In Memoriam: Letter Writing

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On a Sunday evening in the mid-1990s, some friends and I had gathered for coffee after Mass at the Newman Center and the conversation turned to what was then the latest technological advance into our daily lives: e-mail. Alone among my peers, I did not welcome e-mail. I believed it signaled the death of a far more personal and edifying mode of communication: letter writing. A quarter-century later the demise of epistolary endeavors seems complete. Every promise of the tech world that communications technology would bring us closer together was merely a benighted wish. Americans are not closer. They are more isolated than ever, alienated even from themselves.

These recollections were prompted by two essays I recently read in a wonderful collection by Fr. James Schall entitled The Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures. In the essay “Unlike the Spider in the Window: ‘To Chuse, Is to Do,’” Fr. Schall considers John Donne’s defense of his prolific letter writing. Donne believed “no other kind of conveyance is better for knowledge, or love.” Letter writing is no light affair. In the essay “The Great Art o’ Letter-Writin’,” Schall cites chapter XXXIII of Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers in which the elder Samuel Weller advises his son in the composition of an epistolary Valentine to Mary of Ipswich. The elder Weller leaves nothing to chance. After emphasizing the importance of posture and penmanship in crafting a letter, the father next exhorts his son not to dabble in anything verging on the poetical in his Valentine. The elder Weller understands the power of a good letter. Young Samuel must restrain himself in disclosing his heart because when Mary reads the Valentine it will be almost as if the young man were standing before her speaking those words in person. The last thing Mr. Weller wants is for his son to be married. A letter that “verges on the poetical” might result in just that circumstance.

A letter is an embodiment of its writer. How can it not be? Writing a letter is an activity of leisure, therefore a contemplative element obtains in the practice. Most of us probably first learned the joys of written messages in grade school. What a thrill when a classmate nudged you and pressed a tiny missive smaller than a postage stamp into your palm, frustratingly folded innumerable times by a set of nimble little fingers. As a teacher I have witnessed many such epistolary escapades, feeling almost as sheepish as the child looks when I intercept one of those hopeful little notes en route to its eager recipient. Even to children the handwritten word is special, and they don’t like it when their notes come before the wrong eyes. As adults we know the time involved. Writing a letter must be planned, its content thought through, its choice of words well considered. There is no delete key on a letter. One does not like to start over.

The same degree of care is simply not required of electronic communications. I think it is the immediacy and convenience of e-mail and texting that make them so ephemeral and therefore far less suitable for conveying important things like knowledge and love. “The instantaneousness of it,” Schall writes, “is perplexing.” Also there is the risk that you’ll accidentally send your message to the wrong person, or that some anonymous third party will also be reading. We don’t feel comfortable disclosing ourselves in e-mail and text as we do in a letter. A handwritten letter sometimes seems the only thing adequate for communicating those aspects of ourselves we most want to share with another.

 

After high school, my four friends went separate ways: two attended different universities and two others went to boot camp in New Jersey. I don’t recall who wrote the first letter, but an epistolary dimension to our friendship soon opened up. A few years after boot camp, one of our gang was shipped off to Kuwait at the outset of the Persian Gulf War. Letters began arriving on U.S. Army paper. Looking back on those letters now I think Donne was right. There were no better conveyances than those handwritten letters for the knowledge we were gaining in our early manhood, or for the love we held in our hearts for God, for life, and for each other. Our friendship ripened through those epistles and grew more sinuous. “We are finite beings,” Schall writes. “It takes time to disclose ourselves.” And to discover what it is one is disclosing (that is, oneself).

E-mails and texts simply cannot bear the weight of such glorious things as the yearnings of young men and women at the threshold of life. I’m told no one wants a long email or text. The briefer the better. The opposite is true of the handwritten letter—the art of which is to say just enough to edify and to withhold just enough to leave the reader wanting more. When young Sam Weller considers adding a bit more to his Valentine to Mary, his father stops him. “‘Not a bit on it,’ said Sam; ‘she’ll wish there was more, and that’s the great art o’ letter writin’.”

Schall observes that “the old post took time. It allowed a certain savoring, a certain rumination. By contrast, e-mail seems so ephemeral—a blip on a screen.” That seems right. I remember, from my epistolary days, the pleasant hope that accompanied me to the mailbox each day, the happiness of seeing a letter there, and the small disappointment when a letter I was expecting did not arrive. Letters are artifacts, part of the structure and history of human relationships that cannot be matched by texting. A letter is imbued with its writer’s care for you and the time he invested in your friendship. It carries personal touches that the writer thought you might like: the scent of a particular perfume, an autumn leaf from New England, or one of those quirky banknotes worth $2 such as my grandfather sent me when I was about five years old. Today we send emoticons.

