When I moved into my house I stashed a trunk at the back of the garage planning to sort it out later. Well “later” turned out to be 26 years. Over time the trunk became covered with the nameless stuff that seems to reproduce in garages. Unearthing it was like digging through archaeological layers of my own life. What would I find inside? The trunk came with me from England back in the day and I used it to store college papers and various mementos, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I would find. It turned out I did excavate artifacts from a bygone age, the Age of Letter Writing. Not just my family, but all my friends wrote to each other constantly and I kept all the letters. Some are long multi-page affairs written even though writer and recipient would be seeing each other again in just a few days. Some are brief notes conveying information, but even these are written in complete sentences without abbreviations and with a fountain pen! Email, IM, and Twitter have obliterated the Age of Letters as surely as the Barbarians overwhelmed the Roman Empire. I felt like a historian going through these letters, but what will the historians of the future do with just Tweets to work with?
Explore history through letters:
- Just how important letters are to historians is shown by Andrew Carroll in Letters of a Nation: a collection of extraordinary American letters. Organized by period and by theme, these letters by famous, infamous, and ordinary Americans tell the story of the nation as it was experienced, rather than in the words of omnipotent historians.
- One of the most notable collections of letters in American history is that of John and Abigail Adams, who give us an eyewitness account of the American Revolution as they lived it.
- There has probably been no better illustration of how letters illuminate the past than in Ken Burns’ documentary film on the Civil War. Seeing images of the letters with their beautiful penmanship and hearing them read aloud makes us realize that ordinary Americans with an ordinary education could write beautiful prose in those days.
Great writers, of course, were usually also great correspondents, and their letters can give us important insight into their lives and work.
- Dickens never wrote an autobiography but the next best thing is Selected Letters of Charles Dickens edited by Jenny Hartley.
- The recently published Life in Letters by P. G. Wodehouse is delightful and shows that he had just as appealing a personality as you would expect from the great comic novels.
- Others reveal more unpleasant characters in their letters. T. S. Eliot comes to mind; his letters are wickedly satirized in the Guardian’s Digested Read series.
For a history of letter writing, both composition and penmanship, see Script and Scribble: the rise and fall of handwriting by Kitty Burns Florey, and The Missing Ink: the lost art of handwriting by British novelist Philip Hensher. Both lament the passing of an age. But there are a few voices fighting a rearguard action against the Age of Twitter. If you have an interest in improving your handwriting and learning how to write letters for different occasions check out these resources:
- At her blog Brain Pickings Maria Popova presents advice from a book published in 1876, How to Write Letters: A Vintage Guide to the Lost Art of Epistolary Etiquette. Yes, even back in 1876 they were worried that letter writing was a dying art!
- More recent attempts to keep the skill alive are The Art of the Handwritten Note: a guide to reclaiming civilized communications by Margaret Shepherd and Just a Note to Say: the perfect words for every occasion by Florence Isaacs.
The decline in letter writing is having some unintended consequences apart from reducing our attention span to 140 characters. The profession of Graphologist, or handwriting analyst, is now as much an endangered species as blacksmith or sorcerer once were. If my descendants ever choose to go through the letters now stacked in neat boxes in my closet they may have a difficult time deciphering the handwriting. But they will certainly wonder how we found time to write all those letters. They may not realize it was because we didn’t need to constantly monitor our electronic devices.