A Letter to Emma Ray

August 23, 2005 | 24 comments
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Book CoverWhile David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is nearly perfect in every way, one thing it doesn’t do is provide an intimate portrait of President McKay. That lacuna is partially filled by Heart Petals: The Personal Correspondence of David Oman McKay to Emma Ray McKay.

Toronto, Ontario, June 4, 1929

My Darling Sweetheart,

. . . After traveling all night by train from Ottawa to Toronto, I approached the Mission house in high anticipation of finding awaiting me at least four letters from Loved Ones at home, as I have had only one since I left two weeks ago. Though the sun was shining brightly, yet the air was cool; the city seemed to have an unwelcome aspect, an incident happened on our way to the street car, which impressed me as foolish, the mission house seemed rather still and undemonstrative, to say the least–no Elders to meet us, and our hostess naturally reserved as you know she is. These, and other things combined to keep my feelings just a little below par; but interjecting itself constantly like a ray of sunshine through the clouds, came the thought–”There are letters from home so I’ll be content.” I was shown to my room, but there were not letters on the table awaiting me. Later, I met the Mission Secretary, but he said nothing about mail.

Breakfast was announced, but no letters given me. As we were eating, the postman came. The little girl brought in papers and letters, wondered which one was for her, handed the bundle to her mother, who glanced through it, then handed it to the Secretary, who also looked at each envelope and wrapper, but handed me no letter. Thinking that he did not want to disturb me while eating, I asked, “Any for me?” In answer, he handed me a long letter from the Beneficial Life, but not a line from a chic or a child at home!

Well, Toronto became a gloomy old place! “Cold in climate, and every other way!” “Kiddies don’t give a rap, anyhow.” “They are cold in their feelings also.” “It will be a cold day before I write to them again!”–These cold, somewhat rebellious thoughts threw the thermometer of my feelings down to near the freezing point. I don’t know whether I radiated chilled feelings or not, but Sister Hart turned on an electric heater, and later Bro. Hart lit the gas radiator!

I was in a good mood to write a letter to the Assistant Superintendent of the civic hospital at Ottawa, who, I thought, treated us in an ungentlemantly not to say contemptuous manner when we called yesterday, to administer to a sister missionary–I wrote the letter, and read it to Brother Hart, who seemed a bit frightened, and mildly suggested some gentler terms instead of “insult,” “ignorance,” “bigotry,” etc.

Well, by the time that letter was modified, and another written to “His Excellency, the Mayor of Ottawa,” the postman came with the afternoon delivery of mail. I was handed your letter of the 31st.

Toronto is not an unpleasant city at all–The Mission house is really a cheerful home! Sister Hart is just as considerate as a hostess can be! The outlook of the Branch here is favorable! Everything that hour seemed to take on a different aspect! Yet everything was just as it had been before; but my Sweetheart’s letter had put Sunshine into my heart, and made all things gladsome! I’ve given you this peep into my innermost feelings, just to assure you again that

I love You!

My life’s sunshine!

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24 Responses to A Letter to Emma Ray

  1. Melissa on August 23, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    What a letter to have written to Ray. Even after 28 years of marriage, President McKay was still so ardent! I’ll have to buy the book now and read the earlier letters too.

    Despite all the fun we poke at “dear john” letters in the LDS culture, one of the little appreciated outcomes of those two year absences is the rare and precious letters that result. In our age of cell phones and email, the art of correspondence is quickly becoming lost.

  2. Mark B. on August 24, 2005 at 9:21 am

    What a remarkable letter! I agree with Melissa, except perhaps that what she says is “quickly becoming lost” is, I’m afraid, already far gone.

    Elder McKay’s letter makes one wonder about just how slow Canadian trains were in 1929. It’s about 275 miles from Ottawa to Toronto, or about 35 miles per hour for eight hours.

  3. Melissa on August 24, 2005 at 9:52 am

    Hey Mark,

    You may be right in general, but there are a few of us left. My grandmother still composes letters as do I on occasion. My penmanship is atrocious because there is so little need to use it these days (I even use the computer for my journal now). However, despite the illegibility of my writing, my good friends (and also my grandmother) still receive personal handwritten letters from me.

  4. Mark B. on August 24, 2005 at 10:08 am

    I’ll send my address, in case I ever pass from “mere acquaintance” to some more exalted state.

