Category Archives: Letters

The Art – and Artists – of Letter Writing

A gorgeous new book, Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters, edited by Smithsonian curator of manuscripts Mary Savig, underscores not only the artistry of a well-penned letter but also the lasting impact of words shared via pen and paper. To read through the beautiful-produced book is to enter the worlds of different artists, joining them in those moments of their life captured in their correspondence.

Artists represented (no pun intended) in the book include Mary Cassatt, Frederic Church, Howard Finster, Winslow Homer, Ray Johnson, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Maxfield Parrish, Eero Saarinen, and Saul Sternberg.

One of my favorite letters in the collection is the ecstatic note penned by artist Grant Wood after learning that two of his paintings, including American Gothic, were to be included in a show at Chicago’s Art Institute:

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Pen to Paper: Artists Handwritten Letters is a book to savor and to share, and reading through it will certainly inspire the writing of letters (perhaps a great gift for college-bound students and/or their left-behind parents?). As I tried to demonstrate in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, the art of letter writing is not a lost art, nor is it a field left only to artists. Anyone can write a letter, and everyone should.

Letters: Recipe Shared with Julia Child

What do I have in common with Julia Child? Not the art of French cooking. I cannot follow a recipe to save my life. But Julia Child loved writing and receiving letters, and so do I. And in our love for letters, we both discovered an age-old recipe, and a recipe I can follow. A recipe for life.

Julia Child wrote her memoir, My Life in France, using the letters she’d written during her years there to illustrate how that time in her life had been. I wrote my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, to illustrate all the special, unique qualities of letters that make them such a wonderful mode of communication. Neither Julia’s memoir nor my book was intended to offer advice on how to live a good life but when letters are involved, the parallels start percolating. Because the qualities that define a good letter also define a good life (and for that matter, a good recipe).

I set off on a quest to define the special characteristics of letters when my oldest son set off for college and I realized I was not likely to get many letters for him. But I wanted a letter – so much. Why? Why are letters so important to me? The quest began, through history and across the collections of friends, libraries, historical archives, and digging deep into my own green trunk of saved letters. Signed, Sealed, Delivered is the story of that quest, and of what I discovered.

Once I started looking, I found letters everywhere, including in the memoir of Julia Child. Julia and her husband Paul were devoted letter writers to each other, and to their family and friends. Paul wrote long letters to his twin brother every week, and Julia wrote short but regular letters to the father she did not particularly get along with – except via mail.

The couple created a tradition of the annual Valentine Day’s letter, sent to all their friends and family. These self-produced cards are simply fabulous. I especially love the one of Julia and Paul naked in a bathtub, bubbles artfully arranged to protect privacy. The little caption above their heads, stating Wish You Were Here, is especially lovely and funny – did they really wish all their friends could join them in the tub? Probably not – but they allowed all friends in, via their card.

Letters create a bridge, between writer and reader, between one point in time and another. Not only do letters connect us to the people we love whom are a few hundred miles away – they can connect us to people we love who have passed away, and whom we will never see again. Letters can connect us to people we don’t know – I never met Julia Child but I feel as if we are friends, through her letters – and they can take us back even further, to centuries and places and people we never could have become acquainted with. But through their letters, they become very real, alive and dynamic.

In the centuries to come, anyone reading one of Paul’s letters to his twin brother, quoted at length in Julia’s memoir, will get a vivid sense of what is was like to live in Paris in the twentieth century:

“Lipstick on my belly button and music in the air! Thaaat’s Paris! What a lovely city! …. How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues. Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Hela! Dites-Donc! Bouillabasse!!”

In Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I celebrate the bridges built by letters. Bridges built with care and with time. Think about what it takes to write a letter. Think about, for that matter, what it takes to cook a meal. One of Julia’s overriding precepts in preparing recipes – her advice to all cooks – is that care be taken. The care to read the instructions, assemble the right ingredients, and then follow each step to the letter: as Julia says, “a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience…”

This same precept applies to letter writing, and to life. We should be attendant – faites attention! – pay attention – be aware and in the moment – of our lives. Care about what we do, work at what we do, find satisfaction in what we do.

