When I was young, about Holden Caulfield's age in "Catcher in the Rye," I was impressed by one of his fantasies. When he read an author he liked (he said), he wanted to run to the phone and call him up. Later on, I discovered Saul Bellow. He wrote about a character who felt the same way -- only, while the motive was the same, the medium was different.Bellow's Moses Herzog had fantasies that took a literary (and decidedly neurotic) turn. When Herzog came across someone he admired and, as often, someone who angered him, he sat down to write a letter. Life became increasingly frustrating for Herzog, however, and real and imagined grievances blurred. His letters were nasty and unintelligible as often as they were humorous and humane. At some time he seems to have stopped sending them. They existed, if they ever did otherwise, as infestations in his mind: conversations with the living, harangues with the dead, debates with God. Nothing escaped his epistolary urge: mundane matters of his private life, the weight of the world's heaviest concerns. His letters took on everything and everyone. "If I'm out of my mind," he had begun his story, "It's all right with me." And it's all right with the reader as well. As a cathartic act, Moses Herzog's letters kept his eccentricity in orbit; as literary device, they provide a rich store of personal and cultural response; as simply letters, they remind us of the value of composition as reflection.
The radio booms the commercial: "Reach out, reach out and touch someone . . . reach out and just say Hi." In my mind's eye I see Moses Herzog leading his bony hand over pyramids of mail. He hears the commercial and winces. His fingers are heavily inked. Papers cover his floor and walls. I see him extending the life Bellow gave him, living beyond his book -- such is the force of his personality. He directs a letter to the telephone company. "You need to advertise?" it begins. He expresses feelings of outrage, alarm. In the giving over of more "communication" to the telephone, Herzog sees a loss to more than correspondence. He knows well enough that some mail never arrives, but the accidental does not bother him. He is worried about essentials. About the growing tendency of people to use the telephone instead of write; to write form letters instead of their own; to chat aimlessly instead of ever putting thoughts on paper. He reminisces, perhaps, about the wonderful letters of the 18th and 19th century, when it seemed that people did nothing else but write to each other. Collected editions of letters, selections from the correspondence of various women and men, clog the corridors of his mind. What if all those letters had been telephone calls? He knows the answer instinctively. Inky fingers scratch around for paper; his heart grows cold.
It doesn't matter that most pens don't leak. We hardly use them anymore. We hardly write. Oh, there is business mail we send out and answer, usually typed, and we sign cards for all occasions, though increasingly we get them with "signatures" printed or embossed. We recognize voices over the telephones immediately, of relatives and good friends, but would we recognize them only by their handwriting? In their choice of topics, manner of address, attitudes, or concerns? Do we do anymore what Moses Herzog did, albeit compulsively -- write little essays to each other about our feelings and ideas?
I am no Luddite, out to do away with telephones, Holden Caulfield, or ball-point pens.And I concede that Moses Herzog's addiction to letter writing is related to his growing disintegration. But there was a method in the madness of his mode. Writing letters let Herzog fix his frustrations within safe bounds, confine his energies and passions to the dimensions of the page. We learn intellectual history from reading Herzog's manic correspondence, but we also learn something about the ways of expressing and, thereby, controlling grief. It is ironic that those we are most close to, relatives and good friends, rarely get a letter from us. We think they know us well, and so we exempt them from knowing our bestm expressions -- those we compose on paper when we write letters and integrate thoughts and feelings. Letters are our ordered responses to the world -- our civilized selves engaged in self-expression.
I correspond with many people I have never met. Half the state of California , my mailman says. A hike in postal rates affects me greatly. But I would not forgo one letter for a telephone call.
There is, first, the challenge of writing introductory letters to strangers: authors of books or articles, reporters in the paper or on TV; anyone who takes our fancy or who seems to violate it. If that part goes well, development follows. Enclosures arrive, sometimes veritable dissertations, with cross references and suggestions to flesh out other circuit writers. Occasionally, following admiration, there is argument; sometimes, following that, a pen pal lost. But other letter writers follow, and in time, a hurt correspondent can be reclaimed.
The power of the telephone is its immediacy; the power of the letter, just the opposite. Time is the essence of letter writing and letter reading. Only letters can reach out and touch someone significantly. Letters bring us out of our solitariness and preoccupation with self. We compose letters with the thought of how they will be received. We know that some letters may be held on to for a long time, read again, read between the lines. We "style" our commitments accordingly. Letter writing is a great social act and a humanizing activity. The letter creates a bond between the past, the present, and the future. Long after we are gone, it gives silent testimony about how we saw ourselves and wanted to be seen. Often, the letter is a document of our true intentions when they are also our best intentions -- fine legacy for those we have respected, quarreled with, and loved.