Letter writing is becoming a lost art, and our culture will be the worse for its decline. Technological alternatives, as well as an apparent slide in literacy, have supplanted the personal letter or note as a means of personal communication. It is a rare mailbox today that holds a letter, handwritten (or typed) and thoughtfully composed, painstakingly drafted with the intent to console, to inform, to commiserate, to amuse, to educate, or simply to connect the writer and the reader.
The power of the personal letter is evident in the new epistolary compiled by Shaun Usher, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. Originally conceived as a website project, Usher’s collection is now a handsome and elegant book containing 125 letters and notes, reproduced in their original forms with brief explanations of their contexts. The letters, ranging from short notes to multiple pages, were written by artists, politicians, scientists, musicians, novelists, and ordinary people. The contents include letters dating from the thirteenth century BC (written on clay tablets) to the late twentieth century.
Open the book to any page, and you will find something that will amuse, or shock, or gratify, or even bring a tear to your eye. Read Mark Twain’s response to a critical reader, or John F. Kennedy’s plea for help carved onto a coconut. Enjoy Annie Oakley’s offer to enlist during the Spanish American War, along with 50 women sharpshooters. Savor the elegance of Francis Crick’s letter to his son in which he describes and diagrams the structure of DNA weeks before publishing the discovery.
Other gems include Elvis Presley’s letter to President Richard Nixon offering to join the war on drugs as a “Federal Agent at Large”, and the teenage Fidel Castro’s request to President Franklin Roosevelt for $10. Other pages include a terse three word answer from the Alabama Attorney General to a racist diatribe from a KKK “Grand Dragon”. Some of the letters are from famous people responding to letters from ordinary people, such as Albert Einstein’s response to a Sunday schoolgirl asking whether scientists pray, and Louis Armstrong’s reply to a fan letter from a Marine in Vietnam.
There is a letter from a destitute mother, addressed to the orphanage where she left her month old baby on the doorstep. Another page shows the radiogram sent to all Navy ships near Hawaii minutes after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. One entry contains a letter written by a Union soldier to his wife, expressing his love and hopes for the future. He was killed two weeks later at the first battle of Manassas. And, in a letter to a correspondent one of America’s greatest essayists, E.B. White, wrote a perfect note of encouragement to a man concerned about mankind’s future.
Letters of Note would make a good gift for anyone who loves literature, history, the arts, or science. Better yet, reward yourself with a copy.