GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

December 28, 2012

Journal Pages: The evolution of our words

Journal Pages
Susan Emerson

---- — “Were you responsible for planting those glorious, sturdy white Montauk daisies along the roadside to Rockport?”

I inquired that of a friend one sunny autumn day, already guessing the answer.

After a brief exchange of what would and would not grow well along Nugent Stretch (he believed the culprit responsible for the “would nots” was winter road salt melting into the early springtime ground, and I concurred), I said that I had written him a note of appreciation several days prior, addressed the envelope, and promptly misplaced it while foraging for a postage stamp to send it on its way.

“Well, when you find it, send it anyway, would you? I like to hold onto my letters and notes.” This is a sentiment I have always shared.

I had just finished reading an interesting essay by Kurt Andersen, in response to a new book, “Kurt Vonnegut: Letters,” a collection assembled and edited by Dan Wakefield, in which Andersen discusses the implications of the distinct differences among letters, memoir, and biography.

The literary art form of personal letters written, “to friends, relatives, and colleagues,” are most often, he said, “crafted artifacts riddled with evasions and dissembling.” Memoir, on the other hand, appears in “retrospect for a mass of strangers, with self-protection and posterity in mind.” And different still is, “biography, chronicling (the writer’s) life in real time.”

Notes and handwritten letters — and OK, maybe to some extent, typed ones or those written on a computer and printed out — are fast becoming a scarce commodity. Their charm, and indeed what makes them timeless and so precious, is their one-on-one, writer-to-recipient, direction and personality. They are communications to be saved, savored, stored, re-read, their words never in danger of being obliterated in a fraction of a second by the “delete” key on a computer.

They may rest in the drawer of a dusty bureau in the attic, as were the letters I read over and over as an adolescent hungry for details of the lives of pen pals in Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, Belgium. Taking sometimes 10 days to arrive, their vivid stamps and inked postmarks sparked my imagination, making me dream of places I thought I might never see.

Letters might end up folded with care in a box meant solely for them, a resting place – personal and private – meant for only their recipient to read. They may be from a sweetheart, bundled together and tied with a ribbon.

They might be pressed into the bottom of a sewing box, such as one I found to my mother from her mother-in-law-to-be, whom she had yet to meet, wishing to make her acquaintance, if the miserable war (WWII) ever ended.

They might even change posterity’s attitude toward someone’s basic character, like one my husband discovered from his father to his great-grandmother who was rumored to be bitter, mean, and miserly after the death of her husband. It was a “thank you” to her for the wedding gift of $1000 (equal to a half year’s salary for him in 1944) to purchase furniture.

Letters may hold guarded secrets, a writer’s rants and raves never meant to reach a snooping third party. Such are sub-plots for many a juicy novel.

Wakefield, in his very extensive probe of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters, promises the reader a Vonnegut in a deeper, richer context than even the most astute Vonnegut scholar might have previously known.

And Kurt Anderson’s essay on the subject of letter writing itself confirmed for me the sublime importance of keeping alive what is an art form in communication unlike any other, dwindling in popularity though it may be.

I say, write a letter. Don’t edit what you say. Long after you are gone, perhaps someone will find, in your own words, who you really were.

Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.