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Some time ago, as part of a World Book Night event, Russell Brand took part in ‘Letters Live’ at London’s Southbank centre; he read a poignant handwritten letter that had been written by Iggy Pop years ago to a troubled Parisian fan on her 21st birthday. Among others also involved in the event were columnist Caitlin Moran and IT Crowd actor Matt Berry reading a letter from Elvis Presley to Richard Nixon.
The event was in part a celebration of the tradition of letter writing itself, which is a dying tradition in the modern age of emails, Social Media and text messaging. Certainly the art of handwritten correspondence in a meaningful sense is something that’s long been in decline. There’s a generation below mine now, many of whom will have never written or received a handwritten letter in their lifetimes.

I’m as guilty as anyone of contributing to the collective extinction of handwritten correspondence too; I can’t remember the last time I wrote to anyone.

young-girl-reading-a-letter-by-candlelight-jeanbaptistesanterreYoung Girl Reading-A Letter By Candlelight by Jean Baptiste Santerre.

It simply seems like one of a number of past arts that will eventually be made fully obsolete by modern technology. It’s difficult to ascribe sentimental value to an email on a screen, which soon gets lost amid an endless flood of other emails on a daily or weekly basis. And Social Media platforms, primarily Twitter and Facebook, are even worse; even more devoid of any lasting sentiment.

I do also find myself glad I grew up in a pre-Internet era; that I grew up without being consumed by Facebook, Social Media and all the rest of it. Although I am now too lazy and too ‘assimilated’ to bother actually writing to anyone anymore myself (and also almost everyone I can think of would find it weird to receive a handwritten letter in the post), there is no doubt that most forms of electronic correspondence are simply short-lived – they get superseded so quickly by subsequent correspondence, whereas old-fashioned letters are probably more likely to be kept somewhere, even if forgotten for a long time. This temporariness of digital communication essentially suggests the electronic age of communication imparts very little to posterity.

Even beyond the issue of personal correspondence and items of our own personal sentimental value, the special place held by handwritten correspondence in our culture and history remains highly significant.

There is an understandably enduring and ageless fascination with letters and correspondence relating to interesting cultural or historic figures, such as Charles Dickens, Malcom X and Martin Luther King, among many, many others. Such items can shed great light on said figures or on the times they inhabited or the events they are associated with. The significance of letters from the World Wars, for example, or surviving letters from the Napoleonic era or the American Civil War, or even as far back as Roman times, cannot be overstated as a historical resource.

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A number of letters of differing nature written by Gandhi remain in the public domain.

Surviving letters written by Adolf Hitler, for example, or correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt, provide tremendous insights into not only decision making and manuevering, but the characters and idealogies of key figures in the war. One of the most facsinating, curious letters from that same time was the famous ‘letter of friendship’ written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler. Dated Christmas Eve 1940, Gandhi urges the Fuhrer towards a peaceful resolution to the conflicts of World War II.

“Dear Friend…” the letter begins, “That I address you as a friend is no formality. I own no foes.”  The letter, a strange mixture of noble sentiment and pragmatic motivation, goes on to urge peace, and ends “Your sincere friend, M. K. GANDHI.”

Highlighting all the highly significant letters that have passed into the public domain would be too long, as there’s so much to consider, but the nature of these letters ranges from the political, such as fascinating war-time correspondence, to the highly personal, such as correspondence between friends or between romantic interests, and from the infamous, such as the notorious Jack the Ripper letters or some of Hitler’s early correspondence, to the more endearing in nature, such as a letter I recently came across on a website that Henry VIII wrote to Anne Boleyn.

Addressed “To My Mistress” and concluded “Written by the hand of your entire Servant”, the letter goes on to speak of their being apart and how much he misses her. “Consider well, my mistress, that absence from you grieves me sorely.” Our knowledge of the nature and fate of their relationship makes it all the more bittersweet reading. Letters from eras we are remote from can be the most poignant because we have the historical hindsight with which to read all kinds of ironies or foreshadowing into the sentiments that wouldn’t have been deliberate at the point of writing. The degree of insight into important historical figures that is provided by surviving letters cannot be understated.

Thinking again of that letter from Henry VIII to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, ‘Love letters’ are also a classic motif now mostly consigned to the past, and somehow text-flirting or relationship updates on Facebook don’t have anything like the same aura of sentiment to them.

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Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.

Among the more famous examples, a number of Marylin Monroe’s letters have become a much-read series of insights into her inner nature and feelings, while Elizabeth Taylor kept a trove of around forty letters written to her by Richard Burton during the various stages of their marriages and divorces. The letters were in fact the basis for a dual Taylor/Burton biography about their famous love life. Something that I’ve always found quite moving was a letter Orson Welles wrote to Rita Hayworth during the earlier days of their relationship (another love affair doomed to failure).

