You know, something written on paper, possibly even written carefully in ink by hand, folded into an envelope with a stamp on it…?
This lovely object was a going-away card made by my friend Kim, a former colleague and close Toronto friend, when I moved to Montreal in September 1986.
For a generation or two, and possibly future generations, a letter on paper may soon be, if not already, some odd artifact of the ancient past, like cuneiform carved into stone or hieroglyphics painted on papryus.
For historians and writers and researchers of all sorts, letters are gold, a direct and unadulterated conduit into how someone, possibly someone we’ll never meet, maybe centuries dead, was thinking at a particular moment in time.
What did Chopin or Livingstone or Emerson think? Here’s a link to books with their letters.
Do you follow the phenomenal blog Brain Pickings? You must! Here’s her 2012 post on books of letters, with several lovely and moving excerpts.
Here is Friedrich Engels, writing on Nov. 12, 1875:
The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois economic theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population. This feat having been accomplished – (as indicated under (1) I dispute its unqualified justification, especially where the Malthusian theory is concerned) – the same theories are next transferred back again from organic nature to history and their validity as eternal laws of human society declared to have been proved. The childishness of this procedure is obvious, it is not worth wasting words over.
Some of the most life-changing messages have come to me by mail, like the letter from Paris that arrived in my Toronto mailbox in June 1982. I had just turned 25, and became the year’s youngest fellow in an eight-month journalism fellowship that would base me in Paris with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to New Zealand to Japan to Brazil. We would travel alone to report stories all over Europe, (and fall in love, break hearts [sorry, Carlo!], and discover ourselves and the world in ways then impossible to imagine…
When I was 12, at summer camp, I wrote to Ray Bradbury, a writer whose work left me awestruck and envious, urging him (!) to not stop writing. I was in Northern Ontario and mailed my letter to his Manhattan publisher, Ballantine. Within a few weeks, I had a hand-written reply, on a blue custom postcard with his address and signature, from Los Angeles.
It was magical and improbable as finding a unicorn in the mailbox.
A writer, thousands of miles away in a foreign country, a man of tremendous accomplishment and repute, had bothered to make the time to write back to me, a young girl. Writers were real people! They had hearts, and postcards and pens and stamps. They care what we think!
This early success later emboldened me, and I wrote, in my early 20s, to the late John Cheever, another giant of American literature. My first was a fan letter, (to which he replied), about Falconer, an astonishing novel. But I wrote again, from a long trip through Europe alone, to ask him to explain an expression he has used in his earlier stories. He wrote back again.
(I now live a 10-minute drive from his home, his daughter reviewed my first book and I met his son at a local authors’ event. How odd, and unlikely.)
My mother, with whom I no longer have a relationship, lived most of her life very far away from me — in Peru or New Mexico or Mexico or England or British Columbia — but wrote me typewritten letters almost every week for many years. I have only a few of them now, and they have a poignancy that is almost unbearable in their chatty, loving desire to stay in touch with me, her only child.
I cherish a few personal letters in particular, two of them photographed here. One is from a former assistant minister at our church, which he wrote to me when my first book was published to thank me for sharing my talent. Another — with no year’s date on it — is from a man whose vision and humor and affection changed my life, the late Philippe Viannay, who founded my fellowship (and a newspaper, and a home for boys and a sailing school and…)
I cherish the last line of his letter: “Thanks again for the way you played the game.” (More precisely, the spirit with which…) It was important to me, then as now, to be so appreciated by someone I so deeply admired.
For all you Indigo Girls lovers, here’s one of my favorite songs: Burn All The Letters.
What letter has changed your life?