Category Archives: epistolary (letter writing as a genre; letters as examples of good writing)

a letter of recommendation

 

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My father wrote this recommendation for my good friend John Harris in October 1965. John was a 1963 graduate of Canton High School in Canton, Massachusetts.

I feel that my father’s letter of recommendation demonstrates – provides one small example of – how well he could handle any writing task.

I have found that various samples of writing can teach you a lot about writing in general. This includes both good and bad writing.

In the case, of bad writing, I find that it sometimes enables me, by comparison, to become more aware of what the difference between good and bad writing is, and thereby to see more clearly what the ingredients of good writing are.

Similarly, one can learn a lot about good writing both by reading and appreciating the works of the masters – an Edward Gibbon or Charles Dickens, say – and by examining pieces of everyday writing – including those of young people and of adults who are not necessarily of English prof caliber – when it is apparent that there is an innate gift for expression and an ability to convey ideas and feelings. It could be a letter not intended to be “literary,” for example.

What I notice in my father’s writing:

GRACE – his prose is always graceful, regardless of what he is writing about, whom he is writing to, or how important the topic may or may not be.

CONCISENESS – he says just enough, no more or less. There are no unnecessary words.

CLARITY – his prose is crystal clear.

COHERENCE – the sentences and paragraphs are tied together seamlessly, like a well made piece of clothing.

IT FLOWS – the exposition proceeds logically and straightforwardly. There is no discontinuity.

TONE – it is just right for target audience. There is awareness on the writer’s (my father’s) part of who his audience is – whom he is writing TO – and of the kind of language and tone that should be employed for that target audience.

CHOICE OF SUBJECT MATTER – he uses appropriate, telling examples, the best ones he can think of, to get his points across. He has gone through his mental storehouse of impressions and memories to come up with the best examples. He has chosen the ones that best fit. Then, he has plugged them into the letter in just the right places, where they support the key points being made.

ORGANIZATION – the organization is not really noticeable, which is not to say it is flawed. It is not noticeable because it doesn’t require attention. One can follow the logic of the communique with no special effort required. There are a logic and orderliness to the way the letter is constructed. Points follow in the order that makes most sense. (This, by the way, is not true of a lot of writing. Poor organization can tire a reader trying to follow what is being said.)

EMPHASIS – this is something my high school English teacher commented upon that many writers seem to be either unaware of or unable to achieve. The letter is constructed in such a way that key points are highlighted without this being obvious. I believe that the ability to achieve this is a mark of a master writer.

 

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I have thought about writing at this level of excellence (as I deem this short, perfunctory communique to be) and have concluded that in writing, many of the principles that apply also apply to music. For example, a composer must achieve a logical progression to his piece; he can’t be, or at least shouldn’t be, bombastic; he needs to hold the listener’s interest and to be able to convey musical ideas in such a fashion that they are not utterly incomprehensible and “take hold” upon the listener.

Which brings us back to the topic of EMPHASIS.

In good music, you feel that there is something inevitable about the “logic,” the flow of the music. You feel it sort of HAD to be constructed that way. You feel the piece could not have been composed differently.

I would contend that my father’s letter, while perfunctory in one sense, shows some of the same qualities. You get the feeling that there was only one kind of letter of recommendation that would do for this particular individual (my friend) in this situation, and that my father managed to write just that letter.

 

 

 

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I myself have often felt, when writing, that there is some kind of abstract, perfect piece of writing — appropriate to, called for, as pertains to — whatever I am writing about – just what needs to be said about this or that topic (say, a book under review) – and that I have to “find” the absolutely perfect words, not only so that they are expressed perfectly, but also that they are just what needs to be said about this or that topic, and that they cover it fully. In other words, it’s a question of both prose (wording) and subject matter (content).

It’s kind of like the search for the Platonic ideal.

So that the examples chosen to make the point are just the right ones. Say, it’s a book review I am writing, for example. This would mean that I have discussed exactly those parts of the book that merit or require discussion, that I have found exactly what passages should be quoted, and have come up with the best analogies or comparisons that must be made to other works with which this book should be compared.

Searching for the best examples, for just the right things to say, can make writing very difficult, indeed exhausting. Many pieces are not written this way. They are tossed off, written in haste. (A writer notorious for this who comes to mind is the historian A. J. P. Taylor; many op ed writers compose in this fashion.) Such writing can be adequate, but it does not have the staying power of a piece that a great deal of thought and effort have been put into.

I think my father did something similar here. He thought of just what needed to be said about my friend. He chose the best examples: marshaled them. Then, he succeeded in presenting them in the most effective possible fashion.

A further word about emphasis. In writing, as in music, emphasis, which is to say putting the weight where you want it to fall — making the reader (or listener) come to attention — can be achieved in many different ways. It could be a short, punchy sentence or phrase (“I recommend him without qualification”) or it could be something elaborate and wordy. It depends.

Variation often helps here, which means variety of pacing and tone and an admixture of the terse and direct with more high flown, wordy, abstract language. Composers do this all the time: a short musical phrase followed or preceded by a long intricate passage.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   April 2016

 

A Walt Whitman Letter; and, What Can Be Inferred from It about Letter Writing in General

 

 

Camden [NJ]

Friday noon, 26th Sept.