“I suppose most of us are lonely in this big world,” Welles wrote to Hayworth, “but we must fall tremendously in love to find it out. The pleasures of human experience are emptied away without that companionship now that I’ve known it; without it joy is just an unendurable as sorrow.”

There’s more to Welles’s letter, but you get the gist.

One of the enduring cult figures of the early twentieth century and a person of continuous fascination to me, T. E. Lawrence, was remarkable among other things for the quality of his letters. Not just that they were interesting and always written with the sort of poetic flourish to be expected of a writer, but again that they provide a rich insight into Lawrence’s mind and his relationships with others. Among his numerous letters were correspondence with such figures as the author Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Bernard Shaw, as well as fellow archaeologists like Gertrude Bell and public figures such as Winston Churchill.

There are even more modern cult figures or figures of cultural significance whose letters once put into the public domain become part of the perception of their overall image. Whether Kurt Cobain’s journals were ever meant to be seen or not is debatable, but they’ve been published in book form for some years now and include a number of letters he wrote, some of which were probably never sent, including scathing letters to MTV and elements of the press, at least one particularly poignant letter to Courtney Love that I recall, and very early letters from Nirvana’s inception.

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Part of one of Kurt Cobain’s letters in draft.

The book begins with a scattered letter Cobain wrote to Melvins drummer Dale Crover in 1988, discussing various subjects including the disease of late-night television, the superficiality of publicity, and the decision to name his band Nirvana. While it lacks cohesion and while I wonder about whether letters of this type belong in the public domain, it is undeniably very interesting to look at someone like Kurt’s little letters and doodlings, all in his own messy handwriting. They do provide a degree of insight.

Possibly the most famous collection of letters in Western culture are the Letters of Saint Paul, written over a number of years in the 1st Century AD. These letters are essentially the basis of Western Christianity and therefore of centuries of Western civilisation. They are also a fascinating insight into the theological foundations of Christianity and into Paul of Tarsus as a personality.

Letters salvaged from the ravages of time serve immeasurable value as historic documents, particularly in regard to classical eras. Surviving letters, for example, written by such famous figures in the Roman world as Ovid, Seneca and Pliny the Younger, provide an extraordinary level of insight into not only those specific historical figures but also the events and the times they lived in.

And of all these the most fascinating is Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero’s letters are one of the most crucial resources for understanding of that extraordinary period in Roman history, essentially the end years of the Roman Republic. They give us invaluable insights into the workings of the great orator’s mind and indeed the minds of his friends and contemporaries; as they were essentially private correspondence not intended for circulation they are unencumbered by the kind of eloquent rhetoric Cicero was famous for in his political speeches.

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It is the gift of posterity that Cicero was such a prolific writer of letters; his correspondence includes everything from the statesman’s thoughts about Caesar, the Civil Wars, the Republic, Octavian, Mark Antony, and myriad other matters. In addition to the classic collections of Cicero’s speeches, there are Penguin editions of Cicero’s letters to Atticus, Brutus and the second volume which Penguin entitled ‘To his Friends’.

The letters to Brutus are especially fascinating, as reading them you can feel the tension and urgency; of course, reading two-thousand years later, for us the letters are framed in the knowledge that Cicero and Brutus were both heading towards their deaths and that the Republic would be lost and the Empire born despite their efforts.

“Believe me, Brutus, you and your friends will be crushed if you do not take care. You will not always have a people and a Senate and a leader of the Senate as they are today. You may regard these words as a Delphic oracle. Nothing can be more true.”

Those words were part of a Cicero letter to Marcus Junius Brutus, concerning Mark Antony, who Cicero believes Brutus should’ve had killed while there was still time. Brutus was too principled and noble to have Antony killed, but it proved to be his future undoing. This letter was written in 43BC, a year before Brutus’s death in the Battle of Phillipi.

But it’s not just the stars of the ancient world that survive through their letters; in fact, more often than not it’s not the great historical personages at all, but the little people that come to life again millennia after their existences. For example, here is an example of a real letter from a Roman soldier. Written in the 2nd Century AD by a young man named Apion serving in Egypt, it is a simple letter back home to his father and contains the kind of language and references we could expect from any young man’s simple letter back home today, the mundanity of the message being part of its charm.

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Illustration from Ancient Times: A History of the Early World by James Henry Breasted, Ginn and Company

Just from this small sampling of significant letters touched upon in this post and from different times and penned by vastly diverse hands, we can see how important an element of our collective culture and history they form; and these are just a few good examples among too many to keep count of.

Whether handwritten letters will survive as a practise into the future of course depends entirely on whether we in general retain any desire to keep such acts alive in our own lives and to put pen to paper to express whatever it is we’re trying to express to whoever it may be we’re trying to express it to.

But to quote a famous lover of letters, the writer Virginia Woolf; “Venerable are letters; infinitely brave, forlorn, and lost.”

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Comments
  1. […] been fascinated by historic letters and correspondence for some time; and I wrote a post covering some of this a while […]

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