A Word or Two Before You Go

We love the letters we receive at the Jefferson Hour, and we take them seriously. Most come by way of email now, though occasionally we still get hand-written letters from prison. I love the idea that someone who did a very bad thing and now endures prolonged incarceration takes the time to listen to what we have to say, and then sits down to write to us. Over the years, I’ve done my share of prison performances. They are always amazing experiences. I once touched off a prison riot, but that is another story for another time.

My daughter asked me recently what I would like for Father’s Day. I said, “Send me a handwritten letter in a stamped envelope. That’s all I want.” Her reply? “Funny. But seriously, Dad, what do you want that can be ordered through Amazon.com?”

OK, now we understand each other.

I once touched off a prison riot, but that is another story for another time.

My 85-year-old mother is selling the house I grew up in. With a little help from a friend, I cleaned out the attic not long ago—a classical, gloomy, moth-smelling, bat-infested attic with suitcases and trunks from another century. We took four giant loads of trash to the landfill—that too is another story—but toward the end of a long day I found a box of all or most of the letters I have sent to my parents from the time I graduated from high school until computers scattered all that we have to say out into the labyrinth of cyberspace. I thought my parents had discarded those letters decades ago, but there they were, beautifully preserved, folded, neatly stacked in chronological order in a nondescript box. In my haste to wrap up the day I had nearly tossed them in the dumpster.

I have only read one of two of the letters so far—my heart may not be tough enough to endure a full reading—and there, sometimes in my evolving handwriting, sometimes pounded out on my prized Hermes 3000 portable manual typewriter—is a record of my life, at least that portion of it I was willing to share with parents I trusted and admired.

Jefferson said the only real record of his life was in his correspondence. He was one of the great letter writers of history. He chose his words carefully. His handwriting was so exquisite that it feels like artwork, like Sage of Monticello calligraphy. He lavished attention on his letters, sought maximum resonance and harmony with his thousands of correspondents, some of whom he never met, wrote carefully, thoughtfully, generously, with history in mind and yet he never wrote self-consciously for posterity. He turned phrases better than any other American public figure except Abraham Lincoln. Imagine what it must have been like to receive a letter from America’s da Vinci.

Jefferson said the only real record of his life was in his correspondence.

In twenty-two years I have written my daughter hundreds of letters. She has written dozens to me. Someday, when I am safely scattered in the badlands of Dakota Territory alongside the sacred Little Missouri River, she will be cleaning out some space, closet or storage locker, and she will find a box of my letters. Whether she will smile or shed a tear or flagellate herself for ever thinking Amazon.com could sell anything as valuable as one hand-written paragraph of love, I don’t know.

If you haven’t written a real letter for a while, I urge you to do so. You will make someone’s day. And any Jeffersonian act in this distracted world is a small but important declaration of independence.

Keep your letters coming to the Thomas Jefferson Hour. By the way, I’m betting I get my Father’s Day letter after all.

More from the Thomas Jefferson Hour

The image of Jefferson's letter is from the Library of Congress: Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, June 20, 1803.