Is there any genre of literary endeavor lower — less significant, less regarded, more ephemeral — than the Letter to the Editor? Or any better illustration of the truth, first noted by one of the Roman authors, that writing is neither an art nor a science, but a disease? A person would indeed have to be suffering from some sort of malady to be so hungry for distinction as to give over half an hour to compose a letter, on a topic of public interest, addressed to a stranger, in the faint hope that it might see print, squinched into some newspaper between the thundering unsigned editorials and the dry ruminations of public intellectuals, or in the shadowy ad-fringed ditch between some magazine's contents page and the warm-up features.
This low and self-indulgent art form boasts few masterpieces, and even those have the miniature character of heads carved on cherry-stones. A personal favorite of mine is the one sent to the London Times in February 1959, signed jointly by Earl Russell, a.k.a. Bertrand Russell, the philosopher and gadfly, and Lord Russell of Liverpool, a jurist who had helped prosecute the Nazi defendants at Nuremberg. After the latter's book The Scourge of the Swastika became a bestseller, people started getting the two aristocratic Russells mixed up, leading to the joint letter, whose text read, in its entirety: "In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other." There you have a perfect letter to the editor: memorable, socially useful, and brief.
I was attracted to the letters columns of my family's morning newspaper from an early age. That paper was Hugh Cudlipp's Daily Mirror, the greatest success in postwar British tabloid journalism. The letters column was a folksy affair purportedly managed by a pair of elderly gentlemen called the Old Codgers, who in practice were of course a single person, that person being whichever Mirror staff member could be found nothing better to do. That was so in Fleet Street at any rate. Staff at the separately printed northern edition of the Mirror used to just make up the letters, a fact sufficiently well-known to worker bees of the British press to cause much mirth when Hugh Cudlipp dropped in on the Mirror's Manchester office one day to congratulate John Flint, the night news editor, on the fine natural sense of humor displayed by the paper's northern readers.
At any rate, I quickly got attached to the Old Codgers. They practiced a prewar style of courtesy, referring to male readers as "Sir" and females as "Ma'am." They had a nice line in odd believe-it-or-not facts, and patient answers to colorfully silly questions from readers. In my preteen arrogance I even submitted a letter to them — something about the speed of light, I think it was — but the letters editor did not see fit to publish it. That particular incarnation of the Old Codgers was probably the legendary reporter Brian McConnell, who some years later took a bullet in the chest for Princess Anne when a lunatic attempted to kidnap her. (He recovered, and was awarded a medal by the Queen in person.)
In due course that preteen arrogance matured into a full-blown adolescent self-regard. I fell in with a group of coevals who, like me, fancied their intellects much too big to be contained by the sleepy provincial town we lived in. That town's own evening daily was the Chronicle and Echo, which my mother took for what she called the "hatched, matched, and dispatched" (i.e., the paper's recording of local births, marriages, and deaths). The paper had a letters column, and my friends and I vied with one another to sabotage it with subversive entries like:
Why does your newspaper publish letters from readers who will not permit their names to be shown, or who hide their identities behind pseudonyms? If a writer is too cowardly to attach his name to his opinions, his letter ought not be published.
The summit of my career as a writer of letters to the editor, though, came in the mid-1990s, when I held an undemanding job in New York City. I tried the Times, but they were printing only 60 or so of the 1,500 letters they received each week. They printed a lot of letters from notables — from panjandrums of politics, commerce, or academe — crowding out us lesser mortals. Further, they verified your identity by calling the phone number you gave them. This last safeguard could be finessed with a little ingenuity — my office had plenty of outside lines — but it cramped my style.
Fortunately I found that the New York Post printed a higher proportion than the Times of readers' letters, had fairly predictable criteria for publication, and did not call to verify letter-writers' identities. Before long I was being published with fair regularity in the Post under five or six pseudonyms, each one with a made-up address in one of New York's five boroughs, each written or typed on a different kind of letter paper, with a different-size envelope, mailed from a different location. I am ashamed to say I spent many hours of my employer's time fiddling with word-processor fonts and paper sizes, and practicing different signatures, in an effort to present my multiple personalities as convincingly as possible to the letters editor of the New York Post.
All that work met with considerable success. I managed to get several heated exchanges going with myself in the letters columns of the Post, one personality vigorously contradicting another. Nor was this my only outlet. I may be the only person ever to have published a sonnet in the Wall Street Journal letters section (1/9/96). Strangely, I do not think I ever had a letter in National Review, in spite of having been a subscriber continuously since the mid-1970s. By the late 1990s I had anyway been hired in to write editorial snippets here. This new employment quenched my thirst for one-paragraph opinionating, and I abandoned my epistolary adventures. This probably saved me from acute schizophrenia, and the New York Post from a letters column entirely the product of a single fevered brain.