Feb. 22 2012 12:00 AM

Advances in technology may have sealed the fate of the art of letter writing


During his weekly variety show in the 1950s and1960s, TV crooner Perry Como would sing, “Letters/We get letters/we get stacks and stacks of letters.” These days, the United States Postal Service wishes that were the case.

Modern letter writing likely peaked in the Como era before being done in by cheap phone service and later by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and other forms of social media. 

The sweet acronym SWAK (Sealed With A Kiss) died along with it. Today, letter writing is nearly a lost art, a sad sacrifice to technology. 

Think about how our lives have been enriched by the letters of Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, the Apostle Paul, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, C.S. Lewis, Voltaire, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and scores of other famous letter writers telling us about what they did, what they thought, what they had for lunch and, in some cases, what they wanted us to do.

It is impossible to pinpoint when the first letter was written, but records from the 4th century show that the popularity of correspondence was already growing. In that time, letters were exchanged primarily between the literate, the very wealthy and the clergy. In ancient Constantinople, we find St. John Chrysostom writing the deaconess Olympia what today’s social media would qualify as a tweet: “Pray say many kind words from me to all your blessed household … most divinely favored lady.”

You could say the decline of letter writing began with the arrival of the telegraph in the 19th century. By 1945, half the homes in America had telephones; by the end of the 1960s, 90 percent of Americans had phone service. Long-distance calling, once costly, became increasingly affordable in the 1980s with the rise of service providers like Sprint and MCI. By the time the world witnessed the boom of the Internet and e-mail in the 1990s, the fate of letter writing was sealed in bytes, not sealing wax.

In a recent Wall Street Journal review of the new book, “Dear Jay, Love Dad,” based mostly on the letters of famed Oklahoma football coach Bud Wilkinson, reviewer Gregg Easterbrook lamented, “Bud Wilkinson’s many letters to Jay — he also wrote to his older son, Pat — reflect a seemingly simpler time, as well as a period when long-distance phone calls were pricey. The decline of the personal letter has not only taken the thrill out of opening the mailbox; it imperils the writing of history. What will future biographers have to work with  — text messages, Facebook walls and credit-card receipts?”

Archivists from six historical and archival institutions in Michigan and numerous authors interviewed for this article repeated the same concern.

Kevin Boyle, National Book Award winner for “Arc of Justice,” said in an e-mail message that the book he is working on relies on letters. (He declined to say what it was about.) “One of the reasons I frame the book as I do is because I have an incredible cache of letters from the central figure, beginning when he was 12 years old and ending the day he died,” Boyle noted.

“There’s nothing like the insight you can get from reading someone’s letters to his parents, or his sister or the woman he loved, because in those letters life becomes complex and personal, sometimes painfully so. We’re going to lose a large segment of our past.”

As Boyle points out, not all letters are chirpy affirmations. Sometimes they are sent during their authors’ darkest days. For example, look at what noted poet Theodore Roethke wrote to a friend after being dismissed by Michigan State College in 1935 for his heavy drinking, the result of depression: “Hell, I don’t care what happens to me, whether I go nuts or my entrails hang out, but I can’t stand being mindless and barren as I’ve been.”

Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for his book “The Waking” in 1954 and the National Book Award in 1959 for “Words for the Wind.”

Personal? Painful? How about Dear John letters?

One of history’s most famous breakup letters was sent to Ernest Hemingway in 1919 by Agnes Kurowsky, the nurse who ministered to him after he was injured in Italy during World War I. Hemingway must have known the letter from “Aggie” wasn’t going to be filled with Xs and Os when it opened with the salutation, “Dear Boy.”  Kurowsky and Hemingway had corresponded for three months following his return to the States; her final letter contained this clincher: “I am still very fond of you, but it is more as a mother than a sweetheart.”

Hemingway, in his own way, would exact vengeance in the 1929 semi-autobiographical novel, “A Farewell to Arms,” in which he likely used Agnes as the prototype for nurse Catherine Barkley. It’s not known if Hemingway answered the letter.

Interestingly, Hemingway had left directions that his letters not be published after his death. Making his letters public was always something he detested. In a letter to his sister Marcelline in 1918, he wrote that he had learned his letters from the front were being published in the Chicago Herald-Examiner and that he wanted it to stop.

Michael Federspiel, a Central Michigan University history professor and noted Hemingway scholar, sees Hemingway’s letter writing as a training ground for his later fiction. Federspiel is the author of “Picturing Hemingway’s Michigan,” about Hemingway’s 18 summers in northern Michigan.

