On New Year’s Day, mostly to amuse some restless grandchildren, I carried a drawer from the filing cabinet in the basement up the steps and into the kitchen.
The three younger kids and I gathered around the table and pulled some treasures from the drawer: the little bonnet their toddler great-great-great grandfather had worn on the ship from Ireland to America well over a century ago, the coins collected as a child by my deceased wife, including several silver dollars from the 1920s, and a few other odds and ends.
The kids delighted particularly in the coins, but I—I was stunned by the letters, birthday and Christmas cards, and notes I’d saved for over 60 years. Here were several hundred documents from my past: letters my mom had sent me when I was away at school in the early 1960s, more letters from family and friends in my college days, holiday cards with long, handwritten notes or family newsletters, and wedding announcements. Some of these were in packets, like the ones saved by my mother, but most of them I had haphazardly jammed and ignored into the drawer over many years.
As I flipped through some of these messages from my past, pausing now and again to read a few lines, a thought struck me. In my hands were not only memoranda from my personal history. No—these were also relics from an era that is rapidly disappearing. Years ago, the telegraph and telephone had undoubtedly eroded the art and practice of letter writing, but our more recent technology—emails, texts, and chats—have completely changed the way our written communications operate. The days of receiving letters in an envelope via a mailbox are at an end. And just as storing pictures on our phones has replaced the albums where we once kept our treasured photos, so have our machines become the repository of our letters, if we keep them at all.
Here’s the question that occurred to me: Once we preserved our letters on paper and print like the ones in my hands. Will our electronic letters survive as documents of our lives, as records of our dreams, victories, and defeats?
Faster and Faster
Human beings have long sought ways to speed the delivery of their letters and documents.
To send mail and proclamations from one end of their vast empire to the other as swiftly as possible, the ancient Persians developed a system of highways, expert riders, and relays of fast horses that prefigured America’s Pony Express. Other ancient peoples also learned to use pigeons to carry messages, a practice that continued through World War I.
In the United States, the development of a national post office, the telegraph, and the railroads made for an efficient and ever speedier system of communication. Until 1950, for example, mail carriers had for years delivered packages and letters to homes in most cities twice daily and to businesses as many as four times a day.
Now, however, with the tap of a key on our laptop or phone, we can send messages across the country or around the world in a matter of seconds. No fuss, no muss, no stamps, no wait: Out that email goes, traveling faster than the speed of sound.
But what does this huge advance in technology mean for our recorded history? Are there cultural ramifications that we may be missing?
The Golden Age of Correspondence
From America’s colonial days up until the recent past, people communicated over distances by means of words written by pen or pencil on paper. As a result, we have treasures like the correspondence between Abigail Adams and her husband, John, and the letters exchanged with Thomas Jefferson by both of them. Abigail wrote hundreds of letters that remain extant, a correspondence that included many key figures of the American Revolution. Without these letters, our knowledge of these people, and of Abigail herself, would be much diminished.
And like Abigail, those who once sat down to compose such letters to loved ones and friends often approached their correspondence as an art form. Some few of these letter writers were trained in the classics and many more were versed in the Bible, and these influences appear in their words, but nearly all those who had received an education were trained in the skills needed to write comprehensible, clear, and entertaining accounts of their lives and their feelings. They believed that their words and the way they expressed themselves mattered.
As a result, the surviving correspondence of even ordinary people offers lessons in history and culture. From the American Revolution to the Vietnam War, for example, common soldiers have left us their impressions of their ordeals through the letters they sent home. Google “letters from American soldiers in Vietnam War,” for instance, and dozens of sites will pop up.
In short, the letters that have survived the ravages of time have added much to our understanding of our past.
In my medium-sized public library, we see evidence of this influence. Here we find dozens of books devoted to letters, some of them collections of correspondence by a single writer or a famous author or political figure, while others appear in compilations of different writers united by some sort of common theme.
On those shelves, for example, is “Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children” (Doubleday, 2004, 316 pages), wherein Dorie McCullough Lawson has compiled messages sent from almost 100 famous parents to their offspring. Thomas Jefferson writes to his daughter “Patsy”: “I do not like your saying that you are unable to read the antient print of your Livy, but with the aid of your master.” Writer John O’Hara sends off a letter to his daughter, giving her advice on her entrance into a parochial high school. He ends by telling her: “You have come through childhood as a fine person, with wonderful prospects for a wonderful future. … And I was born loving you.” These few words give us an entirely new look at a writer often regarded as a crusty curmudgeon.
Also in my public library is “Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters” (Broadway Books, 1997, 446 pages). Here are more than 200 letters written by Americans over 350 years of their history. Some of these correspondents—Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Frederick Douglass—are familiar to us while others, like Hannah Johnson writing to Lincoln about the condition of black troops during the Civil War or Aline Bernstein writing to her former lover, the young novelist Thomas Wolfe, mean little to most people these days.
Yet every one of these voices from the past tell us a story, however brief, of their lives, and blended together, all these stories become ours. They belong to us. In a real sense, they define us as Americans.
The young Wylie, O’Hara’s daughter, held his letter in her fingers as she read it. Now the rest of us can read his words in a book. Someone regarded this letter as worthy of preservation.
But I wonder: Will the same hold true in our digital age, when the delete button erases in a stroke some long email and when so much communication occurs by texting on a phone? How might our descendants change their view of history if denied the personal views of their ancestors?
The pandemic of the last two years serves as the perfect example here. Someday our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will read of the scourge in a history book. Depending on the opinions of its authors, that book will tell a certain story. Those children may learn the barebones details of what transpired, but they may well miss the information that we might have imparted to them: our horrible sickness from the virus itself, our business closed forever by the lockdowns, our anger at the misinformation we were fed, and above all, the fierce hope that kept us moving forward.
With Deliberate Intent
If we wish to pass on some of our thoughts and the events in our lives, whether we are famous or a simple papa writing to his children, we must make the effort to preserve our correspondence. We must save and store those documents worthy of such a heritage, our letters and those to us, to keep them safe for posterity. And then, of course, if we choose to do so, we must find a way to share this correspondence with those who come after us.
The subheading for the “Inspired” section of The Epoch Times is “Stories of hope that celebrate kindness, traditions, and triumph of the human spirit.” By safeguarding and eventually sharing our pertinent emails, we can impart our own stories of hope to the next generation.