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Letter Writing in America

by Kathryn Burke







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Asia Wong, 300 Love Letters
Above:
Asia Wong, 300 Love Letters



Goucher College Class of 1903

Above:
Goucher College Class of 1903


Letter Writing as Art

At the dawn of the twenty-first century it may be difficult to see the value of letter writing as a means of communication. E-mails and faxes convey information in a matter of seconds, cellular phones enable people to remain connected wherever they go, and the nightly news serves up local, national and international stories three and four times a day. But, as we have seen, simple communication of facts is neither the only nor the chief purpose of letter writing, and many American citizens continue to write personal letters. The art of letter writing is even supported by numerous websites that encourage viewers to continue to write personal, physical letters. Websites like www.justwriteletters.com and www.wendy.com/letterwriting present information about famous letters and encourage people to write letters of their own by offering helpful tips and templates. They also discuss the romance of hand-written letters—personal messages bearing, along with familiar handwriting and maybe even a bit of scent, an eternal imprint of the writer reaching toward the reader. There are even websites devoted to the healing power of letter writing. At www.sothere.com readers have the opportunity to write a letter that will never be sent and store it in the website’s archives. Whether they mark their letter “Public” or “Private,” readers who post letters are able to write out everything they want to say, once and for all, so that they can move forward in their lives.

The letter as an art form has also made a resurgence in modern America. Where once epistolary novels and public letters in newspapers marked the extent of what could be done artistically with letter writing, there are now numerous forums for those who create art based on letters. At www.rivertrout.com participants submit creative writing that consists of or focuses on letters and letter writing. Pieces can be on any topic, so long as they are letter-based, and submissions get separated into one of several categories so that those viewing the site can select the kind of letters they want to read. Letter writing can also appear in a more direct, project-oriented kind of art. Asia Wong, creator of "300 Love Letters," wrote and mailed what ended up being 400 letters as part of a web-based art project. The letters were written to people she knew—parents, lovers, friends—but were mailed at random to people across the country. Wong describes the project as a comment on the lack of connection she sees in modern American relationships, and an attempt to make people more aware of their interdependence.

There is also a trend among modern Americans to view letter writing as a kind of nostalgia, a vision of a way of life once beloved, now gone. Old letters are becoming objects of veneration, not only because they sometimes describe events of historic importance, but also because their physical appearance recalls people and places of long ago. On the website of Goucher College in Maryland viewers interested in the history of the school can find a link to a project known as the Round Robin. A number of women from the class of 1903 wanted to keep in touch with each other after they had graduated, married and moved, so they began by having one person write a letter to the whole group. That person then sent the letter to another person, who wrote a group letter, folded it up with the first one, and sent the letters to another member of the group. That member then wrote a letter, put it with the others, and sent the packet on. In this way each woman, when the packet reached her, would get to read all the news written by all the women who had come before her in the chain.

The Round Robin traveled between members of the class of 1903 for nearly 30 years. As time went by, the older letters were taken out and put into a scrapbook, but the newer letters kept circulating until the group could be sure that everyone had read them. It sometimes took as long as three years for the Round Robin to make it through all the group members and begin the cycle again, and often one woman or another would be forgotten or left out of a cycle by mistake. Despite never being able to predict when the Robin would arrive, members of the group wrote enthusiastically about their lives and their love for each other whenever the Robin came into their hands. Goucher College has collected the letters, and proudly displays transcripts of them on its website in testimony to the twentieth century alumni who valued letter writing not just for communicating news, but for sharing the joys and tribulations of their lives.

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