Plenty of News: Bernard Malamud's 'The Letter.'
Lasher, Lawrence M., Studies in Short Fiction
In the introduction to Critical Essays on Bernard Malamud, Joel Salzberg notes that an area of Malamud criticism "that remains sketchy" is the explication of short stories, "a good number of them with sufficient richness, complexity and ambiguity to justify further investigation" (15). Criticism of "The Letter," first published in Esquire in 1972 and collected in Rembrandt's Hat in 1973, has been minimal, despite the fact that this tightly compressed narrative comes as close as any story in the canon to fulfilling Malamud's demanding standards for the short story as he enunciated them in the Introduction to Stories and elsewhere: "The drama is tense, happens fast, and is more often than not outlandish. In a few pages a good story provides the complexity of life while producing the surprise and effect of knowledge . . ." (xii).(1) Although reviewers of Rembrandt's Hat were almost uniformly attracted to the longer, more richly textured stories - "The Silver Crown," "Man in the Drawer," "Talking Horse" - this "vignette, rigorously bleak," as one reviewer described it (Mudrick 559), reveals a powerful evocation of Malamudian themes and motifs embodied in an elliptical form and style that are astounding in their economy. Prominent among many rich and complex Malamud stories that have attracted only minimal critical commentary, "The Letter" certainly "justif[ies] further investigation."
In a spare, minimal narrative suggestive of a Beckett play, Newman, the son, emerges reluctantly every Sunday from New York City on the Long Island Railroad to visit his now-widowed father, an inmate in a mental hospital. During each of his several visits through "that spring and dry summer," as Newman leaves the hospital he is confronted by Teddy and, later, Teddy's father, Ralph, both resident patients who importune Newman to mail Teddy's letter (later to be revealed as Ralph's as well) since there are no mailboxes on the grounds of the hospital except in the doctor's office. Because Teddy is unwilling to have his letter "read" by the doctor, he persists in asking Newman to mall the letter - "four sheets of cream paper with nothing written on them." Teddy's and Ralph's persistence in pressing the letter on Newman, and Newman's refusal to maill the letter - because "There's nothing in it to mail" - provide the never-resolved tension in the story; at the end of the story, Newman once again leaves the hospital still refusing to mail the letter in the face of Ralph's assertion that "There's a whole letter in there."
Recent commentaries on the story emphasize the contrast between the two pairs of fathers and sons as its thematic center.(2) In these readings, the meaning arises out of the juxtaposition of the inferred closeness of Ralph and Teddy, as against the failure of Newman to regard his father as anything but a burden whose presence in the asylum (and the consequent necessity to visit him) renders Newman's Sundays "murderous." While correctly identifying Newman's failure to love his father as a moral crux in the story, these readings are too quick to limit Malamud's intention to the familiar focus on failed domestic relations as metaphor for moral failure. Attention to the narrative details of the story, its compact structure and elliptical style, reveals a larger thematic intention that moves well beyond the immediate question of the meaning of filial loyalty and love, toward a larger and more expansive theme through which Malamud expresses his often-stated concern with the condition of civilization in the twentieth century. Like a good deal of Malamud's fiction, this story finds a connection between individual acts and the state of the larger political world.(3)
As in many of Malamud's finest stories, e.g., "The Silver Crown" or "Angel Levine," a simple domestic plot painted in a few brief brush-strokes and rendered more or less realistically or impressionistically is heightened and expanded by placing it in an alternative context in which a strange, otherworldly or vaguely occult figure or circumstance creates symbolic suggestion. …