This collection of exuberant, keenly descriptive, always personal letters may be the essential Conrad Aiken, to be with us regardless of whether the poems are studied or the stories are anthologized; certainly it is the autobiography that Aiken never wrote, however close--in Blue Voyage and Ushant--he appeared to come. (In Blue Voyage, he once wrote to Malcolm Cowley, ""I mean to give myself away."") Shy of public occasions, he expanded in conversation, and to editor Killorin and others who knew him, his letters are a continuation of his speaking voice. Punctuated by biographical summaries and excerpts from his writings, they stretch from an 1898 thank-you note to his grandmother and a dutifully, distressingly cheerful letter to a cousin (""We are all well here""), written only days after his father had shot his mother and himself, to a 1975 letter, his last, addressed to a high-school student who had championed his work in class: ""What a delicious go-it-your-own-way enterprising and intelligent letter about Lord Zero!"" As to his reputation, well, ""None of us knows in what direction poetry and the other arts will turn--that's part of the cruel fascination of being interested in the arts. . . . "" Threaded through are uneasy, anxious/hostile letters to T. S. Eliot, a Harvard classmate (""Is my evasiveness worse than yours?""), and love letters, now urgent, now buoyant, to his successive wives. He is playful with his children, contemptuous of critics (""Randall Jarrell once before left me for dead on the duelling ground which he likes to make of reviewing""), desperate--for money, good company, recognition--but not despairing. ""I'm now [in 1947] reduced to selling all my First editions. . . Prufrock takes us through Tuesday, North of Boston through Wednesday, Ash Wednesday through Thursday, Ulysses I hope and pray through Easter."" Meanwhile there is always the work--to be attempted, explained, defended. Killorin, who undertook this project at Aiken's hesitant request, has served him with tact and care--keeping footnotes to a minimum, for one thing, and appending a full ""cast of characters"" instead. The drama of the writer's life--this intensely writerly life--holds the stage.