Saturday, July 19, 2014


In the nineteenth-century literature I study, people are always writing letters. Often it's a chore, a daily thing: someone will remove herself from the breakfast table to attend to her correspondence. Sometimes people hire secretaries to help them to keep up--this, especially, in Henry James novels. Sometimes it's an act of defiance, as when Harriet Jacobs sends a letter to the South containing false information about her whereabouts in order to protect her hard-won freedom. A secreted or surprise letter can advance a plot, and dead letters--missives mailed but never received--can inform a character, explain his single and repeated utterance, "I would prefer not to."

Letters, letters, and more letters litter the texts of old.

The first novels were epistolary, collections of fictional letters. 
It's no wonder.

Today we send very few letters. We prefer email and texting and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram (although for the life of me I cannot figure out Instagram). Even holiday cards have sacrificed their handwritten content, stock though it might have become, to photos of children and a hastily scrawled "Happy Holidays!" (if that). Really, the only handwritten mail that seems to have endured is the thank-you note, and I'll admit that I sometimes substitute email thanks for written ones.

I miss the letter, not just the thrill of receiving one but also the feel of writing one. So I've decided to write a letter a day for one year and to write about the experience. 

I'm six letters in, and so far when I've sat down to write I have felt, variously: excited, calm, reflective, introspective, interested, doubtful, rushed, a little tipsy, and blank. The tipsiness was the most unsettling. Turns out that Facebook posts are not the only things you shouldn't write when you've had a couple of glasses of wine. Makes me want to read Hemingway's letters. 

A letter from Hemingway! Steady as he goes.

Before I began this project in earnest (Hemingway pun!) I made a list of rules for myself:
  • The letters must be hand-written.
  • I must write at least one letter per day, but I can't write more than one with the intention of banking them. 
  • I have to mail the letters, but I can mail them in small batches if, for example, I can't find a stamp or it's a Sunday or it's 10:00 p.m.
  • The letters must be personal. (I wrote this rule in response to what my boyfriend said when I told him about the project: "You mean letters of complaint?" Ah, how well he knows me. But, no, I mean letters of friendship.)
  • The letters must be actual letters, not simply notes. I'm going to have to feel my way through this one, sort of like figuring out what separates a long short story from a novella, or a novella from a novel. The line is not as defined as you might think.
  • It's ok to write to the same person more than once. In fact, since I do not have 365 friends, it's imperative.
  • My letter can be a response to a letter I've received. Responses count!
  • I must keep track of dates and recipients; otherwise, all is lost.
  • I must imagine myself completing this project, or else I will surely give it up at some point. The power of positive thinking, people.
My letter-writing campaign is not solely an act of nostalgia. It's an effort to improve my focus and sense of calm and to connect with people in an old way. Who knows? Maybe I'll feel alienated, too; letter-writing is a solitary act, and no one is required to write back. I'm sure that on some days I will prefer not to write, and I'll have to force myself to do it. (Apologies in advance to the recipients of those letters.) But write I will.

Lily Bart, the wayward protagonist of Edith Wharton's 1905 novel The House of Mirth has stationery embossed with a sailboat and the word Beyond! I won't spoil the ending of the novel for you, so suffice it to say that the detail is ironic. All the same, I appreciate the stubborn, even stupid, hopefulness of Lily's notepaper. She plans to go Beyond! and letters are going to get her there. Indeed, Lily's fate rests on correspondence: she comes by a stack of illicit love letters that position her to blackmail the parties involved. Whether or not she submits to the temptation, she will gain and she will lose everything. 

Wharton understood the power of a letter. I think we do, too, even if we've forgotten. As I write, I'll let you know what I rediscover and what I never knew.

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