1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Missing Letters

By March 9, 2012

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Please never stop writing me letters--they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I've been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
(Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)

I don't spend much time on Facebook, but I am a fan of the site Save the U.S. Postal Service by Writing More Letters. That's where I picked up the quotation from Elizabeth Bishop--and where I first heard about "Letters in the Mail," a project hosted by the online literary magazine The Rumpus:

Almost every week you'll receive a letter, in the mail. Letter writers will include Dave Eggers, Tao Lin, Stephen Elliott, Janet Fitch, Nick Flynn, Margaret Cho, Cheryl Strayed, Marc Maron, Elissa Schappel, Wendy MacNaughton, Emily Gould, and Jonathan Ames. Think of it as the letters you used to get from your creative friends, before this whole internet/email thing. Most of the letters will include return addresses (at the author's discretion) in case you want to write the author back.
A monthly subscription is $5 ($10 if you live outside the U.S.).

Now, are such efforts to revive the art of letter writing a sure sign of fogyism?


So is letter writing a lost cause?

Most likely.

The end of letter writing has been proclaimed for over a century, with blame attributed to everything from the telegraph to Twitter. Yet even today, despite the marvels of Facebook, instant messaging, and the like, I'm not convinced that anything in the digital world has succeeded in mimicking the particular pleasures and advantages of reading and writing personal letters.

New Yorker writer Roger Angell recently expressed his thoughts on the matter:

Writers can't stop writing, and it's cheering to think which of them would have switched over to electronics had it been around. The poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop conducted an enormous correspondence--four hundred and fifty-nine letters, between 1947 and 1977 ("What a block of life," Lowell said), spanning three continents and, between them, six or eight different lovers or partners--but one need read only a few pages of these melancholic literary exchanges to know that the latest BlackBerry or iPhone never would have penetrated their consciousness. . . .

Losing the mixed pleasures of just arrived letters may not mean as much in the end as what we're missing by not writing them. Writing regularly to several people--a parent, a friend who's moved to another coast, a daughter or son away at college--requires one to keep separate mental ledgers, storing up the weather or the idle thoughts or the disasters we need to pass on. We're always getting ready to write. The letters out and back become a correspondence, and mysteriously take on a tone of their own: some rambly and comfortably boring; others cool and funny; some financial; some confessional. They stick in the mind and seem worth the trouble.
(Roger Angell, "Life and Letters." The New Yorker, January 2, 2012)

Do you think the practice of letter writing is worth the trouble, even if it's perpetuated by artificial means? Whether you're an old fogy or a young one (or not in the least bit fogyish at all), let us know by clicking on the "comments" button below.

More About Letter Writing:

Image: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (1956), a National Book Award for Poetry (1970), and two Guggenheim Fellowships


March 12, 2012 at 12:46 pm
(1) June says:

I met a penpal through a stay-at-home mothers network when my children were young — me in the northern Midwest and she on the sunny west coast. We had amazingly similar backgrounds and children the same age. Now are children have graduated from college (though she added a third who’s in high school) and our lives continue to be amazingly parallel — jobs, divorces, and life in general. We have met in person a few times over the decades and resist (as well as we can) the siren song of Facebook (we are ‘friends!’) But we still save up our best conversations for real letters. What I have now is something of a journal of our young mothering years… our letters back and forth in a 3-hole binder (I saved copies of my responses) that may be of sentimental value to my children some day. Or not. I really don’t care, but I do enjoy going back and reading them!

March 12, 2012 at 12:55 pm
(2) Terry says:

I just spent about a half hour writing a comment, a letter, actually. When I clicked on “Say it!” I was informed the comment only allows from 10 to 2000 characters. I really wish that I’d seen that stated up front somewhere (it likely is but I missed it). However, I’ve copied it and will paste it in a series of comments. Sorry, but unless someone stops me I can’t let that effort go to waste.

March 12, 2012 at 12:58 pm
(3) Terry says:

I definitely think the practice of letter writing is worth the trouble! I’m not so sure the practice is worth it even perpetuated by artificial means though, if by “artificial means” you’re referring to emails and other such cyber ilk.

