Friday, March 05, 2010

The Dead Letter Column

When Paul McCartney got the inspiration for the title of his 2007 album Memory Almost Full from his cell phone, it couldn't have been more appropriate. More than 40 years prior, his primary muse must have been a postal envelope. When he wrote lines like "P.S. I Love You," "While I'm Away, I'll Write Home Every Day," "Picks up the Letter That is Lying There," or "Two of Us Sending Postcards/Writing Letters," or played a cover version of "Wait a Minute Mr. Postman," he was clearly in touch with a dominant medium of long distance conversation. As late as 1986, he was writing lyrics like "If you need love, write a letter/you need love, write away." But in a world where Miley Cyrus sings lyrics like "If you text it, I'll delete it," Sir Paul is keeping up with the times.

At a time when the U.S. Postal Service is lobbying to cut out Saturday delivery, letter writing has never been more irrelevant. And it is at precisely such a time that I have discovered the website It is an amazing treasury of historical correspondences, updated daily. Recent examples include J.D. Salinger sharing his thoughts about Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mark David Chapman inquiring about the value of his John Lennon autographed record, Harvey Milk standing up for Jim Jones, and Albert Einstein distancing himself from Zionist extremists.

But out of all the letters I've read so far, the one that fascinates me the most is an October 2, 1979 missive from 14-year-old Saul Hudson to his ex-girlfriend. Saul would grow up to become "Slash," guitarist for Guns N' Roses (and less notably, Velvet Revolver). The girl in question would later become the biographical subject of a GNR song, with the non-McCartneyesque opening lyrics: "Your daddy works in porno/Now that mommy's not around/She used to love her heroin/But now she's underground." In the letter, the high school underclassman casually speaks of hanging out at a club where "The drugs are cool," and "a guy mouthed off to this black guy, and the black got a hundred friends and chased him around all Hollywood."
The future Slash also adorns the white space in his letter with an illustration of a pot leaf.

So clearly, this communication is between youths whom the establishment would consider to be "at risk." And that is precisely why the form of the letter, if not the content, is so interesting to me. Rather than the type of incoherent prose that I often see in on-line communications today, there is instead a full page of carefully scripted language, with the appropriate salutation and signature, properly dated, and divided into neat paragraphs. To be sure, there are a number of grammatical errors, but they take the form of comma splices instead of fragments, and run-on sentences instead of shorthand abbreviations.

There is a school of thought that says that because of computers and mobile phones, people are writing more than they ever have before, and therefore we are in a literacy renaissance. I do find some validity in such arguments--I'm always skeptical of overwrought claims that society in general or education in particular is going downhill. On the other hand, one has to be dubious about whether the preserved text message of a 14-year-old "at-risk" future guitar star to his ex-girlfriend today would be worth anyone's interest in 2040. Perhaps it is best that the memory on Macca's phone is almost full.


Blogger Sandii_Mina said...

Nice. I think this is true because without computers, people like me, are less likely to write by hand (although computer can do twice as much writing).

11:06 AM  

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