Depending on your source, a man of letters may be described variously as a man of great learning, an expert in the arts and literature or simply as an intellectual.
But delving a little more deeply into its etymology, we learn that this quaint expression has its origins in pre-Enlightenment France and was simply an appellation for anyone who could read and write, as distinct from the illiterate masses.
Well now, since I can read and I can write, I guess I’m entitled – at least by 17th century standards – to call myself a man of letters.
In truth, there was a time when I was a prolific practitioner of the endangered art of letter-writing – a predilection that has recently come back to bite me. Let’s step back a few decades to a time when there were no computers, no email, and usurious long-distance rates could demolish your life savings faster than a Ponzi scheme. So whenever the urge to communicate with a friend or family member hit, we wrote a letter. It was time-consuming, slow, and the wait for a reply could seem endless.
Those letters were simply a means of keeping in touch. We never considered them to be anything more than that. But today, many people bemoan the passing of the handwritten letter as both an almost extinct art form and a disappearing historical record of a bygone era.
And I, like many of you I’m sure, have taken the easy way out. I write emails daily. I don’t remember the last time I wrote a real honest-to-goodness letter.
As effortless as e-communication is, there is one form of letter that should never be composed on a keyboard – the love letter. I mean those letters that have no purpose other than to serve as an expression of passion and eternal affection from one besotted heart to another. Who could dream of receiving those tender words in anything but the hand of their sender?
I was surprised a few months ago on the eve of Valentine’s Day when my bride of 50 years plus announced that she’d discovered a box of love letters I’d written her during our courtship. And she had this wonderful plan. Red flag! No big deal, she insisted. I would simply read one of those missives to her each evening after dinner for as long as the supply lasted. I was hesitant, but what harm could come from injecting some romance into our COVID-vandalized lives?
What a disappointment! That box contained nothing that any self-respecting suitor would dream of calling a love letter. Just a pile of cringeworthy gibberish that could have been written by a drivelling ten-year-old. Nothing poetic. Nothing even remotely romantic. Just a collection of rambling, incoherent dissertations that were embarrassing to read – and especially embarrassing to read aloud.
They were so bad they were funny. Hilarious actually. I hadn’t had a good oh-God-my-cheeks-are-hurting laugh in a long time. Joy was in tears.
But I worry that when Joy and I have departed this mortal coil, our kids will find those letters. It pains me to imagine their dismay at discovering what a dimwit their father really was.
So, you’re dying to know exactly what inanities I committed to paper back in my dunderhead days? Well, I am usually an open book, but there are limits. Nonetheless, I take some solace in knowing that, as appalling as those letters were, they could have been worse.
You see, I recently stumbled across some notes I’d made years ago about a now-defunct website called The Cyrano Server.
Designed for the romantically smitten but expressively challenged, the Cyrano Server was a free online service you could use to have a cyber Cyrano de Bergerac ghostwrite love letters for you. It could not have been simpler. Given a choice of letter styles including steamy, desperate, intellectual, and poetic, I chose steamy. Then I had to answer a handful of questions to allow Cyrano to personalize my letter, followed by a few minutes for him to compose.
Understand that Cyrano was not a human ghostwriter, but an electronic one, and the technology back in those days was sadly lacking. Below is what he came up with – and while I might rightly be accused of occasionally sacrificing a little truth on the altar of a better story, that is not the case here. This was Cyrano’s final product. Verbatim.
Dearest Joy: I can imagine myself kissing your devoted body and slathering you with various oils and pizza. Your back is my anchor in the stormy sea of life. I wonder how I made it through a day without you. Please meet me tomorrow in your nothing. Bring your heart and we will celebrate our solid love together. Yours passionately – George.
Sure glad I never sent that one.