The Demise of Letters

For some of the wonders of the internet and e-mail exchanges, including instantaneous responses and the inevitable jot-it-down and get-it-sent speed of e-mails, letter writing is no longer what it was. This becomes obvious to me whenever I read a collection of letters — like the beautiful three volumes of C.S. Lewis’ letters or my all-time favorite, The Letters of E.B. White.

I have stationary and a fountain pen but I find I rarely — maybe once a year or so — write letters of that sort anymore. My last one was to Ruth Haley Barton, who wrote to me on stationary. I’m not thinking this is the demise of friendship but it is the demise of letters as we have known them.

Do you write letters anymore? How do you write letters? What is your favorite collection of letters?

Most recently though I read a study of Flannery O’Connor by Lorraine V. Murray called  The Abess of Andalusia: Flannery O’Connor’s Spiritual Journey. I have read the official collection of Flannery’s letters but I was aware that we got an edited version, with some stuff edited out. Murray has read the originals which clarified not a few small details of concern only to Flannery specialists. The study tends a bit at times toward the hagiographical, or at least to an idealized image of her, but overall it’s a good study of Flannery — and we are treated at times to the simple details of her life, including a nice sketch of life on the farm with her menagerie of animals, including her famous peacocks. (The essay of hers on peacocks was the first item of hers I read and I have been a fan ever since.)

Letter writing seems to be Murray’s specialty when it comes to Flannery. In particular, it was a delight to see someone string together the many letters of Flannery to Betty Hester, Alfred Corn and Roslyn Barnes. Murray puts together the particular issues, the context and the life of those to whom Flannery wrote.

In fact, I admire the self-sacrifice of Flannery. She suffered from lupus and died at only 39, never able to express herself during those days without a deadly touch of humor, and was reduced to only 2 hours or so of her official fiction writing during her long years of suffering. Then she meandered through the farm and read, and she read plenty of theology, and spent much of her afternoon writing letters to friends and readers. We have all known that Lewis (and his brother Warnie) wrote letters to readers and admirers in the evening (if I remember correctly), but what Flannery’s practice reminded me of was the obligation of writers of such stature to stay in contact with readers.

Letter writing was how many wonderful writers, among whom Flannery ranks high for me, communicated and I am grateful for the rich treasure of letters such folks left behind. In Flannery’s letters there is a history of her own spiritual journey and of her mentoring of both writers and fellow Christians in their journey. (Not to neglect deadly wit all along the way.)

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.davidmquinn.com David Quinn

    My wife and I began to write letters to each other after we first met and it continued all the way up until we go married. We both believed it was a lost art and a special way to communicate, which has sadly been left behind by our generation. I think letters allow for a kind of communication that emails and facebook messages will never be able to replicate. Writing a letter by hand requires so much more thought and time. I think it also allows for sharing deep thought and emotion because of the awareness that it is intended for the eyes of only one other person. It is usually not shared with others or quickly discarded. My favorite collection of letters are those that my wife and I wrote to each other in the time before we were married.

  • http://getrad2.blogspot.com Blessed Economist

    If the early church was kicking of now, the New Testament would be four gospels, the tweets of the apostles, and the best of Paul’s blog posts and John’s multimedia presentation off YouTube.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    Being 29, it seems like I’ve, sadly, never really known anything but electronic communication. To my severe discredit, the letters I did receive on occasion went mostly unanswered (just ask my wife, girlfriend then, about the summer I was a camp counselor).

    This post brought to mind Arcade Fire’s song “We Used to Wait”. It’s a brilliant commentary on what we’ve lost along with writing letters.

    I used to write
    I used to write letters
    I used to sign my name
    I used to sleep at night
    Before the flashing lights settled deep in my brain
    But by the time we met
    The times had already changed
    So I never wrote a letter
    I never took my true heart
    I never wrote it down
    So when the lights cut out
    I was left standing in the wilderness downtown

    Now our lives are changing fast
    Hope that something pure can last

    It seems strange
    How we used to wait for letters to arrive
    But what’s stranger still
    Is how something so small can keep you alive
    We used to wait
    We used to waste hours just walkin around
    We used to wait
    All those wasted lives in the wilderness downtown

    we used to wait
    Sometimes it never came
    we used to wait
    Sometimes it never came
    we used to wait
    Still moving through the pain

    I’m gonna write a letter to my true love
    I’m gonna sign my name
    Like a patient on a table
    I Wanna walk again
    Gonna move through the pain

    Now our lives are changing fast
    Hope that something pure can last

    We used to wait for it
    Now we’re screaming
    Sing the chorus again

    I used to wait for it
    Hear my voice screaming
    Sing the chorus again

    Wait for it

    (love the end, tension rises and rises in anticipation of the catchy chorus, then… Silence)

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston Yancey

    O’Connor’s letters are my favorite, in no small part that I identify with her brazens–try as I might to temper it in myself. Then Simone Weil, her exchanges with her priest, her lines that haunt: “The action of grace is secret and silent in the heart.”

