July 29, 2010
On Sheets of Paper
Recently I watched a few minutes of On Golden Pond (1981) on television. I was struck by Katharine Hepburn’s character, Ethel Thayer, reading to her cinematic spouse (played by Henry Fonda) a handwritten letter of several pages. The letter is from their daughter (played by Jane Fonda). Hepburn reads portions of the letter aloud, with animated interest and commentary. But it was the pages of handwritten script that really caught my attention. A letter—and a handwritten one! How quaint! And for many of us, what a lost world.
A grievously lost world.
Recently too I’ve been reading some of Flannery O’Connor’s letters published in the Library of America edition of her works. O’Connor was an amusing letter writer. And reading her letters draws us into her world and relationships in a way that cannot be duplicated. We get to know her in ways that might otherwise elude us.
But if you’ve been raised on email and texting and Facebook and whatever else, you might just sneer at this notion of writing and sending letters by “snail mail.” Something lost? Puhleeze!
And how is it for me? The only letters I write anymore are business letters. And often enough, even they are transmitted over the Internet and never see the inky page. It seems like I have written very few personal letters in recent years. And yet I used to do it all the time. Letter writing was a discipline ingrained from my childhood. “You need to sit down and write Great Aunt Sophie a thank you for that birthday gift,” my mother would say. The anticipation of letters, the writing of them, the posting of them, the reading of them—all with real ink on paper—were part of life. And all the more so in a family whose members were often separated by thousands of miles of land and ocean.
Today in our family we treasure copies of letters sent from great-grandparents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. And from the Civil War era, some are even published in a book, a correspondence between my great great grandmother and Mrs. Stonewall Jackson. They allow us to breathe something of the air they breathed, experience some of the joys and sorrows they experienced, and wonder over their times and expressions and perspectives.
In one of my great great grandmother’s letters, she describes a playful scene one evening after supper in their Presbyterian manse in Winchester, Virginia—a mock Civil War battle fought in the parlor, with children and young Confederate officers engaged with chairs as canons, and General Jackson (who was rooming with the family at the time) coming down the stairs to investigate the racket, and then uttering a command, “Captain Marye, when the engagement is over, you will send in an official report.” She writes, “The uproar of this mirth-provoking scene was heard far out into the street, and would not have been suspected as coming from a preacher’s house, and yet, if I mistake not, his reverence was one of the most furious combatants on the side of his mother-in-law!” The scene comes alive and arcs across the years.
As I said, this largely lost world of letter writing struck me with force as I watched Hepburn enthuse over a letter from their daughter. It was not simply the act of communication. It was the personal and tangible materiality of it. The individual and characteristic imprint of handwriting on the page. The folds in the paper. The sustained coherence of communication over several pages. (Not the brief and telegraphic notation of a tweet or Facebook update!) The smell of ink and paper. The intentionality of setting aside time for thinking, preparing, writing, folding, inserting, addressing, stamping and posting—for the sake of the recipient. And then what about all that’s entailed in sharing the letter, even with grumpy old Henry Fonda? This is social networking of a different—and richer—order. To say nothing of the cross-generational “networking” that letters afford.
My cursive handwriting, never the pride of my teachers in my school days, has now deteriorated to a barely legible scrawl. So if I were to hand write a letter today, I’d be better off printing it and I’d be counting on the recipient appreciating the intention. And while I like the idea of leaving a written legacy, I do cringe a bit at the thought of future generations reading my mail. And at this stage, it’s not likely to happen accidentally. I’d have to be quite intentional about it—finding paper, pen, envelope, stamp, address book etc. And making it worthy enough to tempt someone to keep it.
At IVP we haven’t done much in the way of publishing correspondence. And I’m not soliciting proposals. But it can be a wonderful and multilayered experience to read someone’s old mail. Maybe the art and practice of letter writing will enjoy an unexpected come back. Let’s hope so.