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Letter Perfect

"What cannot letters inspire? They have souls, they can speak." -- Heloise to Peter Abelard, 12th century A.D.



The backdrop would be the high western sky of mid-morning. Straining against that sky would be the muttering single propeller, now coughing itself upward, now picking up speed and sound in the dive. And leaving behind in puffs of white smoke the encouragement to drink Jax or bring your children to the Clyde Beatty circus. And minutes later, the fragmenting and fading of heavenly words.

Such was the skywriting of my childhood, and the quick-passing nature of its messages puts me in mind of today's email and voicemail -- ephemeral, transitory, laden with hurried incompleteness.

How different the ways of our ancestors. The fullness of the descriptions, the deliberateness of the thoughts, the thoroughness of the exposition, all things came to fermentation while the sweet-smelling ink made its careful trek across the weighted paper.

'What cannot letters inspire? They have souls, they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passion. — They have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.' -- Heloise to Peter Abelard, 12th century A.D.

Love letters, with all their flutterings, insecurities and vows eternal, are a special subgroup of the genre and always rank high in interest if not in depth. Consider this from Beethoven to his anonymous 'Immortal Beloved':

'My angel, I have just been told that the mail coach goes every day -- and I must close so that you may receive the letter at once. Be calm, only by a calm consideration of our existence can we achieve our purpose to live together -- be calm -- love me -- today -- yesterday -- what tearful longings for you -- you -- you -- my life -- my all -- farewell -- Oh continue to love me — ever thine, ever mine, ever for each other.'

Such fractional coherences by those in love have often caused letters from their friends urging restraint. Here's one from D.H. Lawrence to a friend enamored of the writer Katherine Mansfield:

'You've tried to satisfy Katherine with what you could earn for her, give her and she will only be satisfied with what you are. — You are a fool to work so hard for Katherine -- she hates you for it -- and quite rightly. You want to be strong in the possession of your own soul. — Don't pander to her — consider her -- she hates and loathes being considered.'

But of all the advice to the lovelorn perhaps best-known is this letter from Benjamin Franklin to a young man, recommending ladies of a riper age:

'Because when Women cease to be handsome, they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over Man, they supply the Dimunition of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a thousand Services, small and great, and are the most tender and useful of all Friends when you are sick. — Lastly, they are so grateful!'

The skills of the letter writer are not limited to the service of the lighthearted. Here again is Franklin, writing to a woman on the death of the father:

'A man is not completely born until he is dead. Why then should we grieve, that a new child is born among the immortals. — We are spirits. That bodies should be lent us, while they can afford us pleasure, assist us in acquiring knowledge, or in doing good to our fellow creatures, is a kind and benevolent act of God. When they become unfit for these purposes — it is equally kind and benevolent that a way is provided by which we may get rid of them. Death is that way.'

Letters about politics have their own charm, especially in the light of history. On his deathbed, Lenin wrote this letter about his ultimate successor:

'Stalin is too rude, and this fault, entirely supportable in relations among us Communists, becomes insupportable in the office of General Secretary. Therefore, I propose to the comrades to find a way to remove Stalin.'

There are these 1857 predictions by the English historian Lord Thomas Macaulay to an American: 'I cannot help foreboding the worst. It is quite plain that your government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented majority. — On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights. — On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists. — There is nothing to stop you. Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor.'

Finally, there is the kind of letter we have all yearned to write to anyone who has ever slighted us -- especially if we could thumb our nose while writing. Here's part of a letter Samuel Johnson wrote to the Earl of Chesterfield, who had spurned him when he was an unknown and was now offering help: 'The notice you have taken of my labors, had it been early, had been kind but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary and cannot impart it; till I am known and do not want it.' Enough for now. Write soon. Love and kisses. XOXOXO.


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