Letters

If you feel like social media isn’t giving you what you need, this post is an invitation.

In my work as a historian, I spend hours immersed in the letters people wrote in the past. Often these documents are about as boring and prosaic as you might imagine, but sometimes they are so beautiful it hurts. Lately, for a project I just call “The Florida Book,” I’ve been reading an edited collection of the letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling and other works about the wilds of Cracker Florida. For an example of achingly beautiful epistolary prose, listen to the rich descriptive language from this letter Rawlings wrote to her editor at Scribner’s. Writing in the week after Christmas in 1937, she relates the story of a fire she set with some workmen in the orange grove behind her house in Hawthorne to prevent the trees dying from frost:

“I fired my young grove two nights in succession. It was very beautiful. There was a fat-wood bonfire in the center of each square, that is, one fire to each four trees. The light from the fat pine is a rich orange, and the grove seemed to be full of bivouac fires, as regular as a geometric design. They illuminated the sky to a Prussian blue, with the palm tops against it. Facing away from the fires, the light gave my low rambling house, the orange trees and palms around it, a flat silver-gold wash, most theatrical. The cold sky was absolutely sequined with stars.”

I have not received a letter like this in many years, and this makes me sad. People have lamented the lost art of letter writing for as long as they’ve been writing letters, of course, but it feels as though all our tools for communication emphasize brevity, efficiency, visual communication, and broadcasting, rather than the type of personal, intelligent, revealing, and meaningful writing our grandparents and their grandparents practiced. The archives are biased toward the literate, but even those with the most basic reading and writing seem to have churned out letters and postcards by the dozens every week. Perhaps they would have preferred to post a video instead of writing a letter, but what did they gain by writing and, more importantly for us, what have we lost?

If you’d like to share real ideas, in long- or short-form, rather than like and share posts from pages you don’t remember following, send me an email. If you’d like to get actual mail, mention that and we’ll figure it out. Want to share magazine clippings, bits of poetry, photographs, whatever? I’m open.   

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