Mostly whimsical reflections on life
Letters showed that underneath the confident veneer of his masterworks, James Joyce was tapioca pudding to Nora Barnacle, his seemingly indifferent, restless wife.
Martin Luther King galvanized people to action on civil rights by writing a letter while in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham,” King wrote. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Historians pore over letters to find clues to the backstory of history. Doris Kearns Goodwin pieced together her award-winng biographies of Presidents by reading copious numbers of letters to and from her subjects.
Without letters, historians will have one hand tied behind their back. They won’t be able to divine private thoughts, secret motives, unuttered reactions because there will be no letters containing those reflections. They will be left sifting through the much thinner and less revealing patch of emails, text messages and Facebook posts.
In her Portland lecture, Goodwin described how men and women – and sometimes children – conveyed their deepest thoughts in letters written daily to family members, friends and confidantes. In letters, they felt a freedom to express their deepest fears and their most cherished desires.
Sometimes the letters were so frank the authors – or family members – sought to destroy them. When that was awkward or impossible, they sought to delay their release. The Harding love letters, for example, had been embargoed from public view for 50 years in the Library of Congress at the request of his family. Harding’s peers were denied the titillation, but not posterity.
In today’s world, letters are passé. People barely take time to write brief thank you notes. Moving messages come on Hallmark cards. Our most heart-felt sentiments are ghostwritten. Schools have stopped teaching handwriting – and typing. If a message extends beyond 140 characters or can’t be captured in a selfie, it is roadkill.
The private letter has been replaced by the public memoir. Private letters contained feelings and reflections that writers didn’t want to share publicly. Memoirs are written intentionally for public consumption. They may share intimate details, but they read like one-sided letter exchanges. You never get the other side of the story.
One of the most celebrated letter exchanges in American history occurred between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, old foes who mended their fences and overcame their egos to offer alternating views of the democratic republic they fathered. Jefferson may have grasped before Adams the historical significance of their letters. Jefferson knew he was writing for history long before Adams.
The value of letters is their long shelf life. When written, they represent a tiny shard of information. When combined with volumes of letters from multiple contemporary sources, they begin to be pieces of a puzzle for historians to assemble into a coherent picture.
Without letters, the biggest omission in history will be a loss of pure emotion that comes from reflection on a grueling day when thoughts are shared with loved ones or trusted friends. This is the nuance of history that statistics and dates can’t generate.
History without letters is like life without color. And we all know history is anything but black and white.
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