 

Dear son Pete,

Your letter of yesterday came this forenoon—that was a rather serious runaway of cars in the tunnel a week ago—& mighty lucky to get off as you all did—Pete I got a few lines from Parker Milburn—he told me you had a very bad sore on a finger of right hand—they are plaguey bad things—I am in hopes yours will partly make up in giving you a little resting spell. I sent you “the Children of the Abbey,” an old novel that used to be all the rage—did you get it? To-day here is a great turn out & dedication of the Masonic Temple in Philadelphia—it is truly a handsome & noble building. A rain last night here, & to-day is really perfect. The Camden free masons marched by here this morning, about 250, the finest collection of men I thought I ever saw, but poor music, all brass, a lot of fat young Dutchmen, blowing as if they would burst, & making a hell of a hullabaloo—

Pete I am about the same—may be a little improved in general strength—had bad spells a good deal all the earlier part of the week—some very bad—but feel better yesterday & to-day—I am making some calculations of the cool weather—think it may be favorable to me—did not go out any yesterday—shall try to get out this afternoon a couple of hours—I don’t know a soul here,—am entirely alone—sometimes sit alone & think, for two hours on a stretch—have not formed a single acquaintance here, any ways intimate—My sister-in-law is very kind in all housekeeping things, cooks what I want, has first-rate coffee for me & something nice in the morning, & keeps me a good bed & room—All of which is very acceptable—(then, for a fellow of my size, the friendly presence & magnetism needed, somehow, is not here—I do not run foul of any)—Still I generally keep up very good heart—still think I shall get well—When I have my bad spells, I wait for them to fade out—I have got a letter from Charley Towner—I am finishing this by the open window—still in the rooms where my mother died, with all the old familiar things—but all drawing to a close, as the new house is done, & I shall move on Monday.
Walt.
— Walt Whitman to Pete Doyle, 26 September 1873

 

 

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This letter was written when Whitman was living in Camden, New Jersey with his brother George Whitman, a Civil War veteran, and Walt’s sister-in-law Louisa Whitman, George Whitman’s wife.

Peter George (Pete) Doyle (1843-1907) was a great friend of Walt Whitman’s and a very important person in Whitman’s emotional life.

Though the details of Whitman’s sexuality remain murky, it appears and has been asserted by Whitman biographers that Whitman and Doyle were lovers. They met in Washington, DC in 1865 when Whitman was employed there as a civil servant and Doyle was employed as a horsecar conductor. Whitman was a regular passenger on Doyle’s car.

 

For an excellent biographical sketch of Peter Doyle, see

http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/anc.00155.html

 

 

 

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Commentary:

 

I read the selected letters of Walt Whitman about 25 years ago. They were an eye opener for me.

I consider myself a very good letter writer. I got this from my family. Everyone — my parents and siblings; my maternal grandfather Ralph E. Handy; my uncle Roger H. Handy; my great-aunt Etta H. Handy; and others – seemed to know how to write a good letter. It was as if it were part of their genetic makeup.

I began writing letters at an early age – the first was one that I labored over, to my third grade teacher at the end of the school year in 1955, to wish her a happy retirement.

I learned early to have an awareness of things like audience (to whom was I writing); the required degree of formality; using personal details to bring the letter alive (what I was up to if, say, I was away during the summer and writing home); others whom I should mention as wanting to be remembered to; inside jokes and personal allusions (those that only the reader or readers would be likely to get, thereby establishing rapport and a baseline of familiarity); following conventions of respect and politeness where required; writing thank you notes; and so on.

Whitman’s letters reinforced and strengthened my awareness of the importance of all these elements of good letter writing. And, they corroborated what I already basically knew, but became acutely aware of thanks to Whitman:

the best letters are often not “literary”;

simplicity and directness are keys;

plain, homely, everyday details make a letter a live piece of human tissue instead of a bloodless specimen.

Walt Whitman’s letters are wonderful, eloquent, beautifully written. Yet, what is most notable about them – besides, and along with, their directness, lack of pretension, and sincerity — embodying all of these things – the chief thing — is their SIMPLICITY. He wrote great letters that are at the same time absolutely simple ones, so that it didn’t matter to whom he was writing, an unlettered person or an educated and/or literary minded one. It didn’t matter. He carried on a correspondence with Ralph Waldo Emerson; with English literati who admired his works; with his English admirer and would be lover Anne Gilchrist; with his mother; with his brothers George and Jeff; with his sister-in-law Martha Mitchell Whitman; with the streetcar conductor Pete Doyle; and with countless other persons familiar and not familiar to him, high and low.

Every letter of Whitman’s exhibits the qualities enumerated in the previous paragraph. He was not capable of writing otherwise. The letters lay bare his sincere, unaffected, warm and loving personality and show the joy he took from the ordinary things of life (a glorious day, a ride on an omnibus up or down Broadway; or a “capital beefsteak,” for example) — especially from human relationships. These things meant everything to him.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   January 2017