    On a different note, I’vve noticed that my handwriting has progressed from barely legible to completely unreadable, except for my signature, the only thing that I write regularly.

  5. Wilfried on August 24, 2005 at 10:34 am

    Thanks, Julie! A precious addition as I am reading Greg Prince’s biography now.

    It seems that letter writing was really an art form at that time. It had the feeling of long distances to overcome, there was literary value to it, it carried a conscience that letters would be kept for a long time. Perhaps people knew that generations later those letters would still be read? I wonder how much of this art is being lost in our emailing age… Not to speak of the loss when we hit the delete key or when the drive crashes.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on August 24, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    “It seems that letter writing was really an art form at that time.”

    I think this gets it right. In a world where it was accepted that information might be weeks or months away, and thus was anything but disposable, those who were literate took those restrictions as an inducement to create fine prose, something that could be read and reread many times. I don’t know how far back this desire for artistry in personal communication goes back (Rosalynde or Jonathan Green could tell us–were people writing courtly letters in, say, the 12th century, or did it not develop until much later?). In any case, it lasted into the 20th, when electronic technology finally outpaced the quill/pen/pencil and the sheet of stationary.

    In an era of e-mail and text-messaging, I actually sometimes wonder when we’ll see the first educator decide that penmanship (to say nothing of spelling) is unnecessary. It hasn’t happened yet; my two girls in school still learn printing and cursive. But I’m sure, somewhere down the line, some superintendent will take that step and make penmanship optional, and all the technopiles out there will applaud the move as a “realistic” one.

  7. Mark B. on August 24, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    Another note: If a modern writer had put “Kiddies don’t give a rap, anyhow.” into a novel set in the 1920′s, I would have thought it an anachronism. It’s interesting to see that giving (or, more precisely, not giving) a rap has been around for at least 80 years.

  8. Nate Oman on August 24, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    Russell: You probably need to look much earlier than the twelth century. The Romans were great letter writers (all of those wonderful roads) and the letter of Pliny, for example, are still quite wonderful. Indeed, you will note that some important “books” by writers like Augustine formally take the form of letters. (Another example, of course, is the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.)

    I have to admitt that I much regret the decline of letter writing. Heather and I have known each other for twelve years or more, but during most of that time, we lived far apart. Although we did a bit of email, we never talked much on the phone — until we were engaged — but rather wrote a lot of letters. We still have a box full of them — including a rather lengthy brief that I wrote her in the summer of 1998 on why she should consider dating me — which is really quite wonderful.

    Aside from the sense of literary loss, I also feel some hankering for the the mechanics of letter writing. I love the feel of thick paper, the scratch of pen, the folding and stuffing of the envelop. Indeed, if we are going to revive letter writing, I hope that we would go the whole way. I want quills, ink bottles, sand, pen knives, and sealing wax!

  9. Russell Arben Fox on August 24, 2005 at 12:47 pm

    “Indeed, you will note that some important ?books? by writers like Augustine formally take the form of letters. (Another example, of course, is the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.)”

    You’re very right–I had forgotten that. I guess the desire for artistry in letter-writing has existed for as long as there has existed 1) the technology for it (papyrus, ink, etc.) and 2) the knowledge that there wasn’t any alternative. So, really, an art form perhaps thousands of years old, biting the dust in a matter of decades.

    “I also feel some hankering for the the mechanics of letter writing. I love the feel of thick paper, the scratch of pen, the folding and stuffing of the envelop.”

    I read somewhere once that George F. Will insisted on writing all his columns out first on legal pads, using a thick, old-fashioned pen. True? Even if not, a good story. A lot of the great writers of history have written tributes to the beauty and allure of setting pen to paper, and scribbling away.

  10. Nate Oman on August 24, 2005 at 12:50 pm

    Russell: No great writer I, but I frequently write out first drafts of briefs and articles long hand on legal pads. I like the activity of having a pen in my hand (at least until my hand cramps) and I find that it is easier to get the words flowing on an actual piece of paper. I don’t think that my secretary is thrilled about the practice, as I sometimes ask her to decode my illegible scrawls and type them up.

  11. Julie in Austin on August 24, 2005 at 1:17 pm

    Now we know what to get Nate for Christmas:

    http://www.customwaxnseals.com/

    And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels a little thrill to find my address–hand written!–in the middle of a stack of bills, charity solicitations, and credit card offers.

