A history of America told without letters would be like a history of photography told without photographs. But by 1990, letter writing, like the Soviet regime, was in decline. In the decades that followed, a technological revolution immersed my generation, Millennials, in everything from emails and emojis to Snapchat and selfie sticks. A poll conducted in 2017 by Census Wide found that around 40 percent of us have never sent a handwritten letter.
Marvelous and life-enhancing as the new inventions are, it’s fair to call the demise of the written letter a tragedy. “The art of letter writing is sadly decayed,” Russell Kirk wrote in 1971 to his friend David Lindsay, Earl of Crawford. But neither Kirk nor Lindsay could have imagined the letter’s current obscurity and the loss for future generations — and, especially, for biographers.
Take Francis J. Meehan, an excellent letter writer. Born to Scottish parents in East Orange, N.J., in 1924, a gifted linguist and an American by birthright, Frank joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1951 and spent 40 years behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Eastern Europe. Among his many adventures, in 1960 Frank was sent on a top-secret mission to inspect an American spy plane, a Lockheed U-2 (nicknamed “Dragon Lady”), that had been shot down by the Soviets. The pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been captured, and Frank played a crucial role in the fallout, later dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s movie Bridge of Spies.
Frank is my great-uncle. And long before Spielberg’s cinematic interpretation, members of our family regaled one another with stories of how he had “single-handedly won the Cold War.” My favorite parts when I was growing up were about how a Russian guard had sneered at him, “Take a look [at the plane]. It’s yours.” And the suspense he felt waiting for the swap of Powers and Abel (the Russian spy) to take place. From there, Frank proceeded to Checkpoint Charlie and escorted Frederic Pryor, an American student held captive by the Soviets, from East to West Berlin. No question: At 94, Frank is my greatest pen pal.
Our correspondence began two years ago, after I moved from Glasgow to New York. Since then, opening the mailbox to find the blue air-mail sticker has been a source of constant encouragement. The letters themselves are immaculately typed, with handwritten afterthoughts. Inspired by his boisterous singing at family parties, I sometimes scribble a line or two of German lieder in my replies. “I liked the German bit on the inside of the envelope,” he writes back. Schubert’s “Die Forelle” especially, “the moody trout flashing across the Baechlein really appealed.” German is just one of the many languages Frank speaks fluently. Speaking of poetry, he recalls, “There’s an innocence and charm about that side of Germany that always gets to me.”
The artful letter is a tangible and treasurable thing, and says much about the sender. Christopher Buckley told me that the late Tom Wolfe’s letters to him are “absolute masterpieces.” Wolfe “wrote the way he dressed,” Buckley says, “like an Edwardian dandy, . . . with a fountain pen on lovely, thick cream-colored paper.” Buckley recalls that the importance of letter writing was impressed on him in childhood. Which figures: His father, William F. Buckley Jr., was one of the most prolific letter writers in American history.
But letters need not be written by great writers to be worthy of preservation. In Andrew Carroll’s lovely collection War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, there is a rare, never previously published letter by Francis Gary Powers himself. From Soviet custody, round about the same time Uncle Frank was inspecting his plane, Powers wrote to his wife and parents. His letter is written in plain English and in painful contemplation of the uncertainty of his fate — aimed, above all else, at comforting his family.
War letters, in this regard, are a category of their own. There is an immediacy about them. An urgency. Take, for example, a letter by a young American soldier, John McGrath. In the Second World War, during the Battle of Anzio, Private McGrath wrote to a fellow soldier about a lucky escape he’d just had. He put the letter in his backpack but, before he had the chance to send it, was shot from behind. A fist-sized bullet hole now obscures the center of the page.
Perhaps E. B. White was on to something when he wrote, “A man who publishes his letters becomes a nudist — nothing shields him from the world’s gaze except his bare skin.” Indeed, the intimacy of letters, and their ability to move, is perhaps why so many are published posthumously.
This is especially true of love letters. Frank has many of these, though, quite rightly, I’ve never seen them. He met his wife in Glasgow during the Second World War. The two were married in New York (in a church ten blocks from my apartment) after she’d emigrated, and they spent 66 years devoted to each other. Frank writes that Margaret was a “cheerful, faithful and diligent companion in good times and bad,” and a prolific letter writer. The pair were finally parted by her death in 2015.
Frank told me that his favorite letter from Margaret was written 50 years ago, on August 15, 1968. He was on a long assignment in Budapest, and Margaret had stayed behind in Washington to sell their house. Rediscovering her letter was a profound experience. “It unrolls a great bit of your life that you had lost track of, or not held onto as you might,” he said. “And suddenly, the letter comes out of a file and opens up a whole bit of your life which has gone.”
Of course, modern communication has many upsides, too: I can call, FaceTime, email, WhatsApp, Snapchat, or even hop onboard an eight-hour flight to Glasgow and drive up to Helensburgh, where Frank now lives. Letters are, naturally, supplements to our relationship. By my desk, I also keep his eloquent memoirs, Polish Reflections, in which he wrote: “Human nature being as perverse as it is, the joy in my own case,” at the end of the USSR, “was tinged with wormwood. Having spent a working life trying to understand communist eastern Europe, I found myself at the end of it, just when I thought I was on the verge of getting the point, unfeelingly deprived of my raison d’être.”
It’s easy to see why. From Brexit to Trump, the old world Frank knew has morphed out of recognition. Nevertheless, he patiently answers my questions in his letters: providing insights on “Trumpland” and “Vlad the Impaler.” I asked, recently, what he is up to these days. His reply: “I’m reading a lot about Russia in 1918 — George Kennan’s two-volume work on those times. Read them before when I was doing Russian at Harvard, but that was 1956–57, so I felt it was high time I read them again before going on eternity leave.”
No doubt, Frank is in his winter years. And a more melancholic variation of this theme crops up in the final letter of Whittaker Chambers to William F. Buckley Jr., on April 9, 1961, as published in Odyssey of a Friend: “Weariness, Bill — you cannot yet know literally what it means. I wish no time would come when you do know, but the balance of experience is against it. One day, long hence, you will know true weariness and will say: ‘That was it.’ . . .”
Buckley did, in the end, know “true weariness.” When one interviewer, Charlie Rose, asked him why he was tired of life, why he was ready to stop living on, Buckley smiled like a true believer and borrowed Whittaker’s word. And here’s what I suspect the true genius of the written letter is: It yields the fruit of one man’s experience and offers it to another to be plucked in due season.
Besides the Atlantic Ocean, 70 years of living and reading and thinking and writing separate Frank and me. But while airplanes and automobiles, and gadgets and gizmos, have made letters all but redundant, I can’t help but wonder whether there’s hope for them yet. Nowadays, one sits down to write a letter only if one has some big reason. The urgency of mortality, perhaps. Or the immortality of the pen.