When Letter-Writing Was Art

The mail is so abysmally boring these days, and so it has been for some time.  I strolled out to the mailbox today without the least sense of anticipation, long inured to the wad of paper trash that passes for mail in the twenty-first century. First in the pile was a Humana solicitation, presumably seeking my business for Part D Medicare coverage. I did appreciate their forthrightness, however—they announced on the envelope that “This is an advertisement” instead of pimping the envelope up with “official business” and all the other mimicking of government correspondence. The next item was a solicitation for Dish television, sent from Houston, addressed thoughtfully to “OUR NEIGHBOR AT” followed by my address and accompanied by numerous asterisks, various codes in both numbers and letters, and about fifty vertical marks of different lengths, all no doubt intended to enhance our neighborly feelings and gloss over the fact that they were two states away and didn’t know my name. Neighborhoods just aren’t what they used to be. Yet one has to go through it all or risk missing some bill. Next in the pile was a thin cardboard flyer solicitation from Wesley Medical Center, addressed to “OUR FRIENDS AT” followed by my address. Since they were actually in Hattiesburg, I had graduated from “neighbor” to “friend.” Again, there were those fifty vertical marks of various lengths on the adhesive address label, probably indicating the degree of friendship. The next two actually had my name: an invitation to the luncheon for retired folks from The University of Southern Mississippi, and the newsletter from the Salvation Army. Finally, an L.L. Bean catalogue. Happily, no bills. And of course, no actual personal letter, by which I mean a letter from someone I might actually know, maybe even handwritten.

It has not always been so, of course. Almost any adult over 30 can remember a day when written personal communication was not by texting or email, but through actual letters, handwritten, on stationery or even lined paper, in envelopes, with a stamp. From the writer’s licking the seal of the envelope at one end to the reader opening it at the other could take from two days to two weeks, and of course things could change during that time. Now contact is instantaneous, whether from down the hall or around the world. But as recently as 1989, in the Late Pleistocene pre-email period, it took a minimum of a week, and often more, for my near daily letters to get from India to home, and it seemed like even longer to receive letters from home to wherever I was in India. A letter, especially from a sweetheart or spouse, was a small treasure, sometimes ripped open to be read avidly on the spot, sometimes tucked away to be read and savored in a quiet, private moment. Letters were deeply embedded in the culture, even in our music: The Box Tops’ “The Letter” (“Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane. . . .”), Elvis’s “Return to Sender,” The Beatles’ “P.S. I Love You” and “All My Lovin’,” Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” Lulu’s “To Sir, With Love,” and R. B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria” are among many examples of “obsolete” songs no more likely to be imitated today than you are to get a letter in the mailbox.

I have been reading my father’s letters to my mother when he was in the Pacific during the Second World War. They apparently wrote each other about every two or three days, and some of his were eleven or twelve pages, though his writing was rather large. All of his letters from a war zone went through the censor, with the envelope bearing the censor’s stamp, since any reference to specific war activity or even mention of their locations was forbidden. Thus they are filled with the banalities of his daily life, much love-talk, plans for a future together, and routine mentions of which letter he received from her, how long it took, or semi-playful chiding that he had not received one from her for several days. Hers typically took two weeks to arrive, sometimes almost a month, and he would read them in some private place and then save them for another reading in the evening. No phone, no Skype, no Facebook, no twittering, no email—only letters. In addition to actually getting a letter, the anticipation of getting letters, especially from home, was itself a deep pleasure, and if none arrived when expected, well that could ruin a whole day. I well remember a tiny event during an all-summer Scout trip to Alaska in 1963, when each Scout was required to send one post card home per day. We received mail about every week, usually at a national park office, and one week I remember another Scout—a country boy named Baxter, older, probably shaving for three years—visibly saddened that he had received no letter that week, while all the rest of us had. I even wrote his Mom, urging her to more diligence. A few fellows had sweethearts back home, and naturally those letters were supremely prized, as well as the source of some jocularity among those of us less favored.

Love letters constitute the most important sub-genre of the genre of letter-writing. In 1980 a trove of the love letters of the  twelfth century Heloise and Abelard was discovered, and I remember thinking when I read them some years ago that the student, Heloise, wrote slightly more eloquently—and more erotically—than her tutor, Abelard, the great philosopher and churchman who was castrated at the orders of Heloise’s uncle when he discovered their liaison. The mere fact that those letters were originally preserved though somehow lost for nine-hundred years is testimony to their importance, their vividness undiminished. She, having borne Abelard’s daughter, secretly married him to minimize the scandal (though protesting partly to protect his academic reputation), but soon got herself to a nunnery, though their love was unabated. The passions expressed in those letters reflected the great but lost love of her life, and those passions boldly triumph over the religious life—she became an abbess—to which she had effectively been sentenced. A particularly memorable passage captures the perfect intermingling of her love and passion: “if Augustus, emperor of the whole world, saw fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess forever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his empress, but your whore.” Perhaps sitting in an attic today somewhere in England are some equally passionate letters from one William S. to the mysterious dark lady of the Sonnets. I have also enjoyed, being a father of adult children, the letters of Galileo’s daughter Celeste, who, like her sister, was illegitimate. That status prevented her from being married in polite society, despite the long and loving relationship of Galileo and their mother—who later, with Galileo’s blessing, married another man. Galileo arranged for both girls to enter a convent. For some reason—resentment, illiteracy, disinclination to write, who knows—the sister never wrote her father. But Celeste wrote often. Her letters reveal her to be gentle and self-sacrificing, as well as adoring and deeply solicitous of her father’s well-being. Perhaps, like Heloise, the cloistered life gave her letters an even greater intensity, poignancy, and beauty.

