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Who Owns Words – Joseph McElroy’s “The Letter Left to Me”


Who owns words? Can you inherit them? Do you have a special responsibility for words that have been written “to” you? These are just some of the questions raised by Joseph McElroy’s 1998 brief, rich novel The Letter Left to Me.

I recently decided to dip back into my half shelf of McElroy’s books. I first encountered McElroy sometime in the early 1970s through A Smuggler’s Bible and have had a soft spot for his books ever since, especially Lookout Cartridge. I adore McElroy’s sentence-making and I’m attracted to the breadth of his interests, which includes technology, cognition, history, family, Brooklyn, sports, and more.

In The Letter Left to Me, the teen-aged narrator is given a letter that his father wrote and left to be handed over only after his (the father’s) death. While only a few sentences from the letter are shared with us, it’s clear that it is both a confession of the father’s missed opportunities and an admonition to the son to take full advantage of life – especially through education. In the days following the father’s death, the letter gets passed around among family members, each of whom offers his or her own commentary. A well-meaning uncle who works as a printer decides to typeset and run off a hundred copies for family and friends (this is probably taking place about 1946).

Three years later, the narrator arrives at the tiny liberal arts college where he has enrolled, only to discover that his mother has sent a copy of the letter to the Dean, who finds the heartfelt words about higher education so inspiring that he decides to distribute the letter (stripped of identifying names) to all of the college’s students. The first student that the narrator sees reading the letter comments angrily “What a load of bullshit,” while the horror-stricken narrator wonders how he should – how he will  – respond. He finally mumbles “I’ll have to read it later” and exits.

In the hands of most writers, this tale of the widely broadcast “private” letter would hinge on the ethics if the situation. Did the family and the Dean have the right to share the private letter? What will be the son’s response to this challenge? McElroy does, in passing, somewhat address each of these issues. The narrator feels both powerless and indecisive as “his” letter gets passed from hand to hand and then becomes multiplied into hundreds of copies, his inheritance becoming fodder for family pride and collegiate boosterism. He realizes that he has passively acquiesced to the public sharing. But for McElroy the situation presents more of a philosophical puzzle; he has something bigger in his sights.

As we see in The Letter, the meaning of any word or set of words is contextual and contestable, especially words as loaded as “family.” Everyone who reads the letter owns its words in a different way. “Each letter’s becoming different, it’s the person who’s laid eyes on it,” the narrator soon realizes. Throughout the book, McElroy expands his exploration of language beyond the confines of the father’s letter into everyday usage. The narrator, a preternaturally hyper-aware young man, is becoming deftly attuned to the different intonations and gestures that people use as they speak, realizing that these, too, inflect the meanings of words. “I’m right: his words didn’t come only from his voice. (But from his mouth, putting intentions into shape – mouthing them and his ‘civil tongue’…).” Everything said – and unsaid – becomes thoroughly parsed.

Her voice tipping downward, she says my name, and says it twice. She means, Really! which is more meant, and weightier than when at the dinner table in someone else’s presence she says, “Oh don’t say O.K.”

The pleasure that McElroy takes in the rich and varied oral language of his characters makes him a fellow traveler with William Gaddis in this respect.

But McElroy is after something deeper, more elemental than issues of language. His narrator is trying to understand the topography of his own consciousness. A crucial sentence comes halfway through the book when the narrator says (or writes or, perhaps, merely thinks) “I put words together as if they’re my thinking.” What is the relationship between thinking and words? And, to take it one step further, what is the relationship between actual consciousness and constructed narrative? To an extent, all of McElroy’s books deal with the issue of how to shape narrative (words in a sequence) into a semblance of the complexity of human thought. This results in sentences that continually shape-shift, that can move back and forth through time and bounce from location to location as McElroy attempts to simulate the mind simultaneously discovering and articulating the world. The narrator in The Letter is always talking about “building backwards,”which is his term for deconstructing what is really being said. Here, we witness the narrator contemplate his paternal grandmother:

Her grip on things was her pretty manner. A very social, to-the-hearing cheek-soft, but demanding obvious manner of showing she was “sorry” or deeply sympathetically on your side or shocked, or twinklingly approving or absorptive. It was more slow-rhythmed than soft, it was a regret that she wasn’t going to see you, more than trust that she would see you the next week and talk to you tomorrow or the next day, it was easy to call it a “hold” she had, for even my father, like my mother, called it (wryly) that: but it was force, that I felt in my mental return to it as a thing to think about, “cover” as if I were making strategic plans, plotting a many-dimensioned (or just dramatic) defense…I begin to know these things as I answer my mother’s anguish…”

There is something very Proustian about McElroy’s attention to nuance, his determination to fully examine his characters with a cultural anthropologist’s eye. But this doesn’t always make for smooth reading and his books call for a bit of patience. McElroy’s peculiar dedication is to precisely describe that which is inherently imprecise. And that is what makes reading Joseph McElroy a delight and a perpetual adventure.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Klavs Wulff #

    Just to express my appreciation of Vertigo as a passionate sebaldian reader, ths a lot!

    July 9, 2014
  2. Dear Terry,
    Apologies for writing to you via a comment – I just happen to be producing a new film-opera based on William Golding’s novel ‘Pincher Martin’ which is happening at the Royal College of Music next week (cf., which I thought you might like to know about, given your specific interest in the interaction of photography, literature, and other forms of art and media. If you contact me on I can easily send you some more information, if you’re interested.
    All the best

    July 17, 2014

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