Friday, March 25, 2011

A Lost Art

Letters arriving in the mailbox are always a welcome treat, especially those that display themselves as the real thing, or at least real in the sense of being handwritten in fountain pen and ink and with a stamp that isn’t merely faint red lines from a postal meter. No doubt many people lament the fact that these mailbox surprises are growing rarer by the year. Truth is, I’m surprised much of the time that my local post office is able to get anything delivered in semi-accurate fashion. Last week my houseguest sent five postcards to Tokyo. Not knowing that it wasn’t necessary, he included a return address (mine) on the cards. The following Monday all five cards were delivered—postmarked—to my mailbox.

Apart from receiving ‘real’ letters from time to time, I also enjoy reading the published letters of writers and other people with a special talent for interesting communication. In the letters of someone like E.B. White, Dorothy Parker or John F. Kennedy we can almost sense through the published typescript that their thoughts and comments were originally brewed and steeped in pen and paper. It’s not usual that we find letter collections that include the writing of a wide range of diverse names and personalities. Easy enough to find individual collections, but an ‘anthology’ of letters from a long list of familiar names is more uncommon.

America 1900-1999: Letters of the Century is just such a book. Naming only a few on the list, this book includes the correspondence of James Baldwin, Clyde Barrow, George Bush, Truman Capote, Albert Einstein, Cher, George Washington Carver and Janis Joplin. Editors Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler have done a good job of compiling an ecletic view of American thought during the decades of twentieth century America.

One of my favorite letters was written by the author of the Uncle Remus stories, tales that gave us the indelible characters of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. On Thursday, April 5, 1900 Joel Chandler Harris wrote to his twenty-two year-old son Evelyn…

Dear Evelyn: Your letter was waiting for me when I came home, but was not the less interesting because I had seen you in the meantime. We usually say more in a letter than we do in conversation, the reason being that in a letter, we feel that we are shielded from the indifference or enthusiasm which our remarks may meet with or arouse. We commit our thoughts as it were, to the winds. Whereas, in conversation we are constantly watching or noting the effect of what we are saying, and when the relations are intimate, we shrink from being taken too seriously on one hand, and on the other not seriously enough. —But people no longer write letters. Lacking the leisure, and for the most part the ability, they dictate dispatches and scribble messages. When you are in the humor you should take a peep at some of the letters written by people who lived long ago, especially the letters of women. There is a charm about them impossible to describe, the charm of unconsciousness and the sweetness of real sincerity. But in these days we have not the artlessness nor the freedom of our forbears. We know too much about ourselves. Constraint covers us like a curtain. Not being very sure of our own feelings, we are in a fog about the feelings of others…

Poet, Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) was an unusual man in that he pursued lifelong careers as both a businessman and as a poet. Until his death he was an executive of the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, and in the meantime winning one Pulitzer Prize and two National Book Awards for his poetry. On March 21, 1907 he wrote to his future wife…

Dear Elsie—

I am so full of misery to-night that I am ridiculous. Every Spring I have a month or two of semi-blackness and perhaps the mood is just returning. Perhaps, it is simply a revulsion against old things—habits, people, places—everything: the feeling the sun must have, nowadays, when it shines on nothing but mud and bare trees and the general world, rusty with winter. People do not look well in Spring. They seem grimy and puffy and it makes me misanthropic. Spring fills me so full of dreams that try one’s patience in coming time. One has a desire for the air full of spice and odors, and for days like junk of changing colors, and for warmth and ease, and all other things that you know so well. But they come so slowly. Earth and the body and the spirit seem to change together, and so I feel muddy and bare and rusty.


Unrelated to anything but spring bloom is a photograph of my pet geranium, a small clump of leaves planted in the white urn about three months ago, and now….


  1. I agree that letter writing is a lost art as is penmanship in school. The blooming geranium is beautiful. You must have a green thumb to have stuffed a bunch of green leaves into the dirt and it comes out looking like this.

  2. You are correct: letter writing is a lost art. And if Joel Chandler Harris was bemoaning that fact a 111 years ago, what state is it in now? Lost among twittering and Face Booking and commenting on blogs. I value the 3 letters to her daughter written in 1929 by my great grandmother when she was a patient at the Mayo Clinic. So much more than just a glimpse into the personal.


About Me

My photo
Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America