One ought to reserve an hour a week for receiving letters,” Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “and afterwards take a bath.” Nietzsche, who called the postman “the agent of rude surprises,” found an unexpected letter sullied his day and spoiled his work.
We receive upwards of 90 letters a week at America, and among my tasks is the pleasurable duty of culling that herd for letters suitable for publication. This correspondence comes in every form imaginable—handwritten, banged out on manual typewriters, e-mailed, scribbled on twice-used stationery or posted on our Web site. Some letters are anonymous, some signed with a flourish and some, in the words of a fellow editor, “obviously written after 7 p.m.” Going through the stack each week can be a profound education in rhetoric, polemic, grammar and the curious Internet-influenced jargon of a new generation of readers.
One always finds old friends in the batch, faithful correspondents who regularly offer America’s editors their suggestions and opinions free of charge. Over time they have become a comfort to this editor, like an old shoe, predictable and reliable. When they go on vacation or run out of typewriter ribbon, I worry: Is it family trouble? Poor health? A few days of held breath are usually rewarded with another missive; sometimes they even tell me why they’ve been gone.
Less common are those letters demanding, “Cancel my subscription immediately!” What to do with these? Are they an expression of an honest desire never to see America grace their mailbox again? Or just fits of pique? The late William F. Buckley penned the punchiest riposte possible after receiving a letter from an enraged reader in April 1972 demanding his subscription to The National Review be cancelled: “Cancel your own goddam subscription. Cordially, WFB.”
My favorite letter included the following lines (edited for grammar, spelling, vulgarity and sense): “Please provide me with James T. Keane, S.J.’s e-mail address. I suppose the S.J. stands for Stupid Jackass, which this imbecile must be. I’d like to correspond with him to tell him exactly how I feel!” Further correspondence seemed unnecessary; how the author felt was obvious already. But it’s nice to get mail.
Online comments are another matter. We require that all comments include a valid name and e-mail address, and yet every day a reader or two tries to sneak a comment past our watchful eyes with names like “An Atheist With a Brain” or “Pope Benedict.” Sometimes their e-mail addresses are just as creative. My favorite is the fellow who posts as “firstname.lastname@example.org.” To him we offer…no reply. And cancel your own subscription. Unless you really are Pope Benedict.
A century of publication has also left America with a vast repository of past letters. These were often suspiciously positive, sometimes little more than a paragraph of fulsome praise. Were our interlocutors more polite in those days? Or did the editors have a soft spot for grateful readers? “Were I forced to curtail expenses,” wrote a priest from Illinois in 1909, America “would be absolutely the last that would be given up.” Again, it’s nice to get mail, but God help that man’s parishioners.
But we still like praise, and readers too, especially as our subscribers face a new era of cost-cutting and hard decisions about expenses. We try to be a bit more fair these days, so readers should feel as welcome to bury Caesar as to praise him. And this gets to Nietzsche’s most grievous fault: He never figured out that the greatest secret to this gay science is perhaps to have a sense of humor about it all. And sometimes, dear reader, what you’ve got to tell us is absolutely correct.