He points out one letter, held in the Hemingway collection at the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University, as a good example of what would become Hemingway’s trademark style.

In the letter, Federspiel said the young Hemingway extolls the glories of northern Michigan to James Gamble, his friend who was still in Italy, adding that if things get boring, “they could visit the pleasure palaces in Charlevoix.”

Federspiel said that with letter writing you don’t always get to see both sides of the “conversation”: “You walk away wanting to know what was written to him.”

Letters Home

Some of the most important and gut-wrenching letters ever written were written in times of war. 

For centuries, anxious spouses and family members have awaited news from the battlefield, and soldiers have kept up their spirits by reading letters from home. Soldiers often carried a letter from a lover into battle, tucked in their breast pockets for luck. Most wartime letters from the front tell of the tedious day-to-day activities: what a bunkmate is up to, complaints about bad food, mud, cold, heat or worries about finances.

Letter writing was at a fever pitch during the Civil War, and the Library of Michigan, the Capital Area District Library’s Forest Parke Library and Archives and the State of Michigan Archives each have substantial collections of letters written during that time. Many of these letters are available online.

One cache of Civil War-era letters recently donated to the State Archives by the Ewing family contains  291 letters sent mostly between Matt Ewing and his wife, Nan. Matt Ewing served with the Army of the Potomac and was wounded during the war.

In addition to reminiscences about everyday happenings, soldiers like Matt Ewing would write candidly about leadership issues, battle tactics and troop movements. Oftentimes, Civil War letters would arrive four days after they were sent.

One letter in the State Archives collection is especially compelling. It was written to the mother of a dead soldier by his friend, a Sgt. L.J. Taylor: “It becomes my painful duty to inform you of the death of your brave and noble boy, Alphonso. He was my tent mate and chum in the camp and we were comrads (sic) in battle and in his death I have lost a brother dear and true.”

He ends the letter by saying, “He was a noble comrade but our loss is his gain and there is one more bright jewel among the crowned and blest. (sic)”

Letter writers also express the toll of war. A letter held in the Forest Parke Library gives some inkling of that. In a letter home, Lansing World War I veteran Paris Thompson writes his mom telling her he will be home soon, but asks her “to not have any parties or anything when I get back for somebody might ask me about the army. Since I got all that gas in September I have a little trouble with my throat, but that has just about stopped.”

World War II saw what was probably the greatest flurry of letter writing ever recorded. A few years ago, Susan Allen, daughter of a former Michigan Court of Appeals judge and Kalamazoo mayor Glen Allen Jr., decided to rescue her dad’s letters from that era and donate them to the State of Michigan Archives. During World War II, her father was a judge advocate in the Third Army and a legal adviser to Gen. George S. Patton.

Susan Allen discovered the letters under a stairwell in the musty basement of her father’s home in DeWitt.  She moved the letters to her dad’s summer home on Mackinac Island and didn’t sort the material for nearly five years until former state archivist and local historian Geneva Wiskemann visited the island to help. State of Michigan archivist Mark Harvey laughed when he describes picking up the donation. ‘It’s the only time we’ve recovered records by horse and buggy — not to mention ferry,” he said.

Her son, Glenn Seven Allen, a Broadway singer, performed a World War II concert last summer at Mackinac’s Grand Hotel that incorporated some of the love letters. Other letters were more disturbing: Allen Jr. describes the carnage that was found as his unit entered Germany. In one letter, he describes an open grave holding 72 political prisoners shot by the Schutzstaffel, or SS. In the same letter he considers how the Nazis could have taken over an entire population in what he calls “the organized minority theory.” He also recalls several conversations he had with comrades who believed this kind of fascism could’ve happened in America.

Lansing City Pulse publisher Berl Schwartz said his family saved a particularly poignant letter from his uncle, Leonard Marenberg, an Army lieutenant who was part of the first wave entering Germany at the end of World War II. The letter details what he called the “terrible conditions” they found in concentration camps.

You can feel the anger when Marenberg writes: “I can’t find words to describe what I’ve seen — but I’ll never forget what I’ve seen and other things to (sic) — the (sic) Russian and Poles won’t either — and let the German people know how they feel about this typle (sic) of inhuman behavior.”

Today’s soldiers don’t write as many letters; they prefer more immediate forms of communication, such as Skype, instant messaging, e-mail, texts or Facebook. In the decades to come, it will be nearly impossible to assemble a record of those communications.

