The lost art of letter writing

I don’t know about you, but I miss the old-fashioned letter, the seeming casualty of email in our time of computer dominance. I miss both the sending and receiving. My father was a faithful letter writer and if we kids didn’t answer, we got hell.

Though I appreciate their virtually instant delivery devoid of stamps and mailboxes, there is just something too impersonal about emails, To me, they seem modern substitutes for the telegram. Abounding in brevity, they tend to forfeit depth and perhaps sincerity. The idea is to get things said hurriedly.

Letter writing has a long history, and some of the best letters exhibit art in their beauty and substance. I remember how struck I was with this when I first came upon the letters exchanged between Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo. Voltaire was one of the most prolific letter writers, writing thousands of them in several languages on virtually every subject. In America, Jefferson stands in the forefront, writing some 26,000 letters.

Letters can be illuminating. I think of those letter writers I’m familiar with: Keats, Dickinson. Woolf, and Joyce. We’d be at a substantial loss in understanding their motivation and the context of their art without those letters. Do today’s great thinkers and artists still write letters? I wouldn’t bet on it. The loss is incalculable. Emails, in any event, usually get deleted or, worse-case scenario, get lost in computer crashes.

Letter-writing gave us opportunity to be pianists with words and sentences, playing out their chords rhythmically and infinitely.

Letter writing brought us into deeper knowledge of ourselves as well as each other. In so many ways, writing has always been a means to self-discovery, the finding in reflection of who we are and what we really want to say.

In one of life’s telling ironies, technology now threatens the email with even greater minimization of written discourse in the increasing popularity of texting to get the job done. Messaging may even be making in-roads on telephone calls. Again, the idea is brevity.

In my teaching years, I would always counsel that when you really care about someone, you write a letter. I hold to that counsel still.

Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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