For all these reasons it’s not difficult to understand why some Christians consider the Bible to be a “love letter” from God to his people. In Scripture, God reveals himself, confesses his unconditional love for us, and urges us to respond. Through St. Paul’s impassioned epistles, we see a radically changed man trying to understand what happened to him and aching to share with others his beautifully bewildering encounter with Christ. It is in the nature of love that it wants to be shared. Only a letter is adequate to the task. The most important things are written not typed.

Because of its personal nature it’s more difficult to lie in a letter than in an e-mail or text. Again, this is a result of the immediacy of the thing. One wants to shoot off electronic correspondences as quickly as possible. Inevitably, millions of rash messages are issued on a daily basis via texting. But no one is held too responsible for careless comments in an e-mail or text. Both the true ones and the false are forgotten in an instant. Maybe this is why electronic communication doesn’t carry much weight in courts of law. There is an ambience surrounding the writing and reading of handwritten letters that doesn’t exist with e-mail or text. A letter is the next best thing to sitting down with that friend over drinks by a crackling fire. Why bother if all you’re going to do is lie? Electronic communications seem less real, so what we say in them seems less important. If an offense occurs somewhere, the situation is always put down to “tone,” which everyone acknowledges is lacking in electronic communication. The author of a letter is held to a higher standard of sincerity.

After my grandmother died on All Saint’s Day in 1994, my sister and I were sorting through her apartment in Los Angeles. In a drawer I discovered a bundle of old, yellowing letters. They were mostly from my grandfather written in the 1920s when they were courting in Chicago. Written on each envelope were my grandmother’s name and house number, and below that were the words “The City” with no zip code, something I had assumed always existed. These letters constituted a newly discovered artifact of our family history and of my grandparents’ history that I had never considered before: their youth in Chicago in the “Roaring 20s.” Even more intriguing, my grandfather was not my grandmother’s only suitor. Will such discoveries be made by future grandchildren in the e-mails and texts of their grandparents? This seems doubtful since the ethos of electronic communications is impermanence.

Fr. Schall contends “there is something dramatically different between a printed-out e-mail letter and a handwritten letter received in the mail.” Many today will brush aside the proposition as a quaint complaint from an old Luddite. But I agree with Fr. Schall. Having lived with both handwritten and e-mail letters, I prefer the former. The penmanship of a friend becomes warmly familiar, like the sound of his voice. There is something of the uniqueness of your friend in the shape and tilt of his letters, his choice of words and asides, the unique way he forms capitals. You recognize the paper he always uses, and, if he’s an artistic type and young, his letters will be adorned with all manner of curious doodles around the margins. Handwritten letters are conducive to courting. Their personal nature and their aspect of permanence provide a dimension of intimacy in which lovers can disclose themselves safely to one another. He finds the lissome curvature of her vowels, particularly common among young women, inexplicably endearing. The joy he feels upon recognizing her unmistakable script on an envelope in his mailbox may come to be secondary only to her physical presence itself, and taking up her letter tantamount to taking her hand. All of this is lost in e-mails and texts.

Twenty-plus years have passed since that Sunday evening discussion about e-mail, and my friends and I no longer write to each other. I lament this fact. Lives become full and busy with many important things. Texting is meant to acknowledge this aspect of modern life and provide a means for maintaining relationships in the midst of that busyness. But how much is really shared in a text hastily composed at a stop light on the way home from work? Our fallen nature predisposes us toward convenience, which so often is assessed by the speed with which things can be done.

But we make time for the things that are important to us. Letter writing is one of those worthy activities for which the world no longer has patience. In reducing our communication with friends and loved ones to e-mail, texting, and social media, we have reduced the space in our hearts we are willing to make for them. After the salvation of our souls, the most important thing in life is our relationships. This fact is affirmed in the writing of a letter. One’s soul is involved in letter writing. This is why it takes time. Don’t all the best things in life?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail of “Man Writing a Letter” painted by Gabriël Metsu in 1664-66.

Tom Jay

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Tom Jay is Academy Dean at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. He also teaches Latin I to fifth graders. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas and also holds a Master in Humanities with a Concentration in Classical Education from UD.

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