EP 039: 221B BAKER STREET – Historycal: Words that Shaped the World
In case you’re one of the people who was lucky enough NOT to encounter the absolutely horrendous Nicolas Sparks film adaptation of the same name – and if you are, I congratulate you – a Dear John letter was the nickname given to a note from home, in which a soldier’s dearest beloved partner politely (or sometimes not) informed them that the relationship was over. Many people chalk the origin of the Dear John up to World War II, but that isn’t strictly speaking, true. It would be nice to think that nobody ever got one of these epistles of heartbreak before WWII, and that everything’s just been charting a swift downward course ever since. Unfortunately, but intriguingly, men at war have been haunted by the idea of female flightiness since we first picked up rocks and started throwing them at one another.
Even as far back as Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus is tormented by the idea of his wife having been unfaithful, despite the fact that he’s been away for the better part of two decades and doesn’t seem to have bothered to write. Penelope is courted by over 100 men during this time, and has to resort to increasingly devious methods of putting them off. Presumably “I’m already married” was considered insufficient. Odysseus, on his return home, takes the not at all problematic approach of donning a disguise to check whether she’s been faithful, and then – realizing that she has – celebrates by killing all the young men who dared to fancy her.
The general consensus on this very human obsession is generally chalked up in part to absence (making the heart grow fonder and all that), and in part to the psychological trauma of war.
It is true though that WWII saw a massive surge in Dear John letters – not because people became more fickle, but simply because the mail got more reliable. There may have been more heartbroken men making small bonfires out of their correspondence, but there were probably fewer returning home, only to have to set elaborate traps for their wives before saying hello.
The fascinating thing about these letters is that there aren’t any. Or rather, there aren’t any left. This, I’ll admit freely, surprised me when I was starting out on this research. But then I remembered how many nice letters I’ve burnt over the years just because Patrick slash Bennie slash Paul moved county slash went to university slash wanted 8 children, and I realized that I, too, would be unlikely to traipse a coldly formal break up note around a battle field with me.
And they really were coldly formal – which is partly where we think the name comes from. After months of letters beginning with, My Darling , My dearest John, Darling Johnnie or – if Lavender Brown was the author – Darling Won Won – a missive that started with a cool Dear John was pretty much guaranteed to strike a note of fear into even the stoutest of military hearts.
And typically, they only got worse from there. Based on a number of reports and stories about these letters, they tended to range from outright cruel to youthfully naïve, but invariably tended to be filled with trite platitudes and crammed with cliché. Howard Whitman, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune, wrote a mashup from examples he’d been given, trying to explain the phenomenon to his readers:
“Dear John: This is very hard to tell you, but I know you’ll understand. I hope we’ll always remain friends, but it’s only fair to tell you that I’ve become engaged to somebody else.”
Another reporter, performing the same kind of linguistic gymnastics wrote:
“Dear John: I don’t know quite how to begin but I just want to say that Joe Doakes came to town on furlough the other night and he looked very handsome in his uniform, so when he asked me for a date…”
War correspondents and military preachers – amongst others – enjoyed condemning the errant partners who penned the notes even more than they enjoyed condemning war. Whether for the paper or from the pulpit, they liked to preach convoluted messages about mail and morale, and were not above a bit of wildly provocative hyperbole to boot.
“It is doubtful if the Nazis will ever hurt them as much,” Whitman opined to the poor readers of the Chicago Daily Tribune. Of course, receiving a Dear John letter was an horrific and devastating blow, but comparing the (mostly) young woman (unfavourably) to Nazis was, perhaps, taking it a step too far. These authors were commonly denounced as traitors, members of the notorious and reviled (and sometimes fictitious) 5th column, who ought to rounded up and shot at dawn. Now we’ve all been there in the moment, but usually burning a few pairs of socks and having a martini does the trick quite sufficiently. There’s no doubt that the emotional blow of one these letters on an individual was devastating, and frankly I’d rather poke my own eye out than be on the receiving end of the world’s worst timed postal chuckings. But taken collectively, they’re an intriguing study.
