In his early 20s, the English poet and novelist Philip Larkin wrote the following in a letter to a friend:
“Don’t you think it’s ABSOLUTELY SHAMEFUL that men have to pay for women without BEING ALLOWED TO SHAG the women afterwards AS A MATTER OF COURSE? I do: simply DISGUSTING. It makes me ANGRY. Everything about the ree-lay-shun-ship between men and women makes me angry. It’s all a f–king balls up. It might have been planned by the army, or the Ministry of Food.” He reasoned he had more appealing alternatives. “I don’t, I don’t want to take a girl out and spend £5, when I can toss off in five minutes, free, and have the rest of the evening to myself.”
When the personal correspondence of Larkin was first collected and published in 1992 as the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, 1940-1985, seven years after his death, the literary world began what Martin Amis referred to as a “frontal assault” against the reputation of the country’s former poet laureate; a concerted campaign to discredit a writer famous for his choleric attitude on the basis of what he wrote in confidence to a small number of his closest friends.
The critic Tom Paulin accused Larkin in the Times Literary Supplement of “racism, misogyny and quasi-fascist views,” while intimating that even more noxious material had no doubt been bowdlerized by editors anxious to protect his good name. Paulin concluded that the Selected Letters in any case constituted “a distressing and in many ways revolting compilation which imperfectly reveals and conceals the sewer under the national monument Larkin became.”
Amis himself soon mounted the Larkin defence. He started with a question: “What is correspondence?” “Younger readers know what a phone message is, and what a fax is,” he wrote. (And this was in 1993.) “They probably know what a letter is. But they don’t know what a correspondence is.” Words, he argued, are not deeds, and except in special circumstances have neither their inciting effect nor substance — public calls to violence, say, or what our government might consider a reasonable limitation on free speech, such as language that “advocates or promotes genocide.” But in correspondence, “words are hardly even words.”
The kind of letters Larkin was writing, Amis clarifies, are “soundless cries and whispers,” “gouts of bile” and “self-dramatizations.” Correspondence affords the writer “ways of saying ‘Gloomy old sod, aren’t I?’ or, more simply, …read more