A Museum of Letters

May 28, 2014

“As long as there are postmen, life will have zest.”
— William James

Letters of Note

Letters of Note

We have lost William James’ fondness for mail deliveries, in large part because the post very rarely surprises us with a handwritten letter.  We have other ways of communicating now.   Letters are old-fashioned when telephoning, emailing, texting, and other social media tools make connecting and exchanging personal news so much quicker and efficient.

So what are those of us who love writing and receiving heartfelt communications, penned on paper, addressed on an envelope, stamped and sent off in the mail to do?  I recommend reading compilations of letters like this recent release — Letters of Note:  An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience edited by Shaun Usher.  Included are some familiar letters such as the editor of the Sun reassuring Virginia that there is indeed a Santa Claus, Rainer Maria Rilke advising a young poet, and Grace Bedell suggesting to Abraham Lincoln that he grow a beard because “all ladies like whiskers.”  But there are 122 other letters as well — heart rending, wise, funny, and truly noteworthy.

Consider this quirky letter by Robert Pirosh to various Hollywood studios asking for a screenwriting job:

“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 crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl.  I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid.  I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon, 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?”

The talent exhibited in this letter is just irresistible, don’t you agree?  A good letter is like that — impossible to resist.  Holding the power to change minds and soften hearts.  I admit, after reading Ronald Reagan’s letter to his son Michael with advice on being a good husband — “You have entered into the most meaningful relationship there is in all human life.  It can be whatever you decide to make it.” — I decided that maybe there are parts of Reagan I could like after all.

How can you not admire the steadfast integrity of the singer Nick Cave, who wrote this letter to MTV declining his nomination for Best Male Artist of 1996:

“To all those at MTV,

I would like to start by thanking you for all the support you have given me over recent years and I am both grateful and flattered by the nominations that I have received for Best Male Artist.  The air play given to both the Kylie Minogue and P.J. Harvey duets from my latest album Murder Ballads has not gone unnoticed and has been greatly appreciated.  So again my sincere thanks.

Having said that, I feel that it’s necessary for me to request that my nomination for Best Male Artist be withdrawn and furthermore any awards or nominations for such awards that may arise in later years be presented to those who feel more comfortable with the competitive nature of these award ceremonies.  I myself, do not.  I have always been of the opinion that my music is unique and individual and exists beyond the realms inhabited by those who would reduce things to mere measuring.  I am in competition with no-one.

My relationship with my muse is a delicate one at the best of times and I feel that it is my duty to protect her from influences that may offend her fragile nature.

She comes to me with the gift of song and in return I treat her with the respect I feel she deserves — in this case this means not subjecting her to the indignities of judgement and competition.  My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel — this bloody cart of severed heads and glittering prizes.  My muse may spook!  May bolt!  May abandon me completely!

So once again, to the people at MTV, I appreciate the zeal and energy that was put behind my last record, I truly do and say thank you and again I say thank you but no . . . no thank you.”

Wow.  That’s a powerful letter.  I am not familiar with Nick Cave’s music, but this letter makes me want to check it out to see if it reflects the strength of its creator.

I hope these two letters from among the 125 included in Letters of Note are enough to inspire you to run to your local library to check the book out yourself.  Or, since the seeds for this book originated in a blog, you can find more inspiring letters in the Letters of Note blog archive at this link.  Usher calls his work a “book-shaped museum of letters.”  As editor, he curated a masterpiece.




“Our correspondences show us where our intimacies lie.  There is something very sensual about a letter.  The physical contact of pen to paper, the time set aside to focus thoughts, the folding of the paper into the envelope, licking it closed, addressing it, a chosen stamp, and then the release of the letter to the mailbox – are all acts of tenderness.”
— Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

Old-fashioned snail mail.  This precious letter is saved in my commonplace book.

Old-fashioned snail mail. This precious letter is saved in my commonplace book.

“More than kisses, letters mingle souls.”
— John Donne

Old-fashioned snail mail. . . these quotes remind me how soulful hand-written letters can be.  I mourn their near extinction.

Hand writing a letter means carving out a quiet space in my day; assembling the paper, envelope, stamp; choosing a favorite pen; and thinking about the recipient and how I can reach across the miles in friendship.  Letter writing is about connection and sharing an intimate piece of myself.

“For letter writing I need more than the most necessary tools: some silence and solitude.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke

Emails are okay for perfunctory communications, business, and scheduling arrangements, but something is lost when we use emails and texting for more personal communications.  As a society, we seem to accept this loss in quality and have adapted to the new normal where hand-written letters are a rarity.  It is such a shame, because writing a letter takes little in terms of money and supplies.  It’s the time that’s valuable.  And why do we so readily spend our time in frivolous ways, like watching T.V., rather than making time to write a letter to someone we love?