Professor Susan Carruthers describes this weird national reaction brilliantly in her book Dear John: Love and Loyalty in Wartime America. Carruthers started out to research Dear John letters as female epistolary tradition, but realised – probably faster than me – that there simply weren’t enough of these letters still floating around to do that. So she changed tack and researched them as a male oral tradition instead – which is really what the Dear John phenomenon had become. Dear John Clubs and Brush Off Clubs had sprung up pretty much everywhere that soldiers were stationed, and talk about the letters ran far more rampant than the messages themselves ever did. As the War Correspondent Milton Bracker wrote “separation had become the one most dominant war factor in the lives of most people these days” and it was far easier for the public to blame the women for the emotional damage, than the war. And, as Joanna Burke puts it, “perceptions of girlfriends and wives as ‘flight risks’ become powerful stimuli to male solidarity.
Mail and morale became such tightly woven concepts in the minds of soldiers and civilians alike, that Dear John letters were treated with monumental superstition. It was not uncommon for soldiers to carry a treasured letter in their breast pocket – like a talisman to ward off unluckily aimed bullets. But the reverse applied, and a Dear John letter was considered to cause pretty much an equal but opposite reaction.
The Pulitzer-winning poet W.D. Snodgrass recalled that “Mail call was the best, or worst, moment of each day; you approached carefully any man whose name had not been called. Only a ‘Dear John’ letter was worse—we felt, mawkishly, no doubt, that with no one to come back to, a man was less likely to come back.”
Michael McQuiston, a veteran of Vietnam, had to fight his platoon sergeant tooth and nail to be allowed into the field after he’d received a Dear John of his own.
“Their rule was that they didn’t do that,” he wrote. “It was bad luck.” McQuiston promptly got himself injured on that mission, rather proving his sergeant’s point.
Exactly when and why Dear Johns became known as Dear Johns is a little tricky to say. John was the most common name among enlisted American men at the time, but two other possibilities are Christina Rossetti’s 1862 poem No, thank you, John, or Anthony Trollope’s 1864 novel Can You Forgive Her? In the latter – which I really don’t encourage you to read, by the way, because it hasn’t stood up well to time – the protagonist Alice oscillates between the dependable but boring John, and the wild, handsome, but also murderous George. She oscillates for what feels like 25 thousand pages, during which she writes letters beginning Dear John at regular intervals, finally penning one that breaks off their engagement (and probably – though one can’t think why – his heart). The satirical periodical Punch suggested Can You Stand Her as an alternate title, and Stephan King put forth Can You Possibly Finish It which probably tells you everything you need to know.
Christina Rosetti, she of Peaky Blinders, In the Bleak Midwinter fame, has fared slightly better. And whilst I don’t encourage any of you to go out and break hearts, here’s No, Thank You, John, just in case you ever have to, and need some inspiration:
I never said I loved you, John:
Why will you tease me, day by day,
And wax a weariness to think upon
With always “do” and “pray”?
You know I never loved you, John;
No fault of mine made me your toast:
Why will you haunt me with a face as wan
As shows an hour-old ghost?
I dare say Meg or Moll would take
Pity upon you, if you’d ask:
And pray don’t remain single for my sake
Who can’t perform that task.
I have no heart?—Perhaps I have not;
But then you’re mad to take offence
That I don’t give you what I have not got:
Use your common sense.
Let bygones be bygones:
Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true:
I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns
Than answer “Yes” to you.
Let’s mar our pleasant days no more,
Song-birds of passage, days of youth:
Catch at to-day, forget the days before:
I’ll wink at your untruth.
Let us strike hands as hearty friends;
No more, no less: and friendship’s good:
Only don’t keep in view ulterior ends,
And points not understood
In open treaty. Rise above
Quibbles and shuffling off and on:
Here’s friendship for you if you like; but love,—
No, thank you, John.