Sunday, July 3, 2011

Old Letters New

I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you.


Remember those years before junk mail when there were two, even three, mail deliveries a day and every envelope was a belle lettre. No, I don’t either.

Novels were often epistolary. Epistles, everywhere, entre-nous. Ordinary people actually set aside some time to sit down at their desk and find the precise word to convey their feelings. The effort, alone, was valued as much as the content. Henry James is said to have had a thousand correspondents. It seems like Abigail and John Adams wrote to each other more than they spoke. Perhaps in a previous incarnation I was a scrivener, like Bartleby. Unlike him I preferred my lot. I dreamed only of quill and vellum and writing all the letters in a big round hand… I copied all those letters in a hand so free that now I am the ruler of the Queen’s navee.

Before mail was solicitations and ads I remember the joy of opening V-mail from my uncle during WWII or scrawled notes from friends away at summer camp written on yellow paper; even picture post cards could be keepers.


Hallmark-type cards may be the last of such. I do cherish those occasional cards I get from my daughters which always contain heart-felt sentiment to which I can only aspire. Peggy and I exchange poems on birthdays, anniversary and Valentine day but these are hand-delivered over white tablecloth and candle.

There is something about a letter…..the physicality of the ink and paper, the stamp, the care of penmanship and composition from salutation to complimentary signing off. It all lends itself to a level of formalism and civility. Up until recently it could be said that we have two languages; spoken and written. The penned letter embodied those times just as its absence signifies ours.

About 40 years ago I lost, my hand-writing….literally. The small muscles in my right hand went amok and I require my left one to hold down my right. I then went to electric typewriter, to word processor to computer. The world will have to go on without my scroll which looks like I’m breaking in a new pen .

New technology always displaces the old or renders it into an art form. Nowadays a simple hand-written Thank You note takes on greater meaning than ever before. Why doesn’t email suffice, I hear you say? Because it is too easy, too quickly dashed off and is lacking our special signature.

E-mail has devolved the written word into memo and rants, chain nonsense (which, if not passed along will bring warts and locusts), jokes that refuse to die, cautions of hazard in your pantry, and a repository of mendacious and scurrilous attacks. Of course with Twitter, texting and Facebook, E-mail has been consigned to old folks who have no need to announce to a thousand close friends they've never met what they ate for breakfast. If the old fashioned letter was a form of intimacy, the new social networking is more of a shout.

We can re-claim it by weighing our words a bit more and dialing down the rhetoric.There is still a place for deliberative, personal expression, even as the literary voice is being replaced by the conservational. As a society we don’t suffer pretence gladly. But civil discourse is no less authentic than street language which can either degrade our mother tongue or enrich it.

As a final note I was thinking about those pink, high-bounce balls we called Spaldings the other day when what should appear at my front door but a small, near-weightless box, courtesy of my daughter, Lauren. Yes, she sent me a Spalding. Now if I only had a wall…….something Robert Frost said there is, that isn’t loved. It occurs to me that when I was smashing my ball against the ledge it was like writing a letter, waiting for the return, hoping for an unexpected reply that had me stretching beyond myself.

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