Everyday, we send and receive emails, but when’s the last time you wrote or received a handwritten letter? We talk to a writer and editor about the more romantic, considered communication style of abandoning modern technology and writing physical letters.
Shaun Usher, writer, editor of the book Letters of Note: An eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience
Links for more information:
The Lost Art of Writing Letters
Gary Price: when was the last time you received a letter in the mail? Not in your email box, but in your mailbox – the one attached to the outside of your house, and not a solicitation from some insurance company or reminder from your bank either – but a real, hand written letter from a friend of family member? If you’re like most people these days it’s no doubt been a while. And come to think of it, there are probably tens of millions of young people who have never gotten much more than a manufactured birthday card in the mail, and never will. Today we resort to email, tweets, text and social media posts to deliver our love letters, diatribes, happy and sad announcements to our loved ones and friends. This makes Shaun Usher very sad.
Shaun Usher: I know, it’s tragic – there’s nothing more satisfying than reading a hand written letter – well I think so anyway. The same goes with writing them as well, when you sit down to write an email, or a Facebook message or a tweet, or a text message it’s just far too easy.
Price: Usher is a writer and the editor of the book, “Letter of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.”
Usher: What happens is you don’t focus as much as you would if you wrote a physical letter; you rush the job, it’s a far more considered process when you actually write a physical letter. Then you open up more, you’re more willing to be honest, it’s just a completely different frame of mind. So, as we lose ourselves to the digital world we’re losing so much of our relationships as well I think.
Price: The book is a collection of 125 letters from notable people such as presidents, royalty, Hollywood actors, and famous writers as well as people you probably never heard of before. Usher says that “the physical letters say a lot more about the writer and recipient than a tweet or an email ever could.”
Usher: It is so unromantic, you know? It’s so little charm, with a physical letter even looking at the type of paper someone’s chosen – which is the beauty of the book as well because you can see a lot of the letters themselves, we put a lot of photographs in there of the actual letters – you can tell what paper they’ve chosen, you can look at their handwriting, you can look at the smudges, you can look a the mistakes they’ve made, just so much characters. A book of collected emails… it really does depress me, just imagining how bland it would be visually.
Price: The first letter in the book is a handwritten chatty one from Queen Elizabeth to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960. It’s an apology from the Queen to the President for not sending Ike the Drop Scone recipe she promised him and Mamie visited her majesty at Balmorals Palace the years before. Usher says it shows a side of the queen that the world rarely sees.
Usher: I think it’s lovely to see her in a different frame of light, you never see the personal side of the queen and this is her in a very relaxed moment speaking to the President of the United States. And it’s such an unsual situation to see her in. I think it’s really endearing and I love the fact that she was meant to send this recipe and then she’d forgotten that. It really kind of normalizes the queen – I think it’s lovely and I love the fact that you can see the actual recipe in the book as well. And it does work, I’ve tried the scones from that recipe.
Price: Following that letter is one in stark contrast to it – the “from hell missive” written in October 1888 and addressed to George Lutz chairman of the white chapel vigilance committee – it was signed “Catch me if you can.” Any mystery buff knows that this is the famous letter sent from none other than Jack the Ripper and accompanied by a small box containing half a human kidney.
Usher: It’s a terrifying letter to look at before you even read the message. But yeah, I love that letter as chilling as it is. The message within it is pretty horrible, but it was the perfect way to follow the Queens letter – I think the next letter after that should be E.B. White so it’s really kind of an emotional roller coaster.
Price: An 1865 letter included in the book is from a freed slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his former master Col. P.H. Anderson in Big Spring, Tennessee. Apparently the civil war took its toll on the colonel’s plantation and he asked Jourdan to return to help him restore his business to its former glory. The ex-slave and his large family were doing well in their new home in Dayton, Ohio. But Jourdan said he’d consider coming back if the colonel would give him his back-pay for the more than 50 years combined that he and his wife Amanda worked on the homestead. A sum of more than $11, 600, plus interest.
Usher: Jourdan Anderson, which is the name of the former slave, dictated this incredibly eloquent and restrained letter back to his old master and it essentially said, “we’ll come back to your farm as long as you give us back pay for the past 40 years” – and he makes a little calculation. There’s some dry humor in it considering how angry he must’ve been to get a letter like this; it’s such a restrained and eloquent letter. He ends it with, “say howdy to George Carter and thank him for taking the pistol from you, when you were shooting at me. From your old servant, Jourdan Anderson.” Just a most incredible letter and it’s one of two letters from ex-slaves in the book actually – there’s another one in there that’s equally powerful. When I put it on the website we had 3 million hits within 24 hours from people looking at this one particular letter and it’s at that point I realized that this “letters to note” project really had legs.
Price: Usher included the letters of a number of Hollywood celebrities in his collection and one from Katherine Hepburn to her long time lover, Spencer Tracey, is especially interesting. Hepburn wrote it 18 years after Tracey’s death. An excerpt reads, “There you were, really the greatest movie actor. I say this because I believe it; I’ve also heard many people have standing in your business say it – from Olivier to Lee Strasberg, to David Lean. You name it – you could do it, and you could do it with that glorious simplicity and directness – you could just, DO IT. You couldn’t your own life, but you could become someone else. You were a killer, a priest, a fisherman, a sports writers, a judge, and newspaper man, you were IT in an instant.” Usher says that it’s amazing that Hepburn and other famous people whose voices we know, wrote just the way they sound when they’re speaking.
Usher: There’s a video of Katherine Hepburn reading that letter aloud, you can find it on YouTube, and it’s a beautiful thing. But yeah, their voices often do come through in their letters – it’s really quite strange, but it’s a lovely thing.
Price: There are several letters in the collection from the living, to the dead, Usher say’s these beautiful and heartbreaking correspondences serve a purpose for the writer.
Usher: There’s basically a bit bias in it in pretty much all of the cases, they’re saying things they couldn’t say or they didn’t say when their loved ones were alive, it’s desperately sad. But also quite beautiful that they did manage to find some closure, particularly in the form of a letter, it’s why we definitely find them so appealing.
Price: Along with the sad, angry, and heartbreaking letters are many that are very cleverly composed. Take this excerpt from Robert Pirosh, an ad agency copywriter who wanted to work in the movies.
Usher: What he did was he wrote a standard form job application letter and sent it to all the Hollywood studios, producers, directors, that he could find addresses for. And this letter was so perfectly written that he got in quite a few interviews with different studios and he took a job with MGM and then 15 years later he won an Oscar for one of his scripts. It goes:
I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.
I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.
I have just returned and I still like words.
May I have a few with you?
Price:In addition to making us think more about what we write and taking the time to craft a communication rather than just pounding out an email, Usher says letters help us understand the world, past and present.
Usher: I find that there’s not better way of learning about history than through the letters of the people who lived it. These are first person accounts of, what in many cases, first person accounts of some incredible moments in history about which we would lever learn were it not for people’s letters. So I hope people come away with a nourished and intelligent sense of that. I hope people learn a few things about the world around them and history, but most of all I hope people decide to pick up a pen and paper and maybe write a letter of their own. It’s such an important thing to do. What we don’t wanting to be doing in the near future is, rather than handing down boxes of letters to our loved ones before we die, we don’t want to just be handing passwords to Gmail accounts and filter spam – it’s just such a disappointing future. So I hope it promotes the art of letter writing, even for a few people.
Price: You can read all of the letters from famous, infamous, and unknown writers in Shaun Ushers book “Letter’s of Note” available in store and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at LettersofNote.com. You can learn more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.