  12. manaen on August 24, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    … and cursed be the inventor of the autopen — an infernal machine politicians and fund raisers love that duplicates your handwriting with a real pen so the recipient/solicitee is unaware!

  13. Jonathan Green on August 24, 2005 at 2:28 pm

    Russell, I think Nate’s right that the rise of the letter as art form will have to be almost as old as writing on any easily transportable medium. That leaves a lot of questions open, though. For my time peoriod, letters are a quite public mode of communication, with one addressee but a potentially very large audience. When do privacy and intimacy become characteristic of letter writing? How long does the influence of rhetorical or even mechanical model letters persist? How does David O. McKay’s letter compare to the 1907 edition of 101 Perfect Letters to your Loved Ones, or whatever they used back then?

  14. Shawn Bailey on August 24, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    I am certainly sympathetic to the nostalgia for letter-writing. Hey, it’s longing for the past week at T&S! Still, the more substantial part of what is lost with letter writing (thoughtful, well-crafted, personal prose) is certainly possible with electronic media. But my sense is that people simply do not craft emails—even emails to their lovers—like they would have crafted a letter in the past. Why is that?

    Other literary things I “miss,” even though I have only read about them: (a) verse writing being as natural to the educated as prose (now most have no idea regarding the distinction between verse and poetry); and (b) good poetry and short fiction being fairly widely read—not relegated to academic journals (except for the few entries each month in the magazines of the East Coast elite).

  15. Mark B. on August 24, 2005 at 3:47 pm

    Shawn,

    Perhaps the craft is lost because of the simplicity of the physical act of putting words onto computer screens. I find that a handwritten letter takes me several drafts–my drafting habits are set by the ease of drafting, revising, deleting, adding, etc. that the computer affords, and that makes a real mess of a handwritten letter. With the computer, I don’t have have to form an entire thought in my mind (some I’m sure would agree that I in fact never have). I just start writing, and then try to fix it up as I go along. Maybe we’d do better if we had to try to get it right, or at least close to right, on the first try.

    On a related matter, some of you may be familiar with Richard Mitchell, an irascible foe of the pompous and bloated in academic writing, who published an occasional newsletter entitled The Underground Grammarian.. (Come to think of it, he had probably closed up his press for good before any of you would have had a chance to “meet” him.) He set his entire newsletter in cold lead type. Not only did he like the connection that brought him to the words, but he recognized that the difficulty of the task forced him to be sparing with, and sure of, his words.

  16. manaen on August 24, 2005 at 4:07 pm

    14 & 15
    It seems to me that phrasing in communication became more sparse as we adopted electronic media — and the public’s ability to use the language deteriorated. Maybe the ease of the former led to laziness in the latter. I suppose that people took more care when they felt that noticable effort was going to be required anyway just to do the task. It also seems likely that the permanence of letters that may be saved for posterity (does anyone save emails on disk for later generations to enjoy?) would lead people to leave something that better recalled the creator. Or did Presidents McKay and Reagan just love better, so their letters stir more more emotion?

    On the other hand, I noticed that the average length of popular novels has grown from about 200-250 pages when they were written to 2x, 3x, or more now that they are word-processed. Does some optimal pattern of publication exist, say release every 20 months, to keep the buying audience between forgetfulness and satiety? If so, do popular writers just crank along between releases, working the same hours per week as before?

  17. Melissa on August 24, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    Shawn,

    Location counts too. When I decide to write a long letter, I position myself in an inspiring place. For me this almost always means being outside or curled up as close as possible to the largest window I can find. Sitting at my desk staring at the monitor is often less than inspiring. Being in front of a computer also mimics my working space and position too much to make emailing seem like a special, set apart activity. In order to write a good letter, especially a love letter, a different state of mind is required.

    There’s also something to what Mark B. says about effort. I take more ownership of a letter I write longhand than a letter I type out because I’ve had to produce each individual letter. Each has my unique stamp on it. Each looks the way it does because I formed it that way myself. By contrast, everyone’s emails look the same. They’re all in Times New Roman.

  18. Shawn Bailey on August 24, 2005 at 6:12 pm

    I suppose whether word-processing software makes your prose better or worse depends on who you are, how you work, what you are used to, etc. I suspect that if you learned to write (as in learned to write real prose, I’m not talking about mere penmanship) long-hand, there may be something about the act of scratching pen to paper that helps you get your prose on. Mark mentioned that typing may inhibit the need to form a complete thought. But for me, the ability to easily insert, delete, or move words around the screen helps me scrutinize my thoughts as I work through several drafts. Generally speaking, eliminating the physical labor of re-writing (does anyone really write flawless prose in the first draft anyway?) with such powerful tools should, it seems, help craft to flourish.

