What Happens When We Stop Writing Letters?

There is a debate among some educators over the merits of teaching cursive writing.  In an age of computers and gadgets is there still a place for something as ‘old-fashioned’ as knowing how to write legibly?  (I think there is.)

There might also be a debate about something equally important–the art of writing a letter.  This week The New Yorker had a column that is worthy of pondering.

As you read the paragraph below ponder the loss of the letters from John and Abigail Adams. 

If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vera Nabokov, J. P. Morgan—if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters. Twenty years ago, many of us got a whole new sense of the Civil War while watching and listening to Ken Burns’s nine-part television documentary, which took its poignant tone from the recital of Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters home. G.I.s in the Second World War wrote home on fold-over V-Mail sheets. Troops in Afghanistan and, until lately, Iraq keep up by Skype and Facebook, and in some sense are not away at all.

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.

2 thoughts on “What Happens When We Stop Writing Letters?

  1. Craig

    A very good question Dekeriver. To write with our hands very carefully concocked verse on quality paper using a writing instrument is a lost art. Young brains have sorely missed an opportunity afforded their elders as they hunt and peck away on a keyboard. Correcting spelling on ‘ieSpell’.

    Why a writing instrument? For me it was to create art using selected pencils over drafting tables covered in rolls of snow-white vellum, triangles, circle templates, compasses, slide ruler, dividers, and tee squares. Only favorite soft lead pencils and block letter printing will do. Time goes away. Days fly by. Ideas to share are pressed onto paper. Satisfaction from drafting is the ultimate reward. No such reward in AutoCad. No fun, fine, personal hand details.

    Printing only. No flowing hand with squiggles connecting letters to make words…no ink pen feels right. No pencil really is soft enough. No ground point is really pointy enough. I imagine the unseen particles of lead filling the low divits in the paper and dragged over high spots leaving in the pencil’s wake the impressions of this art work, deep and dark and permanent. Some rolled into tubes. Many, if reviewed frequently, hung like drying fish by their edges and racked. Mean ‘O Mr. Gravity pulling on them to prevent humidity from curling aging vellum.

    Than the style of hand lettering that is distinctive and proprietary to it’s author alerts the reader. No other anticipation tingles more or excites the senses to what may come.

    No phone, not back then. No cell phone either, but a real paper letter from my first girlfriend sent to ‘a lock and dam somewhere on the lower Mississippi River’, lovingly and carefully placed on the Lock Master’s office shelf waiting for just the right boat to make it’s way back up river to Starved Rock, Illinois from New Orleans only addressed to “Master Craig Weis on the River Queen houseboat, THITWA”. The envelope lovingly embellished with her hand drawing of our boat in colored waxed Crayons splashed end to end across the length of the envelope. The lock Master handed the envelope to dad with a wink and dad called me over from the wheel and passed it on to me. My mom peaked with curiosity was abeam but still holding on to the bow line dropped down to us as we locked through.

    Inside are many leafs of paper covered in a particular left hand slant, but it’s not printing and it’s not writting but rather some form of hybrid connections and stand alone lettering sending greetings, love, details, feelings.

    When I look~see at my writings even today, I see that I adopted her slant and her peculiar way of forming those individual letters that our create and share our experiences in writtings.

    Yes letter writing is a lost and dying art. I recently on the HISTORY CHANNEL was taken into the miseries of both the Confederate and Yankee Civil War prison camps. All conveyed through hand scrawled letters from the internees there.

    Shall we loose our history? That’s a very good question indeed.


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