“It’s long past my bedtime. But writing letters is my chief dissipation at present, writing ’em to you being the chiefest and most dissipated.” — E.B. White, in a letter to a college sweetheart, September, 1921
That’s one of the things I love about letters. Sixty-one years later and I can hear E.B. White as clear as a bell. Try that with a phone call. “Reach out and touch someone,” indeed. Another ugly ploy by the phone company to put the squeeze on people with fixed incomes, another effort to make our communications disposable. (You’ll notice they mail you the bill.) But they’ll never beat letter-writers. In spite of the rigors, in spite of the risks, those who commit their thoughts to paper are a persistent and hardy breed.
Like my friends Tim and Tina. They were lovers in high school, and when they went away to different colleges, they became lovers by mail. Tina would write wonderfully erotic letters that drove Tim happily crazy. One day he checked his mail box and there was a letter from Tina. He raced back to his room, locked the door and tore open the envelope. In her familiar handwriting, the letter began, “Dear Mom and Dad.” Tina’s parents, of course, got Tim’s letter.
Writing love letters, or any intimate correspondence, is risky business, and many warn against it. My friend Jeanne was cautioned by her mother never to say anything in a letter she didn’t want shouted from a rooftop. Annie White, in her 1891 classic Polite Society at Home and Abroad, wrote, “Even with friends you should maintain a certain reserve. Do not commit a secret to paper. You can never tell what use may be made of it, or into whose hands it may fall.”
President Warren G. Harding wrote to one of his lovers, Carrie Phillips, “Destroy these letters!” She did not, leaving 250 for posterity. Letters helped send Oscar Wilde and murderess Jean Harris to jail. Consider also author and columnist Walter Lippman, who was in love with his best friend’s wife. While she vacationed in Austria, in 1937, Lippman sent her four letters. All were forwarded by the hotel to her husband’s office in New York, instead of her next vacation stop. The friend and husband was, appropriately, the editor of Foreign Affairs.
Why do so many take the chance? Perhaps G.K. Chesterton said it best when he observed, “A letter is one of the few things left that is entirely romantic, for to be entirely romantic, a thing must be irrevocable.”
Letters are irrevocable, and self-reinforcing as well. In the last 37 years of his life, Lewis Carroll (who wrote Alice in Wonderland) recorded the letters he sent and received. They numbered 98,721. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote 2,336 letters to a friend, Lorena Hickok, and Ms. Hickok wrote 1,024 in return. There may be more, but these survive.
Survival is one of the nicest things about letters. Without them, most of our history would be the doings of famous men between the hours of nine to five. It is in letters that we see what people other than the famous actually did, thought, felt at all hours, in all seasons. We can see what women were thinking, doing, saying. The humblest letters can shed great light on the past. And because letters are often more conversational than the literature of an era, we can hear the language being spoken in times that knew no other recording devices. There are all long-term benefits, but there are immediate rewards as well.
For the writer, there are no conversational interruptions. With letters to friends, you can do them justice, remember what you wanted to say, wait for a bad mood to pass, and edit out all the “ums.” With letters on difficult subjects, you can think things through and state your case clearly. There’s no intimidation. You can tell the truth without fear of a sudden thrashing, torrent of tears or confusing counter-arguments.
For the reader, the letter offers just as many advantages. A letter will wait while you take a shower, or a nap, or cook dinner. It’s never offended if you set it aside to put a child to bed or walk the dog. If it’s a letter from a nag, you can skim it. Or if the letter is incomprehensible, you can call in an interpreter at no risk of offending the writer. And you can refer to letters again and again, to clarify, to remember, to enjoy. They are at once a communication and a gift.
With so many benefits, you can imagine the number of people who have taken advantage of the form.
Saint Paul wrote lots of letters. Given the lack of telephone and rapid transit in his time, circa 54 A.D., it was his only method of staying in touch with the early Christian churches scattered across the Mediterranean area. He even wrote from prison, and his letters are read by more people today, in the New Testament of the Bible, than when he wrote them.
Kidnapped heiress turned brain-washed SLA terrorist Patricia Hearst wrote letters from prison, too. Her volume of mail was so high that each week secretaries would come to the penitentiary in Fullerton, California, and Patty would dictate her replies. These were then typed and returned the following week for her signature.
President Ronald Reagan is another Californian with a lot of mail. He receives thousands of letters a day, all of which go through the White House Correspondence Unit and its staff of 56. Reagan wrote about 1,000 replies himself last year and the rest were answered by the Correspondence Unit or placed in a backlog. The writers rely on form letters, which speeds things up but causes occasional embarrassment when people write complaining about unemployment and receive in reply a recipe for crab casserole.
Our first President, George Washington, had less of a problem in this department and a terrific attitude toward his own tardiness in replying. In a letter from Mount Vernon to a friend in Philadelphia, he wrote, “I am indebted to you for several unacknowledged letters; but never mind that; go on as if you had them.” Harriett Beecher Stowe (the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), on the other hand, could fill the first page with apologies.
Reading other people’s mail is tremendously rewarding, but don’t steal it. That’s Obstruction of Correspondence, good for $2000 up front plus five years in the cooler. Instead, check out published collections of letters. You’ll find historical figures, authors, etc., at their most human. Real life, not life as they would have you see it. Two worthwhile collections are The Friendly Craft (1908) by Elizabeth Hanscom and A Treasury of the World’s Great Letters (1940) by M. Lincoln Schuster. Both are worth expeditions to the library or a used-book store. Many, many individual collections are available as well. Flannery O’Connor’s letters, collected in The Habit of Being (1979), have ideas enough for a long winter, and sparkle with frequent gems like, “I think King Kong would be better than Nixon,” written in July 1960.
