Dear Mel

One man. 200,000 letters.

by by Ellora Vilkin

Once upon a time, on the third floor of the John Hay Library, there was a small, tall room. The room was lined with shelves that stretched fifteen feet up, and the shelves were full of hard blue binders stacked two-deep. The binders had letters inside and white labels that said who the letters were from. Some were from actors, some from presidents, and some from authors and poets. All were written to a curious old man named Mel B. Yoken. And so people came to read the letters that figures like Marcel Marceau and Art Buchwald and Julia Child and Roald Dahl had written to Mel.

For years, the letters with their people kept coming until one day the room got so full that the letters could hardly breathe. And so the shelves began to be emptied, and now what is happening is this: one by one, the letters leak into boxes, the boxes retreat deeper into the library, and the little room vanishes.

There was a time when people wrote letters. So when Mel Yoken, then studying for a Masters degree in French at Brown University, sent a letter to Jules Romains in 1961, he wasn’t surprised to get one back. He had just read Romains’s play Knock, ou le triomphe de la médicine in a literature class and, having “laughed [his] you-know-what off,” wrote Romains to tell him so. Yoken recalls the exchange easily: “He wrote me back and I wrote him back and we started a friendship. And over the years, thousands and thousands of friendships have started that way.”

The resultant correspondence forms the peculiar Mel B. Yoken Collection, housed in the Hay since 1999. With new boxes of letters arriving each year, the archive now holds the missives of some 4,000 French, Spanish, American, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, and British luminaries. More recently, Yoken has enriched his personal correspondence with purchased items from some of history’s greats: the archives now contain letters from Zola, Monet, Matisse, and others bought at auction. Most, though, are written in English and French and addressed directly to Yoken; at last count, there were more than 200,000.

Post man
Yoken, 74, stands in the lobby of the Hay wearing a sensible blue suit and square-toed shoes. He gestures towards the Reading Room with a sweep of his arm and an “après-vous.” A Fall River, RI native, he has just driven up from the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, where he is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of French.

Besides his archives, Yoken loves baseball, collects postcards and stamps, and dabbles in meteorology. “Every single day of my life for the past 55 years—90 percent correct,” he boasts. As for the letters, he says they sprang from his natural curiosity. “I always wanted to get to the crux of the poem or the paragraph or the play. If I read a poem and I didn’t understand a line or something, I would write to the author,” he explains. The practice served him well while at Brown. “I always got good grades because I’d added quotes from the authors,” he chuckles.

Encouraged by responses to his early letters, Yoken started writing to other famous thinkers. Their replies varied; some ignored him completely, others had their secretaries reply, and a few refused outright. “I’d like to thank you for your kind and gracious letter,” wrote Norman Mailer in 1970, “But I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly answer the questions. The proper answer to any good question is a small essay and my head isn’t good for that much on every occasion.”

If Mailer found Yoken’s questions tiresome, Ray Bradbury was amused. On Halloween of 1974, he wrote: “I’ve been writing poetry since Shakespeare ran over me when I was 14. But it’s taken all these years to percolate and GET GOOD!” The message was typed on the acid-green interior of a Hallmark card bearing a blue gorilla—one imagines Bradbury giggling as the gorilla’s head was rolled through the typewriter.

Writing on white airmail paper in 1978, Roald Dahl took Yoken a bit more seriously. “Very many thanks for your nice letter,” wrote Dahl in 1978. “Unlike nearly all the others that come into this house, you were not asking for anything and I liked that. The answer to your wife’s question is, when I was younger I preferred writing stories for adults but the older I get the more I like writing for children.” Dahl also criticized his peers in adult fiction. “I refuse to write a mood-piece or essay on the pretence that it is a genuine story,” he wrote in 1971. “This seems to be the prevalent practice to-day.”

