If you’re going to disagree with
someone, do it with style. That was my conclusion when I read a
1934 complaint letter written by
Ernest Oberholtzer to the Union
Library Association in New York City.
Oberholtzer, or "Ober" as he is
known to his friends in the conservationist community, was more
than an eloquent writer and book collector. He also was the
leader of a determined effort to preserve what has become our
nation’s most popular wilderness, the 1.1 million-acre
Waters Canoe Area that runs along the border of Minnesota and
Ober’s letter was written to
settle a dispute regarding an unpaid invoice. It came to my
attention a few weeks ago while I was helping facilitate a
writers’ retreat at his Rainy Lake island home.
Unlike so many complaint
letters, which are barely coherent rants, Ober’s is a classic
example of an accomplished writer using precise command of
language to deliver a message with devastating innuendo. Here’s
"I am in receipt of an
entirely unwarranted form notice from your Credit Department.
From the number of forwardings on it, it has evidently been sent
to every address in the country except the right one.
"I am not in the slightest
disturbed by any threats of credit complaints, since my credit
has never been questioned by any reputable house.
"It is quite evident to me,
and has been since I made the mistake of opening an account with
you last winter, that there is no coordination whatever between
the various branches of your business or even between two
separate orders to the same customer. One might just as well be
dealing with entirely different houses ignorant of the business
that each is receiving."
Sound familiar? It seems that
not much has changed in 72 years.
"This is by no means a fault
of mine. You have been kept fully informed at all times of my
address and any temporary changes but have at all times ignored
my instructions and written as if you had never heard from me.
Neither have you at any time rendered account of payments made.
"You will now find my check
for $12.70, which you claim as due. I will ask you in return, as
one courtesy, to render me a full account of all transactions,
cash or on credit, had by me with your house since last January
1, showing what was paid and when and how you arrive at your
computation of debt. It is quite evident to me that, unless your
credit transactions are placed on a much more business-like
basis, you will hopelessly prejudice your business."
I laughed as I read the last
part. To tell your adversary in such polite words that you hope
he will survive his own ineptitude was the coup de grace.
The only thing I would change
in Ober’s letter is to add a paragraph break after "computation
of debt" in the last paragraph. But who am I to criticize a