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September 2009: Learn Letter Writing from the Stars

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Newsweek’s running quite excellent arts-and-culture essays as web exclusives, penned (typed?) by Malcolm Jones, who mostly writes on literary matters and occasionally dabbles in music and art. The piece that hooked me on him was his piece on the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue album. I’d read many essays marking this occasion, but Jones’s not only put the reader in the 1959 moment, but also concisely put the album into historical context, more difficult than it looks when your word count’s so limited and the topic’s so monolithic.

Which brings us to the topic du jour: Letter writing.

Is there any more significant reason to pick up your fountain pen and write? This guy’s giving us carte blanche to go out there and use our pens. Extra Fine Points
“Little Boy Writing a Letter,”
by Norman Rockwell

In his essay “The Good Word,” Jones makes a brilliant point: “[H]istorians,” he writes, “may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record.”

Detail from “Lady Writing a Letter
with her Maid,” by Jan Vermeer

Is there any more significant reason to pick up your fountain pen and write? This guy’s giving us carte blanche to go out there and use our pens. In fact, reading his essay through and through, we might just get the idea that future histories of our era may be written by the just the biographers of today…and fountain pen collectors!

Even if that’s too much of a logical leap to make from Jones’s essay, he elegantly pleads the case for the handwritten word, even if we aren’t the writers of record: “When we read a letter, we develop an image of the letter writer unavailable to us in any other way.” So get out there and write.

I’ve mentioned before in this space how much I enjoy collecting and reading letter-anthology books. ’Tis true, they offer an interestingly, intensely personal historical record, but better yet I just enjoy reading well-written letters. When they’re written by great writers, I also take great pleasure savoring their interesting turns of phrase that I’d never be able to come up with in a hundred years of experimentation — yet the authors composed them extemporaneously, tossing them off like I do pedestrian emails 10 times an hour. Wow, just wow.

To inspire you to pick up your pen and step up your letter-writing game, I’ll give you my top five letter-anthology books. If I get some positive feedback from you, dear reader, I’ll give you five more next month:

cover Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell E. Perkins (John Wheelock, ed., Cherokee Press, 1991)
Perkins was a gifted editor at Scribner’s during its heyday, which means he worked with guys like Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway. You find out what odd birds these writers were, and how, back then, an editor was much more than a manuscript technician — sort of a butler and bursar, too.
cover Mark Twain’s Letters to His Publishers, 1867-94 (Hamlin Hill, ed., University of California Press, 1967)
Every loser who has posted a nearly illiterate, ham-fisted negative comment to an online newspaper article or at an online forum should at least read this book. This guy knew how to talk trash and hurl insults with class. Using just regular words, he screwed much more vitriol into his phrases than can be contained in any profanity or obscenity.
cover The Letters of E. B. White Dorothy Lobano Guth, ed., Harper & Row, 1976)
Nearly 700 pages of letters penned by America’s most underrated author save Calvin Trillin — both of whom were New Yorker regulars during the magazine’s heyday. Material on every topic imaginable, including praise to all-time great baseball writer (and stepson) Roger Angell on his articles and friendly correspondences with pal John Updike (“P.S.: The Algonquin Hotel is on fire as I write this…”) and wonderful notes to his wife Katharine, the New Yorker editor who discovered him en route to her helping build the pub into the literary franchise it is today.
cover D. H. Lawrence : Selected Letters (Penguin, 1950)
Never got into his novels or poetry, but his letters are a can’t-miss, containing delicious lines like this: “If you want to know what it is to feel the ‘correct’ social world fizzle to nothing, you should come to Australia. It is a weird place.” Keep in mind, folks, he was talking about Australia in 1922. He has some choice words for many other locales, too, so in his letters he comes off as the Archie Bunker of his age. A very, very well-written Archie Bunker.
cover Father To Daughter : The Family Letters of Maxwell Perkins (Andrews and McMeel, 1995)
When he wasn’t babying Papa Hemingway, Perkins was writing utterly charming letters to his kids — replete with hand-drawn illustrations and cartoons, sometimes on Scribner’s letterhead. If you’re a parent, you’ll love it.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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