Have you gotten a letter lately?
Not an email. Or a text message. Not a note scribbled out by someone in a hurry. Or even a formal business letter, which was more than likely signed by a computer. I’m talking about a personal, handwritten letter, with a salutation, a proper closing, and an actual signature.
The following article, which appeared as one of my Sunday morning columns in the newspaper years ago, brought me some feedback from readers, positive and negative. It also brought me several actual letters, which made it all worthwhile.
Here’s the piece.
I used to get letters them all the time. I used to write them all the time. I’ve got, on a shelf in my closet, an old shoebox crammed full with letters that came to me during my army days at a little base in Germany, where I personally kept democracy secure.
Many of the residents of Oakwood – the little East Texas hamlet that, along with my parents, collectively raised me – wrote to me regularly. Some good hearted souls even sent care packages. Miss Eudie Belle Cutler sent a nine layer jam cake with a different homemade jam between each layer. But mostly it was just letters that arrived at Mail Call. And that was fine with me. Those letters eased the homesickness that was pretty strong in a young fellow who had never even ridden an airplane before Uncle Sam sent his greetings.
I have, in my bookcases, several fat volumes of famous peoples’ collected letters. I enjoy reading what Ernest Hemingway wrote to his various wives. And Steinbeck’s daily letters to his editor during the writing of East of Eden – all of them grouped into an amazing book called Journal of a Novel – were more beneficial to me as a novelist than any writer’s manual could have been.
In the high school where I’ve taught for the last twenty-five years, building up that enormous state pension that I’m going to take them up on one of these days, there was, until recent renovations, an interesting display consisting of twenty or so copies of historical documents on laminated plaques in the main entryway.
One of them was a handwritten letter from President Franklin Roosevelt to Joseph Stalin, informing him that “the immediate appointment of General Eisenhower to command of Overlord operation has been decided upon.” Beneath it was another short, scribbled note – from General Marshall to Eisenhower – which says “I thought you might like to have this for your mementos.”
I’ll just bet he did, don’t you?
I’ve always found it fascinating, and fitting, that the handing over of the biggest invasion force in the history of the world was transacted in a few handwritten lines.
I don’t know when letter writing fell almost completely by the wayside as an important and common human enterprise. Probably it began its slide when e-mailing came into vogue, which lets us dash off truncated communications without any regard to spelling, capitalization, or grammar. Then the final death knell must have been with the advent of text messaging on cell phones. My goodness, when you can quickly tap out the bare bone essentials you need to impart, why would you pour a bit of your heart into a multi-page letter, address an envelope, and be out the cost of a stamp?
I can tell you why.
Occasionally, I take down that box of letters I got when I was in the army. All of them are fun to read again, but the real treasures are the ones from my parents and from my two sisters. When I hold a letter from my mother in my hands, rubbing the brittle pages between my fingers, and decipher her tiny, wandering hen-scratch handwriting, it’s almost like she’s back with me for a few minutes.
I don’t have a box of old e-mails. Or text messages. Because not enough effort is put into them to last. And almost never is enough of the writer’s soul infused into them to be worth keeping.
So, sit right down and write someone a letter. The recipient will feel better for it.
And so will you.