Losing Our Letters

Dictionary.com has a feature that allows you to sign up for their word of the day. The Saturday word of the day was “epistolize.” It means to write a letter, or to write a letter to.

Epistolize means, "to write letters."

Letters are dead.

Letter-writing has become just another relic, thanks to technology. Email pretty much killed that art of communication. Social media has all but done the same thing to emails in many instances. Each time we take a step forward in the name of “progress,” I wonder whether we’re taking two or three backwards.

A few years ago, I read David McCullough’s John Adams, a biography of the Massachusetts-based Founding Father. McCullough, the renowned American writer and historian, highlighted the written correspondence between Adams and his wife, Abigail.

The couple exchanged more than 1,100 letters, and McCullough draws liberally from them in framing his Pulitzer Prize-winning narrative. This early-American couple spent long periods apart, especially when John was in Europe, serving the fledgling nation’s interests—yet their letters back and forth kept them connected.

This letter-writing as the only means of correspondence really struck me when I read McCullough’s account. No phones, no internet, no texts back and forth—just paper, pen, and great distances for these letters to travel, not to mention the waiting for a response this necessitated.

I mentioned E.B. White in a post last week. I’ve become so enamored about White’s life (which I knew very little about) that I’ve now taken to reading the voluminous Letters of E.B. White, the revised edition, updated by his granddaughter, Martha White.

These letters remain from White’s lifelong correspondence, and being able to “look over the shoulder” of this literary giant as he wrote to various figures, many literary—but also politicians, family members, and of course, White’s “family” at The New Yorker—offers a personal and often intimate glimpse of the man that would have been impossible, save the treasure trove of letters drawn upon in putting the book together.

Writing letters has been man’s preferred method of communication, up until about 20 years ago. Historians have been able to piece together the lives and develop portraits of our important men and women primarily by sorting through their saved letters and correspondence. What will we have in 50 years to look back upon from the present day—saved tweets and Facebook updates?

I can recall moving back to Maine from Indiana in 1987, and communicating with friends I’d left behind by writing letters. A few years later, email became prevalent, and the letter, like the pay phone, has all but disappeared.

Not too long ago, I decided to single-handedly revive the art of the letter as a means of correspondence. I gathered a few fellow correspondents, and we wrote letters back and forth. The process was so much different than email. For one, it wasn’t instant. Once you drop a stamped letter in the blue postal box, it’s usually weeks before you get a response.

I found my responses were more thoughtful. I’d read, and then, re-read my letter, and deliberate over my responses. I also felt it wasn’t fair to write a short two or three paragraph response to my pen pal, if they’d sent me five or six pages.

There was a rhythm that became part of this ritual that I miss; sadly this foray back in time lasted for about four or five months before the letters became less and less frequent and then, eventually stopped altogether. It’s hard going against the grain of technology, and nearly impossible to counter our instant gratification mode of living.

Who knows, perhaps there are a few letter writers out there, looking for someone to strike up an old school correspondence with. They’re likely tired of the truncated, reactive communication that lacks perspective and distance required for proper reflection.

I’ll warn you; initial connection via letter-writing is much different than Facebook, or whatever truncated platform is next. Our current immediacy and lack of reflection hasn’t served us well.

Drop a letter in the mailbox.

Drop a letter in the mailbox.

Perchance there is one (or three) others for whom writing a letter might be a lark, I promise a reciprocal response equal to your own labors with pen and paper.  I’d be happy (and shocked, really) to trade a letter hammered out on your laptop and printed off—don’t let your rusty penmanship keep you from your rendezvous with the postal service. My own hard-won skills aren’t what they were, courtesy of Mrs. Demjanovich’s second grade exercises in penmanship precision. I still possess a modicum of ability to scratch out semi-legibly, simply because, as a freelance writer and journalist conducting interviews, I still am beholden to pen and notebook, although I won’t guarantee my return post will be of the cursive variety.

The address:

P.O. Box 1136
Lewiston, ME 04243-1136


6 thoughts on “Losing Our Letters

  1. If a person writes to you via letters, do you guarantee confidentiality?

  2. Isn’t it amazing John Adams a) wrote those letters, b) they were delivered (primitive postal service, to say the least), c) Abigail responded in kind, and d) someone kept them.

    Today’s conspiracy type might suggest that with each keystroke, we are leaving a digital footprint that could be connected to things like banking records, charge card receipts, and a Trans-pass. There is probably an app that can create the story of your life with all that data.

    Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to write letters.

    Although I would say that most people are now conditioned to instantly vomit all over the world with their every thought. Most don’t even expect feedback, they just want to let it all out.

    I wish you well with the letter writing project. As you know, I carry on regular letter-writing with a few people and it’s very satisfying. Since you will be visiting occasionally (I hope) for cake salon here on Blethen Street, no letters will be necessary.

    • @JAB
      McCullough’s book was an inspiring read, especially the letters between JA and AA. I love that the letters have been archived.

      All our so-called “technological progress” has left us poorer, compared to things like letter-writing; but others have articulated that better than I’ll ever be able to, like Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford, and Jacques Ellul, to name three.

      I like how you characterized how we communicate in Twitter-land, as being conditioned to “instantly vomit…” That’s an apt descriptor, I think.

  3. Jim, you touched a lot of bases here with me.

    First, EB White. When my father retired from the Air Force and we returned to Maine, one of the first local news reports I saw was of EB White protesting the mail system. Thanks to all that cheap energy, it was easier for the USPS to take the letter White wrote to his friend one town over, truck it to Augusta, sort it and truck it back to the post office one town over for delivery. White protested by hopping on his bicycle in nippy early Spring and hand-delivering it to his friend instead.

    Jefferson once wrote to a friend, “Forgive me for writing such a long letter, but I haven’t the time to write a short one.” He was touching on exactly that care that you allude to.

    Ironically, Jefferson and Adams, bitter rivals as young men and politicians, became very close friends after retiring from public life, and engaged in an intense conversation by correspondence for nearly twenty years before both died on the same day, July 4, 1826. One more volume to add to your reading list!

  4. @LP
    As you’ve touched on before, all Americans—not only the “educated,” and but even the “common” people—had a sophistication and awareness that let them sit through debates, like the Lincoln/Douglas affairs, go home for supper, and come back later, for more. Postman details this in one of his books about the “dumbing down” of our culture, which happened to be written in the mid-1980s, long before Twitter and the Facebook have taken us to unprecedented depths of inanity.

    The correspondence between a Jefferson and Adams was filled with a richness that’s long disappeared (and isn’t ever coming back).

    Nice historical tidbit, btw, re: Jefferson and Adams passing away on the very same day.

    I am really enjoying the E.B. White biography, and the book of his letters, revised by his granddaughter, Martha.

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