The History and Lost Art of Letter Writing

Video muted: click volume for sound


For hundreds of years, or at least since pens and paper became commonplace, people who wanted to get in touch with other people separated by distance had only one way to do it: they wrote letters, the only means of long-distance communication, at least until the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century. Beginning with Mr. Morse's innovation, modern communication technologies have slowly but all too surely eroded that necessity, first rendering letter writing one option among many and then merely a quaint habit. But where would Western civilization be without letters? For starters we wouldn't have most of the New Testament—whatever you may think of St. Paul, he was indisputably a tireless letter writer. By the 18th century, letter writing was so commonplace that one of the first prose narratives to be considered a novel, Samuel Richardson's "Pamela," was composed entirely of letters of a daughter to her parents, and the epistolary method lent that novel what realism it possessed. More contemporaneously, look to popular song for an index of just how commonplace letter writing was in our culture as late as a generation ago ("A Soldier's Last Letter," "Please, Mr. Postman," "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "P.S. I Love You"). 

The decline in letter writing constitutes a cultural shift so vast that in the future, historians may divide time not between B.C. and A.D. but between the eras when people wrote letters and when they did not. Historians depend on the written record. Perhaps a better way of saying that is that they are at the mercy of that record. Land transactions, birth and death records, weather reports, government documents—to the historian, nothing written is trivial, because it all contributes to the picture we have of the past. In the last century or so, as historians have turned away from their fixation on the doings of the great and included the lives of average people in their study, the letters those people left behind are invaluable evidence of how life was once lived. We know what our ancestors ate, how they dressed, what they dreamed about love and what they thought about warfare, all from their letters. Without that correspondence, the guesswork mounts.

Gaps in the historical record have always existed. American slaves were largely illiterate, often by law and sometimes by laws that threatened them with death. The epistolary record belongs to free people, and in most cases that means free white people of property. When we reflect on how dearly we would cherish letters written by people in bondage or any people who, through some circumstance of history, were voiceless, we begin to grasp the preciousness of the written record—any written record: laundry lists, ancestral records in family Bibles, love notes—and how poorly historians of the future will be served by our generation, which generates almost no mail at all.

There is e-mail, certainly, and texting, but this is communication that is for the most part here today and deleted tomorrow. And there is the enormous trove of information about daily life multiplying by the hour in the digital record—television, camera phones, spycams, YouTube and chat rooms all capture what seems like every second of every life on the planet. The problem is not that there is not enough information about what we think or how we live. The problem is sifting through that sea of data. The most common complaint of our time is that we are overwhelmed by information, unmediated and unstoppable.

Maybe we miss letters at least a little because we miss the world, the blessedly—to our eye at least—uncomplicated world where letters were commonplace by necessity. Surely, though, there is more to our fondness than mere sentimentality. When we read a letter, we develop an image of the letter writer unavailable to us in any other way. Abraham Lincoln's speeches leave us in awe of the man. His letters make us like him, because we hear a more unburnished voice and more unbuttoned personality. Lincoln the letter writer was less shackled by thoughts of how history would read his words. He loosened the reins on his humor, his anger and his melancholy. He was, in a word, human. Moreover, his correspondence proves that the more one writes—and Lincoln wrote a lot—the more relaxed the writer becomes, the more at ease he or she is in the act of writing and the more able to fully express thought and emotion. Writing a lot of letters will not turn you into Lincoln or Shakespeare, but if you do it enough, you begin to put your essential self on paper whether you mean to or not. No other form of communication yet invented seems to encourage or support that revelatory intimacy.

Join the Discussion