At the end of My Life in France, Julia writes, “good French food is an art… nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushed through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…”

Again, the same in letters, and in life. If we are rushed, the results are terrible – scribbled and inane, burned or sour, too sweet or too gummy or too lumpy. But if we take time, even the most slender of notes or the most simple of meals or the most ordinary of moments can be exquisite, memorable, enlightening, comforting.

I am no good at following a recipe for a meal. I just can’t do it, in part because I am usually doing two or three or four things at the same time that I am cooking – and so I am not paying the necessary attention to get any but the simplest of preparations right.

But when it comes to writing a letter, I find it much easier to focus. I sit down and all my attention zeroes in on the person to whom I am writing a letter. When my son left for college, I thought what I wanted was a letter from him. But now I understand that the letters that I write to my son are what matters most of all. Because they are proof of my care and my attention and my love. A letter I write is the first step of the bridge; every letter brings me closer to him.

Care, Time, Bridge. Three qualities of letters. Not the only three qualities – there are more to discover in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (and more guidance on living and on writing letters). But if you start with these three qualities, taking care, spending time, and building bridges, you are well-placed to begin a wonderful journey.

In letters, in cooking, in love – in anything that we care about, take time for, and share, we find the ingredients to a good life.

Discovering Inspiration in a Trunk Full of Letters

Years ago, I discovered a trove of letters in my backyard. I had just become the owner of a broken-down old house and when I went to clear out the weed-choked yard, I found a steamer trunk, hidden away in a rotting garden shed. When I opened the trunk, treasure spilled out: hundreds and hundreds of handwritten letters.

Most of the letters had been written by a boy to his mother, from the time he was just learning cursive (from 1899: “Do you think my writing has improved any?”) through the time of her death in the 1930s. When the boy, James, was at Princeton from 1908 through 1912, he wrote to his mother almost every day, and sometimes twice a day: “I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ ….”

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When I first read the letters, I developed a bit of a crush on James. He was so funny and sweet, and affectionate. Every letter was signed, <em>your loving son</em>.

I wanted to write a book about his letters and the boy I’d fallen for, but I didn’t know what to write. And I was a young mother then, with three children under the age of six, a job, and an old house to renovate. I had no time to write. The letters were stored away, to be read in stolen moments.

When my oldest son was leaving for college, I went back to the letters James had written. I found that my feelings for the young man had changed. Now I felt a maternal pride –  what a good boy, to write to his mother so often–  and also a tiny surge of anxiety: would my son write letters to me? We live in a digital age, and I know I could expect texts and the occasional email. But letters?

I knew then the book that I wanted to write. I set off on a quest to understand why I valued the letters of James so very much, and why I looked forward to receiving mail from my own son. I researched back through thousands of years of letter writing, going through my own saved correspondence, dozens of archives in universities and historical societies, and the personal letters lent to me by friends and found in published collections of letters. I set about defining the exact qualities of letters that make them so special.

When my energy flagged, I went back to the letters of James. What had inspired me once would inspire me again. And then I got a letter from my own son away at school, signed with love. I worked even harder.

I wanted – I needed – to tell the stories of letters and of letter writers, going back through the centuries. Inspired myself, I wanted to inspire others: write a letter! The magic is in the written word, in the shared experiences, in the private and singular moments created with pen and paper between one correspondent and the other. From the Ancients (the Egyptians wrote thousands of letters, amazing given that most of them couldn’t read or write – they went to the local scribe) through to our modern times (James Joyce wrote the bawdiest letters ever), we humans have been writing letters. There is no reason to stop now.

Every letter we write starts a connection, creates a history, lays the first stones of a bridge, extends a hand. And who knows what inspiration may spring from the letters we write?

The publication of my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing, is now just one week away. The inspiration discovered over fifteen years ago has finally come to fruition. James’ letters are on their way to Princeton, to become part of that University’s archive and maybe to stimulate another writer and spark an idea for another book. Because we never know where inspiration will come from. For me, it was in my own backyard, a trunk just waiting to be discovered.

Letters I Missed

How did this happen? How could I have missed this fantastic collection of letters about cricket? In my quest to understand just why letters are so important a mode of communication, surely letters to the editors of the Daily Telegraph on the subject of cricket would have provided some insight. photo-171 Last night I discovered on a friend’s coffee table during a dinner party Not in My Day, Sir: Cricket Letters to The Daily Telegraph, edited by Martin Smith. What a discovery it was!

