Notes of Note

It’s dangerous to post a column on work avoidance. You’re likely to receive e-mails, as I did after my post on Pootwattle, proposing even more ways to fritter away the time you should be spending writing your book or grading your students’ papers. Of all the proposals I received, none has tempted me more than “Letters of Note,” an Internet assemblage of notable epistles from the past six centuries.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a famous person in possession of e-mail should be in want of pen and ink. Though we write letters all the time, really—what are e-mails, texts, and Facebook messages, if not letters?—we regard the loss of the written or typed epistolary record with more than simple nostalgia. The private communications of notable people (and the contemporary forms I’ve listed are never sufficiently private) reveal sides of their personalities and philosophies that the public record often misses or eschews. Just as important, the ordinary letters of an era or a time of crisis (and here electronic communications have some standing) reveal the assumptions, beliefs, and fears of a generation, not to mention the language in which they couch those thoughts.

I’m finding all sorts of pleasure in browsing through letters sorted by era, form, theme, author, and so on. One minor pleasure arises at finding real letters penned since the millennium by folks I had otherwise imagined communicating only via YouTube. In his 2006 response to a young fan, for instance, Tom Waits writes, “Allow me to formally encourage you to write things down, so when you make it you can say, and I can say, I was in your corner all along. … Stay at it Colin. Lots of great people come from Illinois because it’s so flat you have to dream up everything.”

But even more enticing is the letter of a Union soldier, Sullivan Ballou, to his wife, on the eve of a terrible battle that would cost his life. I return to this letter over and over, not because of the situation or Ballou’s eloquence or the prurience of peering into private correspondence that was found on Ballou’s corpse, but because of the letter’s singularly missing quality: irony. In his unmailed note, Ballou holds in tension his devotion to his wife Sarah and his devotion to his country, and without sentimentality or apology he chooses the latter. I hope this brief excerpt will convey what to me is a breathtaking sincerity of tone:

If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my Country, I am ready. … I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter. I know how strongly American Civilization now leans on the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and sufferings of the Revolution. … Sarah, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and burns unresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long. And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hope of future years . …

As for my little boys—they will grow up as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care. Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue-eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the deep memories of childhood.

We don’t write this way anymore, obviously. The question is whether we can feel this way anymore—and if we do, whether we possess written language, partaking of our lived experience in a world rife with irony, in which we may express such feeling. Faithful readers, I submit the question to you!

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