Snail mail is so rare that the few hand-written letters I receive are precious.  Some are definitely worth saving, like this letter from a new friend, Anne, that I pasted into my commonplace book.  I loved everything about this letter.  The first words Anne wrote were “Tuesday morning, raindrops on metal roof.”  Already she has transported me into her world.  I love her penciled printing, so clear and evenly spaced.  I love that she shared a story about a book she had read while traveling, one that she thought I would enjoy, too.  She doesn’t know me well, but she knows I like to read, and I felt like she really sees who I am.  What a gift!

And how wonderful that my moon snail shell holds these pleasant associations with snail mail.

Moon Snail Shell # 55, watercolor sketch of "snail mail"

Moon Snail Shell # 55, watercolor sketch of “snail mail”


A handwritten letter is one of life’s simple pleasures.

One hand a fist in the shape of an eye

Consider the Hands that Write this Letter
by Aracelis Girmay

Consider the hands
that write this letter.
The left palm pressed flat against the paper,
as it has done before, over my heart,
in peace or reverence
to the sea or some beautiful thing
I saw once, felt once: snow falling
like rice flung from the giants’ wedding,
or the strangest birds. & consider, then,
the right hand, & how it is a fist,
within which a sharpened utensil,
similar to the way I’ve held a spade,
match to the wick, the horse’s reins,
loping, the very fists
I’ve seen from the roads to Limay & Estelí.
For years, I have come to sit this way:
one hand open, one hand closed,
like a farmer who puts down seeds & gathers up
the food that comes from that farming.
Or, yes, it is like the way I’ve danced
with my left hand opened around a shoulder
& my right hand closed inside
of another hand. & how
I pray, I pray for this
to be my way: sweet
work alluded to in the body’s position
to its paper:
left hand, right hand
like an open eye, an eye closed:
one hand flat against the trapdoor,
the other hand knocking, knocking.


“For my part, I could easily do without the post-office.  I think that there are very few important communications made through it.  To speak critically, I never received more than one or two letters in my life — I wrote this some years ago — that were worth the postage. . . . And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Home mail delivery from the U.S. Postal Service

I am surprised by Thoreau’s feelings about the post office because he is a writer, after all, and I would have expected that he would have loved sending and receiving letters.  I think he’s right, though, about how seldom, if ever, the mail holds any letters or communications worth cherishing.  More typical are bills, political ads, consumer catalogs and direct mail solicitations from charities and worthy causes.

These days the U. S. Postal Service is considering closing thousands of offices around the country in a budget-cutting measure.  Perhaps the post office is becoming obsolete.  We live in a world where everyone is connected to everyone else nearly all the time via email, texting, social networks, hand-held smart phones, etc.  If Thoreau thought he was wasting time with snail mail, imagine how inundated and overwhelmed he would feel with today’s communication systems.

Today we can have “news” streaming at us 24 hours a day, if we choose.  Thoreau felt he learned little from news stories, which seemed to be the same tales told over and over.  David Whyte, in Crossing the Unknown Sea, reminds us that watching the news takes us away from our own unique directions in life:  “Watching the newscast, we realize this news is no news at all but someone else’s priorities centered mostly in extremely perverse ways on the NASDAQ and the Dow Jones.”

Many of us are still figuring out how to regulate the ceaseless flow of information, news and communications  — extracting the benefits of technology without losing our sense of self control over our lives.  William Power, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, says that one lesson we can learn from Thoreau is to make our homes a retreat or refuge, creating zones or times where we turn off the internet and telephone and disconnect from the clamor of the global crowd.  “Digital busyness is the enemy of depth,” says Power.  I think Thoreau would agree.

Sometimes my reading odyssey takes me all the way to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Book leads to book, and I follow a thread, never knowing exactly what treasures will surface along the way.  Today I want to share a recent journey through books that started with one of my favorite nonfiction reads of 2010, Man with a Blue Scarf:On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucien Freud by Martin Gayford.

 I loved this book about a year during which art critic Martin Gayford posed for a portrait.  His conversations with Freud were filled with interesting tidbits about the working life of an artist.  I liked this book so much that I decided to read another of Gayford’s books, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Arles.  My daughter and I once traveled to Arles, so the descriptions in this book brought back memories.

 Van Gogh was a prolific letter writer, and Gayford obviously relied on many of these letters for the factual background in his book.  I’ve been wanting to read Vincent’s letters to his brother Theo.  I remembered reading about a six volume annotated edition of Van Gogh’s letters, and when I looked for the title on www.amazon.com, I saw that Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (vol. 1- 6) cost over $600!!  Unfortunately, the public library does not own this edition, so I wasn’t sure how I’d ever be able to see it, much less spend some time with it.

And now for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  One of the reader reviews on amazon mentioned that the online version of this six volume annotated edition was available for free!  Sure enough.  If you go to www.vangoghmuseum.nl and click on “Vincent Van Gogh” and then on “letters” you will find all of Vincent Van Gogh’s letters.  I will be reading them, slowly, starting with letter # 001.

