The Letter Writers
I know it’s been a long time—I started a letter last week but can’t find it now. Hope you’re feeling better…
Who among us remember real letter-writing with a faraway friend—the kind where you sat down and summarized your life in easygoing prose, with little inside jokes, free to complain about anything and everything, knowing that your old pal would understand?
I’m thinking about that now as we deal with stacks of 19th-century letters… why are they so interesting, even when—or especially when—they don’t say much of anything at all?
I had a golden age of letter-writing, in the 1970s, and a distant girlfriend who always wrote back.
Writing a letter means stopping, taking a breath, and thinking about what’s happening in your life. It’s not like a Facebook status update, where you let loose with an agonized scream at the world’s stupidity or cruelty, or express a quick verbal hug for a loved one, or describe an activity that shows how cool you are. In a letter, you get to ramble on and on and on until you realize what an ass you sound like and have a good laugh at your own expense—all shared with your friend, who you know understands exactly. If you are emailing, you can delete your self-pitying or self-righteous blather, but when you are pen-to-paper, you just keep going. Some serious letter-writers wrote out drafts before they committed their final words to fine stationery. We have several examples of this kind of draft in Jim’s collection of his parents’ letters—his mother was a drafter. I, however, fell into the category of breezy conversationalist, with my peacock-blue ballpoint on my college-ruled paper… scratch-outs and insertions all part of the style.
I’m recalling now that this letter-writing changed the course of my life. I had a letter-in-progress to my BFF stowed away in my purse. I was in the midst of expounding on the state of my marriage and how I wanted out. While I slept late on a Saturday morning, my nosy husband dug it out, read it and woke me up for a confrontation. The rest is history…
I suppose that some forms of blogging or online journaling can serve the purpose of reflection. But the writing is public, even if your identity isn’t (or you hope it isn’t). When I was doing my early Mad In Pursuit entries under a pseudonym, I was technically writing one-to-many but actually writing one-to-sporadic-few. Then my “Secret Sharer” appeared out of the blue—a Danish journalist my age who was home on disability. Her English was poor, but she wrote me an email in response to every post. She kept me going until I finally came out from behind my disguise… and then she disappeared. But she kept me going—that faraway friend who gets you.
Writing a long chatty letter to your best buddy is like going to an all-girls high school—no need for make-up or hairdos. Just be your smart, authentic self.
Where was I going with this?
I guess I’m thinking that the most endearing parts of the letters we’re reviewing are the comments on everyday life. No one really has any grand insights into anything, especially not into the historic times they lived in. On August 9, 1864, one Susanna Summers from Huntington, Indiana, wrote to a family friend David Thomas in Winchester, Ohio:
The weather is dry and smoky; it looks like Indian summer, it has not rained for five weeks here and has not rained much all summer though the corn will be tolerable good. We have roasting ears already, but the potato crop will be small and a great many of the wells are giving out. There is about two feet of water in ours.
General Grant might have been dealing with how to seize Richmond, but ol' Susanna was worried about the gol'dern'd crops and the fact of no rain. It makes me think how much attention we pay to the soldiers who are members of the US Army, but what about the non-military soldiers who are merely growing food against all odds?
I guess I'm rambling all over the place but YOU understand this project of mine and all the strange thoughts that go through my brain as I try to identify with all these people whose letters have wound up on the shelf in our house.
I think I need a nap. Write soon, okay?