J.D. Salinger wrote 14 love letters to Joyce Maynard in which he wooed, won and then dumped his young sweetheart. The brief romance ended badly, and now Maynard is selling the reclusive author's missives this month at Sotheby's. It's an embarrassing end to an ill-fated affair, and yet another blow to the endangered art form known as the love letter.
People seldom send any kind of letters anymore, much less open their souls to a beloved through the mail. Most of us will never compose anything interesting enough to auction at Sotheby's. But what if a disgruntled ex posted an intimate note on the Internet? Or Ken Starr asked to dig through the hard drive? Yikes.
Paranoia aside, love letters require a specific combination of effort and vulnerability. And so we take the easy out. Technology allows us to reach out and touch, but you can't reread a phone call. Greeting cards are sweet but slight. A fax? Don't even bother. And maybe you've got mail, but e-mail messages seldom make a heart pound.
Samantha Quan, who lives in Northern Virginia, exchanges letters with her boyfriend at least twice a month, even though he lives in Washington. "When you're writing letters, you can think about exactly what you want to say," she says. "When you're talking on the phone, everything gets jumbled together. In a letter, all the good things get expressed."
Chris Marston phones and sends e-mail to his girlfriend in Ohio, but they also exchange love letters. "We both like to write. It's a lot more personal than a phone call."
Terri Merz, owner of Chapters bookstore in Washington, is surrounded by great words and literature, but she's never written a love letter. Notes and cards, yes. Valentines, yes. "That's the one day people are going to take the time to write something special," she says. But no real love letters.
Which is a pity, because everyone should send and receive one sometime in their lives. In dresser drawers all over the world, there are yellowing stacks of envelopes held by satin ribbons, treasures protected for decades. There's nothing more private and cherished than a heartfelt expression from the one you love, and that's as true today as it was centuries ago. But lovers in the past, before and even after the telephone was invented, were more likely to communicate by putting their feelings into written words.
Winston Churchill poured out his heart, often in a form of shorthand, in letters to his wife, Clementine, throughout their 57-year marriage: "Sometimes also I think I wd not mind stopping living vy much--I am so devoured by egoism that I wd like to have another soul in another world & meet you in another setting & and pay you all the love & honour of the great romances."
Or this, from a smitten Lyndon Baines Johnson when courting Lady Bird: "This morning I'm ambitious, proud, energetic and very madly in love with you."
There is no one way to write a love letter. It can be simple or florid. It can draw from Shakespeare, the Bible, the great poets. There are even writing courses on how to compose the perfect love note: Write from the heart, be honest, and concentrate on the virtues of the beloved. Humor can be used, as long as it works in writing. But the keepers--the ones that get carried in wallets for years--are usually straightforward expressions of love, commitment and appreciation.
Truth is, almost any sincere sentiment will be read, embraced, and reread. Philosopher Mortimer Adler once said, "When men and women are in love and reading a love letter, they read for all they are worth. They read every word three ways; they read between the lines and in the margins . . . they may even take the punctuation into account. Then, if never before or after, they read."
One of the great romantic plays, "Cyrano de Bergerac," is about the power of love letters. Although he dares not face his love in person, Cyrano wins her heart with his words. The play, set in the 17th century, required the hero to write each letter with ink and pen, not to mention brave enemy lines to mail them.
While a handwritten note is still the most cherished, modern lovers often send their love via computer. Five years ago, Fraser Van Asch launched the free Cyrano Server (www.CyranoServer.com) in an effort to help tongue-tied lovers.
"This was our first attempt at user interaction," said Van Asch, vice president for Nando Media, an online news and information service. "There's no bad time to write a love letter. It's an icebreaker, a way to start a relationship. It's a way to kindle something that's there." It's also a way to make up, apologize, reconnect and reignite a spark that's flickering.
Users select which kind of missive to send: "There's steamy, indecisive, surreal, desperate, intellectual, poetic or regretful," says Van Asch. "There's also a Dear John letter if you want to break up online."
A basic letter outline is provided; writers plug in the words that apply specifically to their sweethearts and approve the final wording. A great love letter, he says, "should have some type of mystery, some type of amour, and some type of spiritual side to it."
Now there are plenty of Web sites devoted to romantic gestures: virtual flowers, poems, the whole package. But nothing beats a classic love letter.
Of course, it is possible to go overboard.
According to "The Book of Love," a 1984 compilation of romantic trivia, a Taiwanese man once sent 700 love notes to his girlfriend over a two-year period hoping to win her hand in marriage. The woman finally did get married--to the postman who delivered all those letters.