I was amazed to open your newsletter this morning and find we are discussing this topic, as I’ve been quietly (sometimes not so much so) lamenting what I view as the dying art of letter writing for the past three or four years, at least. I think this is the first time I’ve had anyone take the time to commiserate with me or even indicate polite agreement – it was as if no one else even considered the matter worthy of consideration. Finally, someone else cares at least enough to broach the topic.

March 12, 2012 at 12:59 pm
(4) Terry says:

I’m fifty-five years of age and have been writing since I was four years old. My skill hasn’t improved much but my love of doing it has grown exponentially since I began. When I first discovered email and the internet, long after everyone else had, I took full advantage of it, boring every sorry sod unfortunate enough to have let me gain access to their reading space. At first, when I would get the odd reply or read another’s email or comments left somewhere in cyberspace, I remember flinching inwardly or reacting in enough of a way that I can still recall it, when I witnessed poor grammar, spelling mistakes and/or the general bastardization of language. I made allowances, “They’re really busy” or “Must be having a bad day”.

March 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm
(5) Terry says:

As I corresponded I made it a point to at least stick to the same standard I employed when composing a “hand-written” letter (remember those days?) no matter the artificial means I was otherwise using. Mind you, I have no illusions about my skill or talent in the art – the best I can say is that I can usually manage to communicate , meet my objective of conveying my message. But as the years passed, I found that poor grammar, misspelling and language mutilation had become not the exception, but accepted practice. I think the cyber age has made most of us extremely lazy and careless in exchanging messages, letters and comments; to the point where most of the youth I know, display no ability to write “properly” nor do they care to.

The thing though, that most eats away at my letter-writing loving heart, is the deplorable, unforgiveable, inexcusable, unjustifiable and deploringly honest truth that I, myself, have fallen prey to the ills of lazy and careless writing. It has happened slowly perhaps, relative to the slippery steep incline I’d witnessed others navigating, but it has happened nonetheless.

March 12, 2012 at 1:01 pm
(6) Terry says:

It saddens me actually. How can any of us who love the art of communicating through writing, and writing to the best of our abilities, witness this erosion of such an ancient, essential activity, without feeling a sense of loss and disappointment? And above all, to participate in it one’s self.

It’s as if it is the beginning of the end of all things decent and proud.

Of course, I could be wrong. In any event, thank you for the opportunity to write about writing and to finally state what it is that has been gnawing away at me for too long, needing to be set free and ventilated. In so doing of course, I’ve practiced the very laziness and carelessness I so hypocritically take issue with, even as I take issue with it.

March 12, 2012 at 11:43 pm
(7) Wondering says:

Hmmm…is this a trick question? Are we supposed to use this little digital box to write our thoughts about letters, since they aren’t actually letters we are writing? I am confused. What are letters and what is this I am writing? Does this thing that says Leave a Comment want me to do something different than a letter would? Does the idea that I am writing something online change what I would normally think? There was an essay in the New Yorker (I think) some years back that discussed the idea of “Powerpointlessness” (how ppt dumbs us down). I wonder if writing….commenting…in this little box is also shaping my thoughts (I don’t have my space left, feeling the pressure!). I kind of remember my mother scolding me when I made “comments”. All of this is confusing. I would love to write a friend about it, but I keep thinking of Bartleby. Will my letters end up in some modern day Dead Letter Office, for those without Facebook? Aw hell, used up the characters so I must be done now….

March 13, 2012 at 1:02 pm
(8) Susan says:

I too am guilty of being caught up in digital communications. My ninety year old Aunt Janet & my friend Carla are the only people with whom I maintain regular handwritten communication. I send cards with personal messages to other friends and relatives throughout the year and musings to my honey occasionally, despite seeing him every day. Despite modeling this behavior and providing the thrill of receiving something someone cared enough to pen and post, only AJ and Carla find the time to reciprocate. Interestingly, AJ is perfectly capable of penning emails and posting on the family blog. Carla, on the other hand, refuses to learn how to navigate in the digital world and is aged far past her years. She clearly suffers from fogyism.