    Words can be icon to me, so the gifting and receiving of letters is a significant part of how I love and am loved. I’m 22, my best friend is 23, but we’ve made a habit of exchanging letters for the past several years. It’s something about us both being writers that no matter how many calls or texts or emails pass between, the blessing of word into the other cannot be matched. I’m poor at the discipline, though. Most days I like to think of myself as “a certain sort of person” and, at that, “a certain sort of person who writes certain kinds of letters.” But, in the end, I think I’m getting there, when I collect the pen and a piece of stationary and set down, like reciting the Creed the weeks I’m not sure I fully believe, a work of love. The action of grace.

  • JoeyS

    Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke is my favorite collection.

  • Debbie

    The letters between John and Abgail Adams. They provide wonderful insight to a powerful couple with two keen minds working together for the common causes of family and country.

  • http://krusekronicle.com Michael W. Kruse

    #2 Blessed Economist

    I love it!

  • http://www.benjaminasimpson.com Ben Simpson

    Scot, thanks so much for this post. I’m 32 years old. I have written a few letters, and received a few more. I’ve spent most of my life communicating through email and IM and other electronic media. They don’t compare to the hand written letter, or at the very least, the surprise of a letter coming through post.

    After reading an interview with Eugene Peterson in which he lamented the death of correspondence as a writing form, I’ve started an experiment of my own: calling for letters. I wrote an initial post on my reasons for appealing for correspondance, and then kicked off a series of questions to prime the pump and start conversations with people who might like to write. The series is ongoing: I usually post a new question on Wednesdays, and today I’ve asked for favorite preachers or theologians. I haven’t had much of a response, but I’m going to keep asking questions, hoping that along the way I’ll gain a few pen pals and engage in conversation at a level that differs from email or Twitter DMs.

    Thanks again for this post.

    Here is the first link to my letters series:

    http://www.benjaminasimpson.com/blog/2012/3/21/letters-what-thinkers-do-you-admire-10.html

  • Sheila

    We lived on a small farm situated in a good-sized – well – wilderness area in NE Minnesota. At least once a week, my mother would clear off that small kitchen table and spread out her writing tablet (unlined parchment paper), envelopes, and the letters she was answering. Every week there was a letter to her sister’s family (living sometimes in the West, sometimes in the East) and to my father’s brothers’ families in the South. Every week. Beautiful flowing handwriting. In fact, her mother (my grandmother) and her sister kept the same tryst among themselves every week. All of them with beautiful flowing handwriting.

    As I grew older I began writing to my cousins, not as regular in those habits as was Mom because my cousins were not as regular in their answers. But it was an important part of my life.

    When I moved away in 1969 to launch my own adult life, I wrote at least once a week to Mom and Dad (and she to me). There were other correspondents, but the letters home were primary commitments. And I received letters from home at least once a week. In fact, there are three large boxes in my basement filled with Mom’s letters.

    When I homeschooled our son, writing to Grandma was one of the disciplines of our study. She faithfully answered Jonathan’s brief missive, and he eagerly anticipated those letters from Grandma (which were usually funny/quirky – like her), even gathered them into a special notebook.

    Letters from Mom became less regular and often chaotic in her final years as she suffered dementia. Her engagement with reality was unpredictable, but the discipline of a lifetime still called her to the table to write to those she loved.

    She was gathered into Jesus’ arms in 2008, and that is her only adventure from which I have received no letters. Perhaps she is writing even now, and I will only get to read those letters once I, too, am ‘gathered above.’

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    A tip for Pastors, Managers and anyone who wants to touch people. Get a box of small cards and hand write a quick thanks or note of encouragement for people. It does not have to be long, it is the human touch that counts.

  • Debbie

    Sheila (9) I loved your post. Just today I learned that in 1953 my grandmother, while on a six week family vacation with her family (my father was 13 at the time) kept a running journal of the trip. The journal is now contained in two large binders, complete with menus, telegraphs, postcards and pictures. Each night, at the end of a long travel day my grandmother took to pen and paper to record the events of that day.

    I’ve heard stories of this trip but never knew, until today of this journal. Both my grandmother and father have passed away. But now, almost 60 years later our family has this recently discovered treasure that brings them both back…. my grandmother’s written letters (journal) of her family adventures. Priceless!

  • http://thoughtstheological.com Terry Tiessen

    Most of my correspondence happens by email but, once a year, I write a formal letter with pictures, turn it into pdf and mail it to numerous friends, many of whom still send out Christmas letters.

    I had to write a letter home each week, from my MK boarding school in India, and I’ve continued to write to my parents each week, though these letters were emailed for a while, when my Dad used a computer.

    Once a week, I still write a letter that I mail to my 101 year old mother, who has no access to a computer and wouldn’t know what to do with it if she had. I send an edited version of that letter to each of our four children and spouses, as a pdf attachment. I then send my three sisters a copy of the letter too.

    We print and file a copy of these letters, and it becomes a journal of sorts.

    My parents gave me their copies of letters I wrote to them from my days in Bible College, when they were back in India, and we have a fairly complete collection of letters to my parents that spans 50 years.

    Gail and I have been reading these old letters together, in the evening for some months now, including letters we wrote to one another during the summers that we were apart, during University years, before we were married.

    A while back, my Aunt gave me a stack of letters which my parents had written to my grandparents, dating back to their arrival in India in 1945. We just added those to our evening reading.

    All of these letters are a treasure trove of the sort that will not exist beyond our generation, I expect. I’m a bit sorry about that, but communication modes move on, with gains and losses that are difficult to assess right now, I think.


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