Letters Save Lives



WHO said that letter writing is an art? It is a way of life. Those who practice it as an art seem to us who depend upon it for our existence like the sportsmen who slaughter game instead of shooting only what they can eat.

Between lovers, circumstances give words fire and wings, and quite ordinary expressions become charged with power beyond their sense. Between husbands and wives, long separated, letter writing becomes all life, all love, all urge to precipitate oneself beyond the daily drag, all hope for something better than the present, all chance of survival.

It is unjust to complain that we were never taught how to write a good letter. It is like being taught to lead a good life. The model letter held before the young is never the one found tucked away (So people actually loved then, too?). With letter writing it is the same as with swimming — the best way to learn is to be thrown in.

So here we are today, all unpracticed and untrained letter writers, having to depend upon this ignored and neglected medium for our way of living. A marriage begun with specially delivered scrawls must be kept alive by regular marital volumes which may have to continue for weeks on end, or even years, between ship and shore, camp and home, the rest of the world and home. The girl who described Jesse’s window with one eye on Henry Adams and many thanks for the draft must now put on paper, so that it rises full-feathered from the page, all the ordinary little things of every day — the children, the house, the garden, the news of the neighbors, and her love. Small training for this sort of creative writing (because one must make up and leave out so much that it becomes a dream world of which one writes) has she had in English A pretending to be a crinolined belle. How shall he tell her (he always chose to be the autobiographical penny) of his surroundings in all their dullness and uniformity and yet give her the sense of mounting pride and excitement, of how much she means in it all, how she is really there with him. But we are doing well, all our early scrawls considered, and it is a whole new world to those who live in it.

The first necessity in letter writing is to speak directly to the receiver, as in telephoning. The most important thing in a letter is the sound of the sender’s voice, the inflections, the lowering for serious matters, the careless tossing off of inconsequentials, the pauses to point the absurd, the tone that gives a simple word the vibrations of passionate love. Somehow all must be there.

The letter must have the power to evoke other days and other places. It must have space and time and weather. Rain washing across a valley in India and the sour smell of green wood smoke are poured across the Atlantic in an envelope to swirl above New England marshes. A letter must present scents and sounds that act as drugs to quicken the heart to immediate joy or dull it to future pain. It must have the power to make one laugh aloud, to catch one’s breath, to feel life in one’s fingers. It must pour out such treasures that one may go richly clad for days, impervious to the round of small cares and great fears. It must give one confidence to relax and sleep.

And, similarly, in writing an answer, one must hurry before the image of the sender becomes less than almost flesh before one’s eyes and at one’s fingers’ ends. The answer must be a quick and live response. And not alive with oneself alone. The children must be made to grow up on paper, their virtues and humors faithfully charted, their charm distilled, their sudden inadvertent flashes of hindsight and foresight savored. Their turn of thought, their phrases, their acceptance of or resistance to the state of being must be made real, so that all the happy sounds of a house a father feels as he opens the front door, and is greeted by a household that is calm and confident in its very bones, rise from the inky lines of the letter.

And if the writer feels bitter momentarily to see her husband represented in her immediate life by a growing pile of letters on the bed, while other women have the leisure to disregard theirs in person, to quarrel with them, or to love them casually as if all time were theirs, this must not show in the letter. It becomes all the more necessary to precipitate oneself naturally through ink and paper and air and sea to evolve as a reality at the end.

One’s friends must be put in, for one lives with them and about them and they are dear in one way or another and must be shown as they are, aware or unaware, smug or sympathetic, understanding or absurdly blind. Every letter should have a party where odds and ends of conversation are caught and tossed in for a bit of seasoning like herbs into soup. And all the dull things must be made to bloom! All the chores one chokes to do and then writes about with interest and in detail — the little trees set out against a future firmly grasped; the major landscaping undertaken in a frenzy when the news was bad, so that the whitewashing of the fence means the fall of France, and the new hedge spells the Battle for Britain, the clearing of the wood is Pearl Harbor, and the little orchard is Hong Kong and Singapore. To the one who likes to make things and to plant, one must hand the hammer and the spade and the feeling of having done these things. Not that anyone is fooled by the enthusiasm one tries to show, but the amusement is there.