Having now perused the collection, I can say with certainty that the letters included prove one of the main points I make in my book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: that letters show just how much we care. A letter writer takes the time to gather his/her thoughts; places them in a meaningful and cohesive order; puts them down on paper (the effort required to find just the right sort of paper offers more proof of the importance of the thoughts to be shared), then places the letter into an envelope (effort to find the envelope, ditto) and affixes a stamp (ditto); prints out the correct address on the envelope (ditto, again) and then ventures out to the mailbox and commits the letter to the great, wide world without any chance of recalling it or deleting it. All those actions and efforts demonstrate just how much the letter writer cares about what he or she is writing.

And let me tell you: these cricket letter writers do care. There is the writer who protests “over-fifties” complaining about what batsmen and bowlers wear on the field: “When will they realise that cricket is about winning? Personally, I wouldn’t care if Mike Atherton took to the field with a W.G. Grace-size beard, wearing a dressing-gown and goggles, with a fag hanging out of the corner of his mouth and swearing like a trooper if it meant a winning English team.” I may not know who W.G. Grace is but the sentiment – and the care – comes across loud and clear. Then there are the long missives about scoring (I will never understand how points are accumulated in cricket) and the notes about the food on offer (no better over there than the hot dog and nacho stands we find here) and the carefully penned diatribes about issues utterly beyond my ken (can someone tell me what the lbw law is?) but there is no lack of comprehension when it comes to the just how much that letter writer cares about the game of cricket.

I can say without reservation, having read through the letters in Not In My Day, Sir: cricket lovers care a lot about cricket. In fact, I am sure the Daily Telegraph has boatloads of letters on cricket just waiting for editing into another (and another and another) collection. Until then, get your hands on these, then sit back and enjoy the efforts (heart and soul, anger and love, fear and sadness) that went into the writing. The letters that we take the time to write are proof of just how much we care.

Letters of Note, Splendidly Noted

Shaun Usher understands the art of letter writing – as any fan of his site, Letters of Note, knows – and now his book by the same name brings all that art to the printed page. Letters of Note, the book, is beautiful, large-size, fabulously produced, and above all, it is art. Not only are the one hundred letters he chose to reproduce here in the book great to look at, they are great to read, allowing experiences that are in turn transformative, moving, and inspirational (or chilling, in a few cases). The letters are historical and for the ages, personal and universal, just like art. Just like letters.
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Anyone will be inspired to write a letter after perusing the examples offered by Usher, especially given the variety of styles – straightforward, like the letter written by Abraham Lincoln to a very young adviser; exalting, like the letter written by Mark Twain to Walt Whitman; honest and generous, like the letter written by Iggy Pop to a fan; humorous, like the one written by cartoonist Charles M. Schultz explaining that a newly-introduced character would be axed (and she was, as fully illustrated by Schultz in the letter); and heartbreaking, like the last love letter written by a Union solider before he was killed in the First Battle at Bull Run. Letters long and short are presented, typed and scrawled, elegant and rude – Usher has all kinds, and the lesson is: just do it. Write a letter, mail it, and make history.

The one hundred letters are put together with humor (nice juxtaposition: a letter from Queen Elizabeth II to Eisenhower, sharing her scone recipe, followed immediately by a letter from Jack the Ripper detailing how he ate the kidney of one of his victims), intelligence (good background information is provided for each entry, allowing a full appreciation of the letters without cluttering up the book with too much noise; taste (photos and layout and production), and most of all, with love. Shaun Usher ranks as one of the world’s great lover of letters and his reverence for the art of correspondence shows.The volume is so well-produced it could become an heirloom, passed down through generations. I can only hope that future generations will recognize the mode of letter writing, and find inspiration, as I do, in just how meaningful and lasting a communication by letter can be.

Folk Letters

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Dostoyevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk, published when he was just twenty-four years old, is completely composed of the letters exchanged between a young woman, Varvara Dobroselova, and her older relation, Makar Dyevushkin. Although the two distant cousins live just across the alleyway from each other in the back streets of St Petersburg, they share their thoughts through letters. Both Varvara and Makar are impoverished, through circumstances of bad luck and unhappy birthright. Although they dream of better days, they are often overcome with the futility of trying to better their lives. As Varvara writes to Makar, “All my life I shall be in suffering, thanks to the wicked people who have ruined me.”