And here is another treasure:  a blog, which features excerpts of Van Gogh’s letters.  It’s a great way to get a taste of the letters a little at a time.  You can link to the blog at http://www.vangoghsblog.com.  I’m subscribed vis RSS feed to my Google Reader account.

 Consider this treasure trove of online information my gift to you!

“The mail is our daily dose of promise.”
     — Barbara Holland, Endangered Pleasures

A neighbor's collection of vintage mailboxes

Detail, vintage mailbox

Old, rusted mailbox

Mailboxes used to be like treasure chests, holding the promise of letters from loved ones.  These days the pleasures of mail are dwindling — too many bills, junk mail, solicitations.

I was reminded of the pleasures of mail while reading a new book by one of my favorite bloggers — Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts by Jane Brocket.  The entire book is a delightful romp back to old childhood classics. As the title implies, Brocket shares ideas for recipes, such as Pippi Longstocking’s Swedish pancakes, and imaginative activities, such as playing Poohsticks.  One of the chapters is called “Run Your Own Post Office,” inspired by the old bird house/mailbox in the garden of the March girls in Little Women.

“The P.O. was a capital little institution, and flourished wonderfully, for nearly as many queer things passed through it as through the real office.  Tragedies and cravats, poetry and pickles, garden-seeds and long letters, music and ginger-bread, rubbers, invitations, scoldings and puppies.”
     —  Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

New book by Jane Brocket


I wonder what surprises my mailbox will hold today.

“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all other virtues.”
     — Cicero

Thank you letter from my niece's son, age 8

I hope the art of writing thank you notes is not dead.  We live with so much abundance, I wonder if we are taking gifts too much for granted.  I grew up in a large family where money was tight.  Gifts were rare and cherished.  A hand-written thank you note is the least we can do to express our appreciation for gifts, small and large.  A note of thanks  honors both the giver and the gift.

“Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company.”
     — Lord Byron

Writing to my sister at the coffee shop

The coffee shop is a perfect place for letter writing.  You share in the companionable hum of the neighborhood, but are alone enough to concentrate on writing your private thoughts onto the page.  Solitude and companionship packaged into one present.

A winter afternoon at Zoka's, my neighborhood coffee shop

A grace note -- a beautifully presented cup of coffee

Letter writing at the local coffee shop

And someone else cleans up!

“Letter writing is generally a thoughtful art.”
      — Dorie McCullough Lawson, from the preface to Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children

Stack of old letters to my sister


Family treasures, old letters


Among my personal treasures is a file of correspondence between a younger sister and me.  We are both middle children in a family of nine kids.  She was the tomboy, communing with animals and leading the younger siblings on imaginative adventures.  It wasn’t until we both finished high school that I began to see her as a kindred spirit.  I’ve always admired her fiercely independent character.

It was this independence, perhaps, that led my sister to Israel where she fell in love, married, and has lived all these years.  Our letters span October 1978 to January 1996, a period that covers my first years of marriage, my sister’s last years as a single woman, and our first years starting our own families.  We’ve communicated since then, but too rarely, and largely by e-mail or holiday cards, so there are no archives of letters for the past fifteen years.

 I’ve held on to the old letters, but I have not spent any time re-reading them.  I fear I’ll be embarrassed by my naiveté and youthful inexperience.  They may be a Pandora’s box of sorts, documenting my weaknesses and failures.  They may be boring.

Unread, they hold the potential of being treasures, glimpses of the person I used to be.  They may hold snippets of the person I continue to be.  One day I may be brave enough to reread and share them.

If this book won't inspire you to write a letter, nothing will.

The second week of January each year is National Letter Writing Week.  In honor of this occasion, I’d like to recommend that you write a letter to someone close to your heart.  If you need inspiration, check out this lovely anthology —  Posterity:  Letters of Great American to Their Children, edited by Dorie McCullough Lawson.  She says that letters “are the color, heart, and personality of history,” and this book proves her point in a delightful, highly readable way.

Dorie McCullough Lawson’s father is the noted historian and biographer, David McCullough, and in the foreword to the book he states very clearly why letters are an important part of history:

“That so few of us write to our children any longer, that we so rarely write personal letters of any sort, is a shame.  I think often of how little we will leave about ourselves and our time in our own words.  Maybe some of the e-mail will survive, but I doubt it.  How will future generations ever come to know us?  Historians and biographers a hundred or three hundred years hence will have almost nothing of a personal kind to work with.  Our story, consequently, will be a lot less interesting, less human, perhaps even impossible to write.
     Beyond that we’re denying ourselves the pleasures and benefits of putting out thoughts and feelings down in words of our own.  Nothing focuses the mind as writing.”

Even a short letter will do.  Get to it!

Addressing an envelope to my sister