My Dad’s family wrote letters, lots of them. And saved them, too. My father taught my sister, brother, and me how to write letters and to value them, not just as a way of saying “thank you” for a gift but as a way of communicating. I think he preferred writing letters to talking–and he loved to talk–because in a letter he could be more exact and clear than he could in person or over the phone. He often was so infatuated with his words that his style, the way he phrased things, became more important than what he said. And he typed his letters always.
I’ll never forget the delicate “Par Avion” envelopes that came from my mom’s family in Belgium, either. They were handwritten and in French but still, they were small treasures, slightly mysterious, always full of promise. Getting a letter made me feel special. After all, someone had taken the time to sit down, write out their thoughts, put the paper in an envelope, place a stamp on it, then drop it in a mailbox.
I write letters occasionally now, a few people I know don’t use e-mail and that’s the best way to get them. Some e-mails I write as letters, and it’s only recently that I’ve broken the habit of starting each e-mail, “Dear so-and-so.” I was told that wasn’t appropriate for business e-mails, go figure.
I got to thinking about letters the other day after reading this Talk of the Town piece by Roger Angell in The New Yorker:
Letters aren’t exactly going away. Condolence letters can’t be sent out from our laptops, and maybe not love letters, either, because e-mail is so leaky. Secrets—an expected baby, a lowdown joke, a killer piece of gossip—require a stamp and a sealed flap, and perhaps apologies do as well (“I don’t know what came over me”). Not much else. E-mail is cheap, and the message is done and delivered almost as quickly as the thought of it. The sense that something’s been lost can produce the glimmering notion that overnight mail itself must have been a sign of thrilling modernity once. The penny post (with its stamps and its uniform rates) arrived in the United Kingdom in 1840, and in the decade that followed Anthony Trollope, a postal inspector, was travelling all over Ireland on the swift new express trains and persistent locals, to make sure that every letter, wherever bound, was actually being delivered the next day. On those same trains, he sat and wrote novels, and in the novels dukes and barristers and young M.P.s and wary heiresses and country doctors were writing letters that moved the plot along or reversed it or tilted it in some way. The restless energy of Victorian times, there and here at home, demanded fresh news and lots of it. I myself can recall the four-o’clock-in-the-afternoon arrival of the second mail of the day at our house when I was a boy, and the resultant changes of evening plans.
If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vera Nabokov, J. P. Morgan—if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters. Twenty years ago, many of us got a whole new sense of the Civil War while watching and listening to Ken Burns’s nine-part television documentary, which took its poignant tone from the recital of Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters home. G.I.s in the Second World War wrote home on fold-over V-Mail sheets. Troops in Afghanistan and, until lately, Iraq keep up by Skype and Facebook, and in some sense are not away at all.
[Photo Credits: The Terrier and Lobster]