(image: Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid [detail])
Letter writing made a lot of sense when the internet didn’t exist, or even when phones didn’t in a personal capacity. Or even phones in general. A staple of the 50s b-movie teen flick was never a letter slipped under a door, or a note tied to a rock thrown through a window, but rather a discrete (both temporally and secretly) phone call listing a time, and a place, to gush out the secrets. (And then they’d usually get eaten by a monster, but that’s besides the point.)
Teddy Roosevelt, I found out thanks to Edmund Morris’ excellent three-part biography, wrote plenty of letters while navigating between his dusty ranch in North Dakota and his posh life in New York. Most were informational, or exciting, like when he killed a bear that was charging through a thicket, or when he captured a group of thieves who stole his canoe. (One of the thieves even managed to have the epic name Pfaffenbach.) The dude built his own raft, coaxed two buddies to traverse a frozen river to catch the thieves, and after catching them, escorted them solo across the North Dakota plains to the nearest jail. But don’t worry–he had a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to keep him occupied. He ended up writing some letters explaining his thoughts on the book, and while he wouldn’t commit to calling it either a great or a terrible book, did manage to pen the following insightful words: “Do you notice how he never comments on the actions of his personages? He relates what they thought or did without any remark whatever as to whether it was good or bad, as Thucydides wrote history–a fault which tends to give his work an unmoral rather than an immoral tone; together with the sadness so characteristic of Russian writers.”
During WWII, and even before, the Japanese established what they called “comfort stations” where “comfort women”–basically women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers–were coerced into having sex with soldiers to “keep moral high.” One woman, taken from Korea to a camp when she was 15, was abused sexually and physically for months before she was finally let go. In her shame, she moved to China, and after the war met a man (who already had children) and married him. Fearful of the sexually transmitted diseases she had contracted during her repeated sexual assaults, as well as how physically ill they made her, she went for medical help, with doctors ultimately deciding to remove her uterus. As a way to cope with the surgery, and the sobering fact that she would never be able to have children, the doctors suggested she write a letter to the child she would never have, as a way to cope.
These days, letter writing seems almost an esoteric act, as if there’s a Trystero-like conspiracy behind it (You write letters? To who? Saying what?). Of course, the answer is both plain and predictable: yes, to friends, mostly, or whoever will have them, and about nearly anything. Once, I even wrote a letter about writing letters.
Anything, that is, save the every day. The majority of letters I receive nowadays are either spam, bills, or marriage invitations. I’ve always gotten the first, recently started getting many more of the second, and probably get too few of the third (though given my own prospects in that regard, maybe it’s not surprising). They are received with some level of regularity, and so become yet more markers of the accumulations that construct a life only when the final pieces are in. The rote, day-by-day drinking of coffee, commuting (or driving) to work, experiencing soul-crushing boredom beside near-rapturous moments of accomplishment, are more or less how we have to lead our lives, but it’s difficult to convey those granulated experiences in a way that doesn’t sound like a shopping list of activities and feelings: I started class again this week. I’m anxious, but excited. Maybe I’ll meet someone-? Far be it from me to smash such transcriptions, like the society in The Letter Killers Club, but I simply don’t find them productive when you’re talking to someone so far away, both geographically and temporally.
So what to write about, then? Other methods of slipping the knot. The epistolary is a genre notable for its formal constraint of being composed solely of documents, mostly letters. Some famous books, like Frankenstein and Carrie, employ the epistolary form in varying degrees. Its development is interesting, as a common trend is that earlier uses of epistolary form use the constraint to peer into the thoughts and insecurities of characters in ways that would otherwise be unimaginable in the 18th-19th centuries (though I guess they compensate for this with a lot of jokes about purity and sex, so it’s a fair trade). The Coquette, published in the U.S. in 1797, utilized the form entirely throughout the text, serving to both connect directly with the tragic heroine Eliza Wharton and to provide an easy narrative transition after her death. Later uses of epistolary are often sparing but effective at disjarring a narrative, presenting some document that complicates the section it’s woven around. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is centered around a long poem bookended by commentary of said poem, providing a useful framing device nonetheless unable to hold its contents.
Of course, for all of these stories letter writing was still a dominant form of communication, if not the dominant form. The only contemporary equivalent I can think of (and I’m stretching the sense of “contemporary” here) is the terrible 2006 film The Lake House. I can believe in a magical mailbox sending letters through time. What I can’t believe, on the other hand, is that Keanu Reeves is supposed to lead a romantic drama. But then again, I suppose they were just asking each other Maybe I’ll meet someone-?
So why are letters mostly gone? Don’t we still need an outlet to explain our good deeds, or help with our bad memories, or simply to vent? Or are they now, freed by technology from serving as “catch-ups” or “updates,” simply too much of a bother to do, taking too much effort for too little effect? While I agree with the lifting of these simple frames has made it harder to get a letter started, I try to remind myself that a letter is kind of like an essay: looking at etymology it’s a trial, a test, an attempt, one that can’t be ventured toward if you don’t indeed venture. It will go at the beginning and tumble its way to the end. The only difference is that, when you’re done with a letter, you simply get to sign off and leave.
P.S. If you’ve actually managed to make it through here and your major thought the whole time has been, “but he doesn’t write me letters,” then I implore you to send me your address. My letter may not be the best thing to grace your mailbox, but I’ll be selling your address to marketing companies, so it certainly won’t be the worst.