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Here are 600 of the more than 8000 letters Woolf wrote between 1901, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and 1969, when he died at age 89. The letters highlight the journey, the contradictions and ironies, of being a middle-class Jewish intellectual participating in the recreation of English cultural and political life during two wars, the dismantling of the empire, and the initiation of the modern period in publishing communications and the arts. From a confused and melancholic student, Woolf developed into a self-absorbed, chauvinistic colonial administrator in Ceylon, offering in one letter his refined observations on Madame Bovary and a gruesome report on his role in the public execution of a petty thief. His diplomatic skills emerge in the letters relating to his tortured marriage to Virginia, her periodic fits of insanity, her suicide in 1941, and his subsequent courtship of his married neighbor and companion, Trekkie Parsons--as well as in the immense correspondence he carried on in his declining years with academics who raised intrusive and often silly questions about Virginia's work. His most interesting and probably quarrelsome letters concern the Hogarth Press, which he and Virginia founded and directed. They include negotiations with such then-obscure authors as T.S. Eliot and Freud, the latter of whom he introduced to an English-speaking audience, and Woolf's struggle to maintain the ideals of the press through the blitz, which nearly destroyed Bloomsbury, and through later assaults by large commercial publishers who attempted to lure away his successful authors just as they were becoming profitable. And as a political journalist, advisor to the Labour Party, contributor and director of such influential publications as the New Statesman, the Political Quarterly, and the Nation, Woolf developed a worldly, persuasive, and judicious voice; his recommendations on world peace, economics, colonialism, and the Palestinian ""problem"" are still relevant. For its insight into a figure who was by nature reticent, this collection is well chosen; and the introductions are illuminating. Unfortunately, the thematic arrangement, as opposed to a chronological one, is artificial and confusing; it misrepresents a writer whose own monumental autobiography pursues through troubled times the elusive ideals of continuity, coherence, and of integrity in its most encompassing sense.

Pub Date: Oct. 18th, 1989
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich