A Museum of Letters

May 28, 2014

“As long as there are postmen, life will have zest.”
— William James

Letters of Note

Letters of Note

We have lost William James’ fondness for mail deliveries, in large part because the post very rarely surprises us with a handwritten letter.  We have other ways of communicating now.   Letters are old-fashioned when telephoning, emailing, texting, and other social media tools make connecting and exchanging personal news so much quicker and efficient.

So what are those of us who love writing and receiving heartfelt communications, penned on paper, addressed on an envelope, stamped and sent off in the mail to do?  I recommend reading compilations of letters like this recent release — Letters of Note:  An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience edited by Shaun Usher.  Included are some familiar letters such as the editor of the Sun reassuring Virginia that there is indeed a Santa Claus, Rainer Maria Rilke advising a young poet, and Grace Bedell suggesting to Abraham Lincoln that he grow a beard because “all ladies like whiskers.”  But there are 122 other letters as well — heart rending, wise, funny, and truly noteworthy.

Consider this quirky letter by Robert Pirosh to various Hollywood studios asking for a screenwriting job:

“I like words.  I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady.  I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory.  I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde.  I like suave ‘V’ words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve.  I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl.  I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid.  I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon, sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words.

May I have a few with you?”

The talent exhibited in this letter is just irresistible, don’t you agree?  A good letter is like that — impossible to resist.  Holding the power to change minds and soften hearts.  I admit, after reading Ronald Reagan’s letter to his son Michael with advice on being a good husband — “You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life.  It can be whatever you decide to make it.” — I decided that maybe there are parts of Reagan I could like after all.

How can you not admire the steadfast integrity of the singer Nick Cave, who wrote this letter to MTV declining his nomination for Best Male Artist of 1996:

“To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you for all the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist.  The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P.J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated.  So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for Best Male Artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.  I myself, do not.  I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.  I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.  My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.  My muse may spook!  May bolt!  May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no . . . no thank you.”

Wow.  That’s a powerful letter.  I am not familiar with Nick Cave’s music, but this letter makes me want to check it out to see if it reflects the strength of its creator.

I hope these two letters from among the 125 included in Letters of Note are enough to inspire you to run to your local library to check the book out yourself.  Or, since the seeds for this book originated in a blog, you can find more inspiring letters in the Letters of Note blog archive at this link.  Usher calls his work a “book-shaped museum of letters.”  As editor, he curated a masterpiece.