Pen pals
Each individual’s corresponding binder functions as a mini-archive; while some hold just a single sheet, others are stuffed with decades of missives, photographs, and other ephemera. Catherine Deneuve’s is packed with signed glossies; John McCain’s stock letters and emails make an epistolary account of his 2008 campaign. A scrupulous collector, Yoken saves everything he receives—no matter how generic. For context, binders often contain newspaper clippings related to their subjects.

Yoken also keeps records of sightings and visits alongside the letters. In October 1979, Yoken invited longtime correspondent Richard Eberhart to give a reading at the Fall River library. The two had been exchanging letters for over ten years and were on friendly terms, though they still arranged payment by mail. “I thought we said 300 but you mention 250. Cheerio, R.E.,” wrote Eberhart a week before the event. “Suit yourself.” Both Yoken and Eberhart enjoyed the visit. Two days later, Eberhart wrote Yoken his thanks: “You did a splendid job organizing the whole thing. And Cindy’s dinner was delicious.”

Jacques Cousteau’s archive tells of a chance meeting in Paris in 1998. For Yoken, it was a transcendent experience. Yoken was in Paris to receive an honor from the French Academy, who awarded him the Palmes Académiques for his work with UMass Dartmouth’s Boivin Center. Yoken was leaving the ceremony when he spotted Cousteau. “He was sort of in a rush,” Yoken remembers. “But I started speaking French to him. I told him who I was, that I had corresponded with him. Then he stopped.” Though Cousteau had never replied to Yoken directly, his secretaries had sent several thoughtful replies and, in 1989, a holiday card. “We talked about his discoveries, his peregrinations,” says Yoken, a longtime admirer of Cousteau. “It was one of the apogees of my life.”

To some, Yoken might seem like the ultimate fanboy. Though his letters were unsolicited, he says they have never been gratuitous.

“Growing up, I was inculcated with that thought that you say thank-you to people…every gift, every something, I would sit down and write a thank-you note,” he says. He sees his letters to big names like Deneuve and Cousteau as well-deserved missives of gratitude. “Years and years ago,” he explains, “generally not today, but years ago, that individual would write back and so I’d continue the conversation—epistolary conversation.”

For Yoken, these exchanges have sometimes led to fast friendships. Yoken’s longest correspondence is with the 93-year-old French novelist Michel Déon, one of the French Academy’s 40 “immortal” life members. Though Yoken first wrote to Déon as a admirer, their correspodence has led to a true friendship. In fact, it was Déon who eventually nominated Yoken for the award with the French Academy. “I still think about him,” Yoken says. “As a matter of fact, we just sent him a Valentine’s Day card. I love that man. My wife does too.”

Although the room on the third floor is vanishing, Hay Interim Director Dominique Coulombe says there is reason to be hopeful. According to Coulombe, the Hay is currently compiling a comprehensive online guide to Yoken’s archives. Soon, users will be able to browse Yoken’s entire collection by author, nationality, and occupation.

Even Yoken has resigned to the rise of digital, though he has mixed feelings about email. “I wrote five emails this morning,” he sighs. Indeed, many of his binders now contain email printouts alongside hand- and type-written letters. Flipping backwards through the binders, the keyboard’s lifeless Arial morphs into the typewriter’s jumpy serifs, finally unfurling with a sigh into ballpoint’s smooth curves or pencil’s spiky scrawls.

While some argue that email has revived the letter, Yoken sees it differently. “When I sit down to write a letter it’s sort of a different frame of mind,” he says. “I compose sentences and—it isn’t that I’m using big words, they automatically come to me.” After all, there is a particular intimacy in reading a letter: squinting at someone’s chicken scratch, knowing they’ve held it in their hands, reading their subjective thoughts—the handwritten missive’s tactile qualities make it an especially personal document.

Letters offer a window into the past, into the lives of their authors. After their meeting in 1979, Richard Eberhart wrote to Yoken again: “I am glad you are in the midst of life, with children, your house singing with breath and charm, with love.”

ELLORA VILKIN B’14 always sends a thank-you note.