Two recent experiences got me thinking about personal correspondence as a way to gain important insight into people, art, and history. It’s also making me ask: What could we miss by relying on electronic modes of communication?
About two weeks ago, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to see Van Gogh’s Bedrooms, where alongside the art were projected images of his letters and drawings. They provided some context, including personal opinions about the places Van Gogh liked to paint.
And, just a few weeks ago, I found myself sorting through dozens of letters my parents have written me over the years. I was looking for some specific information. It occurred to me that if I hadn’t kept those tangible papers in a box all this time, whatever interesting tidbits they contain would have been lost to me forever.
Take this gem, from 1978:
I love knowing that when my dad is gone, I will still have a trove of letters he carefully composed for me.
Now, say my parents had been emailing instead of writing all this time. There’s no way most of that correspondence would still exist (to say nothing of those drawings!). I literally delete hundreds of emails at a time because I get too overwhelmed to sort them. I just can’t keep up. I’m sure many things have gotten lost in the shuffle that way, but I’ll never even know what they are.
I know, I know, people say once something is put online, it’s there in some capacity forever. While that may be true, aren’t those things only really “there” for those who actively seek them and know where to look?
I recently wrote a letter to my dad, and believe it or not, I noticed that my handwriting has deteriorated considerably, and my hand was sore when I was done. So sad!
For all you letter lovers out there, check out the myriad correspondence available at Indiana University’s Lilly Library (novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., war correspondent Ernie Pyle, poet Ezra Pound, and writers Edith Wharton, Orson Welles, and Ernest Hemingway are among them); and New York’s Museum of Modern Art’s Archive’s artists’ letters and manuscripts (painters Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Henri Matisse, and Paul Klee are a few featured).
Here are a couple related articles I found interesting:
What You Won’t Learn From Writers’ Letters (from The New Yorker)
Which Writer’s Letters Are Most Worth Reading? (from The New York Times)