A letter, especially one that is meaningful to both the sender and the receiver, may be fraught with emotion. Letters can convey multiple emotions, including love, regret, despair, joy and anger.
Many of us have experienced the satisfaction of putting our angry feelings into writing. This can be a good device for cooling off and collecting oneself, whether the letter is actually sent or not. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times, penned by Maria Konnikova, The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter, received a strong response from readers, with many sharing their own tips and techniques for writing letters that start with venting and end with catharsis.
Another emotion that rarely comes to mind, but is equally common, is guilt, as in the letter that begins, “sorry I haven’t written sooner.” The more time passes, the harder it is to write the letter, and the weaker our excuses sound. In this day of immediate gratification, it seems that the speed of response sometimes outweighs the actual message.
And yet, there is no statute of limitations on writing or responding to a personal letter. Although etiquette dictates that certain types of correspondence be written in a prescribed period of time, such as thank you notes for wedding gifts (no later than three months, but preferably upon receipt of the gift, according to the Emily Post Etipedia), personal letters often lack the immediacy found in other aspects of our communications.
Ian Jackson, of Berkeley, California, writes, “I do not always answer letters promptly, so I began (20 or 30 years ago) to collect excuses for late replies and for other epistolary sins, under the general title of “Imperfect Correspondence.” Such excuses, culled from centuries of letter writing history, are printed at the foot of his letterhead stationery, and compiled into three volumes titled The Imperfect Correspondent.
The Imperfect Correspondent includes such gems as (letter number 207) Thomas Twining’s letter to Charles Burney, written June 16, 1777, as printed in Recreations and studies of a country clergyman of the eighteen century (London: John Murray, 1882), which opens with the following: “You desired me to write ‘before the hot weather lollops came on,’ and so I do. Can you complain? And yet I hope you can and do; at least I do, of myself and my idleness.”
The following century yields this letter (number 168A) from Miguel de Unamuno, written May 17, 1892, to Pedro de Mugica, from Sergio Fernández Larraín’s edition of Cartas inéditas de Migues de Unamuno (Santiago de Chile: Editora Zig-Zag, 1965: “Dear friend: You must be wondering about my delay. I am as slow as an ox. After all, you live in Berlin, and I in Salamanca, an hour there being equivalent to a month here – more happens in Berlin in a month than in Salamanca in three years.”
In a journal entry dated July 15, 1902, as first printed in Quatre ans de captivité à Cochons-sur-Marne (Paris: Mercure de France, 1905), Léon Bloy writes, “To write to such a person (Gustave de Malherbe) with any hope of a reply, even in a case of mortal danger, would be, for me, an act of madness. I have reason to believe that he has taken a vow not to reply to a single one of my letters, no matter what the circumstances.”
The Imperfect Correspondent offers ample excuses for late letters for even the most tardy among us.Thank you, Ian, for sharing your meticulous and well-documented research. Your books are a reminder that the art of the excuse can be just as intriguing as the art of the letter. Excuses have no boundaries, and it is never too late to send that letter.