The SohoistIssue 13

Dear John

‘Dear John’ – So began the letters that ended relationships. Two curt words joined to sever. Both barrels. Read those words and the rest of the text melts into lifeless glyphics – nothing else could matter. Shorn of all endearment, the aim was to alert the reader as soon as possible to the contents ahead. Slightly old fashioned now, of course, but ‘Dear John’ used to have the effect of two bullets to the temple. If your name was John. For those who weren’t called John it became a genus of all manner of break-up missives.

Originating during, these paper grenades were lobbed into the trenches by sweethearts at home who felt the pressures of distance and wanted to move on with their lives. Even Ernest Hemingway received one: from a nurse named Aggie1 who was enamoured with the ampersand. The setup transitioned easily into fodder for lyricists:


I was overseas in battle when the postman came to me
And he handed me a letter I was just as happy as I could be
For the fighting was all over and the battle have been won
Then I opened up the letter and that started, ‘Dear John’


That was Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard there in their crossover 1953 country-pop hit “Dear John”.

There is some speculation over how “Dear John” letters came to get their name. Many people believe that it is because “John” was the most common man’s name in the United States during the 1940’s, so it began to be used generically in the context of that type of letter. I would note that another use of a ‘John’ as a catch-all term is “John Doe” – the name for an unidentified corpse.

The term persisted in peacetime as a short-handed way of extricating oneself from an affair. Jackie Kennedy, (née Bouvier, mort Onassis) wrote a rather terrific version as a teenager to
a crimson boyfriend2:

“I’ve always thought of being in love as being willing to do anything for the other person – starve to buy them bread and not mind living in Siberia with them – and I’ve always thought that every minute away from them would be hell – so looking at it that [way] I guess I’m not in love with you.”

It’s the “I guess” that really stings, the ‘now I come to think of it’ insouciance that cuts so completely. The letter was sold recently at auction as part of a lot, which went for $134,000. Christie’s listed the sale as emanating from “the property of a gentleman” – I would aver that there is nothing gentlemanly about retaining (and allowing to be sold) the billet-acide of a lady, first and a First Lady, second.

The reactions to such letters by the recipient have prompted a following in themselves – one can feel for the U.S. serviceman stationed in Taji, Iraq during the first Gulf War who in response to a ‘Dear John’ communiqué took the exotically logical step of taking a can of black spray-paint and and scrawling “Suck my balls you unfaithful whore” on the back of a junked M109 howitzer.

The comfort of an accepted format for emotion must have been useful to the women left behind. Humanity always has sought compression in communication – mathematical notation is a perfect example. A good equation should be an economical compression of truth without a symbol out of place. We honour attributes like universality, simplicity, inevitability, and the elemental power and granitic logic of the relationships portrayed by those symbols. “Dear John” looks to be lossless compression – but it isn’t lossless.

Eventually we may, of course, move towards further compression in romantic entrance or egress. However, I doubt that you can compress further in English beyond those two words. We would have to move to a symbolic notation that conveyed exactly our underlying message. The obvious choice is an emoji – maybe a monkey leaving a soldier monkey to be with another monkey, or a crying aubergine.

However, to play us out, here’s Whitney Houston, TX with her 2002 pop-smash-hit-sensation ‘Dear John Letter’:


I’m writing this letter
Because it makes me feel better
I’m writing this letter
Because it makes me feel better
I’m writing this letter
Because it makes me feel better


She continues


I’m writing this letter
Because it ooh oh yeah
I’m writing this letter baby
I can’t go through with it
Oh no, no, no
(Oh no, no, no)
I can’t, I can’t
I can’t leave, I can’t stay
I can’t go and I Mmm
Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm,
Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm, Mmm


I won’t put it better myself.

1.Agnes became the inspiration for Catherine Barkley, the tragic heroine of Hemingway's 1929 novel, A Farewell to Arms.

2.A blushing Harvard alumnus