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Dear John: Rare Recording of a Vietnam War Soldier Reading a Breakup Letter from Home

“Dear John I love you so, Dear John you’ve got to go.”

Some months ago, I shared a train ride with Jezebel founder and all-around great gal Anna Holmes who, upon finding out about my obsession with love letters, told me about a book she’d written nearly a decade ago: Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), a magnificent collection spanning several centuries of breakups, both famous and ordinary. Naturally, I hunted down a copy, in which I discovered Simone de Beauvoir’s exquisite missive of “dry sadness.” But Anna also mentioned something she’d discovered over the course of her research that never made it, for obvious reasons, into the book: A rare recording of a Vietnam War soldier nicknamed Johnny Smack-O reading a lengthy “Dear John” letter — the blanket term used to describe “I’m leaving you letters,” common in the military — sent to him by the woman with whom he’d been living for two and a half years prior to the war. The letter’s author, who remains unknown, had just found out that Johnny had another relationship and the two women, in having discovered each other’s existence, had bonded over Johnny’s despicable deceit.

Anna, who is on Twitter and has a new book in the works, has kindly sent me the recording — enjoy. The full transcript, including snippets of Johnny’s conversation with fellow serviceman David Syster, who taped the audio, and another man on the same radio frequency who overheard the two, appears in the book.

Oh, Jonny, when I sit here at my desk, writing this letter, looking at the walls and my desk covered with your pictures and I feel an intimacy but, for some reason, it seems to be melting right before me, and I feel like throwing up. Why? Because I’m such a fool, such a fuckin’ fool, to have fallen for such a lowly bastard as you.

Anna contextualizes the peculiar subculture of such letters:

Gordon Angus Mackinlay, a veteran of the British and Australian armies, claims that the term [Dear John] came from a music-hall song popular just prior to World War I whose chorus went:

Dear John I love you so
Dear John you’ve got to go
Dear John I love you so
Dear John you must go

[…]

Stories of Dear John letters abound, but, for obvious reasons, the actual letters themselves are difficult to find. Michael Lee Lanning, an author and army veteran, says he remembers ceremonies in the service in which Dear Johns were burned or flushed down toilets. (Another veteran claims that Dear Johns were used as toilet paper.) Vietnam War veteran Guy Hunter says that some of his fellow marines posted their Dear Johns on the walls in the platoon headquarters, where they remained to either fall apart or be ripped down and thrown away.

Hell Hath No Fury is a treasure trove from cover to cover and features stirring, scathing, sad, and satirical letters from common people and literary greats alike, including favorites like Sylvia Plath, Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin.

BP

Edward Gorey’s Vintage Illustrations for H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds

Two classic masters of the macabre and wonderful, together.

Beloved mid-century illustrator Edward Goreygrim alphabetician, masterful letter-writer, dispenser of visual snark, semi-secret sort-of-pornographer — was born on this day in 1925. During his seven-year stint living in New York City between 1953 and 1960, he worked at the Doubleday art department — which also employed young Andy Warhol — and illustrated a number of books by famous mainstream authors, including the T. S. Eliot children’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, on which the Broadway musical Cats is based.

At the end of his time at Doubleday, Gorey illustrated a special edition of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (public library) for the celebrated Looking Glass Library series, published in 1960 under the New York Review of Books Classics imprint. One of Gorey’s inimitable pen-and-ink drawings adorns the beginning of each chapter. Here is a taste:

The War of the Worlds, like all things Gorey, is sublime in its entirety. And what better excuse than his birthday for celebrating his life and legacy by supporting the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust with a donation to the Edward Gorey House?

BP

Bertrand Russell on Human Nature, Construction vs. Destruction, and Science as a Key to Democracy

On the art of acquiring “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.”

In 1926, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic Bertrand Russell — whose 10 commandments of teaching endure as a timeless manifesto for education, whose poignant admonition is among history’s greatest insights on love, whose message to descendants should be etched into every living heart — penned Education and the Good Life (public library), exploring the essential pillars of building character through proper education and how that might relate to broader questions of politics, psychology, and moral philosophy.

One of Russell’s key assertions is that science education — something that leaves much to be desired nearly a century later — is key to attaining a future of happiness and democracy:

For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and its byproducts, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organization and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, but sufficiently to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill-health very rare. … All this is of such immeasurable value to human life that we dare not oppress the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. in such an education, applied science will have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world.

Still, Russell is sure to offer a disclaimer, advocating for the equal importance of the humanities, and asks:

What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?

The humanities, he argues, help develop the imagination which, like many great scientists have attested, is key to progress:

It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial.

[…]

Cast-iron rules are above all things to be avoided.

In a mechanistic civilization, there is grave danger of a crude utilitarianism, which sacrifices the whole aesthetic side of life to what is called ‘efficiency.’

Echoing Galileo’s concerns about science and dogma, Russell writes:

Passionate beliefs produce either progress or disaster, not stability. Science, even when it attacks traditional beliefs, has beliefs of its own, and can scarcely flourish in an atmosphere of literary skepticism. … And without science, democracy is impossible.

[…]

Neither acquiescence in skepticism nor acquiescence in dogma is what education should produce. What it should produce is a belief that knowledge is attainable in a measure, though with difficulty; that much of what passes for knowledge at any given time is likely to be more or less mistaken, but that the mistakes can be rectified by care and industry. In acting upon our beliefs, we should be very cautious where a small error would mean disaster; nevertheless it is upon our beliefs that we must act. This state of mind is rather difficult: it requires a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy. But though difficult it is not impossible; it is in fact the scientific temper. Knowledge, like other good things, is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the skeptic denies the possibility. Both are mistaken, and their errors, when wide-spread, produce social disaster.

In a later chapter, he considers another double-edged sword of dogmatic thinking:

It is a dangerous error to confound truth with matter-of-fact. Our life is governed not only by facts, but by hopes; the kind of truthfulness which sees nothing but facts is a prison for the human spirit.

But one of Russell’s most important assertions, reminiscent of the old Cherokee parable of the two wolves, explores the fundamental predispositions of human nature:

In the immense majority of children, there is the raw material of a good citizen and also the raw material of a criminal.

[…]

The raw material of instinct is ethically neutral, and can be shaped either to good or evil by the influence of the environment.

In a related meditation, Russell articulates beautifully something ineffable yet essential, something we too frequently forget, of which a dear friend recently reminded me, and writes:

Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it. … We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy. … Whatever may be thought of these definitions, we all know in practice whether an activity is to be regarded as constructive or destructive, except in a few cases where a man professes to be destroying with a view to rebuilding and are not sure whether he is sincere.

[…]

The first beginnings of many virtues arise out of experiencing the joys of construction.

[…]

Those whose intelligence is adequate should be encouraged in using their imaginations to think out more productive ways of utilizing existing social forces or creating new ones.

Education and the Good Life is a remarkable read in its entirety — highly recommended.

Artwork: “Choosing Sides” by Owen Mortensen, courtesy my living room wall

BP

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