On a completely different level, letters that aren’t really letters – autobiography or short fiction would be a closer description – are featured regularly in Penthouse magazine (and a host of imitators) and collected in “Best of” volumes. Written for an audience of thousands, they make up for a lack of intimacy with startling feats of total recall. What these letters lack in literary technique they gain in their aura of reality. And since there are no follow-up letters from family members, urologists, lawyers or psychiatrists, we have only the bright side of the picture, such as it is.
Direct mail advertising, commonly known as Junk Mail, also uses the letter format. Although the letters inside these mailings aren’t really letters from one individual to another, they are written as such and bring up to $25,000 to their author, although the average fee is $7,500 to $10,000.
While all this can get you through a drought in your personal mail, there’s no substitute for the real thing. And one of the best pieces of news in this category is the boom in mail art.
Not everyone in the mailsphere communicates with words only. The world is full of mail artists. And unlike other schools of art, mail art remains wide open. The pretension, the critical hierarchy, the stuffiness have not yet set in. True, the Dada wing takes itself a little seriously, but that’s no loss. At the heart of mail art is the simple fact that you give it away. You don’t sell it or give it to museums for a tax write-off. It’s a gift, coming and going.
No limits either. Anyone with crayon, wallpaper, ribbon, pencils, markers, stickers, ink, paint, cloth, thread, glue, glitter, colored paper, scissors, magazines, photos, rubber cement, feathers, you-name-it… anyone can enter and win! The first step is simple decoration, making a letter/envelope/postcard look a little more interesting, a little more unique, a little more fun. From there, things go smoothly through personal statement on to cosmic revelation.
And then there are rubber stamps. Rubber stamp art and mail art are not the same thing, except a tremendous amount of rubber stamp art appears in mail art. If an image can be photographed in black & white, it can be made into a rubber stamp. At one end of the spectrum you have the traditional utilitarian stamp, such as Date Due, First Class or Chicken Thighs. At the other end, you have images, pictures of fish, trees, dogs, pro wrestlers of the 1950s, everything in and out of nature. All you need is a well-inked stamp pad and pah-poom, you can make the image on a piece of paper (or a slice of cheese – but don’t mail that).
Once your arsenal of stamps is in place, you’ll find yourself writing more letters just to play with the stamps, and receiving more letters from inspired correspondents.
:: The Post Office vs. The Postal Service ::
Regrettably, in the midst of all this good news, there’s a snake in the grass. The Post Office is in the hands of Philistines.
Ten years ago, the Post Office became the Postal Service, in order, they said, to run in a more businesslike fashion. To the taxpayer, this meant a sense of accountability, a reduction in costs. But to the government, specifically the Congress, the President and the Board of Governors of the U.S.P.S., this meant a return to the profit-motive and the “self-sustaining” philosophy.
Those of you who are postal history buffs will remember that this sort of avaricious thinking got the official heave-ho in 1851. Postal rates were lowered, the sending of personal letters boomed and the government carried itself as a servant of the people. The new first class rate of three cents per letter would stand for a century.
In the early 1900s, Woodrow Wilson and Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard, referred to mail as “Messenger of Sympathy and Love, Servant of Parted Friends, Consoler of the Lonely, Bond of the Scattered Family, Enlarger of the Common Life, Carrier of News and Knowledge, Instrument of Trade and Industry, Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance, Of Peace and Good Will among Men and Nations.”
Eliot went on to say, “There is no other Department of Government in which economy is not a legitimate motive, but in the Post Office, economy works serious harm to the American people both material and moral.”
To benefit no one, the self-sustaining policy crept back from the crypt and was formally given the keys of office in 1971. The postal rate, stable for a century, now thunders towards the stratosphere. Why? I can point to no noble motive. Power, greed and deception are in the driver’s seat. The Board of Governors carries itself with all the charm and restraint of the Spanish Inquisition. Whenever the Postal Rate Commission (supposedly on our side) objects to a rate increase, the Board ignores, overrides or circumvents their recommendation. The President and the Congress remain silent because they don’t want to spend on the Postal Service either to pay for those services already in place. (Postal subsidies for 1983, as recommended by our President = $0.) So they let out a little more on the beast’s leash so it can feed itself, on you.
Only 3% of all mail is personal correspondence, and according to studies, it’s the most expensive to handle. The ordinary citizen, therefore, has the least amount of clout, and is the biggest annoyance to the Post Office. Rate increases decrease the amount of mail. More money for less work. Letter-writers are being squeezed out, on purpose.
Two suggestions. One, read The Crying of Lot 49; Thomas Pynchon’s vision of an underground letter system was bizarre in 1966, but makes more sense every day in 1982. Two, write letters. Tell your Congressperson you’re hip to his or her jive. Tell these clowns to wake up. Tell them they had a better idea in 1851. Letter-writers of the world, arise. But send the letters while you can still afford the stamps.
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Written in 1982 for I-don’t-remember-who, this piece also appeared in an exhibition catalog for a show called “Mail Art About Mail Art” in March of 1984 at Richland College, Dallas, Texas. The catalog was issued as “Commonpress 55” and edited by John Held.