And, similarly, when one receives a letter written during a heavy raid while he sits with the valuable papers on his knees and uses them as a desk, one is not deceived by all the plans for the garden, all the formal grass paths that one will subsequently try to make, into thinking that nothing is at stake while he writes. Obviously, the more things are closing in, the finer becomes the design for the planting far away. So that now the new grass strip below the vegetables represents the worst of the blitz and the whole garden becomes defiance and memory and courage in brown and green rows.

People who see a great stack of letters neatly filed and say that they should be published have never lived upon them alone. As well say one should sell plump children for stew meat. Because the letters upon which one lives give one the ability to work and wait and eat and sleep, it does not follow that they contain the same essence for others. If events are foretold, or explained; if one gains a fuller understanding of the whole from their interpretation of the immediate, it does not follow that one should serve them up for others to dine out upon. And if one stores bits of world gists as stock in trade to make one welcome at dull dinners, one betrays something indefinable, like those who make good stories of bad guests. No, only casual letters upon which one need not depend can be traded in the market place.


The contents of the life-giving letters are so often, like life itself, full of the inconsequential, and awash in purely relative time. For a year before I was married I depended on letters that took four weeks to arrive. All those letters — those happy letters before the great debacle, the healthy ones before the emergency operation, the depressed ones before things broke the right way. Did they become meaningless leftovers, hardly to be glanced at, except as evidences of our pitiful human unawareness of what is only just ahead of our steady advance? No, they too built bone and blood in the life on ink and paper.

What little springs of ink beget great rivers. There are letters which may seem to have no powers of their own and yet they may be the lever under the rock, or the cornerstone of the temple. The font of all the hundreds of letters that have crisscrossed the oceans and filled our trunks was copied from The Gentleman’s Letter Writer, one of those proper little volumes published a hundred years ago when the truly gentle reader believed so implicitly in the printed word that he could be induced to buy books of instructions upon all subjects, even that most difficult of all arts to learn from print — how to ride a horse. Compared with this, letter writing was a simple lesson. One furnished models and relied upon them to work mass miracles. A modern young man had affected to search in vain for a suitable model to use in writing to my New England father, whom he had never seen, to ask for his consent to my marrying and living in India. He had found nothing appropriate and had managed alone, but he copied what he felt was a certain winner from him to me. " Dearest. . . . On returning from skating this afternoon and reflecting alone on the pleasant morning we had passed, I was more than ever impressed with my wretched solitary existence. Will you break for me this monotonous routine of life by saying, ‘It need not be.’ I have loved you fondly and long. Your parents and mine are intimate friends. They know my private character. Will you accept me as your husband, dearest. . . . Believe me, your ever fondly attached. . . .”

As Charlotte Brontë immortally said, “ Reader, I married him.”

There are those who claim that letters have a power of their own, that they can burn into one’s consciousness so clearly that one goes to the letterbox as if summoned, or reaches into the box in the post office after days of anxiety with calm assurance and no subsequent surprise. There are those who say that even one corner is enough, or one edge, to convince one through the glass door of the box or in the hand of the postman. Some sleep with them or on them, or carry them about like a talisman. Too frequent reading robs them of sense but not of strength, and there is always the chance that another mood may catch another shade of meaning. But the real life of letters is to have enough so that one does not have to worry each one, like a dog with a bone that is too big for him, carrying it about and burying it and digging it up and burying it again, trying to extract a repetition of its first flavor, no matter how bedraggled it becomes. To be reread well, letters must be quite forgotten and put away and come upon by chance. It is the greatest triumph of the writer if they still have power to fortify and charm. Like finding one’s true love again at a costume ball, nothing is more romantic or exciting than to discover that one would marry one’s husband over again on the strength of his early letters.

If a man’s letters are not like him or a woman’s not like her, it is more of a tragedy than the separation between them. But necessity is kind in that it makes us all more able than we really are. And the mere writing of letters becomes a comfort in itself.

If I sound too briskly knowing, as if I were now about to pass out the paper for the adventures of a penny, please, with margins on both sides, or as if, like those little handbooks on correct letter writing, I feel that I know, I confess that I think I do. I have lived on letters now for three years.