The only comfort or happiness either find in their lives is provided through the letters they send back and forth to each other.  “I have never spent my days in such joyfulness,” writes Makar, referring to their correspondence, “Why it is as though God has blessed me with a home and family of my own, my child, my pretty!” Not only can they enjoy a relief from their sorrows through words, but they can share whatever hopes remain, without threat of being scorned: “Be a fine man, steadfast in misfortune, remember that poverty is not a vice,” Varvara writes to Makar. “And why despair? It is all temporary! Please God, it will all be set right…”

Why do they not simply visit each other, and forego the letter writing? Because the rules of propriety – and the neighbors’ delight in cruel rumor-mongering and teasing – demand that Makar and Varvara keep their relationship private. They have discovered that the best way to protect their privacy while sharing their feelings freely is through the writing of letters.  And Dostoyevsky uses the device of the letters to give us his readers the insider view, building an entire novel – character, plot, and resolution – out of letters.  We are as involved in the lives of the characters as if the letters were written to us – and we grow to care very much about  Makar and Varvara’s profound losses, their small and infrequent joys, and their long-buried dreams of security and comfort.

What is so marvelous about Dostoyevsky’s use of letters is how authentically he creates the written exchanges. The letters include much that is repetitive and even sometimes boring – just as in real letters! — but alongside the mundane and monotonous, Varvara and Makar describe the nitty gritty details of their lives, allowing us  chilling glimpses of the misery that surrounds them in their St Petersburg slum: “At first it [the smell] makes an unfavorable impression, but that is of no consequence …. you begin to smell bad yourself, your clothes smell, your hands smell, and everything smells – well, you get used to it.”

The novel closes with the termination of correspondence between Varvara and Makar. Varvara has sought to improve her lot by marrying an older man. Now she is leaving St. Petersburg with him to live on his estate in the Steppes of Southern Russia. Makar is left all alone, still writing desperately to Varvara but with no chance of ever hearing back from her again. The correspondence has ended and the lifeline of communication is closed down, for good.

Forgotten Books, Recovered Treasure

Pacing through the website of Forgotten Books, an online library with hundreds of thousands of titles, is like walking through the aisles of a favorite bookstore. I “open” one book, skim through, and alight upon certain lines that make my decision for me (yes, I want to read this book!) and that decision leads me to another turn down another aisle, and then another, and another, choosing and perusing books all along the way. Just like in a real and wonderful bookstore, Forgotten Books provides the adventure of opening doors (books! books!) that lead to greater and greater adventure, and more discoveries – and more books. If ever there were a source for fulfilling a bibliophile’s wildest desires, short of actually having feet planted in the world’s largest bookstore and hands reaching for volume after volume, Forgotten Books is it. It is the largest online library in the world, and offers free access to much of its website (and access to all of it at reasonable prices).

I went online to Forgotten Books in search of interesting letters – I am addicted to letters, as well as books – and a one-word search for “letters” led me within seconds to such interesting books as Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft by Sir Walter Scott, first published in 1830, and then onto Letters to My Son, written by William Gibson and published in 1917, and then, leaving letters behind I plunged into The Rosicrucians, Their Rites and Mysteries, by Hargrave Jennings, first published in 1907 and finally, to Travels in the Old World, by the Reverend J.M. Rowl, a marvel published in 1922.

Are you kidding me? Am I in heaven? Book heaven? I had sat down to my computer and my searching with a headache, head cold, and a fever. I rose up light as air and floating on sunshine. Okay, by bedtime I was back in a feverish state, shivering under blankets and hot water bottles, but at least I had plenty of reading material to keep me company. I had my downloaded forgotten but now recovere books, all of them found during my online treasure hunt. Was I looking for the Reverend Rowl? No, of course not. But how lucky I was to find him.

Not only can out of print and hard to find books be found on Forgotten Books, but images taken from many such books can also be viewed in their original state, with some 4 million images extracted from old books and available for viewing on the site. I searched for images of Wilkie Collins, and was thrilled to find his sweet old face, over and over, along with the designs imprinted on many of his first books. Searching doesn’t stop there, with images, but goes even further. There is the ability to chart the usage of every English language word throughout publishing history or to search for words or terms in the entire online selection. I could find 500,000 books related to a search term, 500,000 books – and each and every one of them available to me!

