Tuesday, 27 March 2012

You children write illiterate letters

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In 1958, a schoolboy named Robert Leifert wrote to the author and humourist, James Thurber, and asked for some assistance with a school project. Sadly for Robert (or luckily for Robert, depending on your viewpoint) it seems he caught Thurber on a bad day, and before long the youngster was the proud owner of the following delightfully grumpy response.

Let's hope it was of some use.

(Source: Selected Letters of James Thurber; Image: James Thurber in 1954, via Wikipedia.)

Mr Robert Leifert
New York City, New York

January 4, 1958

Dear Robert,

Since a hundred schoolchildren a year write me letters like yours—some writers get a thousand—the problem of what to do about such classroom "projects" has become a serious one for all of us. If a writer answered all of you he would get nothing else done. When I was a baby goat I had to do my own research on projects, and I enjoyed doing it. I never wrote an author for his autograph or photograph in my life. Photographs are for movie actors to send to girls. Tell your teacher I said so, and please send me her name.

One of the things that discourage us writers is the fact that 90 per cent of you children write wholly, or partly, illiterate letters, carelessly typed. You yourself write "clarr" for "class" and that's a honey, Robert, since s is next to a, and r is on the line above. Most schoolchildren in America would do a dedication like the following (please find the mistakes in it and write to me about them):

To Miss Effa G Burns
Without who's help
this book could never
of been finished it,
is dedicated with
gartitude by it's
arthur.

Show that to your teacher and tell her to show it to her principal, and see if they can find the mistakes.

Just yesterday a letter came in from a girl your age in South Carolina asking for biographical material and photograph. That is not the kind of education they have in Russia, we are told, because it's too much like a hobby or waste of time. What do you and your classmates want to be when you grow up—collectors? Then who is going to help keep the United States ahead of Russia in science engineering, and the arts?

Please answer this letter. If you don't I'll write to another pupil.

Sincerely yours,

JAMES THURBER