was deleted within individual letters; and how the letters were tracked down. The silence as to methodology, the absence of a glossary identifying Fisher’s lesser-known correspondents and the lack of an index all contribute to the sense of obscurity; at the same time, however, this approach is not inconsistent with the collage-like nature of some of Fisher’s later (and much under-appreciated) volumes of memoirs (“Last House,” for example), in which the interstices are often deliberate, as if to suggest that a life can be truly revealed only in small pockets and flares, never in a sweeping panorama.

Then there is Fisher’s own personal dance with Tantalus. “Some critics think I am hiding part of my life, but it’s simply a matter of taste, I feel,” she writes to her friend Marietta Voorhees in the early 1980s. “And I’ve never felt that I was being autobiographical. . . . I wrote about my own reactions to things simply because I was not a good enough writer to ascribe them to people I could not know. I mean that I’ve had to write about what I know.” To write about what she knew without being autobiographical--this apparent paradox is located at the center of Fisher’s prodigious and complex gift. Yet she is speaking here of her public, not her private, writing. Is the epistolary Fisher significantly different?

Yes and no. On the no side, Fisher early on explains to Lawrence Clark Powell, the writer and librarian who would become her lifelong friend, “I’m not given to discussing my business”--this in relation to the end of her first marriage, to Al Fisher (about which, later, some information does emerge, namely, that it was sexless). To her own family, on the subject of Dillwyn Parrish’s fatal circulatory illness, she says “I might as well tell you, and then we can close the subject permanently, that the discoveries are very bad.” She disdains the confessional just as, in a somewhat related vein, she is impatient with certain kinds of darker internal struggles in the people she is close to: When her third husband, Donald Freed, suffers a painful bout of depression, she cuts herself loose from him “for a time” (it became permanent); when Powell writes her an evidently sad, introspective letter in old age, she tells him to “stop trying any puritanical efforts to examine old hurts, lick old wounds, open closed doors.” Severe, steely--yes--but not without compassion: “You are . . . a human being,” she tells him, “and therefore you cannot have breathed more than a few breaths without hurt.”


Ultimately, 60 years of letter-writing reveals Fisher in more facets than it conceals. Despite her autobiographical disinclination, a good deal of her life comes tumbling out in these pages, and much of it is captivating. When she was younger, Fisher often faced (without characterizing it as such) a proto-feminist division between work and family, with family taking precedence for great stretches of time. As a writer, she tells Powell, “I want to be good, but I also want children and love and stress and panic.” She regularly speaks of M.F.K. Fisher as if she were separate human being entirely: “Do I marry MFK Fisher,” she wonders in 1950, after she’d completed several of her finest books of the 1940s “and retire with her-him-it to an ivory tower and turn out yearly masterpieces of unimportant prose?”

Fisher is writing here to a psychiatrist she’d consulted for her own depression, which seems to coincide, roughly, with the beginning of her creative dry spell. Her third marriage had dissolved; her mother had died; and she’d moved home to Whittier to take care of her ailing father and raise her two girls on her own. Rex Kennedy was a minor-key Leslie Stephen to Fisher’s Virginia Woolf: a strong personality who “sucks me empty” at this point in her life but is seen, much later, as having been one of her greatest friends. For nearly six years, Fisher wrote no “Fisher” but helped Rex run his paper, the Whittier News; she kept house for him and the children and she came into her own as a letter writer. “The need to use words and direct them toward a chosen person,” she observes to her sister Norah in 1951, “is almost physically urgent to me.”

Fisher’s epistolary prose is more unbuttoned than the prose in her books. The letters are often long, always chatty, occasionally repetitive. Her use of slang is endearing. “Ho hum” (a verbal tic she inherited from her mother) helps her turn from one (as a rule perplexing) subject to another. “Wowski,” “natch,” “twerk” (“to work”) pepper the polished Fisher cadences. The letters display great elasticity and reveal their correspondent in a range of moods and preoccupations. Food tends to be a minor theme, although it surfaces more strongly when she is addressing people like Julia and Paul Child.

Fisher’s resilience, her accumulation of experience and her ever-expanding self-knowledge, become profoundly moving as she ages. She expresses to Norah a “continuing astonishment, that you and I are friends as well as siblings.” She reevaluates her own parents in light of her experience as the mother of a troubled manic-depressive daughter. She sees that the horrible years of Dillwyn Parrish’s dying were possibly the best of her life. She remains devoted to California but recognizes that she is more aware, “more the way I am,” in Provence, where she lived during her first marriage, traveled frequently in subsequent decades and visited imaginatively for as long as she breathed. As Sister Age and her companion, Father Death, close in, she writes to a young fan, “I am not afraid at all, simply because I’m not afraid of anything,” and we believe her, because we have listened and listened as M.F.K. Fisher grows calm and supple, seasoned and strong.

Thanks to an accompanying volume, Dominique Gioia’s “A Welcoming Life: The M.F.K. Fisher Scrapbook,” we get to see Fisher evolve too. A compilation of photographs that documents the scope of the writer’s life, the scrapbook matches faces to the “characters” we know well from her books and meet less formally in the letters. Excerpts from Fisher’s writing set the tone, which is subtly elegiac throughout, as is fitting for an album of people who live in our consciousness simply because they knew, or were related to, or brushed past a human being with a twinned gift for life and language. As captured here, M.F.K. Fisher gives off a physical radiance, kindled by a steady inner light, that intensifies with the passage of time.

“I’ve always, no matter where, turned myself into a ghost, invisible,” Fisher asserted in a 1983 letter when she was 75. This remark would seem to speak to a writer’s quintessential deep need to be simultaneously part of and apart from experience. Yet this is the same woman who wrote (during a middle-aged love affair), “I live with Carpe Diem engraved on my heart.” The intricate alchemy that created M.F.K. Fisher is, fortunately, not an easy thing to unravel. Truly memorable writing seldom is.