Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it.
— Yuval Harari, Sapiens
Among the hundreds of letters I received before the email era that have somehow survived is one dated December 19, 1981 from Jason Kirenden. I remember Jason the way I remember a lot of literature and music. I can call up a vivid memory of the man, including his somewhat baritone voice, seeming diffidence and love of repartee. In person he was warm, and despite the difference in our generations (his daughters were from mine), he seemed to treat me as an equal. But factually, I’ve forgotten almost everything about him, and I could report next to nothing about the story of his life.
We became acquainted during my last year of law school in 1978-9 when he recorded class handouts, articles and probably a book or two for me. I found him, or he found me, through the auspices of the Carroll Center for the Blind, in the suburban town of Newton, where he lived. The Carroll Center served the greater Boston area, as it still does today. I’m guessing he would periodically drive to Cambridge to hand over the tapes. Clearly, we met on several occasions, and his letter reveals that I visited him and his family at their home.
Was he retired? I don’t think he was old enough. I’d put him in his fifties, or at the oldest early sixties.
His letter is dated two years after I left Massachusetts for New York, and he indicates that he is replying to a letter I’d sent him. When I wrote that previous letter, I was unhappy in my job. By the time he replied, though he didn’t know it, I’d taken a new job where my prospects were much brighter.
The theme of Jason’s letter is his dislike of writing letters. The very first, and very long, paragraph mocks people, like me, who actively engaged in correspondence:
It was such a pleasure to hear from you, and no excuses, nor even reasons, are necessary to explain the short delay in communication. Why, I feel I correspond regularly with an old college friend of mine who last wrote to me eight years ago and to whom I dropped a short note five years ago. I have always had a feeling of mingled awe and disapproval towards those people who correspond at weekly intervals with a host of friends and relatives, whose letters enroute to Timbuctoo are considered ordinary fare and who regularly receive, in Timbuctoo or Boston, packets of personal mail outweighing the third-class mail shoveled at us daily. Awe because I can’t see how they find the time to write, the imagination to be witty, or trenchant, or whatever it is they are, and the perception to see in their surroundings or interior musings items worthy of recording and transmitting to said host of friends and relatives. Disapproval (I am sure your legally-trained mind has remembered the second half) because I feel they should be enjoying life rather than recording it for the vicarious experience of others; they resemble, to me, the tourists who invade new places with cameras clicking and whirring, tape recorders spinning. They do not see except through view-finders, nor hear substance, but only noise levels, until they return home to file their photographs and tapes before the next trip.
I could hardly take offense. But Jason’s was not a small mind incapable of holding two inconsistent ideas at once. His second paragraph begins by acknowledging the cost: “The fact is that neither Sylvia [his wife] nor I write letters. We have lost contact with many people this way, and are poorer for it.”
Then it’s back to theme 1:
On the other hand, we have had that much more time to pursue other activities. Without making moral judgments or, in the current fashionable terminology, value judgments, some people do one thing, others do others, and others others. One of the things we don’t do is write letters.
Sylvia had a nine-to-five job on top of all her other activities, and so “she does not find the time to write.” That summer, she had gone to help a relative in Wisconsin: “Sylvia stayed with them two weeks and then, so her air fare shouldn’t be a total loss, I joined her and we toured Wisconsin for a week. We found it much more exciting than listening to grass grow.”
But Jason wasn’t about to abandon his theme. In her new job, “[s]he seems now to be something of an expert on the management of magazine circulation, and she writes many business letters, but she still has not developed the habit of writing personal letters.”
He waxed proudly about his daughters. Of the elder, Cindy, he began by saying that when she started college he used to “write to her companionable letters, yet fatherly in tone, amusing but gently docent.” However, she had now graduated and found a job. “She is now living at home; I do not write to her.”
He worried that his other daughter might make him change his ways: “It is just possible that Marion might force us into developing the writing habit, for she will be off soon to Olympia, Washington, where she will attend The Evergreen State College.”
The college’s name bothered him: “That’s really what they call it. I’m not sure whether it’s the State or the College that’s Evergreen, but when I wrote to inquire, they thought I was giving them the needle.”
Family news dispensed, Jason launched into a defense of his letter-writing phobia:
Perhaps the reason I do not correspond with friends and relatives in Timbuctoo or elsewhere, is that I dislike long discursive passages. ‘Brief, concise, and to the point’ is my maxim for writing. Yet, if applied to social correspondence, this would result in letters that would seem abrupt and unfriendly.
I wonder whether today he would have seen his attitude as an argument for or against Twitter. On the one hand Twitter would eliminate the necessity of long letters; on the other, he might have viewed word count-challenged tweets as abrupt and unfriendly.
Then, after pages filled with disparagement of letter-writing, I learn he was, in fact, a writer:
I find I can write in several styles. Many years ago I learnt the journalism style as a college newspaper editor. At approximately the same time, I learned the two subspecies of academic report, the literary and the scientific. I did once develop a rudimentary ability with the short story, and now I’ve become an adept of bureaucratese.
Such are the paradoxes of a writer’s life.
And so to his final excuse: “Or perhaps it (the reason for not writing letters) is that I have never learned to type (my education was above all that) and I realize how hard my handwriting is to read.”
As the letter nears its close, even as the light-hearted tone stays intact, it reveals that his curmudgeonliness was no reflection of his generosity: “We all remember you fondly and hope you will again bless with your presence our humble home. If your dissatisfaction with your job leads you to explore opportunities in Boston, you are welcome to stay with us for a visit or for a stage in relocation.” He concluded: “Please don’t let my lack of response keep you from writing again, or telephoning.”
Thus ended his nine-page letter. So much for hating to write letters. Then again, it was the first and only one I ever received from him. At least, I don’t think there was an earlier one, although I can’t be sure; not all the letters I received survived. But I know for sure he never wrote again.
I replied in what I hoped was a similarly jaunty vein. However, since I didn’t keep a copy of my letter, as email does automatically for me today, I can’t be sure what I’d make of it all these years later. Not receiving a reply, I was to agonize over whether my idea of humor had annoyed him, but I never followed up to make sure I hadn’t caused offense. In those days, phoning Massachusetts from New York meant making a toll call, which meant less that they could be costly than that they were events. By calling to make sure he wasn’t offended, I might have inadvertently pressured him to do the very thing he hated most: writing letters.
Even today, drafting this post, I anguish over whether I might have hurt his feelings. But I suspect that if he were to read these words, he’d be torn between thinking I was making a mountain of a molehill and chagrin that laziness had led him to cause me anxiety.
Last month I tried to track him down with the aid of Google. His name, belonging to him or someone else, doesn’t show up anywhere. In a world populated by billions of people, that’s impressive. Moreover, no one named Kirenden is shown as living in Massachusetts, or anywhere else in the United States for that matter. Assuming his daughters are still alive, it seems they’ve adopted their husbands’ names. Time has apparently erased a delightful and humane man, even if admittedly correspondence-phobic, from the historical record.
However, with this essay posted to my website, it will be subject to Google searches and his name restored. Maybe Cindy, Marion or other friends will one day come across it and share their memories with history.