March 13, 2012 at 1:04 pm
(9) Susan says:

Reading this thread reminds me that recently, a student came to me and said that she didn’t know how to recognize “good writing.” In a discussion that included pointing out to her that we have been reading examples of “good writing” all semester (and, of course, a number of reasons why they are “good”), I decided to try a good old fashioned copy book project. Now that I read today’s post, I know that I must include letters. What fun I will have simply deciding whose letters to include! Sadly, I fear that instead of the fun I would have with such an assignment, they may see it as tedious or, even worse, punitive. Don’t you just hate it when parents or teachers make children write as punishment?

March 14, 2012 at 10:45 am
(10) Tanya says:

Ever since the whole post office issue came up, I have been thinking about letter writing. I have a Facebook acct, though I don’t use it much except for getting pics from my family, and I do e-mail quite often, but actual letter writing is much more personal. It lets someone know you cared about them enough to actually take the time, when often we are so busy, to compose our thoughts & feelings and share them with someone else. I confess I don’t write letters myself very often, but when I do, it’s because there is something I want to say that can’t be conveyed through e-mail, a text, or a Facebook post. I think what’s missing most in communication today is the feeling of sincerity.

March 14, 2012 at 5:39 pm
(11) Annie says:

It is so rewarding to receive a letter from a friend. It’s the tactile gesture we all miss with email and other technical correspondence. Knowing that our friend touched the paper, took time to write his or her thoughts and find a stamp and mail it. Seems archaic to read all those steps now.

What a pleasure to walk to my mailbox each day and find a card or letter hidden in the bills. The anticipation puts an extra lift in my jaunt.

I read somewhere that the act of handwriting was a form of brain exercise honing coordination skills; a skill that gets lost when typing or texting.

I will continue to write letters until my death. The joy to send and receive notes, letters and cards is immeasurable.

March 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm
(12) Nic Nelson says:

I love writing with a pen, on good paper, to a good friend. The tactile immediacy, the complexity of detail (kind and color of paper and ink, the handwriting, the size and alignment of the text on the page, etc) all convey so much– it is the typographic equivalent of body language.

Yes, the prevalence of letter-writing has declined over the years, now that there are other faster cheaper methods of written communication. But those who truly enjoy writing letters have always been rare. The challenge has always been to pitch the epistolary art to as many people as possible, so that we might win some of them.

For that purpose, this blog post and comment thread serves admirably!

March 22, 2012 at 12:26 pm
(13) Aunt Marcy says:

It truly would be sad if the art of letter writing were lost. Therefore, we, who love it, must keep it alive and well with our continued efforts! I have written letters for decades, many with rebus style illustrations, to family, friends, and to those I’ve never met, and my rewards have been the wonderful letters in return! In my early years of teaching, the first group writing effort was with the children in my room when we all wrote to service men in Viet Nam. My friend deployed over there wrote, among many others who answered, and told how they would sit around a campfire taking turns reading out loud the letters from my fourth grade class, and how greatly it helped hearing from “home”. Though we writers are now a smaller group, take heart, you who keep the flame burning, and know that the letters you create and send will always have special meaning to those who receive them. My paper and pen await! Sincerely-

March 28, 2012 at 11:50 pm
(14) Katherine R says:

I must be a member of the “old school.” I still write letters. In fact, I paint or draw the front of a card and write all over the inside of the card or I write pages and pages and put the pages inside of a hand designed card. I enjoy writing and many of the people I write too have expressed their enjoyment at receiving a card and letter. Sometimes they write back and sometimes they call. The writing is more for me — a way to share what is happening around me with friends. For me, writing is easier than talking.

November 5, 2013 at 1:52 pm
(15) Jason says:

Letter writing as a craft is in its demise, as far as I can see. The Postal Service now requires a standardization that complies with the machines it uses. The days of illustrated envelopes are gone.

The kind of writing that comes from letter writing is different from the kind that comes from writing on a letter on a computer (such as this) and, as the tool affects the product, a form once used changes and dies through this alone.

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