A Lost Grace? History, Culture, and the Art of the Letter

Much more effective than an email, sending a letter to a special someone makes the mailbox a magical place.
A Lost Grace? History, Culture, and the Art of the Letter
Letters keep us connected to loved ones. “A Letter From the Front,” 1864, by Gerolamo Induno. (Public Domain)
Jeff Minick
On May 24, 1844, Samuel Morse sent the world’s first long-distance telegraph message—“What hath God wrought?”—and so changed forever human communication. This union of electricity and human ingenuity next brought the convenience and speed of the telephone, followed by today’s internet. In 2023, a father sitting at his dining room table in the United States can now press a button on a keyboard and deliver an email in 0.2 seconds to his daughter in India.

Each of these advances reduced the need for messages written on paper and delivered by hand. Less than 40 years ago, finding a letter in the mailbox was routine. Today it is a rarity, and “snail mail,” as it is derisively called, hovers on the edge of extinction. The hare in this modern race has defeated the tortoise.

But at what cost? Has the speed with which we dispatch our written thoughts and feelings also altered the depth and reflection we once put into a handwritten letter? From earlier ages, we have public and private letters revealing much about their senders and their times. Some of these letters even changed the course of history. Will our digital notes and missives be similarly preserved and read for their erudition, charm, and wit by future generations, ensuring some continuity between past and future?

If we’re in doubt about that outcome, these pre-internet writers may have some things to teach us, if we are willing to learn from them.

Greek Tweets

Those fierce warriors of the ancient world, the Spartans, were little noted for their literary skills, but they were renowned for their brevity, so much so that our word “laconic” derives from the Greek Lakonikos, meaning “native of Sparta.”
They also often managed to combine concision with wit. In 346 B.C. Philip II, king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, dispatched this message to Sparta after having conquered much of Greece: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartans replied with one word: “If.”

Legend has it that Philip later sent a second message threatening the Spartans, asking them whether they wished him to enter their city as friend or foe. “Neither,” came the answer.

Those looking to make their texts and tweets memorable might study some examples from Sparta.

Game Changers

In 1939, Albert Einstein signed a letter largely written by an immigrant scientist, Leo Szilard, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning of the possibility of a Nazi atomic bomb and urging the government to pursue work on a similar weapon. From that letter, the Manhattan Project took shape.
Other letters have affected the course of history. The 1917 Zimmermann Telegram proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico helped push America into World War I, and Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” acted as a spur to the Civil Rights movement. The Epistles of the New Testament addressed to communities in such places as Rome and Ephesus are part of the bedrock of the Christian faith, and even today St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is considered a classic of letter writing.
This telegram was sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the president of Mexico proposing a military alliance against the United States. (Public Domain)
This telegram was sent by German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann to the president of Mexico proposing a military alliance against the United States. (Public Domain)
These letters, and so many more, are reminders of the power and influence of the written word and should caution us to review and edit what we ourselves write.

A Renaissance Job Application

Long before he became a renowned artist, Leonardo da Vinci applied by letter for the post of military engineer for Ludovico Sforza, the duke of Milan. After a brief jab at others “who count themselves masters and artificers of instruments of war,” da Vinci promised to “endeavor, while intending no discredit to anyone else, to make myself understood to Your Excellency for the purpose of unfolding to you my secrets.”

Da Vinci then listed nine specific ways he was prepared to assist Sforza against his enemies. These plans included ships impervious to cannon fire, a tank-like vehicle that would “penetrate the enemy and their artillery,” and “very light, strong and easily portable bridges with which to pursue and, on some occasions, flee the enemy.” He ended with a tenth proposal, asserting that in peacetime “I can give as complete satisfaction as any other in the field of architecture,” and then added, “I can execute sculpture in marble, bronze and clay.” He closed by offering to demonstrate his talents to the duke.

His letter is concise, its promises concrete, its tone respectful. It has the marks of a good résumé. Perhaps more importantly, da Vinci’s application might teach humility to the proud, as we consider that one of the great geniuses of history had to doff his hat and ask for a job.

Matters of the Heart

Is romance dead?
Ask that question of your phone or computer, and the responses are generally dreary and affirmative. Whether romance lies moribund or has simply taken a furlough is uncertain, but apparently plenty of people regard it as missing from our culture. Some may wonder whether it ever existed outside of poetry and the pages of literature.
The letters between Elizabeth and Robert Browning show the depth of love between them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Public Domain)
The letters between Elizabeth and Robert Browning show the depth of love between them. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (Public Domain)

For those seeking reassurances of real-life romance, letters from the past offer a rich hunting ground. Libraries, bookstores, and online sources all sport anthologies of such letters.

One of the greatest of these collections is the correspondence between Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, who of course eventually married. This exchange of letters, which I’ve only skimmed, stunned me. “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach,” Elizabeth famously wrote to her husband, and these letters from their courtship give evidence of that passion. Along with their multitude, their refinement, their banter, and their cultural observations, “The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, 1845–1846” are an astonishing witness to the attraction, the romance, and the deep love between these two poets.
Reading even a handful of these notes and longer missives constitutes an education in itself in the art of winning the heart of another.

For the Children

Writing snail-mail letters to a beloved is to proffer a physical token, to place a piece of yourself, so to speak, in their hands. This same holds true for a child or an adolescent. Much more effective than shooting out an email, sending a letter to a son or granddaughter makes the mailbox a magical place, gives them a handmade gift, and keeps the culture of letter writing alive.

Over the years, in addition to birthday greetings, I have mailed scores of typed or handwritten notes to my many grandchildren. According to their parents, the youngest of them are so excited about receiving such a note in the mail, written just for them, that they carry this sheet of paper with them like a talisman. The teenagers, to whom I sometimes send advice, know that these are special thoughts just for them and were carefully constructed rather than being dashed out via email.

“Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight," circa 1700, by Jean-Baptiste Santerre. Pushkin Museum, Moscow. (Public Domain)
“Girl Reading a Letter by Candlelight," circa 1700, by Jean-Baptiste Santerre. Pushkin Museum, Moscow. (Public Domain)
Will they keep these letters and read them someday after I’m only a memory? I have no idea, but odds are that they are far more likely to do so than if I’d sent them electronic messages. Will my letters help spark in them an urge to occasionally take a pen, put it to paper, and write to another? Again, I have no idea, but that is my hope.

Preserving the Graces of Our Culture

I own two reprinted books from the 128-volume set “The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies,” first published in 1898. Both of my books contain mostly military correspondence. Whenever I thumb through these collections of letters, reports, and orders, I’m always impressed by the clarity and grace of the writing. In its own way, this prose possesses a beauty all its own.

Reading all manner of old letters takes us back to a time when a writer’s thoughts, cautioned by a fountain pen rather than a keyboard, were expressed with care and dignity. Most of these letters shine with an elegance and an etiquette we might do well to emulate more ourselves.

By reading such letters and absorbing some of their grace and style, and by then incorporating them into our own correspondence, we are making our own small contributions to the preservation of our culture.

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Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.
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