Over the past few years, I’ve pored over, discussed and even reviewed volumes of letters of such diverse luminaries as Harry Truman, H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Bertolt Brecht, S.J. Perelman, Toulouse-Lautrec, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Robert Frost, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Theodore Roosevelt and the veritable, indefatigable master of the genre, Madame de Sevigne.

As a professor of French language and literature, and as a devotee par excellence of the written word, I have collected, perused and admired personal letters for some time.

While not all of us manage to live lives of such celebrity or notoriety that our letters are bound, read and published in volumes appropriate for libraries or gift-giving, our letters, especially handwritten, are indeed a wonderful solace and even a potent catharsis for anyone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when his writing was blocked, he would write a long letter to a dear friend.

John Steinbeck, while writing “East of Eden,” extricated himself from his daily routine by composing a letter to his editor and close friend, Pascal Covici. These letters were “a kind of arguing around for the story,” but they also included valuable nuggets of information and fascinating comments and anecdotes for his friend about the events of the moment. Succinctly stated, epistolary literature is indeed a unique study and can’t be valued enough.

Think about your child’s first scribbled note, love letters exchanged with a spouse, sparkling missives we sent to our parents telling how much they meant to us, or simply your sons’ and daughters’ brief written requests for money from college, and the subsequent simple sincere “thank you” jotted hastily on a piece of scrap paper.

It’s a good chance that the sender of these aforementioned letters addressed the envelope, licked the stamp and drove to the post office to mail it. One can just contemplate the care, the genuine sentiment and thought that went into all this, and especially when the sender slid the letter into the envelope.

Receiving a handwritten letter from a good friend is, for example, tantamount to receiving a long-waited holiday gift. One never knows what unexpected treasures are inside, and there is a definite delight in just opening the envelope. As the celebrated writer Geraldine Brooks once said: “Letters formed a kind of road map of my life.”

We have all read about someone who has chanced upon an old musty box of family letters that someone left behind years before in his closet or garret. Such an unexpected discovery is indeed a huge treasure, and can often re-create a past that has been forgotten or obliterated.

With email, faxes and the cellphone so ubiquitous, it is obvious that people don’t seem, or want, to write any letters today. Yet no hurried email or telephone conversation can replace thoughtful, caring and intelligent written correspondence between two human beings.

Once upon a time, the only way to communicate from a distance was through the written word. Letters were essential then. And what about history? Most of our knowledge of people and events is based on epistolary communication.

Think of John Adams’ letters to Abigail, Harry Truman’s to Bess, Henry VIII’s to Anne Boleyn, Napoleon’s to Josephine, John Keats’ to Fanny Brawne, Madame de Sevigne’s to her daughter and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s to his daughter.

In half a century, how are historians and biographers going to delve into the minds of great luminaries while writing their biographies?

A number of my students have told me that they are intimidated about writing letters because they feel expected to create a masterpiece each time. I tell them that the recipient usually doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about perfection; he or she is usually delighted that an authentic handwritten letter has finally arrived. The tactile sensation and quality of a piece of stationery are also appealing to many people!

Those letters are indeed intended for keeps; and yes, they are indeed most appreciated and evoke gratitude. Letters are for saving, rereading and rethinking, and often cause the recipient to laugh, levitate and exult.

So, let’s all “reach out,” find a pen, and start writing letters. Carpe diem!

Mel B. Yoken is chancellor professor emeritus of French language and literature at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. This column was written for The Providence Journal and distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.


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