The Last People of Letters


My father, a Montana newspaperman, died 13 months ago, leaving a wife, four children, a cat named Clawdius and a mountain of letters.

He was a man of letters -- not an academic man of letters (though he was a voracious reader), but the epistolary kind. He wrote with comforting regularity to his children, his brother, his friends, even his enemies. As he slid into his 70s, his hearing deteriorated, so he relied even less on the telephone and more on the U.S. Postal Service.

None of us kids saved his letters. Perhaps, like kids everywhere, we thought he'd live forever, so there would be plenty of time. Or maybe we failed to realize what a wonderful profile of this man was contained in those missives.

Happily, though, one of my dad's correspondents saved more than 200 of his letters over the last decade. His friend has given them to me, and I am organizing and duplicating them for the family. They are opinionated -- my dad was never at a loss for an opinion -- sometimes very funny, occasionally mordant and, in the last year or so, quite introspective. It is as though he knew his death was imminent (though he died mowing the lawn).

The last man of letters? Hardly, but it's safe to say (no humor intended) that people like my dad are a dying breed. A test to prove it: How many real, honest-to-God letters from friends or relatives did you receive among the torrent of junk mail last month? In a similar month 10 years ago? Twenty years ago? Today's mailbox isn't for personal communication; it's a repository of selling and billing.

I thought of this last week when I attended a Maryland Arts Festival performance of "Love Letters" at Towson State University (through July 17). This play by A.R. Gurney is simple in concept: Two actors, a man and a woman of similar age, sit at a table and read the lifetime correspondence of Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, who begin writing in the second grade and correspond faithfully (and usually lovingly) through childhood and adolescence, their first sexual experiences, their years in college, their marriages (to others), their short affair in middle age -- "two uptight old Wasps going at it like a sale at Brooks Brothers," Andy writes Melissa after the first night -- their triumphs and tragedies in love and work, her alcoholism, his rise to the U.S. Senate, her death. (In the Towson State production, Melissa and Andy are played by wife and husband: Maravene Loeschke, chair of the Towson Theatre Arts Department, and C. Richard Gillespie, founder of the department.)

Andy writes the last letter -- to Melissa's mother: "The thought of never again being able to write to her, to connect to her, to get some signal back from her, fills me with an emptiness which is hard to describe."

Perhaps that's a bit melodramatic, but Andy has a point. It's a great irony that letters, for all their clumsiness -- they take time to compose, to send and to read -- do provide a connectedness that telephones don't, a connectedness beyond the obvious advantage that, like a newspaper, they can be kept and reread. The act of writing requires more concentration and skill than the act of speaking, so letters can provide truer profiles of their writers than telephone conversations or even face-to-face talk. And people who dislike confrontation but who have something they must unload have the perfect medium in the letter.

Andy and Melissa discuss some of this after a disastrous weekend date in college, and Melissa, the reluctant correspondent of the two, observes: ". . . this letter-writing has messed us up. It's a bad habit. It's made us seem like people we're not. So maybe what was wrong was that there were two people missing in the Hotel Duncan that night: namely, the real you and the real me." Andy replies that he gives himself totally to the person he's writing: "I feel like a true lover when I'm writing you."

People of letters like the fictitious Andy and my late dad would not be thrilled by the latest advances in communications. There'll be cellular phones everywhere. Fiber-optic "information highways" will connect the entire planet. Your TV will be your telephone, or is it the other way around? Or is it both? Or is it your computer that will be your telephone that will be your TV?

Fortunately, the Randallstown branch of the Baltimore County library has several excellent "how-to" books for those who don't know how to write one.

OC Mike Bowler edits the "Other Voices" page of The Evening Sun.

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