In the American political sphere, no letter exceeds Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Bixby for sheer rare beauty and metaphorical power in its attempt to assuage the inconsolable grief of a mother who, according (wrongly) to the War Department files, had lost five sons in the War: “. . . I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.  I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.” Though Lincoln must inevitably take the laurel for presidential prose, Jefferson was not far behind, and John Adams not so far behind Jefferson. After their Revolutionary friendship, then later their bitter presidential rivalry, the aging Sage of Monticello wrote the aging Sage of Quincy. Several hundred miles apart, they never saw each other again, but for eleven years they wrote each other endearing and widely ranging letters, including another memorable one in the sub-genre of “consolation letters,” from the widower Jefferson to Adams on the death of the latter’s beloved wife Abigail, late in 1818: “. . .Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine. . . . but that it is of some comfort to us both, that the term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again.” What a pleasure those two aging giants must have experienced after the fires of their political enmity had been extinguished by time and wisdom as they read each other’s letters of friendship and collegiality, almost right up until their simultaneous deaths on July 4, 1826, fifty years after their signing the Declaration. A scholar of Benjamin Franklin’s letters refers to the period as the Republic of Letters, denoted by its “serious correspondence,” and notes how Franklin bunched up his overseas letter writing right before the ship was to set sail. With the twittering, email, and Facebook of today, no one born after 1990 can possibly imagine the fraught anxiety or the quivering anticipation—and often both intertwined—of waiting a month to hear from a loved one, or needing to heavily tip the ship’s captain to make sure the treasured letter arrives at its proper destination.

Or even a week. I still have the letters of my first serious girlfriend from her six week study abroad program in Salamanca, Spain. To this day, forty-eight years later, the name “Salamanca” has a curious magic for me, partly from its mellifluous sound but more so from its conjuring up a youthful and innocent summer where two virginal lovers lived the travails of separation, mitigated by daily letters. Absence did make the heart grow fonder, but the absence was lessened just barely but oh so necessarily by the fact that that handwriting was hers, she had held the letter, perhaps kissed it, and left just a hint of that familiar perfume on its pages. I still remember walking down the driveway to the mailbox after my day of construction work, hopeful of at least one; two if I had missed one the day before or it was a Monday. I was sixteen, she was fifteen, and her Salamanca letters re-read today, just as surely as mine would, almost ache with a plaintive sweetness, a nearly unimaginably naïve innocence, a tender playfulness, and the full expectancy of an enchanted future of marriage and parenthood. Four summers later, I wandered Europe and my letters to the woman who became my first wife still took about a week, and many days of that trip I made my way to the American Express office seeking her letters to me.

After all, things could happen in the days or especially weeks between the writing of the letter and the reading of it. In Ken Burns’ 1990s production of The Civil War, many viewers found the single most poignant moment of Burns’ rendering of that cataclysm to be the reading of a beautiful letter from Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah. Numerous viewers of the show, including me, requested copies of the letter from PBS stations on which the show aired. I still have my copy, though not in his own hand, unfortunately, and it is moving with every reading. The letter anticipates the possibility of his death: “Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field. . . . I have, I know, but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me—perhaps it is the wafted prayer of my little Edgar, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name. . . . But Oh Sarah! if the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you, in the gladdest days and darkest nights . . . always, always and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again. . . .” A week later, perhaps about the time Sarah read those words, the author of this gentle letter was killed at the first battle of Bull Run.

I am not sure of all the forces inviting me to engage in my recent frenzy of letter-reading. I had read the Jefferson-Adams correspondence long ago, as well as the letters of Nietzsche (letters much overshadowed by his “philosophizing with a hammer” books), the slightly disappointing and sometimes too obsequious letters of Voltaire, and the deservedly heralded letters of Keats, who at twenty-five died of tuberculosis in his room which I visited by the Spanish Steps in Rome. Orwell too died of that scourge at age forty-nine, and on a friend’s recommendation I recently read his letters, many suggestive of his unwillingness to be duped by the Left or the Right. He had directed his literary executor that if he did not live to finish Nineteen Eighty-Four, the manuscript should be destroyed. Thus put in a letters frame of mind, I read that first girlfriend’s letters, a small book of history’s love letters, and re-read Henry James’ delightful novelette The Aspern Papers, having remembered how much I enjoyed it as a college freshman. Based on the letters of Shelley to Clair Clairmont, the book focuses on the enterprising and deceptive efforts of a young gentleman scholar conniving to acquire the letters of long deceased poet Jeffrey Aspern to his youthful lover Juliana, who is now an ancient, haughty, and frail recluse, and who is rightly suspicious of her young tenant and fiercely protective of her treasure. The reader never learns what the letters reveal, and neither does the scholar, who after a long campaign hastily retreats from Venice following Juliana’s death and the guileless but shocking proposal by Juliana’s spinster niece for his acquisition of the letters. Proposal rejected, she burns the letters.  Perhaps gentlemen should not read other gentlemen’s—and ladies’—mail after all. But these days “mail” means almost everything except letters. In such a case, we must read those of a previous generation, since we receive none of our own.