Mere Semantics (Signed Books 3)

Published:May 18, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

My dad is a prolific and often brilliant writer of letters. His epistolary talent was evident to me even when I was in first grade. I was learning to read then, of course, and my stern, Weeble Wobble–shaped teacher would send me home with a book. My job was to read it aloud and return to school the next day armed with a note attesting to the fact. On December 4, 1978, my dad (who is blessed with a literary name) scribbled the following in pencil:

Dear Miss Moe,

Brendan Martin has just entertained me with another work of fiction entitled At Home. The authors, Sheldon, et al., seem to lie somewhere between the existentialists of the 1920’s and the romantics of the early 19th century.

The literary school represented here is often called insipid—so-named because of its social ramifications. Keep these delightful books coming!

Tom Wolfe

Of course, I could hardly detect any inventiveness in my dad’s note-writing then. But I was able pick up on the flickering looks of surprise & mild disapproval on Miss Moe’s face. Nowadays I notice, with an editor’s satisfaction, how Dad cared enough to underline (and punctuate correctly) et al. Subsequent notes, however, betray a weariness bordering on cynicism.

Dear Miss Moe,

My only begotten son, Brendan Martin Wolfe, has just finished reading a breathtaking adventure story involving a boy named Tom (who appears to be wearing eye shadow), his sisters Betty and Susan (who are “sugar and spice and everything nice”), a disgusting canine predator named Flip, a properly supportive mother who wears fluffy dresses, and a masculine father who can fix anything and is actually addressed by his own children as “Father”! (This particular father is often addressed by his youngest child by the very respectful name “Knucklehead.”) All of the above continually wear strangely fixed grins throughout this tale, a fact which leads one to question their intelligence and mental stability. Other delightful characters in this work include Airplane, Pony, Apple, Bunny, and Toys. Not since the writer’s own “Dick and Jane” days has he read anything as exciting yet thoughtful as Odille Ousley’s My Little Red Story Book. One doubts one could survive such excitement again.

Yours in literary wonder,

Tom Wolfe

Three months later, all optimism is gone.

Dear Miss Moe,

What precisely do you have against me? I am merely a mild-mannered teacher working in a large metropolitan building. My goal in life is to survive. I hurt no one; yet, my only begotten son, Brendan Martin Wolfe, accosted me immediately upon my arrival home this day and began to yelp the contents of two sterling works, The Case of the Hungry Stranger and Last One In Is a Rotten Egg—the latter being the lad’s autobiography. In self-defense, I’ve had to turn to the grape, and now you’ll have that too on your conscience. You are doing society great harm. Nevertheless, I still remain

A loving and sensitive parent,

Tom Wolfe

The underlined a, by the way, was a subtle jab against a teacher who stubbornly misspelled my name with an o. Thanks, Dad.

Anyway, my own history of letter-writing has been considerably less impressive. The highlight was a letter published in the October 1995 issue of Harper’s magazine, in which I quibbled with an essay by then-editor Lewis Lapham:

While analyzing “the message of the Oklahoma bombing” [“Seen but Not Heard,” July], Lewis Lapham insightfully outlines similarities between the deeds of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and those of accused bomber Timothy McVeigh, but what about their greatest difference? McNamara now admits that it was wrong to have authorized the bombing of North Vietnam. McVeigh, on the other hand, admits nothing and, more importantly, has been convicted of nothing thus far. Some might consider an acknowledgment of this fact mere semantics, but I’m sure semantics mean quite a bit to the man who has become the poster child for all the evil lurking in America’s Heartland. When Lapham accused McVeigh of “attacking the fundamental premise of American democracy,” he should consider how such premature assumptions of guilt attack the fundamental premise of the American judicial system.

So there! … It’s no mighty intellectual statement, but I was happy enough about it. Then, later that year, I received a package in the mail. A friend of mine in D.C. had seen Lapham read from his newest collection of essays, Hotel America. I flipped to the title page. I don’t for a second believe that Lapham really remembered my name, but there it was anyway: “Point taken.”

PREVIOUSLY: Signed Books 1 and Signed Books 2