    Now if you want to talk about technology that is truly hostile to good prose, consider blackberries and text-messaging phones! Not much hope for matching one of President McKay’s charming letters using one of these devices!

  19. Rosalynde on August 26, 2005 at 12:26 am

    As part of my research I read a number of letters from undercover recusant Catholic priests in Elizabethan England to their Jesuit superiors-handlers, though most of these were rhetorically pretty bare-bones and not especially intimate. Highly interesting, however, and immeasurably valuable. And it’s worth noting that many early novels, like Richardson’s Pamela, took epistolary form. It may be that the love letter, like the novel, is an essentially middle-class form.

  20. Nate Oman on August 26, 2005 at 11:57 am

    Jane Austen initially wrote in an epistolary form. The first draft of Sense and Sensibility (now lost), like Pamela, consisted entirely of letters. You can still see echoes of this in Pride and Prejudice, where much of the action in the book is described in letters. Rosalyde’s point about love letters is interesting. I have done a bit of reading of Roman letters — mainly jurisconsults and other lawyers — and never saw any love letters, but I don’t know that this means much.

  21. Travis Anderson on August 27, 2005 at 7:28 pm

    Thanks for another interesting book review, Julie. I thought your earlier reviews on DOM biographies were right on the mark, and I appreciate your having called our attention to this text.

    The letters of DOM should be inherently interesting to most Mormons for all kinds of reasons, some of which legitimately have nothing to do with an interest in either penetrating religious insights or literary prose, but if you’re interested in correspondence that is brimming with both of those qualities, a book I could heartily recommend is Sally Fitzgerald’s “The Habit of Being,” edited selections from the letters of Flannery O’Connor. Not only does it offer wonderful glimpses into the tragic, but inspiring life of one of America’s most talented writers, it is astonishingly moving and wise. Though O’Connor was, of course, a famous Catholic apologist and therefore addressed many of her comments to issues of particular interest to other Catholics, her insights are almost always applicable to any religious believer—and, I have found, especially applicable to members of our own faith, whose ecclesiastical structure and foibles have more in common with that of the Catholic Church than most Mormons would want to admit.

    An example of O’Connor’s beautifully expressed and widely applicable wisdom is contained, I think, in the following excerpt from her response to Cecil Dawkins, who had apparently shared with her some criticism of Church leaders or leadership:

    “Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error, but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water by himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this, but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.
    “Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and usually does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When she shows a profit you have a saint, . . . It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it . . .
    “It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church—the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty—wherever we find them and however we can. . . . [but] you don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this ineffectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.” (307-08)

  22. Julie in Austin on August 27, 2005 at 8:40 pm

    Wow, Travis, wow.

    I’ll have to cross-stitch that one ;)

  23. Travis Anderson on August 27, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    I know the feeling, Julie. O’Connor not only writes with the pen of an angel, but every time I read her she manages to make me feel like I’ve been chastised by God himself.

  24. Travis Anderson on August 28, 2005 at 12:23 am

    By the way, I treat letters with the same ridiculous reverance I show my kid’s school drawings. I still have virtually every letter I ever received from someone who really meant something to me–at least the handwritten ones. And I think the difference with which we treat handwritten letters and technologically mediated communications reveals why: the meaning of such things is not reducible to the translatable content, just like a gesture is inexpressible in predicate logic. You’re right, of course–one has to convert certain things to a digital record, or just let them go entirely. But things that bear significant traces of people you love acquire a certain sacred quality. The smudges of little fingers on a page, or the chewed bar on a crib. I’ll bet if we could see the actual letters that were transcribed in “Love Petals,” the changing slant of his stroke or the variations in indentation left by his pen would speak volumes that the words alone cannot say. One of the most tender messages ever conveyed to me was communicated by someone crossing out one word in a note and substituting it with another. I could almost run my finger over the spot on the paper and feel the deliberation, the struggle to say just the right thing, the affection that such a struggle denoted. And it is that kind of vestigia, of course, that makes a book of letters written by President McKay so much more revealing and interesting than his sermons, Church memos, or even memoirs.

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