Friday, 16 July 2010

Legendary letters

Whenever I sit down to write a letter, all that comes out is stilted, formulaic rubbish. I blame my mother and school, actually: all those thank-you letters and notes home which carefully avoid the truth ('Dear parents, today I was beaten up for knotting my tie in an uncool way. Today's vegetarian meal was… ham. My books have been confiscated. There appear to be paedophiles amongst the staff' just wouldn't have got past the censors). The other reason for my epistolary circumspection is that I spend a lot of time marking essays, and we're encouraged to be kind and progressive.

'Dear X. Thanks for your essay. You've spelled your name correctly, if not mine, and it's printed on actual paper. You've selected the correct alphabet, though the traditional order of letters appears to be unfamiliar to you. Your work indicates a high degree of facility with regard to Wikipedia and, and you've obviously managed to find your way onto campus to hand in this piece. While I am impressed by these transferable skills, I must in all conscience suggest that actually reading the novel you're writing about might possibly be helpful'.

No, that wouldn't do at all.

So I'm always thrilled by people who write letters which express what they mean in the way they'd have spoken it. Larkin and Amis wrote hilarious letters to each other in a private kind of language. Hunter S. Thompson's complaint letters are terrifying, and Mark Twain (real name, Samuel Clemens) gave idiots both barrels. Pharyngula presents this one, in response to a quack medicine retailer.

Nov. 20. 1905
J. H. Todd
1212 Webster St.
San Francisco, Cal.
Dear Sir,
Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.
Adieu, adieu, adieu!
Mark Twain

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