I am a stalwart fan of the printed page and I’d rather be in a bricks and mortar bookstore than just about any place on earth but this adventure – of reading books long out of print and difficult, if not impossible, to find – provides at-home access for finding books I never even knew existed. Online resources have their place – a wonderful, happy place – for fixing the addictions of book lovers everywhere. No matter where I am, or what time it is, or what state I am in (pajamas and slippers, Kleenex blotting my nose), Forgotten Books and its brethren provide a constant and beautiful feed to my need for books, all kinds and sorts of books. Addicted to books? Forgotten Books, and other online treasuries of long-gone books, will expand your universe and fulfill at least some of your desires.

The Tender Side of Wild Bill Hickok

On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was playing poker at a saloon in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, in the town of Deadwood.  A former buffalo hunter named Jack McCall (nicknamed “Broken Nose Jack”) walked in to the saloon, sidled up beside Hickok, drew his pistol and shot Hickok in the head. Hickok was killed instantly and McCall was wrestled to the ground. McCall would later claim he was avenging the death of his brother but it was more likely a murder for hire, paid for by gamblers hoping to stave Hickok’s brand of law and order in the territories.

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The cards Wild Bill held in his hand were a pair of aces and a pair of eights, all black: the hand was just one card short – still waiting to be turned over — of what is known in poker parlance as the dead man’s hand.

Just before he died, Hickok wrote a letter to Agnes Lake, his newly-wedded wife (Calamity Jane claimed she had been married to Hickok but divorced him so that he could marry his new love, Agnes).  Agnes, eleven years older than Hickok, was a tightrope walker, lion tamer, and circus owner from Cheyenne.  She and Wild Bill first met in Abilene, Kansas in 1871 when Wild Bill was town marshall of Abilene and her circus was traveling through.  The two kept up with each other though letters and when they met again in February  1876 in Cheyenne, they decided to get married.  A few months later, Hickok left to search for gold in the Black Hills.

In Wild Bill’s last letter to Agnes, he promised her that if “we never meet again, while firing my last shot, I will gently breathe the name of my wife — Agnes — and with wishes even for my enemies I will make the plunge and try to swim to the other shore.”

Agnes Lake

There is much to commemorate Wild Bill, including the reenactment of his death every summer evening in modern-day Deadwood, South Dakota. But it is in his last letter that we see a different side to Wild Bill Hickok: he lives on as a gunslinger always, but now as a gentle lover as well.

Letters Between Father and Son

I have read many, many collections of letters but Dear Lupin, Letters To A Wayward Son, is extraordinary.  Roger Mortimer was a racing correspondent for years, and in retirement kept himself busy writing, going to the races, and having drinks and dinners and lunches with all and sundry, high and low.  His son Charlie was a bit of a puzzle to him, but Roger loved his son full heartedly, and was always willing to lend a hand when Charlie found himself, again and again, up to his neck in manure (a dependable English country expression, apparently). Their story, successful father and wandering son, may not be so extraordinary, but their bond, cemented and celebrated through these letters, is. 

Roger Mortimer manages to be funny, instructive, confiding, caring, diffident, and loving, while never losing the thread of what mattered: staying in touch with his son. His letters built the connection between them, a kind of arc of caring that, in the best of times would keep the son safe and the father informed.  And in the worst of times?  It seems to me that it was the connection between father and son that kept Charlie alive, and Roger living — Charlie would of course want to be around to hear the next round of news from Dad, and Dad needed to keep going to ensure having the great tidbits to write about!

Roger’s letters are a joy to read, veering from topic to topic, sometimes hilariously so, and mood to mood, and there is not a word I would miss, not a sentence I would not reread.  I am sure these letters have been well-edited, and perhaps the originals were not quite so perfect but the gems were always there.  And now, luckily for us, the gems have been polished up and presented for our reading pleasure.  Roger Mortimer died in 1991, but his wit and wisdom survive, in these marvelous letters.  I will soon be turning to another volume, entitle Dear Lumpy, which are a collection of letters written by Roger to his daughter Louise.

By the way, Dear Lupin refers to the son of poor Mr. Pooter, father to lumpen son Lupin,  in The Diary of a Nobody series, written by brothers George and Weedon Grossmith, and published first in Punch magazine.  Where does Lumpy come from? I have an idea…but let me read the letters first.