A Legacy in Letters

Bob_MerchantMarine

In my hands I hold a letter written by my father, age 24, who had recently been honorably discharged from the U.S. Maritime Service, where he’d written for The Mast magazine. It’s a carbon copy on yellowed onionskin, a story submission to another periodical called The American Magazine.

 

Edwin C——, Editor                                     September 12, 1947

American Magazine

250 Park Avenue

New York 17, N.Y.

Dear Ed,

I won’t ask how you are. Probably the bags under your eyes are larger and you’re in the worst of health.

To get to the point, the manuscript pinned to this letter is a literary masterpiece. I’m giving you the first chance to grab it. Also the second, third and 16th chances. […]

In lieu of the many favors I never did you, would you be so kind as to peruse this future Pullet Prize winner (and that’s no yolk, son)? Anyway, thanks for the personally written, encouraging rejection slip you’re going to send me.

Your old ship-mate,

Briny Bob

I love this letter. I love even the X’d -out postscript I can just make out about a novel in progress. The power of the written letter is not just in the information it contains, for an email, if preserved, is no different in that regard. It’s also in the artifact itself—the paper stock, the letterhead, the address on the envelope, the penmanship. And it’s in the miracle of its transfer: The physical object that was crafted by the sender now is possessed by its intended recipient. There’s a reason Alex Chilton’s phrasing of “My baby, she wrote me a letter,” in the Box Tops’ hit “The Letter,” has such impact.

Mia Farrow, who starred in the 2014 Broadway production of A. R. Gurney’s play Love Letters, explains that a physical love letter’s advantage over email is in knowing the sender had touched “the very paper I was holding.” Lakshmi Pratury, host and curator of the INK Conference, in her TED talk “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” spoke about the “legacy” her father left her in his letters, also citing the physical connection: “The paper that touched his hand is in mine.”

I have two collections of letters from my father. One is a sheaf of missives from the late 1940s, written by Dad (in carbon copy), Edwin C. at The American, and their former boss, The Mast’s editor, H.D.W. (a.k.a. the “Old Man”). The other is a series of letters my father wrote to me in the late 1980s, when I was newly married and living in Italy, in which he reported the news of family and neighbors. Through those two sets of letters, dated 40 years apart, I have been able to meet a spirited young man who inspired deep regard in his friends and to reconnect with the caring father he became.

I enjoyed your letter very much. In fact, I think it was much better than your story is.

The earlier letters offer tidbits about history and historical figures (the Battle of the Bulge, the FDR administrator known as the “Old Curmudgeon,” for whom the Old Man worked), and they revisit bygone writing styles as well: Those between Ed and Briny Bob have a bantering wise-guy tone, while the missives from H.D.W. are gracious and genteelly affectionate. “You were always tonic, even when I was bearing down,” he wrote to my Dad, proposing they get together. “I can use a tonic.”

But more tantalizing to me are hints about how a gung-ho journalist and aspiring fiction writer (even poet!) veered from the path of his chosen career. H.D.W., in a letter written on Maritime Commission stationery, discusses Bob’s promise as a journalist and ends with optimistic hopes for his protégé’s future: “Hardly a need to wish you good luck. It naturally flows toward men of your outlook and disposition.”

The rejection slip Briny Bob’s letter anticipates from The American was indeed personally written though dubiously encouraging: “I think your story is well written and eventually it might be worked into a saleable piece, but not in its present form.” A detailed critique follows. Yet the submission did earn some praise: “I enjoyed your letter very much,” the editor wrote. “In fact, I think it was much better than your story is. In fact, it might not be a bad idea just to send out the letter!”

Eventually Bob did get at least two stories published in The American—I have the magazine’s March 1948 issue, with his noirish vignette about a bookie and his gal, “Her Man Herman”—but in the end, he chose letters as his preferred mode of written expression. By the middle of 1950 he and my mother were married, and Dad had joined the advertising department of the Poughkeepsie New Yorker. Not long after that, children started to arrive on the scene, and Briny Bob morphed into newspaper advertising man, husband and eventual father of seven. Throughout our childhood and beyond, he could often be heard speedily tapping out letters (even to his children) on a heavy 1920s Remington typewriter. At the bottom of each letter I ever received was the typed word “Love,” and beneath it “Dad,” scrawled in pen at a rakish angle.

Photo courtesy of Amy K. Hughes

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