“It seems a long time since the morning mail could be called correspondence.” —Jacques Barzun
If everyone in the U.S. wrote just one letter each day, the Postal Service would be in the black—or a damned site closer to it. But twittering, tweeting, e-mail, skype and other popular forms of electronic communication have put so much distance between pen, paper and postage that letter-writing has become an endangered activity. Have we forgotten how to lick a stamp? Oh, that’s right; they come pre-gummed.
Howard is taking a class out at the College and wants to tell us something about it.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
As a journalist of sorts, I write for my supper. But this 666-word weekly essay is easy compared to other forms of written communication, so I decided to enroll in a writing course at our local college.
Our language has twenty-six letters that combine in astounding if unpredictable ways. And because of its adaptive, absorptive tendency, English has a larger (and arguably richer) vocabulary than any other living tongue, though we seem to use fewer words at every generation. Don’t even talk about spelling.
My friend Jordan Marsh and I had a conversation about this early last fall. Professor Marsh, who teaches “language arts” at Northwest Iowa Normal, tailored an evening course around that conversation and twenty-six of us—one for each letter—have been exploring the written word in almost as many forms since January. The semester is nearly over and a mid-term report seems long overdue.
Dozens of literary forms add to the richness of our language and we’ve tried our hand—writing; actually writing—at most of them. From haiku to its sleazy cousin the limerick; from sonnets and contracts to obituaries and want ads, I have newfound respect for teachers of English and their frustration at the minimum qualifications to be a speaker of our language. But the workhorse of our great Mother Tongue—until the advent of the computer, that is—has been the personal letter. When’s the last time you got one of those?
The New Testament would be a short story without its multiple collections of epistles—those are letters, by the way. I’ve never met a Corinthian but Paul sent an inordinate number of letters their way. Then there were the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Collosians and Thessalonians. Not to mention letters to Timothy, Titus, someone named Philemon and to the Hebrews. Imagine the Bible if Paul had had a twitter account and communicated in 144-character bundles.
Historians of the nineteenth and earlier centuries would have little insight to the personal lives of those times without letters. I’ve read, for example, daily missives from Julia Jackson in Williston, North Dakota, to her mother in Madison, Wisconsin (more detail regarding her family, their croup, collick and constipation, than history needs to know) and the courtship correspondence between architect William Halsey Wood and his fiancée Florence Helmsley (endearments that make him as three-dimensional as his architecture). Or the letters of Emily Dickinson and Eva Braun to their respective innamorato. Or a thousand postcards with messages at once both intimate and ordinary. And now as part of our class, we’ve written letters of inquiry, apology and accusation; to both the living and the dead; to public figures and corporations (they’re people too, I’m told); to enemies and friends.
Twenty years ago Elvis Constello collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on a CD titled “The Juliette Letters,” imaginary correspondence penned by Costello himself and sung hoarsely to the quartet’s lyric harmonies:
The Letter Home
c/o St. Ignatus House, Willoughby Drive,
Parramatta, New South Wales
This fifth day of July, in the year of Our Lord
Nineteen hundred and thirty five
Why must I always apologize every time that I sit down to write?
Through my own fault, I may find you’re no longer living at this address
Please excuse the lack of news, the feeling of strange privilege
For the hour of trial, in these times of distress
Mean more than years imprisoned by etiquette
I can remember when we were children
Though I could never imagine this day
Your brother told me we’d live forever
“I’ll go one better,” I heard myself say
And it seems so strange, now that he’s gone
To recall all these games
Though the years have divided us
Friendships have strained and broken
Oh, by the way, how’s that girl that you wed?
I hated you then, but I’m over the worst of it
I can’t come home, I might as well say
Life is short, I shall not write againWhat will future historians say of us? What evidence will they gather to draw those conclusions? Will they have to make it up?
Anyone who has seen my office knows that my personal paper trail resembles a glacier; it’s that thick and moves with similar speed. And finding anything in it is an archaeological dig. The fire inspector has been told it’s a broom closet and hastily hustled to coffee and scones at the opposite end of the hall.
There are some letters in there—somewhere.
This one is for Dan.