Cori Tymoszek, a Michigan State University student, has been using Skype to speak with her brother, who’s stationed in Afghanistan. Although Tymoszek prefers letter writing, she said that seeing her brother in person on the computer screen was “almost a surreal experience.”

She spoke with him once after he had just survived an explosion, and says that “to be able to see him alive in his little plywood shack was incredible.”

Tymoszek said her generation is geared toward instant gratification and is losing interest in reading and writing. “It’s a sad thing,” she said.

Last year, Tymoszek, her boyfriend and several of her friends deactivated their Facebook accounts, primarily due to privacy issues and the amount of time Facebook can consume. “We were creeped out by it, and decided to eliminate the creepiness,” Tymoszek said.

But that hasn’t cut into her communication: She and her boyfriend recently exchanged letters, ranging from six to 10 pages each.

Letters can allow us inside a person’s head, sometimes decades or centuries after the author is gone. East Lansing resident Ellen Jones can attest to this: She has hundreds of wartime letters from her mother, Mary Louise Jones, and her father, Ralph, before and after they married. Ellen Jones also has scores of letters her mother sent to friends and sisters. What makes these letters so special is she was 7 when her mother died.

“The only way I know my mother is through these letters,” Jones said, adding that after her mother died, she was “terrified I couldn’t hear her voice,” and began a quest for items attached to her mother. One day, while snooping in the attic of her family’s Flint home, Jones discovered her mother’s letters in an old steamer trunk.

It took her a year to read them. She tended to wait until she was alone in the house, sneaking into the attic and carefully reading a few letters before replacing them undisturbed in the trunk. She said there were no letters from her father to her mother and that those were likely destroyed by her father when he remarried.

At some points Jones said reading the letters made her feel like she was doing something wrong. Still, it was worth the guilt. 

“Finding those letters saved my sanity,” she said. “They allowed me to know my mother and know about their love. They were the most enriching letters I’ve ever read.”

Later, as other members of her family discovered her role as unofficial family historian, Ellen Jones would receive other letters from her mother that had been saved by relatives. “I learned my mother had a boundless sense of humor, that she was restless (in her role as a homemaker), that she loved reading and that she always considered Virginia her home.”

She also learned that her mother had a biting, somewhat sarcastic humor. In one letter to her husband, Mary Louise Jones writes about her upcoming visit to his military base. “I leave Saturday at 3:10,” she wrote, “arriving in Greensboro at 6:45, or thereabouts, depending on how many pig pens the train has to stop at.”

In a 1951 letter to her sister, Mary Louise Jones describes the family kerfuffle over buying a TV set. Her husband wanted one; she didn’t. “I don’t want a television set,” she wrote. “I don’t have time to watch it — besides, it will ruin the look of my living room.”

Aside from providing insights, letter writing has something else in common with social media: It’s often snarky.

For example, correspondence sent by novelist Flannery O’Connor about her four-day visit to Lansing in 1958 to address the American Association of University Women contains the expected thank-you letter to her hosts. The appearance was considered important since it was the first time O’Connor had left Georgia to speak and the first time she presented a paper on the Southern grotesque writing style that would make her famous.

In a thank-you letter to her host, Mrs. Rumsey Haynes, O’Connor writes: “You must know how much I enjoyed being in Lansing and staying with you. My mother was delighted with the box of candy and the cookies you made.”

But that was not the whole story. In other correspondence to friends O’Connor writes: “I am to stay with one Mrs. Rumsey Haynes. She says her husband will help me up and down the stairs; but I am going to tell Rumsey to stand at the bottom as there is nothing more dangerous to the safety of those on crutches than a gentleman’s assistance. She allows as there are many interesting young writers and intellectuals there that I will enjoy meeting. Anything I can’t stand it’s a young writer or intellectual.”

These kinds of contrasting insights may be harder to find in the future, according to Peter Berg, archivist for the MSU Library’s Special Collections. With the decline of letter writing, we will no longer have what Berg calls the “intimate glimpse into the letter writer’s mind and feelings. Even the tone, the handwriting, and the length and frequency of the letters tell us something about the writer.”

He said that the handwritten letter is one of things he will miss the most. “The hand writing is so interesting and aesthetically beautiful.”

Portia Vescio, public service archivist of the MSU University Archives, says that she’s also noticed a decline in the quality of our spoken language. “Losing letter writing is affecting our conversations. People used to speak much more eloquently and have better vocabularies.”

It’s a reflection of a society that is losing its memory in a non-stop flurry of fast-paced communications, Vescio said. “With everything at our fingertips, we don’t remember anything.”